In the northern Aegean Sea, a couple of hours by boat from Alexandroupoli (the last big city of Eastern Greece on the borders with Turkey), there lies the island of Samothrace. With its prominent figure and sizable mountain line (its peak, Saos or Fengari has an altitude of 1,611 m, quite impressive for an island smaller than 200 km2), it looks like a guardian dragon in front of the Thracian coastline, constantly watching over the land, casting a protective spell.
The island is one of those places one will either fall in love with or hate. There is something strong, almost tangible but elusive about it – what we often call “energy” – that forces each visitor out of her neutrality. Its influence can be traced back to the important role Samothrace has often played over the centuries – a role that is revealed through the findings of the numerous archaeological sites.
The land is naturally divided into two sub-territories of distinctly different landscapes. The northern part is overrun by ancient, lush vegetation, unique compared to the flora encountered on most Greek islands, and so thick that, at places, it is hard to traverse. Huge plate trees with cavities big enough to host two or three people intertwine with forests of old oak trees and andraklies – the local name for trees whose trunk and branches are of a burgundy color and smooth texture, resembling the tanned bodies of muscular men. The ground is covered with ferns as well as an extended vein system of small rivers, creeks, and waterfalls that lead to the formation of the famous Samothracian pools (or vathres). This part of the island is so fertile, one feels that even tears falling on the ground will bloom into fruit-bearing trees.
The southern part, on the other hand, is rockier and drier; with its fields and olive tree groves, it bears great resemblance to the typical Cycladic scenery. The land is almost seized by innumerous goats that, without their natural predators, are munching the vegetation of the island away, hence being regarded today as a major threat to the balance of the ecosystem (an issue that remains yet to be addressed).
When talking of Samothrace, there are usually three things the average visitor looks for: (a) visiting the archaeological site of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, (2) swimming in the vathres (pools), and (3) devouring the local spécialité of stuffed katsikaki (baby goat).
Last June, I stayed for almost ten days on the island on a hiking/camping trip. Below, I attempt to shed more light on the highlights, based on my experiences and my personal preferences, leaving though aside the wealth of the various archaeological sites which, due to their number and importance, I preferred to share in a different article.
There are more than 100 vathres (pools) that are naturally created among rocks at the end of small or bigger waterfalls, constituting a wonder of nature and a unique experience in Greece, especially on an island. In all of them, the water is crystal clear and shockingly cold – in a couple of cases I failed to go deeper than knee level, but my tolerance to cold is anyway rather limited. Although the vathres of Fonias and Gria Vathra (which translate into “Murderer” and “Old-Lady Pool” respectively) are the most famous possibly because of their size (Fonias, especially, lies under a stunning waterfall), the options are so many that it is impossible to miss them or not to enjoy them.
Located along the hiking paths, surrounded by unspoiled landscapes that include, particularly in the north, lush forests and thick vegetation, these pools reveal themselves like a hidden treasure that one cannot carry away. I expect they get quite crowded during peak season, but, at the beginning of June, we had them almost entirely to ourselves.
Like every island, Samothrace has several beaches but, among those accessible by car, two are the most famous:
Pachia Ammos (the name translating to “Thick Sand”), located in the south. As its name implies, it is a big sandy beach. A tavern and several umbrellas with sunbeds compliment the setup, turning it into a rather touristic corner, especially when compared to the rest of the island.
Kipoi beach (the name translates to “Gardens”), located on the east/south-east side of Samothrace. Kipoi is much bigger than Pachia Ammos, and instead of the blonde sand, it is covered with small dark-colored pebbles. The sharp contrast between the two beaches which are, geographically, located quite close to each other, is a good indication of the variations one can discover on this controversial island. The two beaches constitute the beginning and ending point of the asphalt road that circumnavigates the biggest part of Samothrace.
Most of the other delightful beaches are not accessible by car. Vatos – maybe the best one on Samothrace, located in the south – can be reached only by boat or through a path which, we were told, is extremely treacherous; yet, this does not prevent the beach from being among the most popular ones during July and August, especially for tourists who are interested in a more alternative vacation style. Settlements of small camps are visible among the rocks and trees, including even pots and herbs, everything left to be found again by the same campers next summer. The beach extends at the end of a gorge, and this allows for an amazing landscape, fresh water from the river, and a path inwards where one can discover a few of the famous vathres and waterfalls.
A fisherman also introduced us to Fournos, a rather hidden small beach with emerald waters and a layer of thin pebbles protected by the shadow of a high rock. The bay lies somewhere between Pachia Ammos and Lakkoma village and can be reached mainly by boat, acting as a haunt for fishermen and the local youth.
