Nick Brown is an historian, archaeologist and writer who has studied Ancient Greece and Greek archaeology for decades. He has worked as a tour guide, taking groups around archaeological sites in Greece, and has also written tour guides to the ancient city of Pythagoreio. Nick regularly travels to Greece, both for holidays and archaelogical digs, and his knowledge of Ancient Greece and the tourist attractions which relate to it is second to none. His latest book, ‘Luck Bringer’, is set in Ancient Greece and is based on events leading up to and during the famous Battle of Marathon.
I was staring at the sheer drop down to the sea so didn’t catch what he said the first time. The second time was unmistakeable.
“Would you like to see my scorpions?”
Before I had a chance to say no, he opened the lid of the large jar and poured what looked like dozens of preserved dead scorpions onto the table, explaining as he did it, “Yayamou” (my granny) “charms them, she has the power.”
We were the only customers on the windswept terrace of “The Restaurant at the End of the World” on the Greek island of Samos. An island where, not far under the tourist surface, it is possible to find a beautiful, friendly and strange land. I have been returning to Samos every year since the millennium and two of my books are based there. My love affair with the island began when our three-year-old son needed emergency treatment late at night at the hospital on the other side of the mountains. The local Greeks sorted everything out, he recovered and our relationship with the island began. This is seven days on Samos, a trip I’ve done many times and recommend as a wonderful way to see the hidden best of Greece on one island.
The first sight of Samos can be quite daunting as the plane executes a tight turn to avoid the mountains and line up the airport. The runway looks too short and appears to end in the sea, but with a bit of a bump accompanied by the squeal of rubber we make it, which often earns the pilot a round of nervous applause.
Ormos is the best base for the week; it’s a fishing village with a working harbour and few visitors. It has an atmosphere and charm that grows, eventually taking you over. After unpacking, take a stroll down to the quayside; be prepared for the locals to speak to you, they know who you are. The few tavernas on the harbour edge above the fishing boats are all good. The first night, we start with drinks at the Trata at the far edge of the harbour then eat at Lekatis. You can’t miss his place, as on the side there’s a picture of a sailor at the wheel of a boat with water up to his chest. From the taverna, watch the sun sink behind the giant slab of Mount Kerkis and the moon rise above Spatherai at the other side of the bay. The sea turns into black oil and the fishing boats return to the safety of the harbour.
This itinerary is based on six full days, but each day there is an alternative, so you could stay for two weeks and do the whole lot. Day one is the easiest. Chill in Ormos, walk along the long stretch of stony beach, have lunch at a café. If you want more activity, you can follow a winding path through olive groves to Marathakampos, perched about five kilometres above the village. This is a different Greece altogether, no tourists and little English, but as the path takes you into the village and you wind round the narrow streets, the atmosphere hits you. Eventually, you emerge in a small square in the shadow of the church where there are a couple of bars packed with the older men of the village who turn out to be really friendly; a few words of Greek unlock the smiles.
Day two is ancient Samos: the sites everybody sees and the bits you walk by without noticing. We drive over the mountains, past the site of the ancient temple to Hera and into Pythagoreio, one of the most interesting towns for archaeology in Greece. Pythagoreio is a modern coastal town but in the 7th century BC it was one of the major cities of the ancient world, with a massive harbour. In later years, Roman tourists such as Anthony and Cleopatra, Augustus and Cicero stayed here. I’ve devised a circular walk that takes a full day and visits all the sites, including the amazing tunnel Eupalinos built for the tyrant Polycrates. Or you might want to just look at a couple, then drift round the town and seafront. If you do this, keep your eyes open and you’ll see the ancient town is still there – it’s just hiding. Notice the orange tree growing out of a pile of rubbish at the roadside. Look again and you’ll see some old pillars and stone blocks; you’re looking at an ancient temple that’s been left to decay and blend into its surroundings. Pythagoreio is a small town that has been built out of a greater ancient one. Its walls, houses and shops are made of recycled ancient stone. Look in any garden or vacant plot; you’ll see bits of the past. Once you start to do it you can’t stop and you enter a different world.
