Greece, Nisyros: Heritage Island

When I was young, summer holidays were a week at my grandparents’ in a small mining village in rural Carmarthenshire.   I took every opportunity to escape the boredom of sitting around the house and walk the mile or so up to my uncle’s farm.  The farmhouse had no electricity, no gas, water was from a spring in the yard outside and the loo was a wooden plank in a sentry-box sized hut perched over a ditch at the end of the orchard.  Torn up newspaper on a string hanging on a nail did service.  No door.  If shy, you whistled.

There was no road access to the farm buildings, the milk churns were taken by horse and cart along a deep-rutted track to the wooden platform at the roadside to be picked up by lorry each day.  Bread was freshly baked when needed, sliced ever thinner as it became ‘firmer’ with passing days. Deliciously salty butter, churned on the stone worktop in the larder, was spread liberally.  Eggs were still warm from under the hens.  We had homemade jam on fresh-baked scones in the afternoon. Basic. Idyllic. The sun always shone.

At the time I simply enjoyed it.  It was only much later that I realised how privileged I had been to have a glimpse into the past, into how rural folk used to live.

Recognising how important it is for society to remember its past, the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans, 15 minutes from where I used to live in Cardiff, was established in 1947.  In the words of the introduction on its website, it is “part of a Scandinavian-inspired movement, concerned with collecting and preserving examples of a disappearing, primarily rural, way of life  …….. that had been in existence since the Middle Ages”.  The museum is not a collection of artefacts but of buildings – farmhouses, bakeries, shops, dovecots, pigsties – all dismantled brick by brick in their original location and moved to the 104-acre site.  It is a record of how ordinary local folk lived rather than the grand castles and fortifications, mostly built by Roman and then Anglo/Norman invaders, for which Wales is better known.

This interest in how people lived years ago has stayed with me.  Along with the active craters in the main caldera and the dramatic volcanic rocks, it’s part of the reason why I continue to find Nisyros fascinating.  There are old buildings and structures, ‘heritage’, wherever you go.  Indeed, there is so much to see, despite the ravages of time and volcanic eruptions, that as well as being known as ‘The Volcano’ it deserves the title ‘Heritage Island’ though thankfully it is not marketed as such.

At the harbour in Mandraki day-trippers from Kos get on the bus to the edge of the main crater and brave the heat and the sulphur smell to go down the rough path to the crater floor and walk among the fumaroles.  Most then walk the length of the town and maybe climb the steps from the narrow alleys to the monastery of Panagia Spiliani (The Madonna of the Cave).  Some opt for a more extended coach tour taking in the fascinating caldera-rim villages of Emborios and Nikia.  A few (very few) trek up the stone-paved kalderimi to the immense Paleocastro dating back more than two millennia and built of stone blocks each the size of a banqueting table.  All worthwhile and very dramatic.

But there is far more to Nisyros than meets the day-tripper’s eye.  Both on the surface and beneath it.  Trek into the mountains and the true scale of past settlement is clear.

The first and most obvious indication is the extent of agricultural terraces rising steeply to the tops of mountains on all but the most precipitous and rockiest slopes, taking every possible advantage of the richness of volcanic soil.  The high, narrow terraces would, could only, have, been worked by hand, triggering the thought:  “how many people did it take to work this vast area and where did they live?”

Even if you only stay on the trails which cross-cross the island the ubiquity of stone-built dwellings soon becomes clear, far greater in number and more widely distributed than on either Symi or Tilos, the other two nearby Dodecanese islands with which I’m most familiar.  On those islands the abandoned dwellings of the past are grouped in small villages such as Mikro Horio and Ghera on Tilos and Ghria on Symi.

Two questions.  Why are settlements so much more widely distributed on Nisyros than on other islands? Why have so many of them survived relatively intact, particularly given continuing seismic activity?

That’s it for now.  You will have to wait for the answers.

My academic background is in the location and morphology (form, shape) of settlements and this, together with my childhood memories, has triggered me to try to write more about the history of settlement on Nisyros and what can still be seen today.  Too much for a blog post, this is meant as an appetiser.  When I have completed my next book, I’ll be writing a short piece – not a full-blown book so much as an extended, illustrated, essay.  Which will be posted on this blog.

My next book?  ‘A Small Life in Twenty Memories’.   Working on the final chapter now.  Hopefully available on Amazon Kindle around Easter.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already, why not take a look at, ‘Greece Unpackaged: travels in a foreign language’ available from Amazon on Kindle.  Get ready for your upcoming summer.

