Samos

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

I had arrived at the town of Pythagorio on the ferry from Patmos. Pythagorio is the Samian destination for ferries from the Dodecanese Islands. The port of Vathy on the northern side of Samos is the terminus for ferries to the other Aegean Islands, whereas Karlovassi towards the western end of Samos is the place to catch ferries to the Cyclades. There’s more to Samos than meets the eye and the coast of Turkey is only about two miles away to the east.

Visiting the area around Pythagorio I was struck at how many of the substantial ruins didn’t have any written explanation as to their origin. There’d be a small acropolis in the middle of a field, a large section of town wall by the roadside, or a Roman baths close to a hotel, with no information as to their age or significance. The irony is that the best known ancient site, the Heraion a UNESCO listed World Heritage Sight, whilst extensive, has only one heavily restored column to give the place a sense of perspective and depth.

Walking around the ancient harbour of Pythagorio, parts of which are 2,600 years old, the visitor soon comes to a statue of Pythagoras, who was born i the area around 574 BCE. He was one of a number of intellectuals – Aesop, Aristarchus, and Epicurus were others – who thrived on Samos during the prosperous reign of the tyrant Polycrates in the 6th Century BCE. With the rise of the Athenian city state and the killing of Polycrates by the Persians, Samos declined and never reached the same heights again, becoming part of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires before joining the Greek state in 1912.

The Archaeological Museum in Pythagorio has two floors and an extensive outdoor section where the walls, dwellings, and temples of Ancient Samos can be viewed from a raised walkway. Indoors my highlights from the collection include 7 terracotta dolls dating from 500 BCE, a vase in the shape of a running hare, grave stele with palmettes on top, a large marble sarcophagus in the shape of a temple, a large status of the Roman Emperor Trajan, and a hoard of 300 gold Byzantine coins found in a bronze jug.

At the western end of Pythagorio, right by the shoreline, is the castle built by a local strongman Lykourgos Logothetis in the 19th Century. Next door are the ruins of a very early Christian church. From the castle, the visitor can walk westwards along the path towards the Doryssa resort and pass many ruins along the way including an acropolis, former town walls, and Roman baths.

Heading back into town, walking up the hill and then taking another road out of Pythagorio in a westerly direction, I came to the Panayia Spillani monastery and the attraction here, other than the cats lying on piles of carpets, is the subterranean shrine to the Virgin Mary, found about 100 yards inside a cave. The miniature church is impressively manicured despite the permanently damp conditions. This cave was also the place where the priestess Phyto – known as the Samian Sibyl – gave out prophecies including one prediction of the birth of Jesus in a stable. Further along the same road, passing an ancient theatre still used for performances, is the entrance to the Efpalinio Orygma.

This ancient aqueduct is 1036 metres long and was built by Eupalinos of Megara on the orders of Polycrates, using slave labour. The tunnel was dug through solid rock by two sets of slaves starting at opposite sides of the hill and working towards each other. The whole venture was a success and the aqueduct provided the town with running water until Byzantine times.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Syros

The first historical mention of Syros is made by Homer, who named the island as “Syria” and then referred to it as “dipolis”, meaning it had two cities: Posidonia and Foinikas. The first known inhabitants were the Phoenicians during the second millennium BCE followed by the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and finally, in the early part of the first millennium BCE, the Ionians.

Ancient Ermoupolis was built by the Ionians, who then gave way to Persian invaders, Romans, Franks and Turks. The people who left the biggest impression on the city were the Venetians, who made Syros an important commercial centre of the Eastern Mediterranean. Repeated raids by pirates, forced the residents to relocate the capital up the hill to Ano Syros. Presumably the residents thought the pirates were either unfit or just plain lazy.

When the island was conquered by the French, Capuchins monks settled in Syros in 1635 and founded a small monastery still open to this day. In 1744, Jesuit monks arrived on the island.

At the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, the island’s population was about 4,000 residents mainly in the settlement of Ano Syros. After the massacre of Chios in 1822 and the persecution of Greeks on Samos, Rhodes, and in Smyrna, amongst many others, there was a large wave of refugees to Syros. Refugees found Syros to be a relatively safe place and started to build a vibrant city with impressive buildings at the foot of the hills below Ano Syros.

In 1828 there were 14,000 inhabitants in Ermoupolis, making it the the largest urban centre in Greece. Very quickly, Ermoupolis became the largest industrial and commercial centre of “free” Greece, reaching 20.000 inhabitants in 1850 and 22,000 in 1899.

Arriving at Ermoupolis, the capital of Syros and of all The Cyclades and known as “The Queen of the Aegean”, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the loveliness of this town that stretched up the hillsides towards the blue sky. Ermoupolis used to be the busiest port in the whole of Greece and a centre for shipbuilding. The wealth generated by all this commerce manifests itself in the stateliness of the mansions all around and in the number of large churches dotted across the town.

