Greece special: An island fit for heroes

The deities of ancient myth went island-hopping long before any backpackers arrived. Suzi Feay visits Samos, a tranquil retreat where one divine honeymoon lasted 300 years
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The Independent Travel

So why go to Samos? It's not the obvious choice of Greek island for a holiday, lacking the fleshpots of Mykonos, the nightspots of Santorini or the holy atmosphere of Patmos. There's not much development, few obvious tourist hotspots, and even local traditions are scant; for much of its history it hasn't even been Greek. Looking like a chunk of bread torn off the coast of Turkey, the island was depopulated at the end of the 15th century, remaining deserted for more than 60 years. Unlike other islands, Samos does not have its own distinctive customs or dances (though as a vegetarian, I was grateful for the delightfully named Samian balls - lentil fritters).

Although it might seem like a backwater among Greek islands today, this island of quiet charm has a rich and fascinating history dating back millennia. Despite its remoteness, green and tranquil Samos was of huge strategic and political significance to ancient Athens. A tablet unearthed near the Acropolis showed Athena clasping hands with Hera, symbolising Athenian gratitude for Samian loyalty. In mythology, Samos was the birthplace of the goddess Hera, who spent her honeymoon night here with Zeus. The night lasted 300 years, which perhaps explains why Samos has never been a top honeymoon destination.

The importance of Hera's cult can be gauged by a visit to the Heraion, close to the sea on the south-east side of the island. This vast temple attracted devotees from all over Greece and the near east in its heyday - the collection of ritual deposits in the archaeological museum in the island's capital, Vathy, gives an idea of the geographical extent of worship for the island's divine patroness. But the grandiose temple commissioned by the tyrant Polykrates in the sixth century BC was never completed, and the site became a useful source of building materials during the Byzantine period.

There's scarcely one stone left on top of another, but the huge area and the massive carved foundation stones give a sense of the scale. One solitary column has been reconstructed to hint at the building's awesome size. The more ornately carved stones are fenced off, and should you, in seeking a closer look, innocently rest your sandal on an unremarkable looking piece of rubble, as I did, you'll be roused from your classical reverie by a loud and shaming peep on a guard's whistle. The Samian attitude to all this archaeological bounty is nothing if not pragmatic; part of the Sacred Way leading to the temple is now under the airport runway.

The nearest sizeable town to the Heraion is Pythagorio, itself a fascinating mixture of archaic and modern. Echoes of the past abound; it was named (as recently as 1955) after Pythagoras, its most famous son. Tyrannical Polykrates made his capital here and used slave labour to improve the harbour; today's harbour keeps its ancient proportions. The 19th-century Logothetis tower, built by a local chieftain, dominates the shoreline, near to the beautiful Orthodox church. Winding through narrow sloping streets of colourfully painted houses, you come down to the lively harbour, where ho-hum, overpriced cafés and bars cater for the island-hopping crowd.

Pythagorio's harbourfront is great for boat-watching, though more quirky sights are to be found on the hills behind the town. Most impressive is the Efpalinio tunnel, an astonishing feat of ancient technology, again undertaken at the behest of Polykrates. (He got a lot done before the Spartans toppled him in 523BC.) Two teams on opposite sides of the hill bored a narrow shaft right through, to ensure permanent access to a water supply for the town. Such was the accuracy of the calculations that the two teams met in the middle only slightly out of true. Descent is via a staircase in a shaft: you can't walk all the way through the tunnel, which is just over a kilometre long, but as it's slippery, dimly lit and creepy. Visitors tread cautiously along a narrow, uneven ledge, with a second, lower tunnel visible through a grating. The scale of the achievement is stunning.

Nearby, the tiny monastery of Panayia Spiliani conceals another subterranean secret: a fissure in the cliff opens out into a damp, greenish grotto, sloping down to a tiny, icon-adorned shrine, lit by sputtering candles. Legend has it this was Pythagoras's cave (he gets everywhere), a pirate's hideout or the HQ of a sibyl. The monastery itself is in a beautiful spot, high on the hill with dramatic views over the sea.

Vathy (also known as Samos) is a pleasant if fairly unremarkable town, with lively markets and peaceful squares. Here you can organise an excursion to the ancient ruins of Ephesus in Turkey. Tiresomely, my trip included an indifferent meal, an excursion to a carpet factory and free time in Kusadasi's charmless streets. But Ephesus itself is stupendous, with its temples, theatre and long marble main street.

You might think nothing could impress you after that, but back in Vathy the archaeological museum, situated in leafy gardens close to the centre, has one star exhibit, a superb kouros (male statue); at 5m it's the largest ever found in Greece. It was uncovered at the Heraion; also on display is a family group of statues from the Sacred Way; replicas stand on the spot where they were found.

