Coves and caves, manors and mansions, proud pine trees and playful wild flowers make up the portrait of Spetses, a tiny island off the northeast coast of the Peloponnese, and just two hours away from Athens.
A “member” of the Sporades islands located in the Argo-Saronic Gulf, Spetses is the place to be if you’re young, beautiful and rich. It’s the place to be if you’re a prince or princess, a poet or a writer, an artist or fashion designer, newly wed or passionately in love, and definitively the place to be if you happen to possess a noble name. It is also the place to be if you feel you belong to any of the above categories.
It is, after all, the wealthy families of this island who “sponsored” in very large part the Greek War of Independence in 1821 with cash, ships and heroes… So yes, you’re bound to feel like royalty here as the island’s air of nobility leaves no one unaffected.
What’s more, a visit to Spetses is like taking a condensed Greek history lesson while chilling out on an island that exceptionally combines refinement with chic summer fun and recreation. Spetses is also ideal – among others things – for its annual sports events, including everything from swimming races and mini marathons to cycling and walking.
John Fowles, Spetses, and The Magus
“Of course, I went against all the dictates of common sense and took the Greek job.”John Fowles
And rightfully so, I would add, agreeing with celebrated British novelist John Fowles who took a teaching job on the island in 1951 that changed his life and fate forever. It was here, in the magic embrace of Spetses, that Fowles found the love of his life and the source of inspiration for one of his greatest novels: The Magus.
Today, Spetses is home to some 5,000 permanent residents, some of whom commute to Athens considering the proximity and the availability of year-round transportation.
But this 22.5km2 island is also a fantastic year-round holiday destination – something the Greek and international jet set are very well aware of. So fond are they of the island that they make it a point to visit at least once a year, mainly during the Armata celebrations, Orthodox Easter, the Classic Yacht Race, or the Tweed Run.
One could easily say that cosmopolitan Spetses represents the “peisma” or sort of stubbornness and persistence of the Greeks, embodying in its outstanding history all the positive traits of the Greek soul and welcoming the visitor with the hospitality that is so a trademark of the Greek people.
A Theater Setting of an Island
Your unique travel experience – or fairytale depending on your style – begins as the ferry or boat draws near. The magnificent mansions, the glorious Poseidonion Grand Hotel, the Anargyrios and Korgialenios School, the picturesque harbor set the scene of your next adventure in Greece.
Luxury yachts, speedboats, and sailing boats ‘mingle’ together with the fishing “tratas” on the waterfront, adding even more to the color of the scene. You will see no cars on Spetses, only horse-drawn carriages taking visitors on nostalgic rides, and bicycles.
Prepare to go on strolls – morning, evening, after-hours – enjoying the aura of Spetses streets as they meander among the magnificent traditional mansions along the seafront towards the Fanari and Panagia tin Armata (Palio Limani-Old Port). Spetses even had its own casino back in 1926, attracting an eccentric crowd of gamblers.
An Abridged Greek History Lesson
Marking one of the most important events in Greek history, each year Spetses holds the Armata – an absolute must for any visitor to Greece.
The Armata commemorates the critical victory of the Greeks over the Turks in 1822 near Spetses. The Greeks attacked their conquerors. The Turkish forces were planning to bomb nearby Hydra and Spetses in order to intimidate the fighting Greeks and break their defense at the Palamidi Fortress in the nearby town of Nafplio. The Turkish plot failed and instead the determined captains of Spetses and Hydra managed – although outnumbered – to set the Turkish armada afire in the waters of Spetses forcing the Turks to retreat.
It was one of the most defining victories of the naval battle, and to express their gratitude for Her divine intervention, the island captains dedicated the chapel beside the lighthouse on the port to the Virgin Mary and so it is named “Panagia tis Armatas” or “Virgin in Arms”. Every year, the Panagia is decorated to commemorate Greece’s victory on September 8, 1822.
So as you understand, September is the most spectacular time for Spetses as summer comes to a memorable close with the weeklong cultural and religious celebrations of the Armata.
The Spetses Armata
Two of the most impressive events are celebrated on the eve of St Mamas Day, when youngsters set afloat handcrafted boats adorned in flowers and lit with candles creating an awe-inspiring atmosphere.
This year the event will take place on September 7-13.
