British tourists often visit Greece to view its magnificent ancient sites, dating back thousands of years. But there’s more to Greek history than Plato and Aristotle. I caught a ferry to one of the country’s less well-known islands, which offers stunning architecture from the much later era, the 1800s. If you’ve always wanted to experience ‘the real Greece’ then I think that the island of Syros, 75 miles southeast of Athens, could be perfect for you.
I boarded the ferry at Mykonos and watched other islands of varying sizes and shapes pass by the lounge window. But I sat bolt upright from my slouching position when, with a jolt, the ship’s engine seemed to switch down a gear. We were approaching land. The tannoy announcement confirmed we’d arrived – or at least I could make out the word ‘Syros.’
The stretch of seafront immediately in front of me was not particularly impressive – just a collection of industrial and office buildings, the sort you might expect in any small port. To the right was a pleasant tree-lined promenade with cafes, but it was the backdrop the made the biggest impact on me. Two barren, rocky mountains rose to a great height directly behind the harbour and town. Cube-shaped cottages painted in pinks, tangerines and yellows clustered around these peaks and each was capped with a church – one Catholic, the other a blue-domed Greek Orthodox church.
I walked ashore and tried to follow the instructions to my hotel. The map that I’d printed out from Google seemed to bear no resemblance to the lanes and paths that faced me. I hauled my bag up the steep hill, which rose at right angles from the harbour and then, thankfully, zigzagged for a while. That made the hike seem easier, psychologically anyway. I climbed up steps and through quiet residential areas filled with honey coloured stone cottages and crumbling pavements. A few cats expressed a passing interest in me. Other than that, I didn’t see a soul.
Syros has a different feel to its near neighbours in the Aegean – Paros and Mykonos. This island isn’t entirely reliant on tourism and its small capital Hermoupolis is busy all year round as the main business and administrative centre of the Cyclades island chain. Nobody knows what Syros means. There are two suggestions. One idea is that it is derived from the word for rock, which does work! The island’s 86 km² are quite barren and the stony hills seem to just rise out of the ocean. Some locals believe the name comes from the Phoenician word for happy. I’d be inclined to go with that one.
My climb took me past a casino – well, that’s what the sign said. It looked more like a working men’s club rather than something you’d find on the Las Vegas strip. When my calf muscles had completed their ten-minute workout I arrived at my hotel, The 1901 Hermoupolis Maison, on a peaceful, residential street of historic buildings all with shuttered windows.
I dumped the bag and set off to explore. The downhill walk into town was shorter and easier. I paused for kids kicking footballs across the squares and for scooters to pass me. As soon as I had reached the central square I felt as if I had discovered a magical place that few people know about. Hermoupolis has been declared a Greek national landmark and it’s easy to see why. The centre of town features an impressive square overlooked by a grand marble town hall with imposing columns and huge windows.
The town doesn’t look Greek. It has the stately appearance of Italy with its classical and neoclassical buildings. The Italian influence dates back to 1204 when the island became a Venetian territory. The current air of grandeur stems from more recent events. In 1821 Greece started a revolution, which led to the country breaking free from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Syros remained mainly neutral and that brought an influx of people from other islands. It elevated Hermoupolis’ status and the town became Greece’s busiest port.
The city is appropriately named after Hermes, the Greek god of commerce. The influx of all that money meant there was cash for the arts and culture. I met up with Angel Samathrakis in the foyer of the town’s lavish Apollo Theatre. It was Greece’s first opera house when it opened in 1864 and this beautiful building was restored during the last decade. The theatre’s red velvet seats and ceiling murals of poets and musicians have been returned to their former brilliance. It is a really impressive building both inside and outside and again, it represents another close link with Italy. “It’s a replica of La Scala in Milan,” Angel told me. “It is a much smaller version because we only seat 350 people. La Scala takes 2,500.”
This vibrant town has five or six streets of interesting shops between the seafront and the square. There’s another collection of lanes filled with bars to the right of the theatre. There’s very little in the way of tourist tat on sale and the stores cater mainly for residents. Hermoupolis has been a trading centre for decades and its busy status brought it Greece’s first hospital in 1823.
The country’s first pharmacy also started trading soon after. I met with its owner, Nicholas Kwovaios. His great, great grand father started the business. Nicholas is the fifth generation to operate the business. Today, he sells modern medicines from a shop with a layout that appears to come from another time. It is fitted out with wooden cabinets and dozens of compartments that cover its walls. I spotted one drawer labelled as opium!
A few minutes walk from the chemist and past the theatre you’ll reach a small tree-lined square, which faces the St Nicholas Church. This is an impressive building with its two cream-coloured bell towers and the blue dome. The church was the product of wealth and trade.
My hotelier, Konstantinos, suggested that I should visit these leafy back streets filled with grand merchants’ homes. The rich owners of these mansions would once have hosted balls and waltzes back in the 19th century. Many of these homes back straight onto the sea so the merchants who owned them could view the vessels carrying their goods into the harbour. Or they could plunge straight down from their porches into the warm waters of the Aegean.
I walked past the beautiful blue-domed, Italianate cathedral and after 60 metres of strolling, the houses disappeared on one side to reveal a small bay, framed by a custard-coloured cliff face. It was 11am on a Saturday morning in October and around ten people were swimming off the concrete quay. It was a lovely way to spend the day.
