The boat ties up at Mandraki, the island’s capital and main harbor. Tourists flocking in from Kos have been inundating the small town every day for the past few years, creating the impression that mass tourism has taken its toll on the island, yet there is much here that remains unaltered.
One place that hasn’t changed is Ilikiomeni (Old Woman) Square, a key meeting point. This is one of the most enchanting spots in town, either for coffee in the morning or a glass of ouzo and a snack of fruit and cheese in the afternoon. Here, under the shade of two enormous ficus trees, you can find the cool tranquility you need after a midday swim at Chochlakous. This wild beach of big black pebbles is right behind the large rock of the Panaghia Spiliani Monastery, which juts out so impressively from the Castle of the Knights of St. John. Though it appears somewhat unwelcoming, it is a popular bathing and sunset-watching spot.
The cafés Vegos, Irini (where you can buy cheese) and Andrikos are the square’s three hangouts, serving food and desserts that are invariably good.
A short walk will bring you to the town hall and Delfinion (Dolphins) Square, whose beautiful pebble mosaics are the work of local craftsman Dinos Papadelias. The area behind the town hall is Langadi, the loveliest neighborhood in Mandraki, with traditional homes boasting ornate wooden balconies and stone stoops. The main cobbled street running through Langadi leads to the Paliokastro, the Hellenistic-era fortress that served as the island’s acropolis and has a wonderful view over the entire town. You can also reach the fortress from the beach.
The Archaeological Museum covers the island’s entire history, from prehistoric times to the post-Byzantine era, including finds from the necropolis of the ancient city dating to the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic period. Tel. (+30) 22420.315.88, Tue-Sun: 8:00-15:00
Nisyros Folklore Museum occupies a two-story 18th-c. mansion set up like a traditional home, with rooms that include a kitchen, a baking room, and a living-room/bedroom; it also features displays of utilitarian objects, tools and local handicrafts. Open peak tourist hours.
SOME LIKE IT HOT
The story goes that, in 1870, Nikolaos Apostolidis, a prominent Nisyrian suffering from psoriasis, traveled all the way to Constantinople to seek treatment, only to be informed that the hot waters back home held the key to his cure. So he came back, dug a pit in an area with hot springs in Skopi near Mandraki and began to take a daily dip. In a few days, he was cured. Apostolidis went on to finance the construction of a simple thermal spa, which he then donated to the community. On a larger scale, the Mandraki Public Thermal Baths still operate; the acidic and hydrosulfuric water here can reach temperatures of 45.2°C and is used for the treatment of muscoloskeletal, gynecological and dermatological disorders. Of course, it is very likely that it was Hippocrates of Kos who first operated a thermal bath on Nisyros, according to an inscription found in the ruins of Roman baths discovered in 1889 near the village of Paloi. After this discovery, Pandaleon Pantelidis, a doctor, took it on himself to erect therapeutic spa facilities bearing Hippocrates’ name. The baths, with more than 100 rooms, entertainment halls, a casino, a barbershop, a library and a theater, proved immensely popular until the early 1930s, when they were gradually abandoned.
INFO | Mandraki Public Thermal Baths: Tel. (+30) 22420.312.84
By now you have earned some refreshment at Liotridia, and if you time your visit for just before sunset, then so much the better. This is a small hotel with a lounge that welcomes non-guests and is worth visiting, not just for a meal or an aperitif, but also for its design esthetic, the work of long-time island resident and architect Petra Kotsidou.
If food is your way of discovering a destination’s identity, then a visit to the home of Maria Diakomichali should definitely be included, as she knows all of her island’s traditional recipes. She makes and sells “psilokouloura” biscuits and halva, and organizes seminars on the local cuisine. Diakomichali and her son Harry have also recently launched an agritourism initiative called Anaema, which, among other things, organizes walks and embroidery classes and arranges lodgings in traditional dwellings known as spiladia (from the Greek “spilia”, meaning “cave”). Nearby is Loles Kores, a new store that promotes Greek design and offers a different take on the Nisyros experience with original clothing and accessories, decorative objects and modern souvenirs.
Another site that should not be missed is the historic complex of the Public Thermal Baths. The east wing of the bath complex, which is still in operation today, stands like a noble witness to the facility’s distinguished history. The long wooden staircase at the entrance, the old mirrors adorning the corridor walls and the music-like sound of water spilling into the healing baths create a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. Some people may be put off by the fact that the baths are communal and can get quite noisy, but the facility is still worth a visit, if only for a swim at the old marina located at its doorstep or a meal at the Loutra Kafeneio, serving some of the best food on the island. The menu comprises local dishes, as well as inspired modern cuisine using local products and cheeses, all served with the requisite carafe of raki or koukouzina, a local spirit made with grapes and figs. Cook and owner Dimitra Topaloglou has recently opened a more upmarket restaurant on the Mandraki coastal road.
HITTING the BEACH
East of Mandraki is Paloi. The youngest village in Nisyros – often referred to as Emporios’ seaport – was first settled in the late 19th century and has evolved into a vibrant yet tranquil fishing village with hotels and restaurants, the perfect place to stay if you’re looking for easy access to the island’s beaches. The beach of Paloi – sandy and shaded by tamarisk trees – is usually overrun with local children enjoying the sea while their parents are at work. It’s a nice spot for a dip or a meal at Astradeni, Captain’s, Ellinis or the Tsambikas Taverna, better known as Afroditi. Noteworthy sites on the outskirts of the village include the disused Medicinal Baths, which date to the end of the century, and the Chapel of Panaghia Thermiani, built in 1871 inside the ruins of the Roman baths that once stood here.
