Vow factor: Life on the Greek island of Chios is worth celebrating

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The Independent Travel

For most of us, Greek islands are just for holidays – a week or two in the sun. If that is what you want, that's fine. But while it is true that several Greek islands have specialised in tourism and offer the quintessential white beaches and windmills experience, to go to a holiday island is to miss the two key roles Greece has played in our own European culture: civilisation and commerce. You only grasp that if you go to a working island. And the working island that best binds together these two traditions is a pearl of the Aegean called Chios.

Civilisation has been around in Chios (pronounced "he-oss") for a long time. Homer gives a good description of it (the island is one of the two places that has best claim to be his birthplace, the other being Izmir, a few miles across the water in what is now Turkey). Commerce has been around a long time, too, for Chios has long been a centre of Greek shipping. Its harbour was mentioned by Herodotus as having space for 80 ships. Its importance is location, being on the narrowest passage from the eastern Mediterranean to the northern Aegean and Constantinople.

Today, more major Greek ship owners come from Chios than anywhere else. While many of them now work from London, they keep family homes on the island. There is also a long tradition of islanders working as captains or merchants, setting up businesses around the world, and returning to their birthplace to retire. Half the jobs on the island are connected in some way with sea transport.

So why choose a non-holiday island for a holiday? We went for a wedding, and that was fascinating in itself. There is great charm embedded in the Orthodox form of the Christian wedding ceremony: the exchanging of crowns over the heads of bride and groom, the chanting, the throwing of rice and so on. Of course, that gave us an especially privileged glimpse of local society. Even so, the case for going to a "real" place as opposed to a holiday one is that you get to see how different societies earn their living and enjoy themselves, whereas if you go to a purely holiday place, you simply see what a tourist industry provides.

Chios is big or, rather, big by the standards of Greek islands. It is about 30 miles long, north to south, and about 15 miles across at its widest point. There is one town, bustling Chios Town itself (where half the island's population of 50,000 lives), plus a lot of villages of varying degrees of prosperity. So you need to rent a car to get around.

And there began one of the experiences that typified Chios for us. You don't need to queue up at the airport desk of one of the big car-hire chains and fend off the various efforts to sell you more insurance. Our car was delivered to the hotel on the first morning; there was two minutes of form-filling over the breakfast table; and since we were departing on an early flight, we were told to leave it at the airport, unlocked and with the keys in the glove compartment. Fear of theft or damage? Well, no, because you can't get away with stealing a car in a small society like that and if you did try, you would not be able to get it off the island. As for damage, the people who ran the car-hire company were acquaintances of the wedding family and this is a society where people trust each other.

The next special moment was in the port. It was the end of the holidays and the huge evening ferry to Piraeus was being loaded with cars. These were piled to the rooftop with all the stuff the islanders were bringing back to their other homes in Athens. The ships come right into the centre of the town, just as they did in Herodotus's times. Loading them was like a scene from a ballet. Our front-row seats were the bar across the road. The corps de ballet were the regular passengers who were pulling their loaded cars on to the ferry. The conductor was the ship's officer in charge of the loading. And the principal dancer was the driver of the tug part of an articulated lorry. He picked up container trailer after container trailer, swung them across the main street of the dock, then reversed each neatly into the narrow slots in the hold of the ship. Forty-five minutes later, the performance was over and the ship shot off into the night. Hard-working people – just as they have been for the past 3,000 years.

The final experience was a walk between two of the main medieval villages of the "mastika" region, Olympi and Mesta. Mastika is a gum that comes from the resin of a mastic tree that has grown on a corner of the south of Chios for thousands of years and won't grow anywhere else. The mastic, which falls in drops from cuts in the trunk of the trees, has been collected for about 3,000 years, and is mentioned in the writings of Herodotus, Hippocrates and Pliny. The mastic is collected, washed, dried and scraped by hand in the same way as it was back then. In ancient times it was prized as a medicine but now it has a string of other uses: aside from being chewed as a gum, it is also utilised in lacquers, perfumes, orthodontics and so on.

There are a number of marked paths on the island through scenery of particular interest. The one between Olympi and Mesta is particularly delightful. You start though fields, then climb up over scrub to a tiny church at the top of the hill, then back down on the other side on a medieval pathway to Mesta.

Mesta is the best-preserved of these villages but when we arrived it was like entering a ghost town. It was deserted. Not only was every shop and bar shut; there were no people. The custodian of the church apologised and explained that we had come on a very sad day. The young man who ran one of the local restaurants had died suddenly, leaving a wife and two children. His funeral was today in a nearby village and everyone had gone to it.

This was, of course, troubling, but also in a way inspiring. Mesta must have a population of 1,000. No village in Britain of that size would shut completely to attend a funeral; no village on a holiday island would shut down for a day. I don't think that is because other places are more callous or less respectful to the dead. It is simply that an island such as Chios retains a sense of community and identity that much of the rest of Europe has lost.

We pondered that as we climbed back up through the olive groves to a picnic at the chapel at the top. And isn't that what holidays should be for? We ate well. We looked at Byzantine frescoes that were being restored at the island's most celebrated monastery, Nea Moni, which means New Monastery – inappropriate for a complex originally built in the 11th century. The main church was closed but they let us climb the scaffolding to look at the frescoes.

Other agreeable things? Well, another memorable meal at the Asterias Tavern on the road to Vrontados, where our friends live just north of the main town. And my spouse swam in the buff from an empty beach on the east coast.

If you insist on a more conventional tourist experience, there is one resort on the island, Karfas, which has great beaches and swanky hotels. But what makes a break special, surely, is when you combine having a good time with experiences that help you think again about other societies and what you might learn from them. You can only get that from going to a real Greek island rather than one that has been spruced up for the tourists.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Chios, although connections are possible at Athens with Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympicairlines.com) from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. Athens is also served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick and Luton; and Flyglobespan (08712 710 415; www.flyglobespan.com) from Glasgow. Aegean Airlines (00 30 210 6261700; www.aegeanair.com) flies from Athens to Chios. Hellenic Seaways ferries depart from the port of Piraeus, near Athens, for Chios (00 30 210 41 99 000; www.hellenicseaways.gr). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

GETTING AROUND

Car rental is available through the travel agency Travelshop (00 30 22710 20160; www.travelshop.com.gr). Car rental on Chios starts at €45 (£32) per day.

STAYING THERE

Grecian Castle Hotel, Enoseos Avenue, Chios Town (00 30 227 10 447 402; www.greciancastle.gr). Doubles start at €132 (£94), including breakfast.

Chios Chandris Hotel, 2nd Eugenia's Chandris Street, Chios Town (00 30 227 10 44401; www.chandris.gr). Doubles start at €160 (£114), including breakfast.

Erytha Hotel, Karfas (00 30 227 10 32311; www.erytha.gr). Doubles start at €70 (£50), including breakfast.

MORE INFORMATION

020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk.

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