Hidden Gems of the Aegean: Sporades

Welcome to yet another edition of our long-running hidden gems series! For long-time readers of our blog, it should come as no surprise that we once again chose to shed some light on less-explored islands of Greece. This time around we will discover the Sporades, an archipelago along the Greek east coast. Its name translates to "those scattered", as the 24 islands of the archipelago seem to have just been separated from the mainland due to their close proximity to Thessaly and Euboia. So lets take a look at 4 "scattered" islands that are definitely worth a visit.


...a love letter to nature

SamosAn amusing anecdote surrounds the story behind Alonnisos' name, as in the Middle Ages and until the 19th century, the island was known as Liadromia. It was renamed in 1838, as it was – mistakenly according to later research – identified with Halonnesus of Antiquity. In reality, the present island of Alonnisos was known as Icus or Ikos to the Ancient Greeks, and under that name, it is mentioned as having been colonised by Cnossians.

The island itself, like most of the Sporades, is unusually green which allows agriculture to flourish. Vineyards, olive groves, alomond and fig farms are aboundant in Alonnisos, and along with the expected love for fishing, they provide the raw material for exquisite traditional meals that you'd have a hard time finding anywhere else in Greece. Traditionally constructed houses with stone walls decorate the Old Town (Palio Chorio), which served as the island's capital until 1965, when an earthquake forced the majority of the local residents to relocate to the harbor village of Patitiri. In the old capital you will also find a small fort that used to protect inhabitants from pirate attacks.

Alonissos is surrounded by many isolated beached laid with pebbles, which offer the opportunity for scuba diving and sailing. Complexes of caves have formed on its rocky coastline, with the most prominent being the Blue Cave in the village of Agios Dimitrios. As a result, the ecosystem (especially in the north side of the island), attracts the endangered species of the Mediterranean Monk seal. Since 1992, the Alonnisos Marine Park has been created to protect the seals as well as other types of animals.


...a rare breed of an island

In the southernmost part of the Sporades, lies Skyros, an alternative vacation spot adored by locals. The biggest island of the archipelago, and probably the one with the richest history, Skyros used to be the home of Magnetes, an ancient Greek tribe featured in Homer's Iliad. Skyros' significance can be found all over literature; from the war of Troy to Sophocles' plays and even in modern poetry.

The south part of the island is mountainous, giving ground for exciting hikes up Kochila mountain, but as you move to the north you will find yourself in a dense forest. The island is surrounded by numerous sandy beaches with the temperature rendering them swimmable for the better part of the year. Various occupations have left the island filled with historical landmarks, such as a Venetian castle and the Byzantine Monastery of St. George. Skyros is also the final resting place of famous anti-war idealist Rupert Brooke. The grave of the English poet is prominently exhibited on the island.

Perhaps the most unique attribute of Skyros is its indigenous ponies, known as Skyrian horses. This protected species is one of the rarest horse breeds in the world, with only around 200 of them found on the planet. Although they are now critically endangered, Skyrian horses existed in vast numbers in antiquity, with some historians speculating that the species is the one depicted in the friezes of Parthenon!


...serenity redefined

Due to its small size, the island of Skiathos never played a major role in antiquity. However, it holds a dear place in the heart of Greeks as it was the place where the first flag of Greece was created during the War for Independence. Unlike the other Sporades islands, Skiathos is not really mountainous and as a result more than 60 sandy beaches lay along its coastline ending in a beautiful amalgamation of green and blue waters. The iconic Lalaria beach is a sight to see and worth the boat excursion necessary to reach it. The traditional caiques that take you there are usually manufactured on the island, on a small shipwright just outside the capital.

The serene landscape, is amplified by the pine forests that cover most of the island, making Skiathos an ideal destination for visitors looking to connect with nature. During the summer, the main town is lively, with a number of traditional taverns offering local dishes and especially seafood. The island is known for its nightlife, with many visitors going as far as calling it the Mykonos of the Sporades.

If you are looking for sightseeing opportunities, you won't be disappointed. Numerous monasteries, cathedrals and churches are spread around the island and there is even Bourtzi, a small fortification on an islet across from the old capital. Additionally, art galleries that range from folk to contemporary exhibits can be found in the main town. If you wish to experience an authentic Greek vacation away from swarming crowds, then Skiathos should definitely be on your shortlist.


mamma mia let me go...there

Every Mamma Mia! fan knows Skopelos and has dreamt of visiting the island one day. The Meryl Streep feature brought recognition to the island, which the locals wholeheartedly embraced as now numerous tours exist that take you to some of the most important locations featured in the acclaimed film. Skopelos however, is much more than that. Thought to have been founded by the son of Dionysus, the island was famous for its wine production. Although significantly reduced in volume now, the knowhow cultivated throughout millennia is still there and a bottle of wine from Skopelos is highly recommended...if you can get your hands on it. Delicacies like honey, prunes and katiki (a semi-soft cheese) are some of the more important local productions, as the island is slowly starting to turn to tourism to boost its economy.

Plenty of beaches surround Skopelos and depending on which part on the island you are in, they may be laid with either sand or pebbles. One of the most interesting sites is Sendoukia at Mount Karia where ancient graves are carved on rocks. Legend has it that the legendary pirate Barbarossa tried to plunder the island but the locals managed to defend themselves. The pirates who died in the battle were engraved in these ancient tombs, along with 12 chests of gold.

It seems to be no accident that Skopelos was chosen for a film adaptation of Mamma Mia!, as the island is one of the few places in Europe that is a matrilineal society. According to this custom, the line of descent is identified through the female ancestor and so do property and titles. Progressive ideas do not stop there though. Efforts are under way for Skopelos to become less reliant on fossil fuels, with solar collectors and wind turbines planned to be constructed to take advantage of the sunlight and northerly wind of the region.


If you wish to experience these hidden treasures of the Sporades yourself...