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30 Ιουλ 2016

The Telegraph: "Forget the migrant crisis - Samos still offers the best of Greece"!

Potami Beach, the best on the island

By Chris Leadbeater for "The Telegraph"

Psili Ammos is jammed in third gear. It is not that there is nobody on the beach, or in the cafés alongside it. But I cannot help feeling, as I stroll along the shore, that the party hasn’t properly started. It is a shimmering Sunday in July – and yet this popular little holiday enclave, towards the south-east corner of Samos, could scarcely be considered crowded.

There are empty loungers sheltered by idle umbrellas, and there is plenty of space on the sand for the frisbee throwers and paddling families who have set up camp. Opposite, the Ammos Samos Beach Bar is blowing kisses at passers-by: a board set up on the pavement to announce that, contrary to the time limitations of the phrase, its “Happy Hour” will stretch from 4pm to 8pm, with all cocktails priced at €5. Beneath the awning, an underworked waiter toys with his iPhone – checking his texts while he prays for the rush to materialise.

Visitor numbers to Samos are down by 37 per cent Credit: PAWEL KAZMIERCZAK/FOTOLIA


The context to this becalmed state of affairs shapes the skyline. Two miles away across the Mycale Strait, Turkey looks so close as to be tangible. No wonder, then, that last year it was the main jumping-off point for the near-million migrants who crossed into Greece, fleeing war in Syria and Iraq in the hope of a better life in the European Union.

Though smaller than Lesvos and Chios, two of the other islands in the path of the diaspora, between January 2015 and March this year Samos received more than 10 per cent of these desperate and displaced people – unseaworthy inflatables dicing with the short journey, life jackets piling up on the north coast in Agios Konstantinos and Karlovasi.

The deal struck between Brussels and Ankara in March, to see migrants returned to Turkey in exchange for concessions on the movement of Turkish citizens in the EU, has attracted criticism from human rights groups – but it has stemmed the flow.

The trouble is, while you will not spot asylum-seekers on Samos if you visit this summer, the same can be said, to an extent, of tourists. And an island whose economy depends on a solid stream of visitors to support its hotels and restaurants is starting to suffer.


Over in the capital Vathy, in the town hall – the stately building where the island signed itself up to be part of the modern Greece in 1912 – Michalis Angelopoulos, the mayor of Samos, is putting on a brave face. “We are down 37 per cent on visitor figures compared to last season,” he says. “We are trying to deal with the [migrant] situation on a humanitarian basis, but we are also trying to find our way back to tourism.”

Down in his office by the harbour, Nikolaos Katrakazos, the island’s deputy regional governor, is more despondent. “The community is worried,” he sighs. “People think it isn’t fair; that it [the low number of visitors] is not based on reality. But tourism is about perception.” The consensus is that Samos can survive one year of under-occupancy – but a second would be disastrous.

Those who are prepared to put aside 2015’s bleak news bulletins will find cut-price rates and last-minute packages galore Credit: PAWEL KAZMIERCZAK/FOTOLIA

The bonus, for those who are prepared to put aside 2015’s bleak news bulletins and travel to Samos in time for what is left of the summer, is that not only will they find cut-price rates and last-minute packages galore, but they will also encounter an island whose recent notoriety has rather disguised its beauty.

In some ways, it is all of Greece encapsulated in one 27-mile-long chunk of the North Aegean – quietly cosmopolitan in Vathy, at the east end of the north coast, where bars are set around the perimeter of the main square Sto Psito; swarthily mountainous in the interior, where twin peaks Ampelos and Kerkis rear to 3,593ft and 4,705ft respectively; warmly welcoming, yet utterly local, unaltered by the ages, in the towns – Mitilinii, Chora, Pagondas, Pirgos – which dot the slopes of the two titans; and lapped by warm waters on the beaches which decorate its edges.

And it is these beaches that are its calling card. Samos is not an island which revels in five-star finesse – it is more a place of unfussy nights in comfy but unflashy hotels, and unhurried evenings in seafront tavernas where the house red tastes better with each glass. But its shoreline curves are its note of luxury. The hamlet of Posidonio, at the south-east corner, makes its tiny patch of shingle seem 10 times the size by cocooning it in a pretty marina.

Potokaki Beach, a short hop west along the south coast, makes a play for the youth vote with its jetskis and insistent music. Kokkari, a holiday haven on the north shore, lays out its best reasons to linger – the cocktails of Odyssey Beach Bar and the crepes of Beach Bar Line – along a crescent which loses nothing for wearing a cloak of pebbles.

But the jewel is Potami Beach. The norh coast road carries me west to a pocket of perfection so dramatic that, for some minutes, it lifts me out of Europe completely and drops me into the mid-Pacific. There are hints of Hawaii as the sunsets, turning the imposing bluff which bookmarks the end of the beach into a tropical silhouette, as cliffs climb sharply behind.

A mile distant, up a winding trail, the Potami Waterfalls pour into a narrow canyon. It could be Kauai but for the Greek authenticity supplied two miles away by Karlovasi – the Agios Nikolaos orthodox church rising in blue domes and honey-hued walls; a babble of Hellenic conversation filling Vento Café on the main square.