And Samos has one last attraction: its wine has been famous since antiquity. For Byron, however, it symbolised Greek apathy under the Ottoman boot. "Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!" he admonished in "The Isles of Greece", his call to arms during the Greek war of independence. "I dreamed that Greece might still be free ...." We did not to heed Byron but headed for unspoilt Kerveli beach and ordered a bottle of the golden nectar to wash down tzatziki and Samian balls and contemplate the purple coast of Turkey.

Suzi Feay travelled as a guest of Laskarina Holidays (01444 880380; laskarina .co.uk). Seven nights at Villa Haravaghy` cost from £465 per person, based on four sharing, including flights and transfers

Find your perfect hideaway on these islands

1. Skyros

East of Evia in the northern Aegean, this is a gem. Traditional charm meets legend where Achilles is said to have had a hideaway. You need determination to reach Skyros, but its remoteness has preserved the peace of the place. No wonder the island draws the yoga crowd.

Where to stay: Skyros Holidays (020-7267 4424; skyros.co.uk) offers seven-night courses at the Skyros Centre from around £445 per person, half-board.

2. Skopelos

On the western edge of the Aegean, Skopelos is idyllic postcard Greece. The coast is craggy but the interior is green. You'll find a near-Eden-like arrangement of orchards, olive groves and fig trees near the centre of the island.

Where to stay: Captain Yiannis House in the hills above Glossa costs £996 per person for seven nights, including flights and car hire, with Tapestry Holidays (020-8235 7788; tapestryholidays.com).

3. Tinos

The third-largest of the Cyclades islands is known as the Holy Island, and hailed as the Lourdes of the Aegean. It is a pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians honouring the Virgin Mary. On 15 August, don't miss the spectacular celebrations for the Feast of the Assumption.

Where to stay: Ta Psarakia (00 30 210 8228 942; tinos-island.info) offers traditional white-washed houses sleeping two to five from€45 (£32) per night.

4. Ikaria

The birthplace of Dionysus is quirky, charming and renowned for its odd timekeeping - shops stay open into the early hours. Ikaria's hot springs have long lured visitors, but the island's unspoilt rural charm is best enjoyed by the idyllic beach at Livadia.

Where to stay: Hotel Atheras and Kerame Studios (00 30 2275 031 434; atheras-kerame.gr) has doubles from €78 (£55) per night.

5. Samos

The birthplace of the goddess Hera and Pythagoras, Samos is steeped in history. It is increasingly popular with tourists but it's still easy to escape the crowds. Don't miss the archaeological museum in Vathy, which houses the largest known standing kouros.

Where to stay: Laskarina offers the villa Haravaghy (01444 880380; laskarina.co.uk) from £465 per person, based on four sharing.

6. Symi

A sleepy island near the Turkish coast, Symi is a day-tripdestination from Rhodes. It couldn't be more different from Faliraki, and its rugged beauty is well worth a few days' stay. Life centres around the pretty Yialos harbour, a string of 18th- and 19th-century houses, cafés and restaurants on the hillside around the bay.

Where to stay: The Hotel Aliki (00 30 22460 71665; hotelaliki.gr) has doubles from €65 (£46) b&b.

7. Tilos

What this small island lacks in sandy beaches and classical ruins has saved it from the fate of more popular neighbours. The slow pace of Tilos and its varied landscape from the cliffs and rocky inlets of the coast to its oleander-crammed interior, are now an increasing draw.

Where to stay: Laskarina (01444 880353; laskarina .co.uk) offers a week at the Olympos Apartments in Livadia from £300 for an apartment sleeping two.

8. Karpathos

Tucked between Rhodes and eastern Crete, Karpathos feels exotic and has a spine of rugged mountains. To the south is the popular village of Pigadia. Brave the unpaved road north and discover the village of Olympos spilling down the mountainside.

Where to stay: Cachet Travel (020-8847 8700; cachet-travel.co.uk) offers a week at the Gliko Oniro studios from £570 per person, based on two sharing, including flights and b&b.

9. Milos

Set in the west Cyclades, Milos has volcanic origins. Geologically dramatic, with strange rock formations and hot springs, this mining island has only recently sought to attract tourists. Even in the peak season, in the goat-nibbled west of the island you may actually get a beach to yourself.

Where to stay: Rent the Milos Windmill near Tripiti village which sleeps two to eight with I Escape (i-escape.com) from €190 (£135) per night.

10. Folegrandos

In its setting of bare hills dotted with almond and pepper trees, tiny Folegrandos moves at a slow place. It is also home to one of the prettiest villages in the Cyclades, Hora, its medieval kastro crowded with bougainvillea-draped homes.

Where to stay: The Anemomilos Apartments (00 30 228 60 41309; i-escape.com/anemomilos apartments.php) overlook the Aegean. Doubles start at €75 (£53) per night b&b.

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