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Icy art

Temperature in Canadian Banff, where I usually am at this time of year, is between a high of minus 20 and 25 in the afternoon.  Not quite so cold in the UK despite dramatic and completely unfounded headlines in some of the less reliable newspapers.  However, an overnight frost produced a work of art on the car bonnet one morning. Helps keep the spirits up in Grey Britain.



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Happy New Year

New Years Day 3 years ago and this was my room on the top floor of the hotel we were staying in in Canadian Banff, sky visible through what had been the ceiling and the roof.  Evacuated at 02.30 into minus 25 degrees Celsius.  Room totally destroyed along with all my stuff.  I had only what I stood up in.

Wishing us all a better start and 2020 vision for the coming year.


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Happy Christmas

For various reasons I’m not going to Canada this winter.  So no new shots of snow covered Rockies.  Hopefully, next winter.  However, given the greyness of Grey Britain at the moment, I can’t help looking back to winter and Christmas in the high mountains of western Canada near Banff.

Happy Christmas and Best wishes.



Minus 30 degrees – a sundog-day at Lake Louise

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Greece, Nisyros: The Island Underground

It’s not surprising that limestone Symi has an underground.  Nor is it surprising that with very little rainfall the caves seem to be all ‘fault-caves’ caused by rock movement along fault lines (see). The result is that they are too small and inaccessible to have any history of use by people or animals.  I know of two exceptions, the ‘Wendy’ Cave, and Skordhalos Cave.  The steeply-inclined Wendy Cave has been used by people only to the extent that rubbish has been thrown into it after nearby church festivals.  The much larger Skordhalos Cave was probably occupied in the distant past by people and animals and archaeological excavation of the floor may well be productive of interesting information.

Consisting entirely of lava, volcanic rock, ash and pumice, by contrast Nisyros has no natural caves save a handful of wave-cut shallow openings and enclosed rock-overhangs.  But it has a vast, fascinating wealth of historical underground living.  The reason?

Initially, thick deposits of consolidated ash and pumice facilitated excavation into steep valley sides for primitive cave-dwellings.  Volcanic soil being extremely fertile the island could, and did, support a very large population, cultivating thousands of narrow terraced fields in many cases stretching to the tops of mountains.  The soil was so valuable that when the original cave was extended these were built underneath the terraces with either cultivation or a threshing circle on the ‘roof’.  In a few instances the original cave was extended several times, some becoming fortified monasteries.  Both Siones and Armas are very good examples of this, with dwellings, accommodation for animals and a church within high enclosing walls with the cave subsequently used for cool storage.

At Nifios, a high level hidden ‘valley’ (really an inactive volcanic caldera), settlement dates back to Dorian times.  A cluster of dwellings are built into the crags with a church at the back.  Part way along the valley is a tiny underground vertical chapel.  It’s accessed by a low entrance hidden under overhanging rocks, a steep flight of stone steps, a central pillar carved from the rock, and an altar.

My guess is that there are thousands of ancient dwellings on Nisyros and possible as many as half of them are at least in part underground.  This year I revisited one which I find particularly fascinating.  With three rooms or chambers, one behind the other going increasingly deeply into the mountainside, it displays a number of characteristic features

The entrance chamber, probably about 4 metres by 3, has the remains of a still for distilling ‘tsiporo’, the local ‘raki’ and ancient amphorae for storage of grain or olive oil.  This room is still used by the local farmer, as evidenced by basic agricultural tools and paraphernalia – and empty plastic water bottles chewed by rats.

Behind that, with tree roots hanging down through the roof, is a larger room about 5 metres by 4.  More amphorae in here together with two ancient wooden hand-ploughs, one tipped with iron. But especially interesting is the tiny niche with an altar finely carved out of black volcanic rock.  I find this niche fascinating, hidden as it is from the eyes of persecutors during Ottoman occupation. The edges of the doorway are painted white, a characteristic of many small mountain churches. Inside is a cornucopia of carved stones stacked on the sides rather than part of the construction.  At least one is from another time and place, possibly dating back to classical times. It’s an example of the collecting of such pieces, to me implying that they were, probably still are, regarded as talismanic.  There are a number of other examples of such pieces on Nisyros, easily identified because the rock is of a type found nowhere on the island and they are shaped and carved.

Further back again is a stone wall with a low entrance into a large cave. The floor is rough-dug and sloping up towards the back, the roof is curved, low at the edges with many tree roots reaching down in search of moisture but finding none.  The whole inside of this place is powder-dry.  Not a place for arachnophobes.

