In our collective imagery, Greece remains a land of mythology, architecture and splendid white marbles. However, Greece and its Saronic islands are far more than the average ancient history lesson.
While staying in Athens I accidentally stumbled across a day cruise exploring Poros, Hydra and Aegina. I wanted to discover the beauty of these three islands and everything they had to offer, but of course my time was limited.
It was an early and chaotic trip to the harbour. Our transport was late and a group of noisy tourists insisted on spending the entire ride watching videos on full volume. Annoying to say the least, the day got distinctly better once we boarded our ship, where we were given a debriefing for the day.
Our Canadian guide informed us that our journey would begin on the smallest of the three islands. Her eyes gleamed as she told us that she got married on Hydra and that she still nurtured a personal love for the island.
Poros, composed of two islands, Sphairia and Kalavria, is entirely volcanic and carpeted in flourishing pine trees. Its picturesque streets are an absolute marvel - small and winding, all the lanes lead to one central point on the island, making it virtually impossible to get lost. The town streets were empty because the locals were at their family restaurants in the ports around the town, while the shops were old fashioned.
As I walked around the island, I felt transported to times gone by. One of the main attractions is a clock tower built in 1972 and it is perched on the highest point of the island. The view from the clock tower, reached after climbing up a steep trail, is breathtaking. The spectacle was the coming together of land, water and sky. The sandy beach of Kanali, which we visited during our brief stay, is one of four on the island and connects Sphairia and Kalavria. It is the largest beach on the island and the most popular.
As our boat left Poros and as sailed into the next port I was captivated by the colourful houses dotting the horizon, piggy-backing on top of one other’s tinted stucco facades. Shaped like an ancient amphitheatre, Hydra is truly charming. Our first stop was the legendary Cool Mule, a highly recommended and crowded ice cream parlour with the best pistachio ice cream I’ve ever tasted.
According to the guide there were 300 churches and six monasteries dotted around the island. The heart of the town is the waterfront. There we found canons, monuments, restaurants and shops, including an old gunpowder shop. Like the first island, it was an old-fashioned town, unsullied by concrete and the ubiquitous apartment blocks so common on our little island.
On Hydra, the use of motor vehicles is prohibited by law. Instead, the preferred mode of transport is the mule
It was a breath of fresh air, away from the hustle and bustle of Athens’ smog and traffic. On Hydra, the use of motor vehicles is prohibited by law. Instead, the preferred mode of transport is the mule, of which there are about 500 on the island. Even the postal service operates via cart.
As we walked through the winding cobblestoned streets we found traditional stone mansions as well as beautiful secluded squares. Some traditional house mansions were turned into museums, among which is National Historical Museum owned by Lazaros Kountouriotis. Focusing on several aspects of Greek history, the museum hosts a section on battleship history as well as abstract art with very profound and deeply touching messages.
As the boat was leaving Hydra, I felt a surge of sadness... I had fallen in love with its authenticity and rugged, unspoilt beauty. No wonder our guide had fallen madly in love with this gem of the Sardonic Gulf.
Before we arrived to our last island, we were entertained with traditional Greek music and dance. The dancers danced the zorba and sang different folk songs playing the bouzouki, a national instrument. We witnessed Greece’s culture and their lore, subtly changing as we hopped from island to island. Throughout the trip we saw beautiful islets with little houses, conglomerations of them making up small, sleepy villages.
Aegina’s port finally greeted us with a line of neo-classical buildings that ran across its waterfront. The largest of the three island, Aegina is covered with pistachio trees, offering their divine fruits to the island and its visitors. The island hosts the Fistiki Fest each summer, which has been running for the past seven years.
Aegina’s newly-built church is marvellous in its beauty. This massive shrine sits on a hill next to the monastery of the Greek Orthodox saint, Agios Nektarios. St Agios Nektarios, canonised in 1967, was the island’s bishop and the church erected in his name still houses his tomb.
Churches proved to be a recurring theme on Aegina. The medieval village of Paleachora is rumoured to have contained 365 churches, one for every day of the year. So far, only 70 of these churches have been confirmed, 33 of them still stand in ruins save for a few which have been dutifully and beautifully restored.
Our final stop was the Temple of Aphaia dating to the year 480BC. It was a sight to behold – ancient pillars married the surrounding pine trees. One can only begin to imagine its magnificence in olden times. The guide informed us that the Doric temple is the most preserved temple in all the Greek islands. It is dedicated to the Cretan nymph Aphaia. Next to the temple, the omnipresent pistachio was once again peddled in tourist friendly packages and ice cream cups.
Hard to resist, we savoured the ice cream perched on a lone rock, admiring the green valleys below and the blue Mediterranean Sea beyond. Back at the waterfront, we quite naturally bought more of the island’s green gold. The many stalls selling pistachios offered the best tasting nuts I have ever had the pleasure of munching. Hydra’s pistachio ice cream, however, remains undoubtedly superior.
Sailing back to Athens proved bittersweet. Our glorious stay in these tranquil islands had come to an end, leaving us with dear memories of the magnificent sights we had visited. It was a welcome escape from the hectic, technological and unnatural world to a quiet, yet intense way of life.
The nature and beauty of the Saronic islands will remain with me for a long time. I left a part of myself on their unspoilt coasts and ancient monasteries.