Chios is not a place where you go in order to stretch out lazily on the beach. What you really want to do is rack up kilometers on your odometer: from the fragrant orchards and the stately homes of Kampos, to the mountain tracks of Mt Pelineo and the uncharted north, then onwards to the mastic villages of the south, built like fortresses to protect them against pirates. Merchant shipping played a primary formative role in the island’s history, steering its focus away from the lures of tourism and, in doing so, making Chios what it is today: not just a summer love, but a destination for every season of the year, and one that does not take kindly to haste.
Vacations here are a journey, and every turn in the road holds some new discovery in store.
I still have vivid memories of my first visit to the island, in 2006. The determination and dedication of the handful of people who, despite a lack of funds and personnel, were doing everything in their power to protect the Korais Public Library – established in 1792 with an endowment from the “Father of Greek Enlightenment” Adamantios Korais, whose family was from Chios – moved me deeply.
That trip had also introduced me to the writer Giannis Makridakis, who’d founded the Pelineo Center for Chian Studies and whose projects at the time included recording untold stories from the past, through the accounts of the island’s older generation.
As I explored the island, I discovered the love that the people of Chios have for literature. On my way back to Athens, I could barely lift my suitcase from all the books I had been given as gifts. It seemed every other person I met had written something of their own – novels, short stories, poetry collections – which had been printed in limited runs and distributed to friends.
It would be the charm of the island’s natural environment, fragrant and pure, that would steal my heart away a few summers later – that and its stunning medieval mastic villages (mastichochoria), named thus for the mastic industry that long underpinned their economies.
There was Pyrgi, with its “etchings,” the famous black-and-white geometrical patterns on the village houses, formed using the black sand from Mavra Volia and drawn with a fork on a thin undercoat of lime. In the afternoon, when the midday heat has mellowed somewhat, young and old meet up in its “meadow,” the lively central square. Children play while their elders hang out together until late.
There was Mesta, with its shady covered lanes and its stone-built houses, each standing snugly next to the other so that the homes themselves formed the city walls, which meant that none of the back walls in those outermost structures had windows.
Stroll through these villages, it’s a pleasure to lose your way down narrow lanes before making the obligatory stop at the town square for a glass of souma, a fortified local liqueur made from dried figs.
Olympoi and Vessa are two other equally well-preserved walled villages in this part of the south, and they, too, are mastic villages.
Invisible from the sea and constructed like fortresses in order to protect them from raiders, the mastic villages were built by the Genovese expressly for the exploitation of the plant resin that can be collected from the bark of the mastic tree (pistacia lentiscus), renowned since antiquity for its medicinal and pharmaceutical properties, and produced nowhere else in the world but southern Chios.
The Chios Mastic Museum, operated by the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation (PIOP), a little further outside of Pyrgi, is an outstanding resource that offers everything you need to know on the subject. If you’re lucky, you might find a local villager who‘s willing to take you to his orchard and show you how they prick the bark of the tree in order to extract its precious mastic tears.
As the day heats up, you might want to head for Mavra Volia, the island’s star beach, which features deep waters and dark pebbles, or its “sibling” Foki, which is right next to it.
Locals also love the shallower Avlonia, with its fine shingle – the few beach umbrellas around the food stand attract customers early in the day, so make sure you bring your own with you.
If you’re traveling with small children, you can find shallow waters at Lithi, too. The landscape isn’t as pretty here as at the other three beaches, but it has an ace up its sleeve called Kyma: make sure you try the atherinopita, a savory pie made with fried sand smelts and onions that’s served at this charming little seaside taverna.
Heading north from the mastic villages, the roads are narrow and winding, and the best way to take in the wild beauty of this place is to leave your car windows down.
The medieval settlement of Anavatos, perched on a rock, crowns this Wild West-style Aegean landscape. It’s a place with a turbulent history that lets you step back in time as you explore its narrow lanes.
Make a detour for an afternoon dip in the crystalline waters of the leeward enclosed pebbled bay of Elinda, which was the refuge during World War II of the legendary Greek submarine “Papanikolis.”
Another swimming destination is Managros, a vast sandy beach with clear waters. It is so large and so quiet that you’ll find plenty of space here. Managros is only a kilometer and a half from Volissos, the main village in northwestern Chios, rumored to be the birthplace of Homer. It has windmills and is crowned by a medieval castle. In the pretty courtyard of the eatery Fabrika in Volissos, next to the town’s parking lot, Ms Sofia serves homestyle dishes made using ingredients from her own vegetable garden.
Further north is Leptopoda, a beautiful mountain village where the houses are built so close to one another that, from a distance, they resemble one massive fortification.
The village of Aghio Galas boasts a complex of three caves, part of which may be visited during the summer months. This northern part of the island, however, is above all a joy for ramblers. Choose an itinerary from the network (70 km) of mostly signposted paths clustered around the settlement of Aghiasmata. Seek out the miners’ path, which starts at the cenotaph and the two mining company buildings in Keramos and connects 15 mining sites, passing through the deserted villages of Lardato and Kamini.
The more experienced can aim to climb Mt Pelineo (1296m), where, according to mythology, the goddess Artemis competed with the titan Orion in order to establish who was the better hunter.
However you decide to spend your time on Chios, you definitely need to visit Kampos, the island’s sweetly scented garden, with its orange, mandarin and other citrus orchards, 6km from Hora. Here, towering stone walls protect fruit-laden trees from the wind, and conceal two- and three-storied manor houses with cobblestone courtyards, stunning external staircases, arched doors and arcades.
It was the Genovese who introduced citrus cultivation to Chios and developed the fertile land and water sources of Kampos, creating a place that has been designated a site of “historic significance” by the Ministry of Culture. At Citrus Estate in Kampos, which is open to visitors, you can taste products made with the renowned mandarin oranges of Chios; these include preserves, Turkish delight, and a thick sugary paste served on a spoon and dipped in cold water, a treat called ypovrichio (“submarine”). Most importantly, you’ll have the chance to walk around a typical estate of the region and visit the museum space on its grounds, dedicated to the history of Kampos and the role of citrus fruit in the island’s commercial development.
Before you board the ferry for Piraeus, which departs from the port in the evening, I cannot think of a better way to say goodbye to this island than by dropping by the courtyard of Hotzas Taverna, provided it opens this summer, and enjoying the timeless specialties of the house that arrive one after the other (the slow-stewed beans with homemade mandarin purée are edible poetry, and they’re not the only such work of art on the menu) until your watch forces you to ask for the bill. If you time it right, you’ll just be able to dash down the hill and catch the ship before it sails.