A brief series on my recent Mediterranean trip. Part two: Nisyros.
The woman at the information desk scrawled a pair of Greek words onto a post-it and handed it through the window to us. “Give this to the cab driver” she said.
We were in the airport on the island of Kos and we were armed with our ever-present backpacks and a notion, first formulated by Lauren weeks earlier, that we were going to Nisyros. The seed of our vacation had been planted by Emre, our old friend, a native Turk, and long-time contributor to The Millions who was returning to his homeland for a month. What better time to go to Turkey, we reasoned, than when we would have Emre there to show us around?
From this seed grew a more ambitious trip, as we appended a week in Greece on the front end. Emre, meanwhile, had plotted a two-stop Turkish tour, starting with a few days on Turkey’s Aegean coast and ending in Istanbul. Weighing our options, Lauren and I decided that the best way to get to Emre near Bodrum, Turkey, was to traverse the Aegean from Athens.
Little remained but to pick an island as our waypoint. Various people recommended Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes, but Lauren embarked on her own research and settled on Nisyros, its prime attribute being that there wasn’t much information available about it.
We weren’t even sure if we could get there. We booked a flight to Kos, a medium-sized island just a few miles off the Turkish coast with a reputation as a package destination for British tourists, with the hope that we could figure out a ferry to little Nisyros, located about 25 miles from Kos’ main harbor. The Greek ferry websites, being that they were, of course, Greek to us, were little help.
After scrutinizing the post-it we handed over, the cab driver nodded and set off. We passed strip malls and tourist traps of every variety along Kos’ main road before we were dropped off beside a ferry in Kos Town. It was pleasingly old looking, with a light patina of rust. Our Greek Island Hopping guide book had explained that older ferries in the Aegean typically get shifted to the less frequently used routes. Our ferry fit that bill.
The boat was filled with locals, or in the case of an older couple from Australia, expats returning for a visit. The couple was Greek originally, and the husband John grew up on Nisyros and returns with his family to his home on the island every year. As he told us about the island’s unique charms, the old ferry shouldered its way through water that was calm when in the lee of various small islands on the way and became choppy in the wind tunnels that formed between them.
The ferry landed and within a few minutes its several passengers had dispersed. If Nisyros is known at all, it is because it is a dormant volcano. The island’s main town, Mandraki sits in a spot where the volcano’s slope gently reaches the water.
Mandraki is like a city in miniature. It’s streets are narrow and can be navigated only by tiny vehicles and motor scooters. The town, somewhat comically, has a single taxi, which you might presumably take the 300 yards from one end of Mandraki to the other. When the ferry boats arrive daily, they bring supplies to the island as well, and an elfen truck or two, which must have been custom made for the place, zip around dropping off deliveries at Mandraki’s shops and restaurants.
Along Mandraki’s length, on the water’s edge, were a dozen or so restaurants. The menus offered foods falling into three categories: Greek standbys like souvlaki and eggplant salads; seafood – on one of our strolls around town we saw the tentacles of recently caught octopus strung out on a line, which later that night we had in a hearty octopus stew; and bastardized British fare to appease the occasional stray tourist. The most popular menu item we would see in the various beach towns that we passed through in Greece and Turkey was “Full English Breakfast,” often accompanied by grotesquely oversized photos of rashers and eggs.
Everything on Nisyros had this spectacular washed out look to it. The buildings were bleach white and the brilliant sky was tinted by a dusty haze. Walking through Mandraki’s narrow streets we came upon old Greek women dressed all in black and sitting in doorways, their smiling faces creased and tanned from decades in the sun. Strung overhead between houses were vines dangling bunches of sweet green grapes and clotheslines laden with laundry.
The labyrinthine streets carry Mandraki up the hillside, narrowing to the width of a person in some places and turning into staircases in others. Coming around a corner we might find a bakery selling spinach pies or a newsstand with two-day old newspapers. There was a square overlooked by the town hall and another filled with tables and chairs and ringed with cafes. Black, gray, and white stones were inlaid into the plazas to create designs featuring loosely maritime motifs.
Our hotel, Porfyris, was in Mandraki’s upper portion rather than along the water, and from our spartan room we could look down across rooftops and out to the shimmering Aegean. We toyed with some mildly ambitious plans for our one full day in Nisyros, perhaps trekking to the volcano’s rim or seeking out the island’s hot springs, which are apparently served by a run-down spa. But instead we gave into Nisyros’ intoxicating quietness and settled for a morning stroll to the clifftop monastery overlooking the town and an untaxing hike in the hills behind it. The rest of the day was spent on our balcony, sketching in the little books that Lauren had thought to bring, reading magazines, and dozing heavy-lidded in the afternoon sun.
Saturday morning we awoke to find little Mandraki overrun. All three of the bakeries we had found were out of spinach pies by 10:30, and the town’s population had increased by half, with the newcomers bearing cameras and self-consciously beachy garb. The culprits were the three day-boats parked in the harbor.
There are no doubt many residents of Mandraki who live on the largess of the visitors. We met some of them: a Libyan jewelry maker who found his way to Nisyros about 20 years ago and never left; a woman who collects and sells honey and makes jams and soumada, an almond-flavored drink; and our waitress both nights we were there, whose mother cooked us mousaka, souvlaki, and that octopus stew. But we had easily convinced ourselves that we had found a place, if not empty of tourists, than at least not so accessible to the majority of them.
Our ferry back to Kos was a newer model, a sleek, fast, and comfortable catamaran, that seemed an appropriate conveyance in which to return to civilization. Back on Kos, surrounding Kos Town’s harbor, young men whose job is to harangue passersby into sitting at their streetside restaurants were again trying to entice us with the delights of the Full English Breakfast.
Instead we secured our ticket to Bodrum, braved Greek passport control, waited in several lines, and boarded another boat – our oldest, hottest, and most crowded yet – for the 40 minute ride to Turkey, which for our entire time in the islands, though a continent away, had loomed on the horizon.