Serifos — a Greek retreat
Tourists flock to Santorini and Mykonos, but this nearby island remains a little-visited treat
Some 636 cruise ships docked at Santorini last year, disgorging 790,000 tourists into the narrow streets, sometimes more than 10,000 in a single day. Fearing they would be overwhelmed, the island authorities have announced that this year they will impose a cap: no more than 8,000 per day. Meanwhile Mykonos, the other star draw in the Cyclades group, is being spoken of as a new Ibiza, with a constant stream of new bars, clubs and boutique hotels; international arrivals at its airport soared by 12 per cent last year.
None of this applies to Serifos. Though it is also part of the Cyclades — just 50 miles from Mykonos, 75 from Santorini — it remains all but overlooked. On my visit last September, other tourists were so scarce that we began to recognise each other, waving as our cars passed on the rugged mountain roads. My guide book, The Rough Guide to the Greek Islands, devoted just four pages to the whole island and gave a pithy summary: “Little has happened here since Perseus returned with Medusa’s head.” The FT has noted its existence just once, a passing reference in a 1988 report remarking on its substantial deposits of iron ore.
We travelled there in a storm, our ferry from Athens ploughing relentlessly up and down the watery peaks and troughs. This is the main reason Serifos has remained off the tourist radar: it has no airport and ferry schedules can be capricious (our return took five hours on a meandering route via two other islands). The journey out was only two hours, but I couldn’t have been more grateful to step off the boat on to the solid harbour wall, to be greeted by a warm wind and a view of mountains turned purple and gold by sun breaking through the dark clouds.
Serifos covers about 30 sq miles, and almost all its 1,400 residents live in the port, Livadi, or in Hora, the ancient capital clinging to a hilltop high above. The rest is barren mountains, remote chapels and a handful of scattered farming hamlets connected by kalderimi, paved mule tracks that now double as hiking trails. According to legend, Serifos is where Danae and her infant son Perseus washed up after being cast out to sea in a chest, and where Perseus later returned with the Gorgon’s head to rescue his mother from the menacing attentions of Polydectes. But, despite the Rough Guide’s assessment, that isn’t the end of the story for Serifos, which in recent years has witnessed a subtle revolution. Once, accommodation was limited to modest bed and breakfasts in and around the port, but an artistic set of Athenians have begun pushing out into the hinterland, reinventing spartan dwellings as stylish hideaways.
Coco-Mat Eco Residences, where we spent our first night, is the clearest example. A row of humble miners’ cottages, built into the hillside above Vagia bay, has been turned into a chic, 13-room hotel, which opened in 2013. Coco-Mat is a hip Greek brand of luxury mattresses, furniture and homewares that has branched into hospitality and now has four hotels. Here, the multi-level rooms are stripped back — no phone, no TV, no minibar, rough stone walls and exposed rafters painted white or subtle greys, old wooden doors that rattle slightly in the wind. On the beach the white loungers are shaded by the kind of camouflage nets usually seen concealing tanks in the Iraqi desert. The bar is scooped out of the hill — rock on three sides, the fourth left open to let in the sunset and sound of the waves. It is just the right side of austere, an almost monastic beach retreat, perfectly in tune with Serifos’s stark beauty.
A growing number of private villas on the island share Coco-Mat’s raw aesthetic (and several share the same architect, George Zafiriou). Many are conversions of fishermen’s or farmers’ cottages; one recent Zafiriou project is a former abattoir, now rendered so elegant that interiors magazines in Athens and Paris can’t get enough of it. Most of these houses are jealously guarded by their owners, but a few can now be rented through Five Star Greece, an upmarket agency with some of the country’s most lavish properties on its books.
We spent three nights at one of its villas at Kalo Ambeli, another simple but sophisticated house, with a large bougainvillea-shaded terrace and a pool with views over a headland, a lone white chapel and a huge sweep of sea. The caretaker showed us the spot in the garden where, if you stood on a wall, you could get a bar or two of mobile reception.
Life on Serifos is somnolent and there is little in the way of tourist attractions. This was clear by third day of our stay, when we found ourselves on an outing to the site of a century-old industrial dispute. Large-scale mining had come to Serifos in the late 19th century — it was known as “the Iron Island” — and the French company that owned the mines set up headquarters in a grand neoclassical mansion in the village of Megalo Livadi, in the far south-west. By 1912 the island population had swelled to at least 4,400, half of them miners, and the ore was shipped across Europe and to the US. But safety was poor, accidents common, and in the summer of 1916 the miners went on strike, protesting that they should have to work no more than eight hours underground each day. Soldiers sent to break the strike fired on the miners, killing four.
Conditions did eventually improve and the eight-hour day was achieved, but after the second world war demand fell and the mines were decommissioned in 1963. Today rusting trucks, railway tracks and bits of pit head machinery lie abandoned on the hillsides, adding to the hypnotic sense of seclusion. In Megalo Livadi, the huge iron gantry from which ore was loaded on to ships still juts out over the sparkling water, and there’s a sombre monument to the murdered workers. The mining company headquarters lie crumbling in the heat, old furniture and filing cabinets still visible through the broken windows, the ornamental palms along the façade now grown so vast they tower over the roof. It lends the village the feel of one of Gabriel García Márquez’s crackpot Latin American republics. After touring the ruins we settled in for lunch at a taverna whose tables were set out beneath tamarisk trees along the edge of the beach — close enough to the water that we could swim between courses.