Taking the road east out of Paloi will bring you the island’s best beaches: Lies, Moulari and Pachia Ammos.
The first of these, Lies, has dark sand and pebbles, and while it does not afford much shade, it’s big enough for bathers to have some room to themselves and enjoy a sense of solitude. Just before you reach the beach, you’ll find Giorgis from Emporios making fresh cheese. If you’re lucky you can sample some freshly made on the spot or you can always get some to go. At the end of the beach, the food truck/café Oasis is a true haven in this stark and wild landscape; open from morning to late afternoon, it serves coffee, refreshments, snacks and raki with meze.
To reach Pachia Ammos (which means “thick sand”), take the footpath by the parking area on the main road. Long and wide, this beach has coarse brown and black sand and a small valley further inland that makes it particularly popular with freestyle campers. It features regularly on lists of the country’s best beaches – and rightly so. If you can’t be bothered to make the trek all the way there, settle for Moulari, a small beach near the start of the trail that’s a miniature version of Pachia Ammos and is quiet even during peak season.
Nisyros boasts more than 40 trails, many signposted; the best are also the most accessible. Start at the Evangelistria Monastery in Mandraki and continue on to the top of Nifios for the amazing 360-degree view of the Aegean Sea (approx. one hour). Keep walking and you reach Lakki, the valley where the crater is located (one hour). Alternatively, you can head from Evangelistria up to the northern rim of the crater and on to Emporios. From there, you can make it to Lakki (approx. 75 minutes).
For the past 20 years, the Mediterranean Film Institute has been inviting screenwriters and film directors from all over Europe and the Mediterranean to Nisyros for its Script to Film workshops.
Acclaimed Greek feature and documentary filmmaker Eleni Alexandrakis, puts together an interesting roster of free screenings at Emporios Elementary School.
Meanwhile artist Jason Karaindros, a fan of the island and a professor at the Regional School of Fine Arts in Rouen, hosts special workshops on script and project development.
Every July and August since 2014, the Sterna Art Project, founded by artist Greg Haji Joannides, has provided a creative platform both for up-and-coming and established artists from Greece and other parts of the world.
Sterna, an interdisciplinary, non-profit organization that organizes exhibitions and residencies is located in the medieval castle of Pantoniki in Emporios. It is named after the water storage tank inside the main residence, which is the biggest ever built in Emporios, with the idea being that it constitutes an empty vessel waiting to be filled with new creative ideas..
Emporios is the first village off the main road which heads up the eastern slope of the mountain, above the volcano’s crater. It is crowned by a medieval fortress called Pantoniki (or All-Victorious), which also contains a 13th century church dedicated to the Archangel (Taxiarchis). The village was deserted after the earthquake of 1933, but today it is regarded as the heart of the island, a magnet for visitors and local alike. It’s home to three shops, quite a few new hotels and the Sterna Art Project Organization. There are two tavernas on the first square you meet as you come into the village. To Balkoni tou Emporiou – where a lady called Katina runs the kitchen – is a historical landmark, as it was here that a desperate battle between German troops and Greek resistance fighters took place in 1945. Right across the way, Apyria is run by brothers Triantafyllos and Yiannis, and their sister Ourania. Both establishments serve local products and great food, all prepared according to traditional recipes.
One of the best-known eateries in the area, at what they call the “new entrance” to the village, Aposperi is a modern kafeneio that serves excellent meze and spirits and wines produced by Kallia and her father Vangelis. His experiments in the kitchen often result in gourmet gatherings, while come evening, cocktails and uplifting music raise everyone’s spirits.
Impromptu parties are not unusual in Emporios. This upbeat atmosphere is one reason why demand has spiked in the past few years for new B&Bs and hotels; one of these is Sterna Nisyros Residences, a minimalist gem with an irresistible 360-degree view. For something different, ask around the village for the key to Taxiarchis Church or spend time exploring Kafka, a neighborhood now in ruins but still fascinating to walk around, as it offers you an excellent sense of the village’s architectural identity.
Step inside the tiny cave at the entrance to the village of Emporios and experience one of the island’s apyries, or natural saunas, fueled by hot steam (36-40°C) escaping through vents in the ground. Saunas like this can also be found inside some of the village’s houses, where they provide natural heating in the winter. The island’s biggest natural sauna, which is also accessible to visitors, is located on the way to Aghia Irini Beach.
Nikia, off the main road heading southwest, is renowned for its views over the crater. It’s also noted for its small circular town square, Porta, which sits beneath a cathedral dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin Mother (Eisodia tis Theotokou). Porta is the perfect spot for a afternoon stop and a bite of food at Nikolas’ kafeneio. Don’t forget to visit the Volcanological Museum, where a fascinating video tells you about how Nisyros was created.
As you head from Nikia to the southern coast, the landscape fills with weird lava formations; these eventually drop down sheer cliffs into the sea. In the middle of these cliffs are two small bays called Avlaki and Aghia Irini. Avlaki served as Nikia’s harbor until 1950 but is now completely deserted, although it’s a good spot for swimming. Near it is the Monastery of Aghios Panteleimon, which hosts the island’s liveliest church fete every year at the end of July.
Any tour of Nisyros is incomplete without a visit to the big crater and, if you can’t get enough of the volcanic experience, take some more time to explore the smaller craters to the right of the valley, as they are also very interesting. There are a lot of walking trails leading from the crater to the villages of Emporios and Nikia, as well as to the island’s highest summit, Nifios.