The summer high season is drawing to a close in the Dodecanese, the white sea daffodils blooming in the sand, and I’m excited because one of the best times is about to begin.
The crowds are going home, leaving the beaches empty. The hills are calling out to be climbed once the baking heat has subsided, and you don’t have to carry so much water. There will be reduced prices available for accommodation, and taverna owners will have time to sit and talk.
The weather stays mellow in September and October, and the sea will be warm for swimming until December. But even throughout the winter there will be perfect days of warm sunshine. There will also be days when the rain falls in a deluge, flooding the villages and the stream beds, and bringing out the flowers and green shoots of winter, and the spicy aromas of grasses and herbs.
To celebrate the publication of my new book, Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese, I’m delighted to share seven top tips of places to visit on an autumn, winter or spring holiday. All these islands can be reached easily via connecting flights from Athens or a combination of flights and ferries, and tickets are cheaper and airports quieter when travelling outside the summer season.
The unspoiled little island where I live is a conservation area for wildlife, a haven of calm, and the beaches of Ayios Sergios, Tholos and Stavros can be reached in an hour or so of walking up the mountain from the port of Livadia and down the rugged and wild other side. Another spectacular route is to the abandoned summer settlement of Gera, overlooked by the steep face of Koutsoumbas (almost 500m high), and a return via the abandoned farms of Pano Meri.
The island of Nisyros was formed by the eruptions of a volcano, and it’s mind-blowing to walk down into the crater in the centre of the caldera for the first time and watch the steam emerging. The villages of Emborio and Nikia that sit on the rim of the volcano have celebrations in September and November. Visitors who only do a day trip miss the opportunity to sit and watch the sun set into the sea from Mandraki while the waves crash up on the sea wall.
The coast from Tigaki to Mastihari is a vast stretch of white sand beach, and once the hotels remove the sunbeds, you’ll have it to yourself. Behind the dunes is a shallow lake with the remains of the salt works that remained in use until the 1980s, and is now frequented by flamingos. In the distance is the forest-covered Dikeos Mountain; for walkers, a very special experience is to ramble the gentle route through the villages from Pyli to the pretty abandoned village of Haihoutes.
The busy town of Pothia with its elegant mansions comes as a surprise on a relatively small island, but Kalymnos had a successful trade in sponges until a hundred years ago, with some 300 boats travelling around the Mediterranean. The Neoclassical Museum is a treasure trove of quirky objects telling the connection between Kalymnos and St. Petersburg. Vlyhadia Bay is a delightful spot for a swim, though if you’re looking for adventure there are dramatic craggy cliffs in the north that make rock climbers salivate, and the challenging 100-km Kalymnos Trail.
Several excellent tavernas stay open year-round in the village around the Venetian castle, with its architecture that’s half Dodecanese and half Cyclades. By renting a jeep you can explore the further reaches of the ‘wings’ of the butterfly-shaped island, which narrows to a mere 100m in the middle; the rural outpost of Vathy with its natural harbour has been almost deserted since the 1970s, and you can stop at Maltezana at the excellent kafeneio to eat local cheese. The monastery of Panayia Flevariotissa celebrates on 2 February.
In the summer the stunning village of Olympos, built into the side of a sheer mountain looking out to sea, is bustling with day-trippers and shops, but from September reverts to being one of the most traditional places in Greece. The older ladies wear traditional village dress and the men play music on lyra and tsambouna while singing in mantinades, improvised rhyming couplets. After a big rainstorm, waterfalls and rivers flow, there are salamanders and myrtle berries, while clear sharp winter days are perfect for making the most of the network of trails to hauntingly beautiful areas of this remote and windswept landscape.
It’s always a treat to visit Rhodes town in winter, when the snow-capped mountains of Turkey can be seen across the water on a clear day, and the Old Town is peaceful for exploring its layers of history. But there is also a different world in the centre of the island, where villages such as Psinthos and Kritinia sit high on pine-covered slopes above the most productive farmland in the region. Embona is a wine-making village on the flanks of Attavyros, the highest peak of the Dodecanese, while Eleousa has an incredibly spooky collection of abandoned buildings dating from the Italian occupation of the twentieth century, including the villa built for Mussolini’s retirement and an old hospital for tuberculosis patients.
Just a quick hop from Rhodes are the islands of Symi and Halki, with their stunningly picturesque Venetian-style houses a jumble of colour around the harbours. Both have so much to explore in their high, hidden hinterlands, though: stone shepherds’ huts, the remains of ancient settlements and wine presses. Those are on the list of places I want to travel this winter (a very long list, including some new islands!) with my trusty canine companion, Lisa, and I’ll be hoping to write about them on my blog.