The mesmerising calmness of Chios

Exploring the north-eastern part of the Aegean

Beautiful beaches, fantastic food, great wines and its rich history and architecture are making Chios an attractive destination for those that want an alternative to the Aegean’s more popular islands.

Recent stories in The Huffington Post and The Daily Telegraph describe Chios as “magical” and “amazing” yet label it the least-known of the Greek islands.

That may be true for some, but not me, because I have spent almost every summer I’ve ever had in Chios.

My father is from a tiny village in the island’s north and would bring us to Chios every July and drive us up and down this island as he bragged about its history and beauty.

Which means I know the island like the back of my hand.

I’ve spent many summers and winters exploring the island with family and friends and still get excited about each visit. Next week will be my third visit this year and I will stay for a month.

Capital city Chios is the administrative, economic, and cultural centre of the island of Chios. It has a population of 32,000 and it is situated on the east coast of the island.

It has a bustling port and is not obviously picturesque and not especially geared for foreign tourists, but a city that offers several diversions to those who like to truly visit a foreign locale.

Leaving the city and heading south you will drive through the distinctive area of Kampos, where the natural environment is in total harmony with the local architecture. Kampos, like many spots on Chios, is as beautiful in the winter as in the summer. Known for its impressive mansions with citrus fruit gardens, the area is protected by the Greek Ministry of Culture as a historic site and traditional settlement. The high walls made of the local reddish stone from Thimiana village protect the famous gardens from extreme weather conditions and also from prying eyes. The Genoese and local Chios aristocracy started building their mansions in the area in the 14th century.

As you head further south you will come across Nea Moni, an 11th-century monastery recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It holds further significance because of the massacre of 4,100 people mostly women, children and monks, at the hands of the Turks in 1822.

Further south you will pass through the seaside village of Emporios with its many fish tavernas before arriving at one of Chios’ most famous beaches, the picturesque Mavra Volia. I’ve always enjoyed swimming at this beach. The combination of black pebbles and wild cliff-edge backdrop with the pristine deep dark blue waters makes swimming at Mavra Volia an experience not to be missed.

Not far from Mavra Volia is another of my favourite Chios beaches and one which I only discovered relatively recently, in 2010. Having spent many summers in Chios for over three decades and explored the island extensively it came as a surprise when a cousin of mine suggested I check out Vroulidia, another beach in south Chios, but one I had never heard of.

From my very first visit I fell in love. As you descend the steps from the small parking lot down the cliff towards the beach you will be mesmerised by colours: the yellow-rock of the cliffs, the white pebbles, and the gorgeous blues of the water make Vroulidia a truly postcard-worthy spot in Chios. In fact when I post images from this beach on Instagram they tend to get the most likes.

Heading north-west from Vroulidia you will encounter the medieval villages of Chios, also the centre point of the Mastiha-growing region. Growing up I used to hate Mastiha gum, way before it became fashionable my father would bring home boxes of the stuff, but it always felt like the flavour would just disappear after two seconds of chewing. However, to this day I remain fascinated by the mastiha tree and how the gum is produced. The fact that it only grows in this one small region of the world makes mastiha very special to the Chiotes. No visit to the island is complete without stopping at one of the many mastiha trees dotted around southern Chios to inspect up close.

The most famous of the Mastic Villages, or Mastihohoria, is the village of Mesta. It is also the most well-preserved, giving visitors the chance to marvel at its unique architecture. Mesta is always a great spot to stop for a coffee or ice-cream. I’ve spent many lazy afternoons at the plateia conversing with locals or walking through the narrow alleys.

The oldest monument of Mesta is the church of Palaios Taxiarchis. Originally a vaulted one-nave basilica, dating from the Byzantine period, in 1794 it was extended to feature two aisles. Inside you will marvel at some of the wall paintings and the iconostasis of the church. It is an excellent example of local woodwork.

A little further down the road you will find Pyrgi, a fortress-like complex of narrow streets, tightly packed houses and arches, with a ruined tower-dungeon at its centre.

