Walking in an active volcano is not something you usually do on holiday!
When you look out of any south-facing window at The Tower House, you will see the active volcanic island of Nissyros on the horizon. It lies south of Kos and north of Tilos and Rhodes. The island is circular with a huge caldera in the middle – think of a Polo mint and you get the idea! There is not much tourism here, so it is very unspoilt. Daily ferries bring tourists across from Kos and Rhodes to experience the huge volcanic crater in the summer months.
There are not many places in the world where you can actually walk on the floor of a “dozing” volcano. Nissyros is still active; seismologists live on the island, taking daily readings of its rumblings. When I first came to Kos 20 years ago, an eruption was being expected “soon” but nothing has happened as yet! If it does erupt again, there won’t be anything dramatic to see from Kos because the lava will be contained in the huge caldera.
The top of Nissyros blown off during a major eruption about 16000 years ago. People say that Kastri Island was that very top and that it landed in the sea by Kefalos. I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that it caused a tsunami. If you look around the land at The Tower House, you will see lots of fossils of shells. We found these when we were building the House, and continue to find more. We think this proves that the waters came up as high as the House.
Kamari Bay, the shoreline below The Tower House, was originally the capital town of Kos island. “Kefalo” means “Head, or chief”, hence the name “Kefalos”. The tsunami completely submerged the town. If you go snorkelling you can still see outlines of buildings on the seabed. You can also see ruins of houses along the shoreline in between the tavernas and restaurants. A particularly good example can be found at the back of Faros Beach, which lies directly beyond Kefalos harbour.
Going into the Volcano
Anyway, back to Nissyros itself. From Kefalos Harbour, you can take a ferry to the harbour village of Mandraki on the north coast of Nissyros. This is a beautiful place to explore and is mainly level. From the harbour you can hire cars or take one of the coaches up to the volcano. The ride is spectacular, climbing higher and higher until you eventually enter the top of the caldera. As you come around the last corner, the land falls steeply away. The vista opens up and reveals a huge expanse about 2km in diameter.
The first time I visited Nissyros, I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the size of the whole caldera. It really is enormous. The road winds gently down to its floor. From here you can go down (by foot) into the very epicentre of the Stefanos crater. This is the largest of 10 craters on the floor of the caldera. You will be immediately struck by the smell of sulphur and the heat.
I recommend sturdy shoes or trainers for getting down into the crater. The floor is still very warm and geothermal geysers are still bubbling, so don’t get too close! You can crack an egg on the floor and it will cook in seconds, so be careful! Greece is not known for its health and safety measures but they have now put some warning tape around the most active geysers. An hour or so will probably be enough in the crater as it is very hot and smelly.
Where to Eat
Coaches will return you back to Mandraki village, where you can have lunch at any of a number of tavernas. Alternatively, take one of the little side streets inland. You will come across a beautiful square, enjoying shade from ancient trees. There are traditional restaurants here (which are also cheaper).
If you’re in a car, it is worth driving a little way along the coast to the harbour village of Pali. This is much quieter than Mandraki, and private yachts moor here. I can recommend Taverna Salonikios where everything is made fresh to order and is authentically Greek – and delicious!
Back in Mandraki, if you are feeling energetic, follow the signs to Ag. Panayia Monastery. This does involve climbing up quite a number of steps, but it is worth it. The sea views across to Kos are fantastic, and the monastery itself is really interesting. It is cut into the rock.
As you go in you will see hooks with what look like capes hanging up. It is polite and customary to have your shoulders and knees covered when entering a place of worship. If you are wearing shorts or sleeveless tops, please use them. Inside the monastery, you will find an icon of St Mary holding her palms up and forward. It is said that her hands are permanently warm, and have healing properties.
The Annual Festival
The festival of Ag Panayia (The Assumption of St Mary) is celebrated on August 15th each year. The whole island population goes up to the Monastery. Thousands of people from Kos, Tilos and Rhodes also arrive for the huge event. There is plenty of food, wine, singing, dancing and fireworks. If you are staying on Kos in August, it is well worth going.
The rest of the Island
Car hire is reasonable, but limited, so it is best to book in advance. Hiring a car gives you more flexibility and opportunity to explore the rest of the island. There are several mountain villages worth seeing, like Emporio, which was abandoned after the earthquake of 1933. Properties are now being renovated so it is slowly coming back to life. Nikia sits high above the Caldera and has amazing views into the craters. The narrow, cobbled streets and white-washed town houses are impressive. I like the colourful central square with a patterned cobbled floor – it is a good place to rest.
You’ll just have time to have a freshly-squeezed orange or lemon juice before needing to get back for the ferry. And you never know, you may be accompanied back to Kos by some dolphins!
A visit to Nissyros should certainly be put on your holiday list.