Every Athenian knows Aegina. Only an hour away from Piraeus, it’s a go-to weekend destination in the summer, where everyone has a friend with a house, and you are bound to bump into someone you know.
But as the autumn sets in, a dramatic change begins to sweep over the island. The pistachio festival comes and goes, the tourists leave, and most hotels and beach bars close. Now Aegina can make you feel like an explorer.
It rarely rains much before mid-November, and the dry landscapes, that smell of pine on one side of the island and of sage on the other, make for beautiful hikes, while the sunny weather begs for afternoons by the sea. This is the Aegina that belongs to the locals in the villages of Anitseo, Sfentouri, Portes and Mesagros, and to the seagulls, and the sheep.
1. See the Sunrise on Mount Ellanio
Set your alarm to 05.00 – it will be worth it. The drive from the town of Aegina up the foothills on the west side of Mt Ellanio (often locally just referred to as Oros, meaning the mountain) takes about half an hour, and then you’ll have to walk. The night is pitch black here. Fortunately, with a flashlight in hand, the well-trodden and clearly marked (E1) path up the hill isn’t hard to climb. Another half hour later, and you’ll reach the summit and the Church of Analipsis and Profitis Ilias.
Take a light picnic: coffee or tea and (of course) some pistachio-based treats. As the sky turns orange, the light reveals the island in its entirety, and the Saronic Gulf like a giant lake around it, contained by the coasts of Athens and the Peloponnese. See how many of the neighboring islands you can spot: Salamina, Metopi, Agistri, Moni, Poros, Aghios Georgios and Patroklos…
Legend has it that Aikos, King of Aegina and son of Zeus came up here to ask his father for help during a severe drought; to this day, whenever clouds are spotted around the peak of the mountain, rain is said to be on its way.
On the way down, pay a visit to Taxiarchon Church, which is built among the remains of a temple dedicated to Zeus, the giver of rain.
2. Enjoy Some of the Best Pistachios in the World
Once upon a time, the pastures of Aegina were rich with indigenous varieties of lentils and beans, garlic and almond trees. However, unless the legend of Aikos and Zeus is true, nobody knows where the water to nourish all those plants came from.
Today, the island sees very little rain, but fortunately there is one tree that flourishes extremely well in the dry weather: the pistachio tree.
This year’s crop of small but flavorful PDO Aegina pistachios has just been roasted. Buy your nuts from Kypseli (Leof. Dimokratias 4 & Leonardou Lada), from the Agricultural Cooperative of Pistachio Producers of Aegina (in the port), or from Mourtzis Traditional Sweets (57 Ireioti Sq.) which also sells incredible pasteli (sesame snap), fistikata (pistachio marzipan), and more.
3. Savor Incredible, Super Fresh Cheese, Yoghurt and Ice Cream
In the island’s southernmost village, Sfentouri, Giannis Cherouvim and Evangelia Tzitzi run the farm and dairy Oreini Aegina. Starting their days before sunrise, their 180 sheep and goats graze parts of Aegina that visitors rarely see. Get here early in the morning to see up close the production of piquant graviera and halloumi cheeses, and sample rich yoghurt, rice pudding, fresh ice cream and other sweet treats (by appointment, tel. +30 6944-540424). You will surely be tempted to purchase some of their products that literally could not be any fresher.
4. Hike from Sfentouri to the Ancient Olive Grove
The beginning of this path is a beautiful stone-paved lane. Grasshoppers provide the soundtrack to your hike, and the view towards the Saronic Gulf, with the islet of Moni center stage, is soul-soothing.
Later, the signposts (E2) become essential to finding your way, as many animal paths cross yours through the shrubs. But there are also signs of human activity. You’ll pass large cisterns that collect rain water for the grazing animals, ancient drystone huts (so-called “dragon houses”), and the artwork of humans in nature: small piles of stones stacked for the fun of it.
You will then finally descend towards Eleonas – the valley of an ancient olive grove. A favorite picnic spot for the locals, the trees here are estimated to be 1,500-2,000 years old, and provide an almost mythical atmosphere. The entire hike from Sfentouri to the olive grove takes only 45 minutes (estimate 1,5 hour in the other direction, which is uphill).