Even more unexpected is the distinctive graffito technique used to decorate the exteriors of many of the buildings. You will no doubt have seen images of Pyrgi in a Greek tourist brochure.

The outer layer of cement is painted white and then geometric shapes (triangles, chevrons, circles, etc.) are scraped away. The church on the main square is truly eye-catching, while off the square is the small church of Aghii Apostoli, with frescoes dated to the 12th century.

Further north is the village of Anavatos. Built on a rocky elevation with sides so steep it can only be approached from one point, Anavatos’ natural defences were of great use during the period of piracy.

The village was almost completely deserted a few years ago, before new people starting coming, including local artists inspired by its architecture, history and surroundings.

As you leave Anavatos and head further north you drive through one of Chios’ beautiful pine forests. As a child I would get so excited at my first glimpse of that unmistakable Aegean blue in between the bright green of the pine trees.

The drive on the west coast of Chios is one of the most picturesque on the island and offers many great areas in which to stop and appreciate the beauty of the eastern Aegean. It’s also a fantastic spot from which to admire the brilliant summer sunsets. Although not very good at it, I have always loved taking photos and I estimate I have taken more than 2,000 photos of sunsets in Chios alone.

Another great spot for taking photos is the beautiful village of Volissos, a village that is very dear to me. Growing up I can recall my father and grandfather reciting stories to me about their experiences in this village. My grandfather traded there, while my father went to school.

Within minutes of Volissos you will find a series of coves and beaches, many of which have become our annual summer swimming spots because of their vicinity to our village. The entire Hatzimanolis family has been known to just roll up to Magemena, Agia Markella or Managros and completely take over an entire stretch of beach. The waters in these parts are especially cold but extremely clean. Most beaches have a taverna nearby or a beach bar, including our favourite which has been playing the same reggae playlist for the past six years.

The beach of Agia Markella is sandy with a few scattered pebbles, known for its deep and icy water and the Monastery of Saint Markella, patron saint of the island. At the northern end of the beach, a narrow path between the rocks and the sea leads to the place of Saint Markella’s martyrdom called Agiasma.

In the north-east of Chios you will find the village of Kardamyla, renowned the world over as the home of many of Greece’s wealthiest shipowners. Not far from there is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, the beautiful Nagos. The beach has colourful pebbles and crystal-clear water.
To non-Chiotes, the island is famous for its maritime history, mastiha. and its beautiful villages which feature different forms of architecture including medieval, Venetian and Ottoman. But when you ask a Chioti what’s the most special thing about the island you will more than likely get one answer: panigiria.

Few people party like the Chiotes at a summer panigiri. In my father’s village of Egrigoros, at the northern-most point of Chios, the panigiri takes place on 6 August, celebrating the Transfiguration of Christ. It’s also my father’s name-day, giving the day extra significance, not that it needed any.

The population of Egrigoros in winter is approximately three full-time residents, plus a few that live in the main town of Chios and come up on weekends. But come the few days preceding and following 6 August that number can swell up to 350, as Egrigorianoi that now live in other parts of Greece or Australia, Canada and the United States return home for the big day.

The early morning church service is followed by a custom that sees residents of the village line up from the kitchen downstairs to the various tables in the church’s courtyard passing plates of pilaf with chickpeas and bakaliáros to serve the guests. Visitors are always impressed by the ritual and it certainly helps showcase the hospitality we Greeks are known for.

After lunch, a quick swim and a very late siesta that starts at 7pm and ends around 10pm, people will make their way around the village wishing every Sotiri and Sotiria a happy name-day, and there are plenty of them.

That’s followed by the night party, which in Egrigoros and indeed most of north Chios does not kick off before 1am. The later you show up, the cooler you are, meaning most don’t come before 2am. A Chiotiko panigiri brings out the party in everyone. I’ve seen grandmothers that normally doze off at 9pm while watching the evening news still dancing nisiotika as the sun begins to rise. It’s an experience not to be missed and one that is an important part of life in many of the villages in Chios.