My hotel was the former home of the architect Georgios Vitalis and was located about a third of the way up the Vrondadho hill, just behind the Orthodox Cathedral or Mitropolis. In Syros, the orthodox population tends to live in the lower part of Ermoupolis whereas the Catholics live in the upper town and in the villages of the island.

The Plateia Miaouli is the centre of the town, a large open square, surrounded on three sides by palm trees, cafes, and benches for people watching. This is the place where the local population goes to be seen. The square is dominated on the land side by the glorious, neoclassical town hall, designed by Ernst Ziller. The square and accompanying statue are named after the Hydriot naval hero Andreas Vokos, whose nickname was Miaoulis. He commanded Greek naval forces during the Greek War of Independence between 1821 and 1829.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Tinos

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

The first inhabitants of Tinos were probably the Phoenicians, followed by the Ionians in the 11th century BCE. Two tombs from the Mycenaean period have been discovered in the area of Kyra Xeni, and about fifty archaeological sites in the area of Xombourgo.

The island came under the authority of the Persians in 490 BCE, but the inhabitants rapidly regained their freedom after the battle of Marathon ten years later. Tinos became a member of the Delian Alliance, which was dominated by Athens, and instituted democracy. In 386 BC, the island became independent.

Tinos soon came under the authority of Philip of Macedonia. After the death of his son Alexander the Great, the island was ruled by the Egyptian Ptolemies, the successors of Alexander the Great. In the 2nd century BC, Tinos, with all the other islands and the mainland of Greece, became a part of the Roman Empire.

During Byzantine times, the inhabitants moved from the seaside to the interior of the island in order to protect themselves from the many devastating pirate raids. One of the few things known about Tinos during the Byzantine times is that it was a time of epidemics, fear, and insecurity for the island.

Tinos is recommended for those people who want to visit an island in The Cyclades that has more visitors from the rest of Greece than non-Greek visitors. Tinos is the most important Orthodox centre of worship in Greece but is also an important Catholic centre too, due to the Venetians holding out against the Turks until 1715, a lot longer than the rest of Greece. This mixture of religions is so rare in Greece and gives the island a particular character.

The main reason for the influx of Greek visitors is the church at the top of the hill in Tinos Town. The Panayia Evangelistra was built on the spot where an amazing icon was found in 1822 by a local nun, Ayia Pelayia. The nun is now the ‘patron saint’ of Tinos. The timing couldn’t have been better as the Greek War of Independence had only started the previous year and the ‘chance’ discovery served to reinforce the relationship between the Greek Orthodox Church and the cause of Greek independence from Turkey.

In the church today, visitors can still pay homage to the icon, even though it’s well hidden beneath a layer of jewels and other gifts. Some pilgrims ascend the plush, red-carpeted stairs to the church on their knees, symbolising the veneration the icon can generate in some believers. In the crypt there’s a mausoleum to the sailors who were killed when the Greek cruiser, Elli, was torpedoed by an Italian submarine when she was at anchor of Tinos in 1940. There’s another memorial to this ship on the waterfront about three hundred yards to the east of the ferry terminal. The tragedy was that the Elli was taking part in the celebrations of the Feast of the Assumption when she was torpedoed and no one was on lookout as Greece was still at peace with the Fascist states of Northern Europe.

Tinos is renowned throughout Greece for the excellence of their craftsmen in producing marble ornamentation and this is particularly evident in the town of Pyrgos with its School of Fine Arts and Museum of Marble Crafts. Tinos is also famous for its dovecotes – there’s even a dovecote trail to follow if you hire a car.  I’d heard a village called Tarambados had a great selection of dovecotes, so I caught the bus to the interior and got off at the village. There was no one around, but I saw at least five dovecotes in the mid-distance and sure enough there were soon some signs, which took me by streams, through fields, and along walls. The fields were full of vegetables and the hedges and low trees were full of the sounds of insects, especially bees who were attracted by the copious wild flowers. The dovecotes were bigger than the houses in the village and were attractively decorated with intricate triangles, circles, and honeycomb patterns.

When the Fourth Crusade lurched violently out of control and sacked and captured Constantinople in 1204, instead of heading to the Holy Land, the ramifications for Tinos were enormous. The island was no longer part of the Byzantine Empire and instead was ruled by a private Venetian citizen named Andrea Ghisi, who captured the island in 1207, along with his brother Jeremiah. One of their first moves was to erect fortifications on the Exobourgo Mountain, making it a stronghold. The “Castle of Saint Helen” as it was called, took its name from a chapel on the peak.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands  is newly available on Amazon.

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