Aegina: Cycling and Picnicking Among the Olive Groves

A blissful cycling tour through the unspoilt countryside of Aegina island, and enjoying the first spring picnic with delicious local products.


“Look at all the lavenders!” Nikos is ecstatic about the unexpected flowering and calls all the purple flowers he sees “lavenders.” They are everywhere: along the paths of Mount Oros, in the archaeological sites, on the edges of the road, even in the cracks of the ruined mansions. Apart from “lavenders,” which are actually purple vetches, the prevailing colors are yellow from daisies, milkweed and spiny brooms, red from poppies, white from chamomiles and Stars of Bethlehem, pink from the catchflies on the sandy beaches. Here is something I did not expect: Aegina in the spring is a revelation.

As a distraction from the anarchic construction of the settlements, its wildflowers scatter intoxicating aromas along with the pines in the northeast and the iodine of the seaside and make us believe that it is for its scents that intellectuals of all times adore it and not for its light, which we weren’t able to see due to a cloud of African dust which lingered above Greece for days.

We came by bicycle, which proved to be a wise decision in various ways. We figured that Aegina is an ideal destination for a one-day trip or for a weekend, since it is easily accessible – within 40 minutes from Piraeus – and where you can also easily move around by bicycle. Furthermore, the island itself does not have a big difference in altitude, and, depending your level, there are several interesting routes. In addition, cycling allows you to avoid the city traffic, more easily maneuvering through the narrow streets, and not worry about finding a parking space on weekends.

Unfortunately, there is no infrastructure for cyclists on Aegina, so you have to bring your own equipment and be extra careful when cycling. It is quite strange that there isn’t any bicycle path, at least on the flat coastal front – its morphology almost demands it.

Routes for Everyone

The sea is shining, cats are sunbathing on terraces and birds are tweeting. All these enjoyable spring clichés are here now, on the route from Aegina to the famous Perdika fishing village, where everyone comes for the fish tavernas, and the island of Moni, a shelter for peacocks and deer – water taxis will start operating after Easter.

This is the easiest route you can take: it is 9km, by the sea and without any significant differences in altitude, but in many parts the road gets very narrow. It is worth stopping at the port of Aghios Vassilios and the beaches of Marathonas – sunsets from here are breathtaking.

For the more experienced cyclists, we suggest the route that starts from Aegina and ascends towards the east (follow the signs to Aghia Marina). With gentle slopes, you will first reach the Monastery of Aghios Nektarios, the famous pilgrimage of Aegina (it’s worth noting that Aghios Nektarios is not, as many believe, the patron saint of the island – that would be Aghios Dionysios). Take a deep breath and pedal up the steep uphill that turns left towards Paliachora, the island’s capital until the 18th century.

Today the houses have collapsed and more than 30 churches are preserved on the hill, which is why it is called the Mystras of Aegina. Walk through lush vegetation in absolute silence and cross the thresholds of the churches to see the remains of murals, and on to the double basilica of Aghia Kyriaki-Zoodohos Pigi and the castle.

From Aghios Nektarios you can continue to the temple of Aphaea and Aghia Marina, however, we suggest you head north, following the secondary asphalt road that crosses the pine forest and descends pleasantly to Souvala, the second port of the island. Continue by the sea towards the west, passing by Vathi. The most beautiful part of the route begins here: you will find the house where Nikos Kazantzakis lived for some years, the lighthouse, small ports and rocky shores with crystal clear waters, you will pass by the sculptures of Capralos and Moralis and end up at the archeological site of Kolona, that is, what was left of the ancient temple of Apollo, after a circular route of 20km.

For Strong Legs

If you are an avid cyclist, then it is worth pedaling on the mountains of the island, on the route that passes between the mountains of Oros and Platyvouni. Away from the crowds, you will come across animals grazing, quiet villages, you will see hawks flying high and you will also discover some of the nine Paths of Culture that have been recently opened (for details, visit energoi-aegina.gr).

The route is circular, with a total length of 30km, 10 of them leading to Anitsaio being the most demanding. You will definitely stop in Paheia Rahi, the most beautiful village on the island, with stone houses built of local black stones. A little further along, on your right, you will come across a sign leading to the temple of Ellanios Zeus.