Serifos has a couple more beachside tavernas, including on the white sands of Psili Ammos, but most of its glorious beaches are wild — unencumbered by loungers, bars or ice-cream shops. Reaching them usually involves ditching the car at the end of a rutted track and walking, following vague paths though wild lavender, capers and cacti, occasionally being rewarded with a faded arrow painted on a rock. Best of all was the beach half an hour’s walk below our villa at Kalo Ambeli: gently sloping white sand, bright blue water, shade from rocks at one end. Only once did we have to share it with another person.
In the far north of the island is the monastery of the Taxiarches, founded in the 15th century, a whitewashed square compound that sits alone on an exposed hillside and looks as if it should be in Ladakh or Bhutan rather than Europe. More dramatic still, though, is Hora itself, its sugar cube houses clinging to the upper slopes of a mountain crowned by three churches. We left the car on the outskirts in a parking space so precipitous we had to chock the tyres with rocks, then headed into the centre, where there are no roads, just a maze of alleyways and steps. Theodore Bent, the Victorian explorer, came here in 1883 and declared it the “most filthy” of all the towns in the Greek Islands. “The main street is a sewer into which all the offal is thrown; and it is tenanted by countless pigs … Sometimes the street is not two feet wide, sometimes it is expanded to six feet, but always an inch deep in mire, often more.”
It is easy to imagine such conditions amid the tumbling chaos of houses, but today the pristine alleyways and ladderlike stone staircases are magical, sometimes turning to catch a sea breeze and a view, sometimes brightened by a cascade of orange lantana flowers. Some houses have washing lines and trays of tomatoes and figs drying outside, a couple have been converted into tiny boutiques selling silk scarves and handbags.
Hidden in centre is a small square as pretty as any in the Cyclades, a theatrical space paved in marble and bordered by cafés, the town hall and an 18th-century church. Serifos is somewhere to hide away, but this is its one place to see and be seen. One waiter told me the square can be packed in August, but in September there were only a handful of other people, quietly drinking chilled glasses of the island’s orange-hued wine while the cats curled their tails around the legs of empty chairs and tables.
Tom Robbins was a guest of Five Star Greece and Coco-Mat Eco Residences. Five Star Greece’s villa at Kalo Ambeli sleeps up to 14 and costs from €8,000 per week; double rooms at Coco-Mat cost from €187 per night
More hidden gems (for now) of the Greek islands
By Michael Cullen
Tiny Kastellorizo, or Megisti as it’s sometimes known, is one of Greece’s furthest-flung islands: a five sq mile lump of rock 60 miles east of Rhodes, to which it is connected by a twice-weekly ferry or a twin-prop plane in summer. (Its closest town is actually Kas in Turkey.) But it’s well worth the journey. The village (there’s only one) boasts a picture-perfect harbour, lined with boats and pastel-coloured houses. Its waters are among the clearest in the Med, with unbeatable snorkelling (think caretta turtles and octopus), plus a swim-in grotto whose seas positively fluoresce. Avoid August when Italians arrive hoping to relive Mediterraneo, which was filmed here.
Rather than looking for the smallest speck on the map, think big. Evia is Greece’s second-largest island, with towering mountains, shady pine forests and secluded beaches of all shapes and sizes — sandy and sheltered along one coast, pebbly and wilder on the other. Perhaps because it’s connected to the mainland by bridge, or perhaps because it lacks those sugar-cube villages and doesn’t end in -os, it’s often overlooked by tour companies. Adventurous travellers and wild campers will love it, especially the central and northern parts; the Crusoe-like beaches of Chiliadou and Limnionas, guarded by the buttress of Mt Dirfis, are highlights. In the south, don’t miss the river gorge of Dimosari. Fly into Athens, hire a car or jeep, and explore.
The northernmost of the Cyclades islands has somehow escaped the attention of foreign visitors, despite being only two hours by ferry from Athens. Soaring scrub and slate-covered hills, which some say evoke the Scottish Highlands in a heatwave, conceal lush valleys and whitewashed hamlets hidden from pirates’ prying eyes. As with most Aegean Islands, the beaches on the south-west coast are sandier and more sheltered from the summer meltemi winds; those facing north-east are wilder, but pebbly shores keep the waters crystal-clear. Its main town, Hora, is forbiddingly handsome, and boasts art and archaeology collections courtesy of the Goulandris dynasty. Inland is the cliff-backed monastery of Panachrantou, where Eleonora’s falcons wheel.
Not to be confused with the sandbank lagoon on Crete, this off-radar island in the south-east Peloponnese is blessed with some of Greece’s finest white-sand beaches. Top billing goes to the double crescent of Simos, with its powdery dunes, azure seas and dwarf cedars; thank Zeus that Greece’s “asset development fund” backed down on plans to lease it to private developers. When Simos campsite turns up the volume in midsummer, head to Kato Nisi, a laid-back fishing hamlet with a long beach and lagoon-like waters reminiscent of Zanzibar. Swim out to the sea-washed chapel of Panagia, watch fishermen disentangle your dinner from their yellow nets, and stroll to the ouzo bar at Limnitsa for sunset. Boats ply regularly to Elafonisos from Pounta, occasionally from Neapoli.
Michael Cullen is a former guide for hiking and adventure holidays in off-the-beaten-track Greece, and author of books including ‘Landscapes of the Southern Peloponnese’ (Sunflower) and ‘The Mountains of Greece’ (Cicerone)
Photographs: Giovanni Simeone; Tom Robbins