The capital, Vathy (or Samos Town) Credit: stockbksts - Fotolia

If the north of the island is a joy, the south-west – suddenly flat where the gradient eases between Ampelos and Kerkis – is a delight. On a woozy evening, I find myself in Ormos Marathokampos – a diminutive fishing village where the scope of this summer’s shortfall is again exposed. There are five tavernas arranged along the flagstones, and unused outdoor tables at each of them.

But if there is nervousness among the restaurateurs it is not transferred to the sparse clientele. The beef stifado served to me at the Kerkis Bay Hotel is rich in both meat and tomatoes. Opposite, sails flutter on the masts in the marina.

Of course, the movement of people which has left Samos in this difficult moment is, essentially, nothing new. The island has long been a crossroads between Europe and Asia. Indeed, it built its image on this in the sixth century BC, under the “guidance” of its ruler Polycrates, whose heavy hand, unbridled ambition (he killed both his brothers in 538BC to grab the reins) and campaigns of conquest in Asia Minor helped transform its capital Pythagoreion into one of the Aegean’s power hubs.

The city still exists, in retirement, as the sleepy south-coast port of Pythagoreio – and if you can rouse yourself from your holiday siesta, you can trace the island’s ancient tale at a range of historic sites (see sidebar).

I do rouse myself – heading for the far west of the island which, where Kerkis swells up, becomes so rugged as to resemble another continent. The road which clings to this flank is the equal of anything thrown out by the Pacific hemline of California – twisting and twitching as it negotiates sheer drops and dizzying chasms.

Every facet of the 21st century disappears as I forge north through the hillside villages of Kallithea and Drakei. The latter is a full stop, the road narrowing to cobbles, then finishing abruptly on the doorstep of a squat house. There are no words of English spoken in the lone taverna which appreciates the view, and no hints of modernity.

It is easy, in such a setting, to understand why this section of Samos attracted its most famous son. According to legend, the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras was born on the island in 570BC and lived in Pythagoreion until, unhappy at the excesses of Polycrates’s governance, he sought somewhere less fraught.

He found it in a cave on the south side of Kerkis, above what is now the town of Isomata, where he was able to write and think. I have to scramble to reach it, up bare rock, but I am rewarded by a rounded chamber which gazes back down the mountain in inspiring fashion. Not that this was enough to detain the great man. He moved to what is now Calabria in 530BC, searching for a more benign framework for his brilliance – though he reputedly returned some 10 years later.

Samos will hope that tourists follow his example.


The Samos Trail | Temples, villas and muscat wine


Heraion, three miles west of Pythagoreio

Hera’s birthplace

The position of Samos as one of the junction boxes of the ancient Aegean is still apparent at the Heraion (0030 227 309 5277; daily except Monday, 8am-3pm; €6). Located on the south coast, three miles west of Pythagoreio, this leafy site was – according to mythology – the birthplace of Hera, wife of Zeus.

Three temples were built in her honour between the eighth and sixth centuries BC, of which the last, built under Polycrates circa 535BC, was a world wonder – 358ft long, 180ft wide and 82ft high; bigger than the Parthenon in Athens. Only one of its giant pillars still stands (at an abridged 36ft), but the one-time scale of the sanctuary, has enjoyed Unesco World Heritage status since 1992, is clear.

Ancient artifacts

The Archaeological Museum of Samos (0030 227 302 7469; odysseus.culture.gr; daily except Monday, 8am-3pm; €2) in Vathi offers a clutch of artefacts from the site – while the Archaeological Museum of Pythagoreion (0030 227 3062813; same website, hours; €7) gives broader detail on its latter-day successor Pythagoreio.

Most of its ruins – a bathhouse, mosaic-floored villas – date from the Roman era, but exhibits inside include priceless vases and amphorae from as long ago as 800BC. The Tunnel of Eupalinos – a remarkably long aqueduct, cut through Mount Kastro above the town on Polycrates’s orders, is currently shut for repairs, but will reopen in 2017.

Sweet wine

Samos also has a tradition of wine production which dates to the mists of 1200BC. Nothing at the Samos Wine Museum in Vathi (0030 227 308 7511; samoswine.gr; daily except Sunday, 10am-5.30pm; €2) is quite this old, but the intriguing bayside landmark does an excellent job of showcasing the creative process behind the island’s sweet muscat dessert wines – which are now so heralded that they are rubber-stamped as an appellation.


Getting there

Aegean Airlines (0871 200 0040 - en.aegeanair.com) flies to Athens from London Heathrow – and on to Samos via its subsidiary Olympic Air.

Staying there 


Sunvil (020 8758 4758; sunvil.co.uk) offers direct charter flights to Samos from Gatwick as part of its packages. A seven-night stay in August on the south coast at the Kerkis Bay Hotel in Ormos Marathokampos costs from £722 per person (based on two sharing), including breakfast, flights and transfers. A seven-night stay at Pavlis Studios in the same village, flying on August 4, costs £629 per person – on the same basis.


Touring there

Samos Outdoor Travel (0030 698 060 6015 - samosoutdoors.com) is offering guided hikes on the island of Samos – including a jaunt to the Cave of Pythagoras for €35 per person.

Further information

See the websites visit.samos.gr and visitgreece.gr