On September 13, the Armata events, including music, theater, exhibits, and lectures, culminate with the spectacular re-enactment of the burning of the Turkish flagship.
On Sunday, the town lights go out as vivid narrations of the historic events lead up to a model of the Turkish ship enraptured in flames. As it sinks into the water, an amazing display of fireworks lights the summer sky.
Make sure to book way ahead if you’re keen on attending the Armata events. Alternatively, you can arrange to stay at nearby Porto Heli on the mainland, where you can hire a boat and watch the Armata events from sea or rent at Costa, on the coast opposite the island, and go to Spetses via taxi-boat (10-minute ride).
Spetses & its Proud Mansions
The Anargyros Manor was built in the 1900s. Sotirios Anargyros took great pride in his homeland and displayed his love with great works. Anargyros emigrated to New York in the late 1800s and returned to Spetses a wealthy man bringing with him the cosmopolitan aura of the Big Apple. He reforested the island, created a road network, and built a water reservoir (1907). He funded the construction of the Poseidonion Grand Hotel, which first opened in 1914, attracting the world’s elite to the island. The luxury hotel reopened it doors in 2009, after five years of extensive renovation works.
He also financed the influential boarding school where Fowles taught – the Anargyrios and Korgialenios School – which operated between 1927 and 1983. Today it houses the island’s high school and tourist college.
Another must-see is Laskarina Bouboulina’s 17th century mansion, brimming with intricately designed era furniture and a laced wooden ceiling. Today it is a museum that still carries within its walls the aura of the secret War planning gatherings.
Bouboulina was born in a Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) jail where her mother (from Hydra), went to visit her captive father. She came into a massive inheritance from her two late husbands. Bouboulina used this capital to purchase and build ships, which she later donated for the cause of the Greek War of Independence. An astute entrepreneur, she would buy ammunition on her travels to foreign ports and then hide them in her home. She even supported her own expeditionary corps, men from Spetses whom she called “my brave men”. Despite her wit and spirit, Bouboulina was murdered outside her home in a family feud, when one of her sons eloped with a girl from the island.
A bronze statue of the valiant heroine overlooks the port of Dapia. Behind her, the Greek flag and the War of Independence flag of Spetses, which reads: “Liberty or Death”. The work was crafted by one of Greece’s finest contemporary sculptors, Natalia Mela (aka Nata, b. 1923).
Also of interest is the islet of Spetsopoula, which belongs to the Niarchos family. The shipowners purchased it from the Leonidas family and transformed it into a hunting retreat “stocking” it with animals from abroad and “attracting” select hunters for the game.
Swimming in Spetses
Despite its small size, Spetses has a beach – whether pebbly, sand or stone – for virtually every taste. Zogeria and Kouzounos are a nature lover’s delight. For water sports and much more, head on down to Vrellos, Kaiki, Xylokeriza or Agia Marina. If peace and quiet is your thing, check out Ligoneri or Kamares. Make sure to visit Agioi Anargyroi beach and the Cave of Bekiris, where legend has it women and children hid during the Ottoman raids.
✓ On the road again… Set off from the port of Piraeus via hydrofoil for a two-and-half-hour trip. Also from Athens to Costa, about a three-hour drive and then across to Spetses via a 10-miute boat ride.
✓ Settle down… in the luxury or boutique hotels or rooms on the port.
✓ Indulge in… fresh fish “à la Spetsiota” – a food preparation method named after the island – “kokkoras kokkinistos” (rooster in tomato sauce), and “soutzoukakia” (meatballs in tomato and cumin sauce). Spetses also has several restaurants serving fine Greek cuisine with a twist thanks to guest visits by acclaimed chefs.
✓ Don’t forget to buy… Spetses “amygdalota” (Greek macaroons) – Besides being delicious, these Spetses sweets are an excellent vegan option made with no eggs or butter.
✓ Truth or dare… Don’t miss the Armata Festival which takes place during the second week of September every year. The Spetses Classic Yacht Regatta to run on June 25-28, various theater camps, or the Spetses Mini Marathon, this year on October 13.
♫ And today’s post comes to a close with a favorite fresh, ‘summery’ Greek song titled “Kriti, Kerkyra ke Nio” (or “Crete, Corfu and Ios”) performed by favorite Greek singer Themis Adamantidis about a dreamy sailboat ride around the Greek islands.