I’m giving no indication as to where this place is. No video of the route I took.  No photo of the outside so it can’t be identified if you chance to walk past.  If it was in the UK it would be a folk museum.  Thankfully, here it’s probably regarded as just old farm junk.  Unless someone decides to take Angela Merkel’s advice and sell-off yet another piece of Greek history.  Sadly, that has already happened on Nisyros with the remains of the castle at Emborios being redeveloped by rich incomers, obliterating what was left of the original.  Apparently, the same fate is now befalling the fortified monastery of Siones where the 17th century frescoes in the church have been hacked off.

I plan to revisit this house again and do a better job of recording what’s there.

But here’s a taste of what it’s like inside.




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10 years. Still waiting for the sunshine




Check the route


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Greece, Symi: The satisfaction of discovering. And undiscovering

After a brief sojourn on Nisyros, back to Symi, revisiting familiar and looking for new places.  There is great satisfaction in discovering new places.  But that’s ‘discovering’ in the sense that Columbus discovered America.  It was already there, complete with people, who Canadians call the ‘First Nation’.  America was also already ‘discovered’ by the Vikings.  And over the centuries the Inuit sometimes got blown off-course in their sea kayaks and ended up a lot further south than they planned.

So, just like Columbus, it is patently obvious that I didn’t ‘discover’ anywhere on Symi.  The best I can claim is that I rediscovered them, though even that may be gilding the lily because the local farmer knows they are there and periodically visit.  Empty cartridge cases also show that hunters regularly go (in the hunting season obviously) to off-piste parts of the island no-one else visits.

This is about a trek I do, partly on established paths and kalderimia, partly off-piste to rediscovered places.

Set out through the winding alleys of Horio and out of the village onto the kalderimi leading up to ‘The Viewpoint’ Walk 1 of Greek Island Walks. After stopping to take in the stunning view down to the main harbour and over Pedi Bay, continue upwards on the kalderimi towards the tiny church of Agia Paraskevi (Photograph 4 of Walk 2).  Now that the damage of the November 2017 flood has been repaired, the church is open once again.  Take a moment to pop in and look at the icons of the eponymous saint, she who plucked out her eyes because her great beauty got in the way of her devotion to God so she disfigured herself.

A short distance after the church is a ‘new’ house on the left.  From here, the old kalderimi has been bulldozed and paved to provide vehicular access.  After a few yards a dirt path goes off to the right, winding attractively if somewhat unevenly up to the tarmac road above the army base.

There are a couple of ways onwards from here depending on how much tarmac you want to walk, but those options are for another blog and maybe a route on Greek Island Walks.  The route I follow (see the Relive video) avoids the tarmac for all except about 20 yards but is very rough and difficult to identify, especially after the flood. It winds its way down to an ancient stone olive press at GPS coordinate N36:36:57.3732, E27:48:38.4946.



A path leads via the top of the Nimborios gorge and then rises to the church of Agios Dimitris where all the options meet.  Take a break here, it’s the last shade you will get for the rest of the trek.

From Ag. Dimitris the looping bends in the bulldozed track can be cut, joining the remains of the path down to Toli beach, before re-joining the track at a much lower level.

To this point It has been fairly tiring because of the terrain and the distance covered, especially in the heat of the day, but here is where the interesting stuff begins.  If you hire a vehicle you can drive this far.  You will have missed an interesting walk but conserved energy for the strenuous bit ahead.

Soon after joining the bulldozed track down to the beach there is a bench by a wooden electricity pole at N36:37:15.3552, E27:48:10.7812.  Look carefully down and there is the unmistakeable outline of a large stone construction.  It’s built from the stone of the immediate locality and so unless you look for it, it simply merges into the rock-and-scrub background.  Once spotted, it’s unmistakeable. I spotted it a few years ago having passed it on numerous occasions previously, and scrambled down to check it out.  In that narrow sense, I ‘discovered’ it.


To get to it, it’s necessary to first of all scramble down the loose rubble bulldozed over the edge.  There is the thin remnant of a path just about discernible lower down the slope leading to one of the two entrances to the fortress at N36:37:13.9709, E27:48:04.2211.

The fortress, which I call Kato (Lower) Toli, is 36 metres by 20 metres and constructed of large stone blocks, once higher but now 2 metres high on the up-slope side, 3 metres on the lower side closest to the sea.  The seaward wall is a retaining wall, levelling the site.  It doesn’t command views of the sea because it’s deliberately located behind a small hillock which would have hidden it from view of approaching piratical craft.  The main entrance to the fortification is part way along one of the shorter sides, flanked by large portal-stones, the right-hand side when facing the sea.

It’s a steep climb back up to the track by the bench but an alternative is to take the vestigial path a short distance until it intersects a well-trodden goat path going leftward. This traverses the slope, crossing a shallow dry gully which offers an easier route back to the track, if you prefer rock-scrambling rather than slithering up loose gravelly soil.