 

Depending on the type of your bicycle, continue to the end of the dirt road, leave the bicycle and go up the path (30-40 minutes) to the top of Mount Oros, where the altar of Ellanios Zeus used to be located, while today you will find here the church of Prophet Ilias. Local walkers come here on Good Friday morning to see the spectacular sunrise. At the foot of Mount Oros, follow the signs that lead you to the Sanctuary of Zeus, over which the church of Taxiarchis was founded

The continuation of the route becomes gradually downhill, crosses dense vegetation and overlooks the sea from above. It passes through Anitsaio, Portes and the holiday settlement of Aghia Marina, enters the dense pine forest and leads to the breathtaking temple of Aphaea. It is said to form a sacred isosceles triangle with the Parthenon and the temple of Poseidon in Sounio. It is also said that the local goddess Aphaea is actually the goddess Athena, and that the temple was looted in the early 19th century and parts of it were sold to Louis I of Bavaria. In any case, it is the most beautiful site you will see in Aegina. And at all times of the year!

Picnic in the Ancient Olive Grove

When the French fashion house Hermès chose the ancient olive grove of Aegina for its 2012 campaign, the locals did not fully understand the reason. At least most of them. Dimitris, the shepherd who takes his animals to graze there, however, smirked, as he knew very well that this was a special place. He tells us about the wild rabbits that live here and about the dragon houses that he has spotted in the wider area.

Although the olive grove is called “ancient,” it is estimated that the trees are 400-500 years old and their impressive trunks look like they set up a dramatic dance. The truth is that I was expecting to see a lot more trees, however the beauty is there. In the eerie landscape with the gorses you will find the churches of Aghios Georgios, Aghia Kyriaki and Aghia Triada.

 

The road that will bring you here is a hard dirt road that starts (initially as a steeply uphill concrete road) from the settlement of Aeginitissa – alternatively follow the path from Marathonas. The locals come for a picnic on May Day, however here you will not find blooming wildflowers as you will on the rest of the island to make a wreath, except for spiny brooms.

Local flavors for our basket

Pistachio delicacies by Aiakeion Pistachio paste 100%, pistachio cream with or without sugar, pistachio cream with dark chocolate, fystikato (almond paste with pistachio on the inside, dipped into milk caramel, covered with lightly roasted pistachios), cereal bars with pistachio, fistikini (traditional balls of ground pistachio, sprinkled with sugar), florentina with salted pistachio (crispy energy bars of roasted, salted Aegina pistachio). We don’t know what to choose!

After sixty four years and nine quality awards, Aiakeion is a synonym for pistachio desserts. With their own production, cousins Alexandros Koukoulis and Michalis Galanis experiment with pistachios and various ingredients and make flavors that you will remember forever. Try the award-winning spreads, pistachio jam, pasteli with pistachio (pistachio and honey bars), cereal bars for your breakfast picnic, take home amazing chutneys and pistachio pesto and sit in its retro-styled space for the unforgettable pistachio ice cream (in seven different flavors) and special breakfasts prepared with their own products. One of its tables was Moralis’ “office,” as he used to call it. (18-20 Demokratias Avenue, Tel. (+30) 229.702.7235).

Homemade dairy – Giannis Herouveim is a young man who returned with his family tο his hometown to continue and develop his ancestors’ livestock farming. At the village of Sfendouri he manages a livestock farm and a modern cheese factory, where he also runs a rural tourism program to teach children how basic products that we consume are produced. He makes, among other things, sheep and goat yogurt – an excellent base for your breakfast in nature – but also delicious graviera (hard yellow cheese), anthotyro (fresh cheese), cream cheese with pistachio, rizogalo (rice pudding), creams, even ice cream. The products that stand out, however, are geremezi (fresh creamy goat cheese) and the famous tsigara, a cream made of sheep milk’s top cream and butter and which is considered the caviar of Aegina, since it is sold for 50 euros per kilo! (“Oreini Aegina,” Tel. (+30) 694.454.0424)

Pistachio cake – Pountos’ bakery in the village of Kypseli, in addition to various types of bread and a spread of pistachio praline, often makes pistachio cakes or pistachio pies, a dessert reminiscent of revani (semolina cake) with plenty of grated pistachio. (Tel. (+30) 229.702.2495)

 

Fruits and vegetables – The street vendor greengrocers of the island are a wonderful image, but we chose Stavros Foskolos’ market stall, just before the beach of Marathonas, who collaborates with other producers of sustainable agriculture. Make sure that you come early in the morning, because after 10:00 his vegetables are all gone. If he is not there, take what you want and leave what you think is a fair price to pay. He will be in the adjacent field taking care of his potatoes. Marathonas was the first place where potatoes were cultivated in Greece, on the initiative of Kapodistrias. (Aonis’ Farm, Tel. (+30) 698.072.4450)