Naturally, the inhabitants – like all island people in Greece and, I expect, other countries as well – pride themselves on having the most beautiful beaches in the world. In general, though, I was not impressed, especially when comparing to the plentiful alternatives offered along the lacy Greek coastline. I definitely enjoyed the sea in Samothrace, but I would not visit the island just for its beaches.
Samothrace could be considered a hikers’ heaven if only for a better infrastructure. Except for the path towards the Fengari peak which, we were told, is clear and marked (unfortunately I did not finally hike there to judge for myself), the rest of the paths are non-existent, overtaken by wilderness. One must climb on rough, steep rocks, go down treachery descents, or cut her way through vegetation that is so thick it is almost impenetrable while facing unstable grounds, dead-end paths, or snakes and other bugs that are living in peace amidst the rarely disturbed flora. Sudden, often unpredictable, thunderstorms of torrential wrath are an additional hazard that can turn a pleasurable experience into a tragedy.
So, hiking on Samothrace is not to be taken lightly and should not be ventured without proper physical training in advance, a local expert guide, appropriate gear, and excellent preparation as far as alternative routes or plans are concerned for cases of emergency.
The island is not densely inhabited, and its almost 3000 people are scattered among small villages. The Chora of Samothrace (or Samothraki), the capital, is by far the most picturesque village. Perched on the mountain slopes, its beauty is a pleasant surprise, compared to the rest of the settlements that are rather plain. It is worth spending there a few hours, ambling through the narrow alleys, checking the small stores with handmade artefacts, maybe visiting the Castle or Museum, and, for sure, marveling at the sunset from the big terrace over an afternoon snack, coffee, or drink.
Besides Chora, Kamariotissa (the port) is the busiest place with a few restaurants and coffee shops by the Cornish. Profitis Ilias seems to be famous mainly for its tavern Vrahos which is supposed to serve the best katsikaki (baby goat) on the island. The village is tiny but colorfully quaint; however, if one does not plan to stay for dinner, there is nothing much to do there, and a visit cannot last longer than a few minutes.
Therma village, named after the hot springs that are located close to the central kafeneio (traditional coffee shop), is on the north side of the island, around 15 km from Kamariotissa port. Although small, it is a standard landmark, since, besides the springs that attract many visitors, it is also close to the beach, the most popular camping spots, the trails towards Fengari peak, many of the most famous vathres, several good taverns, and the most important archaeological sites.
I was not inspired by the hot springs, despite their popularity. Other members of my group kept visiting frequently, even at night, to enjoy the healing powers of the warm water. However, I found the small, relatively dark and claustrophobic cement construction rather unpleasant, except for some interesting drawings on the walls, faded away by humidity. Still, I was curious enough to try. I stood at a corner to change into my swimming suit, only to turn and find the rest of the group members fully naked (at an unusual proximity to the busy road and the central coffee shop), interchanging between the hot water of the springs and the cold water from the hose in the garden, basking in the sun like happy lizards on the rocks. I am not very timid myself but, admittedly, the sight came as a surprise. On top of that, when I decided, still resisting the apparent nudist fashion, to get into the hot springs, I was advised that the locals do not like people entering the hot tub with their swimming suits because the fabric distorts the good energy of the water! Is it true? I really do not know!
Transportation on the island
Renting a car is inevitable if one wishes to explore the island thoroughly. Although there seem to be some buses connecting Kamariotissa with Therma and/or Chora, we failed to understand the posted timetables – or even the advice from the nearby locals. During the off-season, renting a car is not expensive (we rented for 30 Euros per day) and it is a much better option than using one of the few available taxis; I was told though that during July and August, prices rise significantly to even 70 Euros per day. One should note that there is only one gas station on the island (in Kamariotissa), so don’t start exploring (like me) without filling up!
The island also hosts many hikers who prefer to hike from one place to the other through the mountains (this was part of our group’s plan), enjoying the uniqueness of the landscape and a much deeper connection with the wilderness. Finally, hijacking can be an option – we tried this as well. However, a word of caution there: the locals are not as cordial as one might expect from people living by the sea; someone will eventually stop to help, but it might take quite some time and a bit of unexpected nagging on the way.
Many of the visitors prefer an alternative vacation mode, choosing to camp in the various places the island abundantly offers. The beaches (like Vatos) are a preferred location, along with the formal or semi-formal camping spots close to Therma and Fonias. The thick layers of leaves or ferns present a luxurious mattress on which sleeping bags are spread; the trees offer shade, protection, and support for the tents; there is plenty of fresh water around, and one can easily find basic structures left from previous campers to use during their stay. The experience is unique thanks to the fantastic natural environment, plus there is a tribal sense of community that not only connects the people who happen to share the place during the same dates but extends over time, among all those who stayed there leaving something of themselves behind. This cohabitation is shared with many animals, birds and, above all, bugs, and one is reminded of the sacred laws of respect among all beings under the sun. Rocks are not to be turned over irresponsibly as, underneath, numerous communities thrive or leave their eggs; the layers of leaves are similarly home to many insects that are going to continue living there for much longer after each visitor departs. Finally, one should keep an eye on the potential dangers: mosquitoes and ticks can be a menace; uninvited visitors may crawl into the gear, the bags, or the food. Despite all challenges, camping in Samothrace is one of my most precious memories: I would gladly return just for this experience.
