Chios looks like any other Eastern Aegean Greek island. Especially when you arrive by boat or by plane and enter Chios Town as it is the commercial and political center of the prefecture, congested roads and busy traffic welcomes you. You might even think that you have arrived at a smaller Piraeus. During the hours of ferry arrivals small roads of the center around the harbor would be full of trucks feeding the never ending needs of the islanders. The distance of Chios from mainland Greece, albeit the existence many local industries, makes it necessary that most of the consumables had to be shipped by naval means. But once you get through the first impression the town welcomes you with an hospitality unique to the character of Chios. The town is full of touristic tavernas and stores which look and feel like the owners’ living rooms.
Located close to Asia Minor and Cesme peninsula Chios was inhabited since Neolithic times. The island owes its name to Genoese “Scio” and was famous in archaic periods with its snakes (hence the name “Ofioussa”) and pine trees (“Pityoussa”) and wines. After a troublesome 19th Century including Turkish atrocities following the liberation of Greece which was very severe as quoted by Lord Byron and no less than Victor Hugo, and an earthquake in 1881. Finally liberated after the Balkan Wars, Chios faced a sizable population influx during the population exchange of the 1920′s. Previously predominantly Turkish Castro (Chios Town) had to be extended southwards to meet the population surge.
Then the era of self-sustenance came only interrupted by the Second World War and the painful German invasion. Today Chios is home to two Greek merchant marine companies and island’s shipowners make up fifty percent of country’s and twelve percent of the World’s merchant marine. Chians play an important role in Greek American diaspora as well living mainly in New York, Midwest and London and still maintaining strong ties with their island. Hence apart from visiting Greeks, Chios is not predominantly a tourism attraction.
And that is the power of Chios. Commercialization is characteristic of Greece, and most Greeks are traditionally proud of their success stories, but in Chios it is rather low-tone. Locals and families immigrated from the mainland Turkey share the same life style and live in harmony. During my journalistic travels of the past, I have interviewed many elderly immigrants from either Smyrna (Izmir) or many different towns of the region and all talked about Chios as their homeland. Locals have welcomed all in the past as they welcome the occasional visitor or passer-by today.
But as in any other Greek nomos (prefecture), the economic crisis hit Chios very badly. Small businesses suffered the most which consist most of the population of the island. But hospitality and smiling faces prevail. You may not get lost in Chios even if it is too easy in the criss-cross labyrinth of island roads. On every corner you will find an helping hand directing you towards your destination. Recent history of Chios is full of examples of visitors that lost their belongings looked after by locals and tickets paid for by local travel agencies to go back home. In one of the mountain villages you may simply knock on the door to be invited in the house and enjoy a wonderful afternoon. Except for a few hotels like Chandris, towns are in abundance of small hotels or bed & breakfast type accommodations which provide very cheap but comfortable amenities. And of course, the food. The food…
Now it’s time to introduce you to some Chians. In Chios Town, on the seaside there is “Taverna ta Delfinia.” Owner Giannis and his wife are good examples of Chios’ simplicity and welcome. They serve great seafood as well as traditional Greek fare. They are old and dear friends but also on every visit they remind me of good old Greek hospitality no holds barred. Election day in Greece, or a lazy August afternoon you will always find them in their taverna ready to serve you the best food and informed chatter. And their grilled kalamari, to die for.
Just at the end of the small harbor, behind the big and ugly Chandris Hotel lies Hotel Kyma. Owners Theodoris & Güher go many extra miles to make their guests happy. Apart from being my home away home for many years Kyma and its sister hotel in beautiful Kardamyla are both your best choices to taste different regions of the island. Kyma is an old Italian mansion and the view on its spacious veranda is impeccable. Very cozy but rich breakfast is an added bonus. Kyma is reasonably priced and serves the visitors all year round.
Our last personality from the island represents Chios in many ways. Mr. Hadzelenis of Hadzelenis Travel, right on the corner of the harbor where ships to mainland dock, is the epitome of service industry in Chios like his Mercedes Benz dating back to 20′s. He provides you with any help you need from hotels to airline and ship tickets, to rentals and any information that is dear to your heart at any given point in time. You may leave your luggage at his office until your ship departs. You may ask him a silly question like I did back then: “where can we find a taverna with live rembetiko music?” Top of a winter in Chios that was a challenging demand. With his legendary indifference he immediately started to give instructions. In Chios if something doesn’t exist, it’s created from scratch when requested. People who are used to create Gods have no problem in meeting our one mortal wish or two. Hadzelenis is one.
Chios has many hidden gems around the island. If you travel north, Kardamyla and Marmaro are one of those. Maramaro is a nice seaside village where Kardamyla with its wonderful platia with a great plane tree and kafeneion is a place to pass a tranquil afternoon or taste local food one evening.
And then there are Mesta and Pirgi. Mesta features fully preserved medieval architecture with its Church of Paleos towering over its walls, stone buildings and arches. Again a huge plane tree provides shadow over its plaza full of cafes and tavernas. Pirgi has a distinctive graffito technique ornamenting the walls of all buildings in town. The town features two churches; the one in the center is Byzantine and glamorous while rather small, Agei Apostoli is monumental with its frescoes dating back to 12th Century. Limenas Mesta, the port is one of the hidden gems in Chios, a place to fell in love with, unique only to Greece.
Chios is connected to the rest of the world through scheduled ferries to Piraeus and twice daily planes to Athens airport. You may visit Lesvos and other islands by boat from the island as well. Daily boats also connect Chios to Tsesme in Turkey (45 minutes trip) where International Izmir airport is only 80 kilometers away through a shuttle connection.
Chios is home to peace and hospitality all year round. Visitors experience Greek island way of living unperturbed by unnecessary modernities while many cafes and hotels host free Internet services island-wide. Chios has a unique character that belongs to Ionia and Northern Aegean islands. We will talk about Chian cuisine in a separate article but suffice it to say here that if you simply go to holidays just to taste great food, Chios is in your neck of the woods.
Land of Homeros and Oenopides welcomes all travelers who has an appetite for joy and peace of mind.