by Marc d’Entremont
As a third small dessert is brought to the table along with the check, Bessie Kavgadoulis comments, “The sweet, first, is to sweeten the bill,” as my host picks up the tab at the harbor-side Taverna Archipelagos on Alonissos. Considering the quality of another leisurely three-hour meal, I can’t imagine the bill needs that much sweetening.
Two nights before at To Kamaki, the mayor, Petros Vafinis, apologized for an “early start” to dinner – it was 8:30 p.m. It was the birthday of his wife, Zoi, and he wanted a good table before the robetiko music began. Dinner ended many courses, many ballads of love and many glasses of tsipouro some four hours later – early for To Kamaki.
“Alonissos is a close knit community,” British expats Dave Court and Gerry Ivison said with obvious admiration for the same legendary Greek hospitality that I’d been experiencing the past weeks. Sitting at a table in Restaurant Panselinos after a Greek dancing class, Dave explained that, “In Greek dancing there is a front line leader of the dance, but that person may call out variations on occasion.” The perfect metaphor since just as a visitor believes they “understand Greece,” the Greeks surprise.
Not all Greek islands are similar, just as the mainland is a patchwork of ecosystems. The Cyclades, the tourist mecca of islands in the south Aegean, tend to be dry with low vegetation and whitewashed villages trimmed in blue shuttered windows and doors. Alonissos, located in the central Aegean, is the most northerly of the Sporades islands with towering pine forests tumbling down the rocky cliffs to the sea. They’re more akin to the northern New England coast of the U.S.A. than southern Greece.
Popular with Greeks and Europeans, Alonissos still has less tourism development than its sister islands Skiathos, Skopelos and Skyros. For sure there are white washed villages, but there’s stone and red tiled roof housing as well. History abounds with Kokkinkastro, dating from Paleolithic time (2.6 million to 10,000 B.C.) the earliest known human settlement in the entire Aegean Sea. There are remnants of Byzantine and Venetian fortifications in the walls of Palio Horio – the old city. From the 14th century B.C. (Mycenaean period) to 1956 A.D. wine production was a major business on Alonissos. Tragically disease destroyed the vines. The land is not suitable for most farming, with the exception of olive trees for domestic use, but commercial fishing remains a major industry.
The ancient hilltop village of Palio Horio was so heavily damaged in a 1965 earthquake that it was virtually abandoned until the 1980s. European investors and retirees rediscovered the beautiful town and restoration commenced. Today Palio Horio is a fashionable summer destination with shops, cafes and on-going restoration of old stone buildings. Much new construction spills down the hillsides. Yet on the hills just to the southwest overlooking Palio Horio the silence is broken only by the sound of the wind flowing through thick pine forests and chirping birds. It’s an ideal location to view breathtaking sunsets.
The largest of the Sporades, Alonissos has its own small archipelago, most of which makes up the National Marine Park of Alonissos Northern Sporades. The park’s a marine science research center and a haven for the monk seal, among other endangered animals. Most of the park is off-limits to visitors, but during the summer season tourists can visit the public area of the park through arranged excursions.
Lush pine forests give way to drier conditions as one drives north from the port capital of Patitiri to Gerka. On the way, and virtually a “twin town,” is Votsi with housing spilling down its steep cliffs to a beautiful harbor. Both Patitiri and Votsi are home to the island’s large and active commercial fishing fleet of over 250 ships.
A series of secluded beaches dot the coast on the road to Gerka. The fashionable yachting port of Steni Vala has impressive villas clinging to the cliffs and several flower-bedecked cafes on the harbor. A short distance further is Leftos Gialos, once a major wine center, with towering trees on its rock cliffs and a wide beach. Both Eleonas and Dolopes are beautiful and popular beachfront restaurants. In the summer season they offer shaded lounge areas and Dolopes has a swimming pool for patrons to enjoy. Leftos Gialos is a favored area for weddings. The list goes on: Chrissi Mila beach overlooks Kokinonissi Island once the site of a major fortress and Glyfa Beach has water as clear as glass. Dimitrios’ crescent beach is the location of a medieval Byzantine Church; Tsoukali beach has a rare and unique nearly restored windmill.
Then you reach the virtually uninhabited far north. Dry yet still covered in vegetation, don’t be surprised if you must slow down to give herds of goats the right of way. Near total silence envelops at the harbor of Gerka with the exception of water gently lapping the empty shore.
The administrative capital of Alonissos is the port town of Patitiri, which was a mere harbor prior to the destruction of Palio Horio in 1965. It’s the island’s bustling commercial center today where everyone arrives on the fast, efficient, affordable and modern ferries that connect the Greek islands to each other and the mainland. Cafes and shops line the harbor and up the two main streets with hotels and guesthouses perched on the hillside offering panoramic views.
Overlooking the harbor is the handsome modern stone Museum of Alonissos high on the hillside. It has a fascinating collection of artifacts and exhibits detailing island life from the days of pirates, the 19th century through to the tragic war years of the 20th century. Permanent and rotating exhibits of the works of island artists are displayed in several galleries.
Among the many shops, take a look at Geko Jewelry, opposite Taverna Archipelagos and next to Albedo Travel. Justine Antoniou displays creations from some of the top artisans in Greece. Justine, born in Sydney, Australia, of Greek parentage, traveled to the Sporades for years as a child. In love with both Alonnisos and her island husband, she settled down permanently four years ago. Besides Patitiri, they have a shop in Palio Horio that’s open during the summer season.