For lunch, find Old Museum Square, opposite the closed museum (replaced by a splendid modern museum nearby), where there is a charming old-fashioned taverna that will take you back to the 1950s. The modern Pythagoreio is brash, but the older one beneath the surface is enchanting.
A two day trip now: but first the alternative, which is only for the very energetic. Those of you in this category can climb Mount Kerkis with a guide. It is the second highest mountain in Greece, so groups set off in the early hours of the morning and bivouac overnight in a small hut at the top. The same hut you will have seen as a tiny speck from Ormos every morning. From there, in the clear cool air of the summit, you can gaze down at the lights of the tavernas until you drift into a weary sleep.
No-one is going to fully escape the Samos mountains however, because you can’t fully appreciate the island without them. So the rest of us are going up to Manolates, not in the day with the tourists, but in the evening. On the way, we’ll stop off for an early lunch at either The Source, a beautiful restaurant in the foothills, or one on the seafront of Aghios Konstantinos – whichever is open. After an afternoon swim, we will head off for Manolates. It is possible to go by car, but there is also a most beautiful walk up to it through forest and vineyards. Manolates is a village of artists a few kilometres up the mountain, surrounded by forest with great views and a nearby fast-flowing stream. It is a great place to use as a base for walking and climbing and has good tavernas in the village square. Sometimes at night it is very quiet, but at other times people bring instruments and play and sing. Visitors can sleep in village rooms within the wood, where the only sound is from birds.
Tomorrow is very different as we head off to Samos town (Vathia). The town has plenty to offer visitors, but it’s here that you can also get some insight into the effects of 65% youth unemployment and Greece’s economic problems. We will have coffee in Lion Square; when I was there earlier this year, it was blocked by demonstrators. From Vathia we drive the short distance to the tip of the island to swim at Possidonia, facing Turkish Mycale just across the strait. Afterwards, it’s back to Ormos to meet our mountaineering friends back down from Kerkis.
There are only two days left now, but with so much left to do we head off early the next day to drive over the central ridge to have breakfast in the centre of Karlovasi and watch the locals doing what they have for centuries: playing backgammon, gossiping, sometimes shouting. This was a wealthy port in the nineteenth century and an international centre for the leather trade; time and the economy have not been kind to Karlovasi. The old warehouses stretching down to the sea stand empty, when in most places they would be snapped up for conversion into trendy apartments.
From Karlovasi we drive to Potami, past a bizarrely-decorated army post. Now it’s time for the group to split again, according to preferences. Those fed up of moving can spend the remains of the day on the beach, whereas the rest of us will follow the river up a steep, beautiful, butterfly-laden, wooded gorge, passing a very weird chapel and a small castle, until we reach some very steep and extremely unsafe-looking steps (well, this is Greece) leading to a type of wooden platform housing a taverna with fantastic views. From here a group can split again, some of us to climb down to the river and follow it down; this involves getting very wet and clambering down some steep waterfalls using fixed ropes. The others can linger in the taverna enjoying one of the best views in Greece, before returning down the steps at a more sedate pace.
Last day and, for those who want them, there will be scorpions. We are going to beautiful Limnionas to swim. We don’t all go together, as those who want will have agreed with one of the Ormos boat captains to be taken by sea and then picked up in the evening. Those who want to go beyond Limnionas to the island’s end, however, will take the road. These brave souls will follow a steeply winding road round and up the mountain until everything ends in a steep drop at Drakei. The views are sensational, but be warned: once you leave the car at the village a bearded man will insist you visit his bar as it is the only one. He is the village priest – and it isn’t. Everyone else can stay by the beach with the excellent taverna, or follow me to the “The Restaurant at the End of the World”. The sign says two kilometres: maybe in quantum measurements, but certainly not in ours. There is a track to drive; I did it once, never again. We walk, taking plenty of water.
At the restaurant we are offered use of the private beach far below while our food is prepared. There is no need to ask for scorpions; they come whether you want them or not and despite any squeamishness, it’s better with them. Maybe that’s also the attitude to take to Samos; there’s so much more than the brochures say, but be prepared for surprises.