Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Samothrace: Nike Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
If she were still standing in her spot with a head on her shoulders, the winged Nike would see a surrealistic landscape: trees, twisted in unnatural forms; pieces of shiny marble columns, scattered about like an enormous luxurious Lego set; a dark green mountain, drowning in a gray, still sea. The island of Samothrace, where Nike originally stood is everything that her current home, the Louvre, isn't: deserted, quiet, and fresh-aired.

It is not one of Greece's typical islands. The white houses with the blue windows of Halki, Santorini and Mykonos are nowhere to be seen; neither are the miniature sandy beaches or the endless rows of sea-side taverns. The charm of Samothrace is in its wilderness. One is surrounded not by endless pleasures but by the consequences of nature's elements.

At the centre of the island stands the Aegean Sea's highest mountain, Fengari. In the span of a few kilometres, it reaches 1,611 metres in height, simultaneously managing to change its colour a number of times: from the lush green of Sofia's nearby Vitosha mountain, through the sandy brown of Ararat or the Himalaya's peaks.

According to Homer, Prometheus observed the Trojan war from here. The god must have had eyes like a telescope, in the blind poet's imagination, as one can barely see the nearby island of
Gökçeada from here, let alone Çanakkale. Besides, there are no such epic scenes unfolding around here anymore, and all that can be seen from the peak is still water, white ships and the land meeting the sea at Alexandroupolis, about 50 kilometres north of here.

Samothrace used to be a religious centre once. Around 1000 BC, the Thracians founded a sanctuary for great gods here, which attracted visitors from Central Europe and Asia Minor. Later, the Hellenes slightly reconstructed the faith by multiplying the revered gods and, in this way, the worshippers.

In the period between 1000 BC and 200 AD, Samothrace was one of the Ancient World's key religious spots, along with Delphi, in what is today's Greece, Ephesus, in contemporary Turkey, and Perperikon, in Bulgaria. According to archeologists and historians, the Pantheon was originally headed by the Great Mother Axieros, and inhabited by her subordinate, the male Cadmilus, and the twin demons Kabiroi; a list of characters satisfactory to any feminist. The rituals were also obviously formed by a woman's hand – it is supposed that they consisted of institutionalized orgies and witchcraft.

When the Hellenes came in 700 BC, they renamed the goddess to Cybele, Cadmilus to Hermes and the ill-tempered twins to Castor and Pollux.

In the middle of that period, raised on a pedestal on the northwestern slope of Fengari, appeared the statue of Nike, one of the three most famous sculptures in the world. Standing on the prow of her shimmering ship, she was raised in the middle of a fountain, the Paleopolis Nymphaeum.

To the south of her, there used to stand the oldest round building of Antiquity ever discovered in Greece (fourth century BC) – it was the place where the most important rituals were performed.

Now, all that is left of the sanctuary are its foundations. The rest has been scattered around down the slope towards the sea, buried in the high grass. Down there, one can see the 30-kilometre long northern coastline of the island, with small pebbled and rocky beaches spread here and there.

During most of the year, this is the goats' front. They occupy the road by the sea; their headquarters by the tank whose gun, set in concrete, faces Turkey.

It appears that they are guarding the road from people, because as soon as a human appears, they run off as if faced by an enemy line. Later, two are sent back as observers, to watch the developments.

They always see you long after you've seen them and they run away
horrified, alerting of danger with the clink of bells and the clatter of hoofs. After a few similar encounters, one starts to feel as if they are wearing green helmets. But during high season – July and August, the goats retreat. The hippies on the island become far too many, and they occupy the goats' favorite spot, Lutra's mineral baths. From here, many a romantically-inclined attempt to conquer Fengari at full moon – a show of recklessness, which often leads to the involvement of the police and rescue teams. In Greek, Fengari means moon, and according to local legend, if one climb to the top at that time, one gets a wish granted.

It is recommended that those who doubt the dangers, go a little further to the east, to Fonias. During the 45-minute climb up along the river's ravine, besides a magnificent lake under a waterfall, they can see the remembrance stones of climbers who died in the region.

The southern coast of the island is contrastingly different from the northern one. There are a few sandy beaches, where the fields on Fengari's softer slopes end. If Samothrace has a disadvantage, it would be the lack of good taverns, which are otherwise very common in Greece.

The main reason for that is likely to be the population's scarcity, combined with the fact that the visitors are the type who like to make sandwiches from supermarket-bought pre-sliced bread. There is one larger store on the island and a number of chaotic corner stores. In the latter, bread is kept hidden in closed cupboards and no English is spoken. So, one can sniff sadly at the pale pre-packaged frozen bread rolls for a long time, before seeing where the Greeks get the aroma-oozing bread which they smugly carry around.

Still, one can come upon a good lunch quite unexpectedly. In a small, nondescript restaurant across the school's yard in Hora, for example, an old woman serves juicy meatballs with couscous in relatively-clean plates. Otherwise, the standard choice is the series of almost decent pubs along the coastal street of Kamariotissa, the place of entry and exit.

Despite this culinary setback, however, the exit is usually not enthusiastic. Unless your ferry is headed to another island.

When to go? Samothrace is known for its inconstant weather, so serious beach time can only be counted on in July and August. However, in June, there are only a few tourists on the island, and the beaches are almost empty.

How to get there? If you're going by car, it is best to get a ferry from Alexandroupolis. In the summer, the ferry goes twice a day and there's a better chance to find a spot. But if you're only going for a few days, you may want to leave your car on the mainland, as the transport fee may prove to be higher than a few days' rent of a scooter in Samothrace. If you do decide on the ferry option, places can be reserved by phone (05510-26721, Vatisis Agency, 5 Kyprou Street).

Where to stay? Most tourists stay in Kamariotissa - the island's port town, where there is a relatively large choice of inexpensive hotels and accommodation (varying between 30 and 70 euro/night for a double room).


I have read the article on Samothraki, it is very interesting.
Just one remark : there is a good bakery in Kamariotissa (on the road to Hora) and they also have a shop in Hora.
Early in the morning the wife of the baker is often there (in Kamariotissa), she can help you in five (5) languages (english is one of them).
(You may also ask the locals where you can find good meals.)
For a drink, I can recommand you the Hydra-pub near the harbor.





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