Saronic Gulf Islands
The Saronic Gulf islands’ proximity to Athens have made the chain an enduringly popular destination. Hydra’s gorgeous waterfront, Aegina’s Temple of Aphaia, Spetses’ pine forest and Poros’ famed lemon groves attract countless Athenians seeking weekend getaways.
Ancient AEGINA was a major power in Classical times (by the 7th century BC, the island had, ahead of the rest of Greece, minted its own coins). By the 19th century, Aegina had slipped into a more humble role as Greece’s premier producer of pistachio nuts. The island was Nikos Kazantzakis’s favorite haunt (he wrote Zorba the Greek here). The countryside, forested with pine and pistachio, is where you will find the Temple of Aphaia, dating from the sixth century B.C.
Poros was called Kalavria in ancient times, was the island of Poseidon, God of the Sea. The town of Poros is actually an island in itself separated by a small canal from the rest of the island. In ancient times it was two islands, Spheria and Kalavria that were gradually joined by an isthmus of sand. Kalavria, the larger island was wooded and had lots of water. Spheria, which is now Poros town, was a volcano. The approach to Poros by sea is probably one of the most beautiful in Greece.You could start your day by visiting the Archaeological Museum in the port of Poros as well as taking a walk as far as the clock tower, the town’s highest point and the island’s “trademark”. Poros does not have the incredible long sandy beaches of the Cyclades, but the beaches of Poros are small, shaded and calm, even on the windiest days. As for nightlife in Poros, the best nightclub is called ‘Sirocco’ which plays European music with some Greek music mixed in. Things don’t really get started until around midnight but then it goes on until 4 in the morning.
HYDRA is perhaps the most beautiful port village in all of Greece. A tiny harbor ringed with cafes, restaurants and gold shops is surrounded by a village of stone houses and villas that rise up the hills like an amphitheatre. If you’ve been in Greece for some time, you might fall in love with Hydra for one reason alone- its absence of kamikaze motorcyclists everywhere. But one of the best things about Hydra is that there are no cars. Due to its rocky terrain, Hydra’s only automobile is a solitary garbage truck. Donkeys (hundreds of them) are the main mode of transportation. Everything is transferred and moved about by donkey, including groceries, building supplies, people and their luggage. Hydra’s port, with its stone mansions and white tiled houses, stacked up a steep hillside is an incredible sight. Apparently, others think so too because during peak season (June – August), the island’s packed with visitors.
Hydra is the former home of Leonard Cohen and stomping grounds of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pink Floyd and many other famous people. You can get a coffee or a soda at the waterfront cafe’s and sit there all day long. There is a very nice bookshop and there is a foreign press shop on the waterfront where you can get your International Herald Tribune, USA Today, The Athens News and papers from just about any country.
The Monastery of the Panagia is right in the port of Hydra with its entrance by the clock tower. The monks’ cells are now municipal offices but you can go in and admire the church, the marble stones and columns and visit the small museum upstairs. The ‘Sunset’ restaurant which sits on the ramparts overlooking the rocks where everyone swims just beyond the harbor has excellent food and the view is too. It is a great place for dinner or lunch and an ouzo and “meze” while you watch the sunsets that Hydra is famous for. Try the “Garides saganaki” which is shrimp cooked with cheese in tomato sauce.
One of the best bars in Hydra is the ‘Pirate’, right in the port close to the monastery and just before the gold shops. There is also the famous ‘Disco Heaven’ above the town that gets pretty wild in the summertime. As a matter of fact most of the bars get pretty wild in the summertime. Nightlife in Hydra is similar to Myconos, a smaller version of the most famous island in the Cyclades chain. If you want to party, you will have fun here in Hydra. There is no doubt about it.
Ancient Pitiusa (Pinetree Island), SPETSES took part, along with Hydra in the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Turks. The island’s heroine, Laskarina Bouboulina, led the fight as captain of her own ship. Today, Spetses is a playground for well-to-do Greeks and British tourists. Spetsiotes were shipbuilders of repute. Visit the Old Harbor for a peek at the trade.
Unforgettable scenes of natural beauty are created by the harmonic combination of crystal clear waters and ageing pine trees. Countless picturesque coves, around the island of Spetses offer visitors moments of peace and tranquility. Either by land or sea various forms of transportation make every part of the island fully accessible.
Don’t miss visiting the Museum of Spetses, situated at the mansion of Hadziyiannis Mexis (one of the wealthiest leading activist of that era), the main mansion of heroine Laskarina Bouboulina, now a private museum and the historical monastery of St. Nicholas, where on April 3, 1821, the locals took the oath “Freedom Or Death” and joined the revolution.
The most important Spetses Festival of religious and historical meaning is “Armata”. Early September with weekly events leading to their peak on the 8th, the locals together with thousands of guests celebrate the anniversary of the great Spetses naval battle, one of the most significant fights of the 1821 revolution On the 8th of September 1822 a fierce naval battle took place and the enemy fleet was defeated to retreat after losing their flagship. Every year Spetses honors that courageous victory with a spectacular dramatization, which enables the thousands of viewers to relive some of those heroic moments.
Spetses has a good reputation for restaurants and food and has a plentiful selection of places to eat. The island is said to have some of the best bakeries in the Saronic Gulf and a local specialty is ‘amigdalota’ – a small almond cake flavored with rosewater. Another local dish is “spetsiota” – a fish and tomato casserole. Local shops may have fairly restricted opening hours – particularly around midday when local people take time out for a leisurely Greek lunch or siesta! The tourist shops of course stay open late at night and all day Sunday, and will accept credit cards for most purchases. Whether you’re after a set of worry beads or cassettes of traditional bouzouki music, you’re bound to find it in Spetses.
MONEMVASIA: This lovely spot occupies a steep, rocky islet connected to the Laconian coast by a bridge. The inhabitants of Laconia founded the settlement in the 6th century A.D. A second settlement was later founded on a lower level, and gradually developed into a town of significant strategic importance. After a short domination of the Popes, the Venetians captured the area in 1464. In 1540 the Turks occupied it and its decline became more evident. In 1690 it was given over to the Venetians and in 1715, Monemvasia was recaptured by the Turks. It was the first among the fortified towns of the Peloponnese to be liberated by the Greeks in 1821. Located in the main square of Monemvasia is the largest surviving Byzantine church in southern Greece. It is directly opposite the small, domed church of Agios Petros, which houses a modest museum of archaeological finds from the town.
GERAKAS: North of Monemvasia is the town of Gerakas, which is a medieval village located by a small port, which is surrounded by steep mountains that drop into the sea. The narrow bay travels some distance into the mainland. Located on the edge of the mountains there is a ‘limnothalassa’ (a lake consisting of sea water), which has such a narrow entrance it almost looks like a lake. It is the ancestral town of none other then Telly Savalas.