When I set out to go on a trip to Greece this summer, I knew I wanted to find the 'storybook' Greece, the Greece of traditional culture, religious splendour, flavourful food and family values. The Greece that is rough around the edges with white-washed walls and splurges of vegetation. I wanted to walk among the paintings sold in souvenir shops and feel that I was really there, immersed in the dusty landscape dappled with leafy greens and royal blue. I found all of that on Nisyros, particularly in the island's main town, the port of Mandraki. The idea to hop on a boat to Nisyros stemmed from the desire to visit the volcanic Stefanos crater. We had been told by relatives it was a 'must-do', so we took up their recommendation and booked the trip. I usually like to research destinations fully before my arrival, but this time I allowed myself the pleasure of surprise.
We arrived in Mandraki on Pirates of the Aegean, which set sail from the village of Kardamena. Walking from the port along the main road, for Mandraki only really has one, we passed a reasonably well-sized police station. The personnel it houses, we were told, only amounts to two. Criminal activity is virtually non-existent on the island.
We took a moment to reflect on our way, stopping at a memorial to hear an incredibly moving and sad story. You'll find elaborately decorated memorial shrines along roads all over Greece, usually marking a tragic accident. On Nisyros, some 5,000 miles from New York City, stands a memorial, overlooking the Aegean, for a young local man who obtained a scholarship to Harvard University. Heart-breakingly, he lost his life on September 11th, 2001. While it is a sombre sight and a painful reminder of the tragic events that occurred that day, it is a sure symbol of the people of Nisyros coming together as a community to pay their respects and always remember. In the same way, it invites tourists to remember too.
I'll be talking more about the island's community spirit in a future blog post, so keep an eye out here and over on Instagram for it.
Along the road, there is a handpainted scroll on the wall, detailing the mythical origins of Nisyros Island. Further still is a rather amusing sight - the station where electricity supply is harboured for the whole island. With only a 1,000 inhabitants and little space and amenities for their own generation of power, Nisyros's electricity is linked to Kos. Incidentally, this is also where the island's post and drinking water reserves come from. To try to produce their own drinking water would be incredibly difficult since the high amount of sea salt in the water around the island would cause constant blockages during the filtering process. Along with their weekly delivery of drinking water from Kos, the people collect rainwater from the roof of their houses. Then again, this is only really used for cleaning purposes.
We passed through a line of shops selling locally-produced souvenirs and pumice stones (there's a mining island just across the way) and found ourselves in an opening, headed by an ice cream shop. We had already learned of the island's speciality product. Nisyros is famous for its many almond trees. The locals developed an idea, taking the almond milk, adding sugar to it and blending it with ice to make a signature drink. They also tried it as ice cream - and what a success it was. If you're looking to try these almond-flavoured refreshments, just ask for soumada. We bought a few scoops of soumada ice cream for a euro each. And if you're sat reading here and wondering what it tastes like, imagine liquid marzipan. Does it sound appealing? Trust me, I'm not normally one for marzipan but to me, for some reason, a heap of icy liquid marzipan in a large tub is one of life's best simple pleasures.
You might also be surprised to learn that the residents of Nisyros have got even more creative with their speciality ice cream flavours. There is a particular kind of tomato that is grown here and you bet they made an ice cream out of it. As it happens, I can't tell you what that one tastes like.
We ate our soumada in the square facing the sea, before heading towards the great monastery, Panagia Spiliani, on the cliffside. Though now uninhabited, the monastery still towers over Mandraki with a sense of might and historical significance. You can climb to the bell tower if you want to, facing more than one hundred steps on a craggy hillside. Had we more time and energy we might have tried it ourselves.
What I can say, however, is how delightful it is to be able to walk among narrow cobbled streets with the combination of fresh tomatoes, the zing of oregano bushes, lunch being cooked and sea salt heavy on the air. There is such a peaceful atmosphere about the place, demonstrating remote island living with the spirit of an old English country village. While the locals zoom from place to place on mopeds and bikes they will always thank you with a gesture for standing aside to let them pass.
The streets are lined with charming houses decorated with pot plants and trinkets that pleasantly read "Welcome" and "Home Sweet Home". We quickly learned that cats are rife in Mandraki. They like to graze on the warmth of stone steps and scratch their backs on rough walls. Most of them are very friendly so, as you can imagine if you follow me on Instagram, I was rather excited about this. I was especially thrilled about the kitten...obviously.
When our time exploring Mandraki was up, it was time to get on the bus and start to ascend into the hills towards Nikia, the highest settlement on the island, where we would finally meet the volcano and walk on Stefanos crater. Activities that definitely warrant another blog post.
I was very excited to learn that you can stay on Nisyros, despite being less influenced by tourism compared to the rest of the Dodecanese Islands. I would love to go back someday and experience Mandraki, as though I was seeing it all for the first time, all over again. I think that's what happens in places like this. They have a certain magic about them, no matter how simple they may be, that will always lure you back. I think Mandraki is one of them.
Next time you're in Kos or surrounding islands, visit Nisyros and Mandraki to experience the unknown and, yet, the incredible familiarity of Grecian architecture and lifestyle.
Stay tuned for more blog posts about our adventures in Kos and Nisyros by following me on one of my social media links.