Turn downhill on the track again and soon reach a short ‘cul-de-sac’ on the right used for dumping stone.  From here, N36:37:24.7887, E27:48:04.7649, pick a line going steeply up the slope towards the ridge-top.


One of the many lines through the vegetation is an old pathway judging by the terracotta shards on the way up.  Getting closer to the top the pathway becomes clearer and leads directly to another fortification at N36:37:28.4059, E27:48:07.4381.  I ‘discovered’ this one from Google Earth.  Particularly when I go ‘off-piste’, I plot my routes using a tracker on my phone and then look at the line afterwards.  On this occasion I noticed a feature which had straighter lines than was likely to occur naturally off to the side.  Next day I went to check it out and found another fortification.

I call this one Pano (Upper) Toli.  It’s also made from huge blocks of very local stone and so merges into surrounding rock.  Knowing it’s there, it can be seen from a couple of points on the bulldozed track to Toli but at a casual glance it looks to be just a part to the limestone crags high above.

This one is also 36 metres by 20 metres with the main entrance along one of the shorter sides, again the right-hand side when facing the sea.  Coincidence or significant?  The right -hand corner of the fortification is nearly 2 metres high and there are many similarly large blocks nearby so presumably the wall was once a good bit higher.

There are hundreds of terracotta sherds within the site, best I leave all in situ against the faint possibility that at some point it may be examined by trained archaeologists rather than enthusiastic amateurs like me.  It would be interesting to have them ‘aged’.

However, most strikingly within the fortification are two large ‘artefacts’.  One is a very precisely cut stone about a metre long, half a meter wide and 25cms thick.  There is a similar one built into the perimeter wall of a settlement below Agios Nikolaos Stenou near the Kokkinohoma area of the island but that one has a number sprayed on it in red so has obviously been recorded, presumably by or on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Service.  This one is unmarked so presumably not recorded.

I have a theory that such stones were cherished by local communities, regarded as talismanic, a link to the glories of Greece’s Classical or Hellenistic past. I have found collections of them, distinctly different from everything else, in hidden and subterranean locations on Nisyros  I’m sure archaeologists have a more scientific explanation.

The other large artefact I can locate rather more accurately. It’s a fragment of a stone basin carved out of basalt, deriving from Nisyros.  I can be sure of this because there is no such geology on Symi and there are many similar pieces on Nisyros where the rock is found in abundance.  Evidence of inter-island trading.

I moved the basin fragment closer to the large stone to make the ‘collection’ easier to locate.  They are at N36:37:28.4579, E27:48:0.0276.

Continuing beyond the Pano Toli fortification is a hidden valley which has no obvious drainage outlet, unlike normal valleys. Investigation shows it draining into a cave at the lowest point.  There are two areas of flat field within the valley which I guess were formed by channelling floodwater-borne-sediment.  There are signs of an ancient dwelling.

A friend and I plan to explore the cave next year.  It’s a fault-cave, caused by rock movement along a fault line.  With limited amount of water flow there is little likelihood of water erosion passageway.  In all probability, supported by comments from someone who lived in the area as a youngster, and exploration of the ‘Wendy Cave’ with a caving friend in 2014, I suspect that rock-fall has blocked it.   But we have to look.  There are two openings close together, either or neither of which may ‘go’.

The route I took back to Yialos is via this valley and the path around to Agios Nikolaos Stenou, then down onto Nimborio.  It’s shown on the ‘Relive’ video but would tax readers’ tolerance beyond breaking point if I continued this blog post even further.  So, I’ll describe that part of the trek another time.

Watch the video:

But before I finish, a brief further word about the conceit of ‘discovering’ places.  As I said in the introduction to this blog, it’s not really discovering because these places were already known.  In the case of the fortifications they were built by people. There are genuine discoveries, most notably by cavers and divers who go where no-one has been before.  I envy them.

But I envy more those few who ’undiscover’ places.  Most notable and, the cause of great envy on my part, is the ‘undiscovery’ of Sandy Island by a team of Australian oceanographers which included a friend of my daughter and her husband.  He actually stayed in our house!!!!!  The island has been shown on admiralty charts for over a century.  It was even shown on Google Earth.  But it doesn’t exist.  Never has.  It’s supposed to be where there is nothing but deep ocean.  It could never have been there.

Undiscovery, now that’s a real achievement.  A challenge for my next visit to Greece.  What can be undicovered on an island with millennia of history ‽‽

However, there may be an opportunity for genuine discovery.  A friend has found the entrance to a large cave.  We plan to go back next year and investigate that as well.  Far more promising! That could be a real discovery.  But not as unique and satisfying as an undiscovery.

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