Spetses – brief visit to a beautiful Greek isle
The island of Spetses always held a lure for me when I lived on the shores of the Saronic Gulf south of Athens many years ago. For some reason I never made the journey around the peninsula that distanced it from my old home in the village of Kalloni on the Gulf of Methana – but last week I made the voyage by Flying Dolphin from Poros, south-east around the craggy headland, cutting inside the two bare islands that mark this corner of the wine dark sea. The inner islet has a name – Nisis Spathi – for some reason the outer, larger, isle seems to be anonymous, at least, on the maps I have.
From there the old Russian-built hydrofoil rumbles south-west to the great bare, rocky island of Hydra and docks briefly at its handsome, chic, steep, main town.
Then we’re off westwards to the old peninsula port of Hermione.
After backing out of its fiord-like harbour, the Dolphin then roars south through the narrow strait that divides the mainland from the large but uninhabited island of Dukos. And then, finally, it is west again to dock at the port of Spetses.
Some Poros friends had told me I was wasting my time – they claimed Spetses was a far inferior place to their own beloved isle – but they were, I think, talking more through geographic loyalty than panoramic truth. Spetses is lovely.
I enjoyed one of the best cycle rides in all my 56 years pedaling around its 28-kilometre perimeter road (which is really its only paved highway). I also, by the way, was served the worst fish soup I’ve ever tasted – which is saying something because I have been writing about my travels and in doing so collecting fish soups for over 30 years.
In case you ever go there then be warned that this monstrosity is to be bought at great cost (18 euros per head) at the taverna directly opposite the town’s small fish market. What we were served was a bowl of lemon and salt flavoured hot water in which a single piece of tired fish may or may not have been boiled, alongside some over-cooked potatoes and carrots.
Actually, it is worth an aside here to make a few remarks on Greek food. What happens when you arrive in the country is that you inevitably fall in love with the cuisine. The fresh tasting starters or mezze like taramasalata and tsaziki alone seem worth the long flight from wintry countries Britain – as, of course, does the ubiquitous Greek salad. You ask why such simple dishes don’t appear daily on our own menus – you wonder how such basic things as tomatoes and cucumbers can taste so incredibly superior to our own.
But after a week even the best made Greek salad begins to lose its magic. And after 10 days you begin to wonder if your blood isn’t turning to a watery mix of tomato and cucumber juice. The Greek desire to either fry everything, grill it, or overcook it in a slow oven does start to weary even the most enthusiastic Mediterranean food-lover. But then, just when you are getting fed up and desiring something like a curry, you turn up at a restaurant like the one in these pictures parked on the dockside of Spetses’ Old Port, and you are served a simple meal of such superbness that you once again fall in love with island cuisine.
Anyway, the great thing to do on Spetses in cool sunny spring weather is to cycle around that aforementioned perimeter road. I recommend doing this in an anti-clockwise direction once you’ve hired a bike in one of the many, many cycle hire businesses. We obtained excellent bikes for just five euros a day from the shop directly opposite the restaurant of abhorrent fish-soup fame.
Cycling north-west we eventually leave the main – and only – town and immediately pass the huge old school where John Fowles so famously taught in the 1950s – and which he used as a basis for his novel, The Magus. I happened to be listening to this as an audiobook during my stay so was afforded extra delight as I stumbled upon real locations recognisable from the book.
Eventually the winding road begins to zig-zag its way up a spur of Spetses’ central hill which spreads out ridges around the island like so many octopus tentacles. These the cyclist must ascend and descend as he or she circumnavigates the isle. This particular ridge introduces us to the most northerly corner which plays host to a great wide bay. For some reason, it is my favourite corner of the island – utterly peaceful and beautiful. A small unmade track runs around the tiny gulf that is this shallow inlet to pass the diminutive white churches of Analipsi and Geogios which sit among the shoreline pines.
Back up on the road the cyclist faces some more hard work as the highway climbs over the latest of the octopus tentacles – but it’s worth the labour as the ridge affords wonderful panoramas of the distant Peloponnese shore and mountains to the west. Then there’s a long zig-zagging descent where the road weaves its way high above coves that glint almost unbelievably blue, so clear and azure is the water which laps against the white cliffs and sea-caves.
There are a couple of beaches backed by small communities as you travel down the western shore of Spetses – all seem empty and closed outside the main tourist season, which I didn’t mind at all. Eventually the road has to climb again – this time to negotiate the splayed southerly ridges thrown out by the central hill.
At one point you can look down into a tiny bay which has some vast millionaire’s villa on one side, and an older looking house on the other. It’s when you look down at the latter that you discover it fits exactly with the description Fowles provides when he paints the word picture of the home of his book’s mysterious Conchis. Somehow, seeing the place sent shivers down my spine – but you need to be reading the book at the time, perhaps, to share that experience.
And so the road winds on around the southern corner of the isle, providing you views of the neighbouring islet, which I am told belongs to yet another Greek shipping magnate. Then we’re heading back to town up the east coast – passing a bay called Marina where there is no marina – but which does boast a good taverna tucked away above the beach on the lefthand side of the road.
A few hundred metres up the highway you can turn right to wend you way down through back streets to the Old Port – arguably the most charming corner of Spetses where the fishermen dock and where they still make the traditional kaikis, or wide wooden boats which are a feature of all Greek seas. I am told this is one of the only places left where such craft are still built by hand.
For that reason alone I’d recommend visiting Spetses, but there is much else going for the place – such as climbing up to the central ridge where you can enjoy stunning views of the Argonic Gulf while at the same time remaining relatively cool among the remaining pines which once covered the whole island. Alas, they don’t any longer – but, thankfully, there are a few substantial woodland areas left and we can only pray that forest fires will not burn away any more.