Indulge in some seafood, take a dip in the blue sea and climb a mountain, all on Karystos
It’s too good to be true.
A sleepy fishing town on an island, surrounded by sandy coves, that’s considered ‘too Greek’ for UK tour operators, but can be reached in only a couple hours from Athens’ new airport. And there’s more.
Karystos, at the southernmost tip of the Greek island of Evia – the second-largest in Greece – has a Ben Nevis-sized mountain to walk up, sprinkled with ancient and medieval monuments, and a bucolic, nightingale-haunted gorge to walk through, down to the sea. So do as the Athenians do – pack your rucksack, hiking boots, sleeping bag (sheets and pillowcase, actually) and go.
A bus from Athens airport takes you straight to Rafina, where the ferry is waiting to take you to Marmari. The cosmopolitan slickness and bustle of greater Athens quickly fade away as you chug across the blue Petalia Gulf towards southern Evia. In Marmari, catch the bus to Karystos which meets most ferries; otherwise grab a taxi.
Set in a wide, half-moon bay under Mount Ohi, Karystos – like any Greek town worth its salt – has a mythological founder, in this case the wise centaur Chiron, the tutor of Achilles. It also features on the list of cities that contributed ships to the Trojan War. But it’s not your typical postcard island town. In 1833, modern Greece’s first king, Otto, fell in love with the setting. Thinking it would make a better capital than Athens, he commissioned his favourite Bavarian architect to design a new town on a grid; it was briefly dubbed Othonoupolis before reverting to its ancient name.
Karystos is sleepy and laid back, the kind of place where fishermen sit chatting under the mulberries as they mend their nets. You can see all its landmarks in an hour – a handful of Neoclassical mansions and the Bourtzi, a seaside fort built by the Crusaders re-using bits of a Roman mausoleum.
On your first afternoon, follow your fancy. If it’s hot, go for a swim; choose between the sands that go on forever to the west of Karystos, or the more intimate coves to the east. You can peruse the small but fascinating archaeological collection in the Karystos Museum, located in the Giokalion Institution on the waterfront. Or head 2km north to the village of Kalivia to visit its 12th-century Byzantine church and the spanking new Environmental Station, featuring exhibits on southern Evia’s natural history and its mysterious drakospita (dragon’s house).
If you love wine, don’t miss the Ktima Montofoli vineyard, up in the old village – the beautiful gardens used to belong to the local pasha during the Turkish occupation of the island and are scattered with Roman ruins. The owners, Pavlos and Marianne Karacostas, also own Le Bistro in Athens and a chain of wine shops; try their exquisite golden dessert wine and dry white Myrtilos.
As the sun goes down, Karystos buzzes into life as its old-fashioned shops reopen after the long afternoon siesta. Join in the traditional pre-dinner volta (stroll) along the waterfront, stopping for an ouzo or the local speciality, tsipouro (without ouzo’s aniseed) and plate of mezedes – perhaps a tentacle or two of the octopi seen drying on clothes lines, served grilled. Greeks dine late, but as you have a mountain to climb tomorrow you may want to jump ahead of the locals and turn up at a taverna before 10pm. Indulge in the seafood, fresh from the pure waters, as well as the tasty free-range meats – especially lamb and kid – from the mountains.
Next day, get up early, purchase supplies (because of the springs, you’ll only need one big water bottle) and head for the hills. The lower slopes of Mount Ohi are dotted with villages, Byzantine chapels and old stone bridges linked by kalderimi (cobbled mule paths), first traced out in ancient times and used regularly until a few decades ago. The modern roads that have replaced them, however, are confusing. Save yourself the stress by taking a taxi up to Myli, a charming village of watermills in a verdant ravine.
Take the path from the church to the 13th-century Castel Rosso (Red Castle) – it takes about 20 minutes. Named after the red tint of its wind-chewed walls, it was built by the Franks and Venetians and later inhabited by 400 Turkish families. Today the only intact building is an Orthodox church. Below, arches of a Roman aqueduct leapfrog towards Karystos. The views are lovely – but there are better to come.
Retrace your steps to Myli, have a drink at a coffee house under the plane trees, then pick up the path to the refuge. In ancient times, Karystos exported Mount Ohi’s greenish-white cipolin marble as far as Rome, Egypt and Palestine. After three hours’ walking you’ll reach an ancient quarry the locals call Kylindri (Cylinders) because of its massive, 15m-long Roman columns; some are partially hewn from the rock, while others look ready for shipping. Legend says the marble workers heard about the fall of Rome and downed tools.
After another 90 minutes you’ll come to the forest road and a simple refuge. The Kastanalogos, the mountain’s primordial chestnut forest, lies just below; some trees have trunks even wider than the Roman columns.
From the refuge, walk for another hour up to the 1,398m summit of Mount Ohi, where there’s a church dedicated to the Prophet Elijah, and a fascinating drakospita. Dragon’s houses are unique to south Evia and this one is the best preserved – a rectangular room made of long, perfectly cut stones, roofed with enormous corbelled plaques that have partially collapsed.
They are so remarkable the locals once thought dragons built them for their lairs; archaeologists date them from the 8th century BC (Hellenistic times). This one may have been a shrine to Hera, who famously made love to Zeus on this mountain.
In the evening, bonhomie prevails as the sun sinks behind the mountain’s shoulder, gas lights are lit and people share what they’ve brought for dinner – pasta, feta, olives, biscuits, a bottle of wine – before crashing in their bunks after a full day.
The following morning it’s a two-hour walk to the top of the enchanting Dimosari Gorge, where chestnut trees and giant ferns offer cool shade in the midday sun. Its 10km kalderimi was once the main highway for the remote, semi-abandoned villages of the gorge and the north coast. Alongside the path the river splashes, occasionally into beautiful waterfalls with rock pools – perfect if you need a quick dip. Goat bells tinkle in the distance. Bonelli’s eagles and peregrine falcons circle above. If you know where to look, you can find rare indigenous rock plants, orchids and wild peonies.
At the bottom of the gorge, in the hamlet of Kallianos, put your feet up in the Taverna Klimataria, where the simpatico owners will prepare you a lovely late lunch to enjoy with views over the sea before your taxi comes to take you back to Marmari and the ferry – and the noisy old 21st century.