The Rough Guide to The Dodecanese & the East Aegean

The Rough Guide to The Dodecanese & the East Aegean

by Marc Dubin
The Dodecanese archipelago forms the remotest territory of the modern Greek state, up to 250 nautical miles from Athens. All of it is closer to Turkey than mainland Greece, a fact not lost on the two states concerned; indeed these scattered islands have only been part of Greece since 1948, representing the last successful phase of the Megli Idha, a


The Dodecanese archipelago forms the remotest territory of the modern Greek state, up to 250 nautical miles from Athens. All of it is closer to Turkey than mainland Greece, a fact not lost on the two states concerned; indeed these scattered islands have only been part of Greece since 1948, representing the last successful phase of the Megli Idha, a century-long campaign to reclaim historically Greek territories. Even now the threat (real or imagined) of invasion from Turkey is very much in evidence. Asked about the heavy military presence, locals talk in terms of "when the Turks come", rarely "if . . .". Greek nationalists began referring to the islands as the Dhodheknisos (Twelve Islands) after 1908, though in actual fact there are fourteen major and four minor inhabited isles in the group, plus nine more, large and small, which make up the more northerly east Aegean islands, part of Greece since 1912.
Unlike the poor, remote Cyclades in the central Aegean, these stepping stones en route to the Middle East or Anatolia have always been fated for invasion and occupation: too rich and strategic to be ignored, but never powerful enough to rule in their own right. Romans, Byzantines, crusading Knights of St John, Genoese, Venetians, Ottomans and Italians have for varying periods controlled these islands since the time of Alexander the Great. Whatever the rigours of these occupations, their legacy includes a wonderful blend of architectural styles and of Eastern and Western cultures: frescoed Byzantine churches and fortified monasteries, castles of the Genoese and Knights of St John, Ottoman mosques and grandiose Italian Art Deco buildings. Such monuments are often juxtaposed with (or even rest upon) ancient Greek cities and temples that provide the foundation for claims of an enduring Hellenic cultural identity down the centuries; museums, particularly on Smos, Rhodes and Lmnos, amply document the archeological evidence.
But it was medieval Greek peasants, fishermen and shepherds, working without an indigenous ruling class to elaborate models of taste, who most tangibly and recently contributed to our idea of Greek identity with their songs and dances, costumes, weaving and vernacular architecture, often unconsciously drawing on ancient antecedents. Much of this has vanished in recent decades under an avalanche of bouzouki cassettes, "genuine museum copies" and bawdy postcards at souvenir stalls, but enough has survived in isolated pockets for visitors to marvel at its combination of form and function. Indeed, only on two islands included in this guide - Rhodes and Ks - has local character come to be principally determined by tourism, and even in these places pockets of traditional life persist.
Many visitors come primarily, however, for hedonistic rather than cultural pursuits: going lightly dressed even on a scooter, swimming at dusk without succumbing to hypothermia, talking and drinking under the stars until 3am - pleasures that easily compensate for the often basic standard of much of the food and accommodation on many islands. But what may impress most is how, despite the strenuous efforts of property developers, arsonists and rubbish-dumpers, the Aegean environment has not yet been utterly destroyed. Seen at the right time of day or year, the Dodecanese and east Aegean very nearly conform to their fantastic travel-poster image: purple-shadowed islands and promontories, floating on a cobalt-and-rose horizon; island beaches that vary from discreet crescents framed by tree-fringed cliffs to deserted, mile-long gifts deposited by small streams and backed by wild dunes for enacting Crusoe fantasies. Just inland there is always civilization, whether the tiny cubist villages of the remoter outposts, or burgeoning resorts as cosmopolitan - and brash - as any in the Mediterranean.
If you're used to the murky waters of the open Mediterranean in Spain, France or Israel, the Aegean will come as a revelation, with thirty-to-forty-foot visibility the norm. This relative lack of pollution is proclaimed at certain beaches by tourist-board signs bestowing "Golden Starfish" or EU-ratified "Blue Flag" awards on the place: patently self-congratulatory, but with basis in fact at many coves where live starfish or octopi curl up to avoid you, while sole, cuttlefish or rays skitter off across the sea bed.
The sea here is also a water sports paradise: the joys of snorkelling and kayaking are always on offer to the untrained, while some of the best windsurfing areas in the world beckon. Yacht charter, whether bare-boat or skippered, is now big business, particularly out of Rhodes and Klymnos; only the Caribbean can rival this area for interest. For the months when the sea is too cold or the weather too blustery, many islands offer superb hiking on surviving trails between hill villages, or up the highest summits.