Pies and organic products – The Italian Carla Di Domenico has been living in Aegina for the last 17 years and everybody knows that in her shop, Milokydono, one can find high-quality organic products and delicatessen goods from Greece and all over the world. From there we bought, among other things, organic Aegina pistachios from Kapranos Estate and organic honey by Sakis Kaltsoudas. Moreover, Carla makes handmade pies, vegan or not, using only organic products, while during the summer she also serves organic delicacies. Take a food container with you! (9, Faneromenis, Tel. (+30) 229.702.2400)

Bread baked in a wood-fired oven – In Nikos Niatsis’ bakery with the wood-fired oven, in Aghii Asomati, you will find fresh bread, biscuits and handmade cheese pie. (10, Afaias, Tel. (+30) 229.702.4297)

INFO

ACCESS

Shipping service from Piraeus to Aegina is regular, from 07:00 to 18:00, by dolphins or vessels of the companies Blue Star Ferries, Saronic Ferries, Aegean Flying Dolphins and A.N.E.S. The trip lasts from 40 minutes up to 1 hour and 15 minutes and the cost of a one-way ticket varies from 9 to 15.50 euros per person. If you don’t own a bicycle, you can rent one at Giakas rentals (Tel. (+30) 22975.003.27) at the port. The cost is 10 euros per day. 

 

ACCOMMODATION

Despite the plethora of accommodation, Aegina does not have to show remarkable modern accommodation proposals, as the aesthetics of past decades prevail. Our choice is the Aeginitikon Archontikon (Tel. (+30) 22970.249.68, from 60 euros, breakfast included), which has a strong character and is located in the alleys of Aegina, next to Markellos tower and the church of Aghios Nikolaos. It is a house that dates back in 1780, which took its neoclassical form in 1900 and was turned into a hotel in 1987. Admiral Koundouriotis, Saint Nektarios and Costas Varnalis, among others, have stayed in his 12 rooms. The old building needs renovation, however you will enjoy the beautiful inner courtyard, the loggia and the retro air of the suite with its painted ceilings and the old wooden furniture and floors. It is a good thing that it recently came under the management of the Togia brothers, who have already started a restoration and renovation study.   The new hotel Angelina Boutique Escape (Tel. (+30) 22970.617.67, from 85 euros, breakfast included) in Perdika and Vrahokipos apartments (Tel. (+30) 694.478.8808, from 80 euros) in Vathi are both interesting choices.

FOOD

Fresh fish – including Pearly razorfish, which in other parts of the world are thrown away but here are cooked in the pan, along with butter and tomato sauce to bring out their unique flavor – octopuses, squids and shellfish. These are the delicacies you will taste in upgraded recipes at Skotadis (46 Demokratias Avenue, tel. (+30) 22970.240.14), in Gialos. Velvet fish roe salad, anchovy fillets marinated in lemon juice, red mullet tartare and golden grouper carpaccio in a 77 years old ouzeri, which is well managed by Giorgos Lykouris and whose chef is Sotiris Lampadarios. One more reason to prefer this place is its consistency in sustainable fishing, since they serve only what is allowed to be fished each season.  The place we dream of all winter: a pier by the sea with a sunset view. You will find it at Aeginitissa restaurant (Tel. (+30) 22970.615.46), on the homonymous beach, and you will accompany the moment with linguini with shrimps and special seafood saganaki. Continuing our quest for nice places to eat fish, we propose Nontas restaurant in Perdika (Tel. (+30) 22790.612.33), for its excellent frying and its specialty, Tiganosoupa (fish soup). Try the fried small shrimps or some of its home-made pies. For meat we would suggest Petras mezedopoleio (47, Panagi Ipeiroti, Tel. (+30) 22970.224.28) where they serve oriental mezes but also exquisite vegetarian dishes prepared with love by Rania. In the village of Antitsaio it is worth visiting Steki Tou Kinigou (The Hunters’ Haunt) (Tel. (+30) 22970.312.10) or Petrino (Tel. (+30) 22970.312.32). In Portes, during this season, choose Sophia’s courtyard (Tel. (+30) 22970.313.87), who makes homemade stew, mezes and yeast bread. Vatzoulia (215 Aphaeas, Tel (+30) 22970.227.11), in Aegina, is not to be visited only for the food but primarily for its special scenery, which is reminiscent of a kafeneio (greek traditional café) and the courtyard with its Cycladic style.



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