Among the island’s numerous accommodations, the Hotel Atrium commands sweeping views of Patitiri, its harbor and surrounding islands. Opened for 18 years, Petros & Zoi Vafinis preside over 29 balconied rooms surrounding two swimming pools, expansive terraces on two levels and a relaxing bar lounge managed by the very personable Angela Papavasiliou. The white marble lobby is furnished with an eclectic mix of pop and antique furniture. An orthodox chapel adjoins the hotel. The rooms are spacious with ultra modern baths including spa jet showers. The breakfast buffet, served in a dining area that takes full advantage of the morning sunrise, includes Greek coffee, mini cheese and spinach turnovers along with eggs and a selection of cheeses, meats, breads, juice, cereal and yogurt.
An Athens friend told me last year that to the Greeks “dining is an excuse to get together with friends.” It’s in the cafes and tavernas that even a casual visitor will soon feel welcomed, at home and satiated with fine cuisine. At Restaurant Panselinos in Palio Horio expats Dave Court and Gerry Ivison filled me in on the island’s many festivals and activities including keeping in shape through aquafit, utilizing three dive companies and Greek dancing at least five times a week.
Owner/chef Giorgos Bellos opened both Restaurant Panselinos in historic Palio Horio a dozen years ago and created the Greek dance classes. The menu is a mix of traditional taverna dishes and tourist friendly selections such as a club sandwich and Alonissos tuna salad. A chunky tzatziki salad was a version of the sauce but with a tang lacking in the U.S.A. Traditional Alonissos cheese “pie” was a deep-fried light spiral homemade phyllo pastry stuffed with white cheese, kalamata olives and tomatoes. Grilled beef “cake” (chopped steak), layered with cheese and fresh tomato, was well seasoned and served with French fries and seasoned grilled bread.
Since Restaurant Panselinos is open year-round, the dining room has wood stoves to take the chill off the island’s mild winter although Alonissos occasionally gets snow. In the summer there is a dining patio and a second floor rooftop area popular for parties and receptions. Giorgos is well known for his popular traditional Greek dance class at the restaurant. Tourists are always invited to drop in for the 45 minute to one-hour morning lessons and both waiter Renny and musician Auberey comment that the dances are paced from slow to frenetic.
Kostas Efstathiou and Bessie Kavgadoulis, husband and wife owners of Albedo Travel and Paradise Hotel, seem to make Taverna Archipelagos their dining room. With its location directly on Patitiri’s harbor and small crescent sand beach that’s easy to accept. The late afternoon happy hour illustrates Alonissos traditional hospitality. With each drink a mazim (small plate) is brought out. Among the selections are grilled mushrooms with cheese, bacon and tomato and roasted green peppers with bacon.
The dinner menu is a list of Greek specialties: a traditional salad platter with tuna and tzatziki sauce, gigantes (broad beans in tomato sauce), grilled octopus as a platter or topping salad, shrimp saganaki (with tomato and feta), fried anchovies with garlicky skordalia puree and savridi –small grilled fish. Savridi are lightly salted and slightly sun-dried before being either fried or grilled. And, of course, spoon sweets – preserved jewel-like fruits and baby vegetables – served with thick Greek yogurt.
Perhaps though it’s the robetiko ballads and small plates at To Kamaki that touches the soul of both Alonissos and Greece. Traditional ballads of love and heartache, many written between the world wars of the 20th century, robetiko themes center on the common people. The musician/singers sit at a regular table in the modest dining room among the patrons. If the room was larger many more patrons would be dancing – until the wee hours of the morning.
Chef/owner Niko has operated To Kamaki at the same location for 45 years. To Kamaki serves only small plates from an extensive menu and with an open kitchen diners can observe their preparation. Each plate was an evocative display of Greek culinary creativity. Raw tuna “cooked” in salt topping potato salad, grilled octopus on a bed of cabbage salad, exquisite mussels or grilled octopus saganaki, anchovies, shrimp or mushrooms marinated in oil and herbs, grilled peppers with cheese and herbs is but a small sample of the menu and what we ate that evening. Tsipouro, ouzo, wine and beer flow with each dish. Since it is tradition to have one dish per drink for as many people at the table, an evening at To Kamaki is a veritable buffet of sharing with new found friends.
Getting there: (1) from Athens or Thessaloniki travel by car or reserved coach bus to the port city of Volos for ferry connections to Alonossis and the other islands of the Sporades. (2) Ryanair has a few flights per week to Volos from Brussels, Frankfurt, Berlin, Milan and Rome.
Albedo Travel (https://alonissosholidays.com/) for car rentals, information on excursions to the National Marine Park and ferry tickets – including the high-speed Flying Dolphin.
Hotel Atrium (https://www.atriumalonnissos.gr/)
Taverna Archipelagos, (https://alonissostravel.com/patitiri-tavernas-and-restaurants/)
To Kamaki, traditional music Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 9:00 p.m. (https://alonissostravel.com/patitiri-tavernas-and-restaurants/)
Restaurant Panselinos, (https://www.panselinos.gr)
Geko Jewelry (email for info: email@example.com)
Paradise Hotel (www.paradise-hotel.gr)
Museum of Alonissos (www.alonissosmuseum.com)
What to do on Alonissos: (1) Dave and Gerry’s Alonissos Island Information Site
(www.ivicourt.com) (2) Municipality of Alonissos (https://alonissos.gr/en/)
National Marine Park of Alonissos Northern Sporades (www.alonissos-park.gr)
Alonissos Blue Dream Dive Center (https://bestdivingingreece.com/)
Want to plan a wedding on Alonissos? Talk to Xrissy (Christina) Georgiou (https://alonissosislandweddings.com/). You’ll find her most days at Albedo Travel.
Travel with Pen and Palate to Greece with Marc d’Entremont every month in the Hellenic News of America