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Rough Guides, Limited
Publication date:
Rough Guides Travel Series
Edition description:
2nd Edition
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5.12(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.80(d)

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The islanders
To attempt an understanding of the islanders, it's useful to realize how recent and traumatic were the events that created the modern Greek state. The east Aegean and the Dodecanese islands remained in Ottoman or Italian hands until the early 1900s; meanwhile, many people from these "unredeemed" territories lived in Asia Minor, Egypt, western Europe, mainland Greece or elsewhere in the Balkans. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22, and the organized population exchanges - essentially regulated ethnic cleansing - which followed each of these conflicts had profound effects. Orthodox refugees from Turkey suddenly made up a noticeable proportion of the east Aegean's population, and with the forced or voluntary departure of their Levantine merchant class, Muslims and (during World War II) Jews, both these islands and the Dodecanese gradually lost their multicultural traits. Even before the experience of the last war, the Italian occupation of the Dodecanese was characterized by progressively stricter suppression of Greek Orthodox identity, though in general the 1940s hereabouts were not quite so dire as on the mainland.
After World War II, benign neglect was about the best most of the islands could expect until the late 1960s. Given the chance to emigrate to Australia, North America or Africa, many entrepreneurial islanders did so, continuing a depopulation which ironically had begun as soon as the respective island groups had been united with the "motherland". This trend was only reversed in the 1970s, as worldwide recession and the advent of retirement age for the original migrants started to spur a return home. There are still a number of islanders who were born Ottoman subjects before 1912, educated in Italian between 1920 and 1926, lived through fierce battles in 1943 and 1944, left for Australia, Africa or Canada after 1948, and who have returned as pensioners to live out their days in the modern Greek state. Get talking to any of them and you'll have a first-hand idea of how this century has affected the Dodecanese and east Aegean.
The advent of tourism in the 1960s arguably saved a number of the islands from complete desolation, though attitudes towards this deliverance have been decidedly ambivalent. It galls local pride to have become a class of seasonal service personnel, and the encounter between outsiders and villagers has often been corrosive to a deeply conservative, essentially rural society. Though younger Greeks are adaptable as they rake in the proceeds at resort areas, visitors still need to be sensitive in their behaviour towards the older generations, in a country where the Orthodox church remains an all-but-established faith and the self-appointed guardian of national identity. In the presence of Italian-style espresso bars and street-corner autotellers, it's easy to be lulled into thinking that Greece at one stroke became thoroughly European when it joined the EU - until a flock of sheep is paraded along the main street at high noon, or the 1pm ferry shows up at 3pm, if at all.
Where to go
There is no such thing as a typical east Aegean or Dodecanese island; each has its distinctive personality, history, architecture, flora - and unique tourist clientele. Setting aside the scars from a few of the more unfortunate man-made developments, it would be difficult to single out an irredeemably ugly island, and aesthetically there will be something for everyone across the spectrum of insular traits. Landscapes vary from lush swaths of cypress, pine and olive, to volcanic crags, wind-tormented bare ridges, salt marshes or even year-round streams.
Indeed, the east Aegean islands seem to alternate in character: harsh, masculine Lmnos, Hos and Ikara, with their dry climates and stark scenery, bracketing lusher, damper and greener Smos and Lsvos, the most important of these islands in antiquity. This trend is continued in the Dodecanese, which display equally marked topographic and economic contrasts. The dry limestone outcrops of Kastellrizo, SZmi, Hlki, Kssos and Klymnos have always relied on the sea for their livelihoods, and the wealth generated by this maritime culture - especially in the nineteenth century - fostered the growth of their attractive port towns. The sprawling, relatively fertile giants Rhodes (Rdhos) and Ks have had their traditional agricultural economies almost totally displaced by a tourist industry attracted by good beaches and nightlife, as well as the Aegean's most exciting ensembles of historical monuments. Krpathos lies somewhere in between, with a (formerly) forested north grafted on to a rocky limestone south; Tlos, despite its relative lack of trees, has ample water, though the green volcano-island of Nssyros does not. Shaggy Lros shelters softer contours and more amenable terrain than its map outline would suggest, while Ptmos and Astyplea at the fringes of the archipelago boast architecture and landscapes more appropriate to the Cyclades.