I decided to catch a bus to the highest point of the town. I didn’t fancy the steep hike along switchbacks in order to reach Ano Syros, almost 600 feet above sea level. “It’s really beautiful,” Angel had told me. “Go and walk around and have a coffee,” he said.
This network of narrow lanes and passageways runs between brilliant white cottages and is the original mediaeval town settled by Venetians in the 13th century. At such an elevation, it was easily defendable. The town literally clings to a mountain peak and any attacker would be exhausted by the time they reached it! The narrow paths between these tightly packed houses are barely wide enough for two people to pass but occasionally the alleys break out into little squares with just enough room for two or three chairs and a shade-giving tree.
At the top of the town is the 17th century monastery and a whitewashed windmill. If you walk back down from the summit you’ll find tavernas and gift shops tucked amongst the labyrinth of lanes.
There’s also a museum dedicated to Markos Vamvakaris. He was born here and became known throughout Greece for his rebetiko style of music. It is like a folky type of blues and the words reflect life’s hardships .The museum is in an old house filled with his instruments and recordings of his television appearances.
The day was drawing to an end and my thoughts turned to dinner, so I headed back into Hermoupolis. The majority of the restaurants are along the seafront and watching ships arriving in the port offers a good spectator sport.
You can drink or dine under umbrellas shading the tables that line the sea wall. They are owned by the row of bars across the road, which stretch all along the promenade. There’s a couple of squares and pedestrianized lanes filled with outdoor seating too.
When I visited it was a mainly Greek crowd. I didn’t hear any other languages spoken. I heard plenty of music though. The locals were in the mood for a party and guitar strumming filled the cool night air. Although Syros is not a really touristy place I was surprised how stylish and trendy some of the bars were. I was amused to see a group of old men playing backgammon in a bar with its hipster-trademark oversized filament light bulbs, exposed stonework and chillout music soundtrack. Angel told me that Syros is a vibrant place because it is the capital of the Cyclades. People are employed all year round and the businesses are generally not seasonal, unlike other tourist islands.
The seafood was good but if you were staying here a long time, you’d need to find a sympathetic dentist. Syros has a very sweet tooth. The island is famous for loukoumi. It is a sweet made from gelatine, honey, fruit and sugar cut into pink squares and dusted in icing sugar. I went to sample it in a shop called Korres, just off the main square. I was corrected when I pointed out that it appeared similar to Turkish delight. “It is better,” I was told. It seems the old rivalry with Turkey is still alive. The island also produces halva pie. This sweet is made from thyme, honey and roasted almonds. It was too sweet for me.
Hermoupolis has a few museums. I visited the Archaeological Museum underneath the Town Hall. The staff spoke good English but I couldn’t really understand the relevance of the displays. It seems that some items are local while others come from neighbouring regions. It was a mass of old artefacts rather than a curated collection with a story. Around fifteen minutes walk from town there’s an Industrial Museum, although there was a distinct lack of industry when I walked past. It was closed.
The island does have a few sandy beaches and some of the villages outside the capital have small hotels and villas. Like I said, tourism is refreshingly low key. I didn’t get the feeling that sun worshipping is as important here as it is on some other Greek islands. You can catch a bus from the capital to the beach in less than thirty minutes and Syros’ public transport is cheap and reliable. Buses follow a circular route around the island.
My hotelier Kostantinos suggested the beaches at Kini and Poseidonia, which he said are more peaceful than those on the tourist islands. “You come here for culture not nightlife,” I was told. The summer program starts with a guitar festival in July. Also in that month there is a fifteen-day festival in the Aegean featuring dancing, acting and music with entrants from across Europe. Syros’ International Film Festival rounds off that busy month. If you love classical music then the Apollo Theatre hosts a music festival in mid-August and in October there are screenings of dozens of animated movies.
I was kindly accommodated in in the 1901 Hermopoulis Maison. It’s a lovingly restored stone townhouse built in 1850. Traditionally in Greece, the family of the bride was expected to give a proportion of their wealth for the marriage to proceed. In 1901 this house was given to groom Demetrius as a dowry, so he could marry Anetta. Owner Konstantinos has commemorated that date in the hotel’s name.
Konstantinos told me he worked in pharmaceuticals in Athens and was looking for a change. He bought this property on his first visit to Syros after he fell under the island’s spell. “We wanted to move away from Athens to a place that is real. We wanted to move to somewhere our lives would be better,” he told me. But he said it was a bit of a culture shock, moving to an island. Locals here are apparently quite forthright and ask questions about matters that would be considered private in Athens. Konstantinos has been asked about his age and earnings!
The 1901 is in a quiet and safe residential area just five minutes walk from the town centre and a ten minute stroll from the ferry port. I could look out over the ocean from my room and see vessels of all sizes and shapes come and go. The couple have thought of everything. There are Molton Brown toiletries and an espresso machine in each of the five rooms as standard. The fridge was stocked with complimentary beers and soft drinks – a nice touch. You can book the hotel at 1901.gr.
You’ll see a different side to Greece on Syros. I enjoyed the choice of bars and restaurants and I liked the fact it wasn’t crowded. I also loved the prices, which are much lower than the other Greek islands. There are no direct UK flights but you can fly to Syros from Athens and plenty of low-cost carriers link the UK and the Greek capital. Or take a ferry, which takes four hours from Piraeus, the port for Athens.