5. Eat Where the Locals Eat
In the fall, skip a few of the seaside restaurants and head to the family-run tavernas of the interior. At Argyris (Dimokratis Ave., Mesagros, tel. +30. 22970-71303, Fri., Sat. and Sun. 12.00-16.30 19.00-22.30) you’ll dunk fresh bread into the sauce of a stew of beef tongue with shallots. Most everything here, including the house wine, is homemade or locally sourced. The spanakopita (spinach pie) is rustic and the lamb – cooked in a clay pot on Saturdays and in the oven on other days – literally falls off the bone.
Equally delicious “giagia-style” food is served at Sofia (Portes, tel. +30 22970-31387, open daily 08.00-00.00) and at Vatzoulias (Afaias Rd. 215, Aegina, tel. +30 22970-22711, Wed., Fri., Sat. and Sun. 18.00-00.30).
6. Get Cozy Over Evening Drinks
On nights when the wind coming off the sea is particularly bracing, bars away from the waterfront provide cozy escapes. At wine bar Tortuga Artcafè (Ireioti Sq. 43, Aegina open daily 08.00-00.10) you’ll find over 100 labels of wine from Greece and abroad.
At Avli (Ireioti Sq. 17, open daily 09.00-03.00) you’ll mingle with locals of all ages, and at Perdikiotika (Afaias 38, Fri., Sat. and Sun. 20.30-03.00), you’ll sip drinks in a heritage building under the same roof where Ioannis Capodistrias, the first prime minister of Greece, once hosted events.
7. Enjoy a Fish Lunch in Perdika
In the southwest of the island, a pair of peninsulas point towards the islet of Moni, like the mouth of a hungry fish. Here you’ll find the fishing village of Perdika, which resembles a Cycladic settlement and is often bustling with visitors on the weekends, even in the fall.
Take a stroll through the narrow alleys, and to the tip of the southern peninsula, where you’ll find a circular building containing an impressive 360° camera obscura.
Sit at any of the fish restaurants by the waterfront promenade and order some of the island’s famous pink fish: barbouni, koutsomoura (both types of red mullet) or katsoules (a type of parrotfish). Squid, octopus, anchovies and shrimp – all from around the island – are also great this time of year.
8. Go Antique Hunting in Town
A collector of antiques and curiosities – anything old really, as long as it’s handmade and tells a story – Sara Koutroumanou sells her finds from all around Greece and the Near East at her shop Svarna, in the center of Aegina town.
Here you’ll find anything from century-old iznik ceramics and embroidered cotton kaftans from Istanbul, to traditional bridal jewelry from northern Greece. In the basement, which also functions as a rehearsal space for musicians, a painting studio and an exhibition space, you’ll find more textiles, beautiful tiles, and furniture.
Svarna: Ireioti Sq. 75, Aegina, tel. +30 22970-23700, open daily 11.00-14.00 & 18.00-21.00 except on Mondays.
9. Stroll Around the Forgotten Settlement of Palaiochora
For most of the island’s known history, its main settlement was located at Palaiochora, also known as the the “Mystras of Aegina”. Located in a valley at the center of the island, to avoid the raids of pirates, the town’s houses were built amphitheatrically on a hill, crowned with a fort.
Today, the remains of this old capital consists of 38 churches spread around the hill. The place is beautiful for an afternoon stroll, but beware of snakes.
10. Get Your Indiana Jones on at the Famous Temples
The first thing you see as you approach Aegina is a single column standing on a hill near the port. It’s the last remnant from the 520 BC Temple of Apollo. You can walk through the excavation site and the Archaeological Museum of Aegina in an hour, but you’ll likely want to linger. The site features remains from a number of settlements, the oldest dating as far back as 3000 BC.
On the other side of the island, you’ll find the Doric Temple of Aphaia (5th century BC). Surrounded by pine forest, overlooking the sea towards the mainland on a hill above Aghia Marina, it’s famous for making up a geographical isosceles triangle together with the Parthenon in Athens and the temple of Poseidon at Sounio.
Archaeological Museum of Aigina & Αarchaeological Site of Kolona: Patriarchou Grigoriou Ε1, tel. +30. 22970-22248, open daily 10.00-17.15 except Tuesdays, entrance 4 euros.
Temple of Aphaia: Aghia Marina tel. +30 22970-32398, open daily 10.00-17.30 (the museum only opens on Saturdays & Sundays) entrance 6 euros.