I did not have a chance to explore the quality and prices of the available rooms and hotels. If I would have to rent, though, I would probably choose a place in Chora. It is not close to the sea, yet the view and the architecture of the village are magnificent, offering an incredible ambiance.
Food is good almost everywhere on the island. Being on a camping trip, I spent more time stirring with a ladle food cooked in a huge caldron over the hearth (or watching others during their culinary experimentations) rather than tasting the local cuisine in the taverns. So, I missed the famous Vrahos tavern in Profitis Ilias and maybe the best stuffed katsikaki – a loss that was not so unbearable since I am not such a fan of goat meat. Although Vrahos seems to enjoy the best reputation, opinions from the locals are divided since many insisted that other taverns, both in Profitis Ilias or other villages, also cook perfectly the traditional Samothracian dish. I did dine a few times however in some taverns, so I had the opportunity to taste the cuisine in Akrogiali in Lakkoma village by the sea; a fish tavern at the very far end of the port in Kamariotissa; and Gria Vathra close to Therma. The food was excellent every time, and in all three cases, the owners walked a bit of an extra mile for us, sharing their stories and insights. Prices were not very expensive, but not very cheap either as is typically the case in all islands that enjoy a rather short tourist season.
Various tips and Personal Favorites
Hunting for the perfect Greek breakfast
A typical breakfast in Greece includes a piece of cheese or spinach pie which we usually buy from a bakery. For a real taste of Greece, visit the Bakery-Patisserie “Salamanis” in Kamariotissa. The raw materials come from the local produce, the cheese ferments on the island, the pies and sweets are not the commercial frozen ones but of a home-made quality, and above all, you will be served by
Mrs Eleni who has one of the broadest and most welcoming smiles I have ever seen! Try the cheese pie, the spinach pie, the milk pie (galatopita), or the traditional koulouri. Life cannot get better than that!
Semi-precious stones from Samothrace? Yes, indeed!
The island hosts in its depths a real treasure of semi-precious stones. There are places one can find beautiful quartzes by herself – though, local guidance is needed since there are no formal paths to facilitate the search or help a visitor identify the spots. A better solution is to pass by the souvlaki restaurant of Nikos Vavouras in Therma. There, besides enjoying the traditional Greek fast food delicacy, one can admire (and maybe buy a souvenir from) an amazing collection of semi-precious stones of various sizes, colors, and styles, gathered by the owner of the restaurant himself during his expeditions on the island.
On Liquid Amber
Samothrace is famous for a large variety of herbs, flowers, and plants, many of which are endemic only on this land. As a result, the local honey has a unique taste: spicy, peppery, rough, exquisite, much like the island itself. One should not pass by without sampling – and buying – some of the local produce. I found the one sold in Nikos Vavouras’ multi-purpose souvlaki restaurant of an amazing quality and hurried to stock up for friends and family.
Time for Beauté
The local herbs have exceptional therapeutic qualities and are often used for the preparation of medicinal or cosmetic oils. I was introduced to Glykeria Vassiliou in Xylopotamos village who gathers the herbs and prepares the oils herself, offering a small range of purely organic products whose quantities depend on the harvest of the year for each needed herb. Not only these oils act as a soothing balm or as excellent gifts, they also bring part of the island’s aroma back to my home, making me fall in love with Samothrace over and over again.
Organic farming? We call it “love.”
The organic farm of Mr. Mihalis and Mrs. Lemonia is a touch of heaven on earth. Both of them welcomed us with a broad smile on their faces, offering us some of the last apricots and cherries of the year. I have never tasted apricots as delicious as these – and I am not even a fan! “Everything made with love has a good taste,” commented Mr. Mihalis, adding “we make love only in the garden, never in the bed,” as he laughed. We were introduced to Max, his huge pig, his dogs, cats, and ducks; we picked cherries from the trees, tasted organic olives spiced up in different ways, and home-made liqueur; we bought fresh veggies and eggs for our lunch and spent time chatting with both of them while Mrs. Lemonia was catering to their baby grandson, and a pot of stuffed zucchini was simmering on the stove, the aroma of dill wafting in the air.
Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored by any of the companies or professionals named inside. It represents my opinion based entirely on my experiences during my trip.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou