Samos, a Greek Island Paradise
The Ouzo bottle was two-thirds dead scorpions and one-third amber liquid. “This,” explained Andreas, “is the perfect antidote for a scorpion sting. When I catch a live scorpion I put it into the bottle of Ouzo. As the scorpion drowns it releases its sting into the liquid. Put this liquid on a sting and the pain will instantly disappear.” An old wives’ tale? Apparently Andreas had had to use the potion the previous year, a very hot one with an abundance of scorpions, and the effect was nothing short of miraculous. Mind you, where Andreas lives it pays to have all your medicines on standby. Another Ouzo bottle contained a poisonous viper that, according to Andreas, had not taken too kindly to being drowned in the Ouzo. No surprise there!
He runs the “End of the World” taverna on the Greek Island of Samos. Go to the bottom southwest corner as far as you can go by car and then walk three kilometres on a narrow dusty track and there you will find Andreas working his culinary skills in the most spectacular location. Not quite the end of the world, but pretty close.
Why were we on Samos? This is a Greek island that seems to have been missed by the bulk of British tour operators and left to develop in its own low-key way. My wife and I had both had a pretty torrid start to 2004 health wise and fancied a bit of early season sunshine combined with good walking, a bit of luxury and a smattering of archaeology. Hence Samos, a fairly large island just one kilometre from Turkey with Ephesus on the doorstep. The plan was to buy a flight and then be independent for two weeks, walking mainly in the north of the island near the resort of Kokkari. A quick search on the Internet led us to the Kalidon Palace Hotel, situated in the hills above Kokkari, but with only 34 rooms and the most exquisite swimming pool. A few emails and George, the manager, had persuaded us to book with a very attractive out of season deal. Next, book a flight. Here the fun started as it became obvious that it was cheaper to buy a two-week late deal with accommodation thrown in than just a flight only. Considerably cheaper! Hence we booked the package but only used the allocated hotel for one night.
The villages in the hills behind Kokkari are linked together by means of many trails and paths, many of these being “kalderimi”, ancient cobbled mule tracks that are now being rediscovered and opened up for walking. Armed with our copy of “Landscapes of Samos” by Sunflower Publications (as were nearly every other walker as the book is published in many languages) we would set off daily for another trek of exploration. By using the local buses it was possible to make most of the walks one way so that there was very little backtracking.
The hill villages of Vourliotes, Manalates, Plakia and Stavrinides provided ample opportunity for refreshments of all types. We managed to eat lunch at the “Blue Chairs” taverna in Vourliotes on four occasions on four separate walks, eventually being treated like locals. The freshly squeezed orange juice was heavenly! This is not walking on a barren island, burnt to crisp by the Mediterranean sun, but through lush, shady undergrowth with fast flowing streams that make you think you are back in Britain. The mountains here rise to 1400 metres so there is a range of walking to suit all abilities and aspirations. The valley between Vourliotes and Manalates is known as the “Valley of the Nightingales” and the day we walked through here it certainly lived up to its name. The air was filled with the magical sound of these little birds singing their hearts out. This walk is one of the best on the island and a visit to the Taverna Lukas in Manolates rewards you with the most spectacular view whilst you enjoy your beer.
One great advantage of walking in sunnier climes is that after walking, we would head for the beach and catch a couple of hours of the late afternoon sun. Being early season, the sea was a bit nippy, but the beaches were deserted and the sun was warm. For the first time ever I came home with a bikini line! The Kalidon Palace was situated about a kilometre from the best beach on Samos, Tsamadou, and it was here that we would aim to finish our walks (the bus also stops here) and have the beach to ourselves. The taverna on the beach kept the beer glasses in the freezer. Does it ever get better than this?
Kokkari itself is a delightful low-key resort, with no high-rise development and a good range of bars and restaurants. Being on the north coast it can get breezy but when walking the breeze is very welcome. Samos Town, the island’s capital, is a twenty-minute bus ride away but apart from the excellent archaeology museum there is not much there and best saved for a day when the weather is not perfect.
A word here about the Kalidon Palace Hotel. This is really a gem. With only 34 rooms it is never crowded. The dining area overlooks the pool and Kokkari and is without a doubt one of the finest views in Greece. The pool is perfect and there were more than adequate luxury sun beds. No rushing out early with the towels. Being early season, the water was a little on the fresh side but once in it was delightful. The service was impeccable and when we left we shook hands with all the staff, including George Delakos, the manager, who made us feel so welcome. It was a real problem leaving but we had decided to look at our allocated hotel in the South West of the island so we hired a car for a few days (very cheap) and drove through the mountains to the resort of Kambos. It was whilst walking in this area that we came across Andreas and the scorpions. He was not due to open for the season until the next day but he found us some cold drinks and then regaled us with his tales. He seems to sum up Samos. No one is in too much of a rush and everyone likes a bit of a chat and gossip. We were never in a hurry and were happy to listen.
After exploring the South West, on to Pythagorian, the main resort on Samos. This route passes the two archaeological gems of Samos, the Efpalinio Tunnel and the Temple of Hera. The Efpalinio Tunnel was built in the 6th century BC to bring water to ancient Pythagorian and runs for over a kilometre through the hills. Two teams, one on the south and one on the north, built the tunnel and when they met in the middle they were only a couple of metres adrift. You can walk for some distance in the tunnel as it is now fully illuminated. Very impressive. With a guaranteed water supply the town grew to be one of the most important in ancient Greece and enabled the building of the Temple of Hera. According to Greek mythology, the goddess Hera was born on the site of the temple. The site is vast and complicated and only one of the original 135 columns remains. Nevertheless, if you have time and the inclination this is definitely worth a visit. Choose a cool day though, as there is no shade.
Although Pythagorian is busier than Kokkari, it is still a very relaxed and pleasant town with a couple of small beaches and a delightful harbour full of exotic boats as it is a south facing town and therefore provides a safe haven from the north winds. We were there to catch the early morning hydrofoil to the island of Patmos, famous for the Monastery of St. John and St. John’s cave. The monastery is a gem of Byzantine architecture. Many of the buildings have distinctive window mouldings or, mantomata, decorated with a Byzantine cross. One of the richest and most influential monasteries in Greece, its towers and buttresses make it look like a fairy tale castle, but were built to protect its religious treasures, which are now a star attraction.
There is a delightful trail up from Scala, the main town on Patmos, to the Monastery on the top of the hill at Chora. This trail passes the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse where St. John saw the vision of fire and brimstone and dictated the book of Revelation to his disciple Prochoros. You can see the rock where the book of Revelation was written, and, the most moving for me, the indentation where the saint is said to have rested his head.
Patmos has no airport (as opposed to the brand new one on Samos) so all visitors come by sea, the vast majority of them in huge cruise liners. Patmos is on most cruise itineraries as the Monastery is a must see after Ephesus and Santorini. A word of warning here, make sure you go to Patmos on a still day with a calm sea. Horrific tales abound of rough seas and even rougher passengers.
The brand new airport is five minutes from Pythagorian and our flight was not until eight in the evening. Time for one last walk through the hills, lunch and a beer, a couple of hours on the beach and a quick taxi ride. Even our last day was perfection!