When to Go
Most islands and their inhabitants are far more agreeable, and resolutely Greek, outside the busiest period of early July to late August, when crowds of foreigners, soaring temperatures and the effects of the infamous meltmi wind can detract considerably from enjoyment. The meltmi is a cool, fair-weather wind which originates in high-pressure systems over the far north Aegean, gathering steam as it travels southwards and assuming near-gale magnitude by the time it reaches Rhodes. North-facing coasts from there up to Smos bear the full brunt; its howling is less pronounced in the east Aegean, where the Turkish landmass provides some shelter.
You won't miss out on warm weather if you come between late May and late June, or in September when the sea is warmest for swimming. During October you are likely to hit a week's stormy spell, but for most of that month the so-called kalokerki or "little summer of yios Dhimtrios", the Greek equivalent of Indian summer, often prevails. While choice of restaurant and shop-bought food in early autumn can be limited - Greece still eats by season, and as yet imports little garden produce - the light is softer, and going out at midday becomes a pleasure rather than an ordeal. The first migratory fish from the Dardanelles also arrive in early October, with various species caught until May. As a rule, the further south you go, the longer the tourist season: Lsvos and Smos, for instance, are pretty well shut down by early October, even though the last charters leave at the end of the month, while Rhodes and its closely neighbouring islets see "summer" trade well into November, when swimming at noon is not unheard of. If you're a fish enthusiast, you can take advantage of the main netting season while on a winter break in Rhodes.
December to March are the coldest and least comfortable months, though even then you have unpredictable stretches of fine days, and the glorious wild flowers begin to bloom very early: January in the Dodecanese, February in the east Aegean for the same species. The more northerly islands endure the coldest and wettest conditions, with the higher peaks of Smos, Hos and Lsvos wearing a brief mantle of snow around the turn of the year.
As springtime proceeds, you simply shift focus further north, keeping in mind that a distance of several islands or fifty nautical miles may mean the difference between open or still-shut tourist facilities as well as blossoms gone or yet to bloom. April weather is notoriously unreliable, though the air is crystal-clear, the landscape green and all colours brilliant - a photographer's dream. May conditions are more settled, with an added bonus of the last wintertime fish and spring vegetables; the south Dodecanesian sea warms up comfortably again by early May, though the sea is still a bit cool for prolonged dips around the more northerly islands.
Other factors affecting the timing of a visit have to do with the level of tourism and the related amenities provided. Service standards, particularly in tavernas, invariably slip under peak-season pressures; room rates are at their highest from July to September, and rental cars and bikes are booked days ahead. Food is often the dreariest representation of Greek cuisine possible: a monotonously endless sequence of tomato salads, frozen Belgian chips or frozen North Sea or California squid, and no fish to speak of. If you can only visit during midsummer, reserve a package well in advance, or plan an itinerary off the beaten track, gravitating towards islands with sparse ferry connections and/or no airport. Between November and April, you have to contend with pared-back ferry schedules (and almost nonexistent hydrofoil departures), plus skeletal facilities when you arrive, except on Rhodes, which is beginning to emphasize "winter sun" tourism. You will, however, find fairly adequate services to the most populated islands, and at least one hotel and taverna open in their main town.

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