Traveling with Cretan friends, we boarded a ferry at the port of Iraklion bound for Karpathos — an island at the eastern corner of the Cretan Sea. After a boring eight-hour voyage, we finally drew near the island. Our impression was of a rugged mountain range thrust up from the sea (which it is), but it is also much more.Like many ferries that ply the Cretan Sea, the Preveli was quite large
Karpathos is a craggy, sparsely populated island with a unique characteristic: many of its people still live by traditions that others have forgotten in modern times. Some say it is the most truly Greek island in Greece. Our ferry docked at the main town of Pigadia, the only port that can cope with large ships. Actually, there are only two ports on the island — not counting shallow bays where smaller boats anchor.
Wind was the first thing we noticed when we stepped off the ferry. Homer, the famous epic poet, mentioned Karpathos in the Iliad, and called it “the windy island.” This is because the mountains and canyons focus and intensify the Meltemi winds that sweep across the sea during summer. We were told that Karpatians build their houses with doors facing away from the incoming wind.Pigadia harbor is the only one that can handle large ships
Our island guide (Eleni) was waiting at the dock. She took us to our hotel, where she explained our travel agenda. After settling into our room we went looking for a place to eat supper. Waterfront cafes seemed to be geared towards foreign visitors. As usual, we searched the backstreets for tavernas where local people eat. We found Mike’s Place, where the owner recommended Karpathian sausages — which were unique and delicious.Our coastal ferry to the port of Diafani was a small, well-kept wooden vessel
The next morning we rose early, had a quick buffet breakfast, and boarded a bus that returned us to the harbor. The Chrysovalantou, a well-maintained wooden ferry was waiting for us at the dock. Eleni stood at the gangplank to explain our voyage to the port of Diafani, and then onward by bus to the mountain village of Olimbos. We learned that our bus driver (also at the dock) was Eleni’s mother. The captain of our ferry was her uncle, and the crew were relatives. Family businesses are common in Greece — and especially on Karpathos.
The trip north to Diafani was educational. When we first arrived on the big ferry, the island appeared to be rocky and desolate. Cruising near the coast, we could see that pine forests covered the mountains and extended down to the edge of sea cliffs. It is much greener than we had thought.
Diafani is a small port town with a few remnants of its agricultural past
Smaller and less touristic than Pigadia, Diafani is proud of its rich cultural traditions. This was obvious in the people — especially women — going about their daily chores in traditional clothing. Karpathians are very conservative about their way of life and their clothing, and even their language — which includes several unique dialects (one of which is similar to the Cretan dialect).
While waiting for our bus, Eleni gave us a quick tour around the harbor area. One of more interesting sights was the “Fountain of Poseidon,” the base of which was ringed by hand-made tiles depicting traditional activities on the island, and tiles on the upper basin portrayed heroes of the past.The waterfront fountain depicts Karpathian heroes and traditional life style
The tile images depicted the clothing Karpathians wore in the old days. There have been changes in recent years, but many women still wear the traditional dress with colorful embroidered vests and aprons. On a nearby stone wall was a statue of a traditional woman looking out to sea, perhaps awaiting the return of her husband’s fishing boat.Sculpture of traditional woman looking out to sea (photo by R. Williams)
Eleni’s mother arrived with our bus before we had a chance to see more, so everyone boarded for the ride to the village of Olimbos. It was a short trip — only 5 miles on a new road— but rather unsettling. The road (which has no curbs or guardrails) twisted and turned along the edge of deep gorges. Between crags and cliffs, we passed ancient donkey trails and foot paths, as well as farming plots wherever there was enough soil to produce crops.The winding mountain road to Olimbos is not for nervous people
Olimbos is perched high on a mountain ridge, and the way up from the sea is steep and strenuous — as a protection against pirate raids. Many Karpathians abandoned coastal settlements between the sixth and 13th centuries, and built more defensible villages in the highlands. (Our own Cretan village was built on a mountainside for the same reason.)
Our bus had to park outside the village, because its steep and narrow lanes were designed for foot traffic and donkeys. With only about 400 residents, the village is a living museum, where traditional clothing, crafts, music and a local dialect are preserved. They used oil lamps and candles until electricity came in 1980. Because it is remote and has few lodgings for outsiders, the village is not clogged with visitors.Olimbos would seem to be a mountain climber’s ideal town
Above the village, along a mountain ridge, is a string of ancient windmills. There are 75 of them on the windy slopes near Olimbos. Most are ruins now, but four of them are still used to grind wheat and barley into flour for bread. During the hard years of World War II, Olimbos windmills and highland agriculture fed everyone on the island.The windmills are built along the ridge line, with full exposure to the wind
Walking towards the village, we quickly encountered a smiling woman in traditional clothing with a colorful head scarf. She wanted to interest us in some of her weavings. Many of the traditional folk costumes of Karpathos have been lost, except in the village of Olimbos, where inhabitants cling to the old ways.The first smiling shopkeeper we met in the village (photo by R. Williams)
Karpathian clothing is symbolic — more so in the past than in modern times. A hundred years ago, the costume revealed the person. It was a status symbol that distinguished an upper class person from those of the lower classes. Now most traditional costumes appear to be very similar, with multi-colored embroidered skirts, aprons and scarves. The design of clothing worn by unmarried women and girls is somewhat different from that of their mothers.
We strolled along a lane wide enough only for people and donkeys, and paused at the counter of a small cafe, where a woman was hand-rolling some type of pasta. We were told these were makarounes — a Karpathian specialty. When someone mentions “specialty” we begin to fantasize about flavor, but it was early for lunch.Making traditional makarounes to serve in her cafe (photo by R. Williams)
Continuing through the village, several of our female friends were attracted to a shop selling traditional headscarfs. Since we were heading towards the main church at the top of the village, those without head coverings for the church decided to buy.Selling a traditional headscarf to a visitor on the way to church (photo by R. Williams)
Farther up the lane, we were invited into a Karpathian house. Although many island homes exhibit art and handcrafts and family photographs, this one was actually more a museum than an actual living space. It displayed a marvelous family record passed down for centuries in the form of colorful embroidery, knitting, weaving, and woodcarving.The “traditional home” we visited was more a museum than a living space
We made our way up to the central square at the top of the ridge, where the impressive church of Kimisis ti Theotokou (the Assumption of the Virgin) stands. It is built in the Byzantine style and its interior is covered with murals dating from the years of Turkish rule. In the early days a much smaller village of Olimbos was located here, and fortified against pirates. In the center of the fortress was a church and a tower (now gone) from which watchmen scanned the western coast for the sails of pirate ships. Houses built on the western slope were not painted, so they would blend in with the mountain. None of the village houses had chimneys, which could also give them away.A beautiful church is located at the peak of the village
Climbing stairs to the square, we speculated that the bright colors of church and surrounding buildings were perhaps a celebration of freedom from piracy and the oppression these people had suffered for centuries.
Inside the church is a stunning display of gold and religious art
The interior of the church was a different world — filled with wall paintings, gold leaf, crystal chandeliers, religious icons, and countless candles representing the prayers of faithful visitors.
After visiting the church, we wandered downhill, investigating side alleys until we found a small cafe near the edge of the village. We stopped for iced coffee frappes and chatted with the lady who owned the place. She spoke English quite well, and had a good sense of humor. Members of our group began to walk by, and when we saw our driver we knew it was time for the bus to leave for Diafani.The owner saw us off to the bus after coffee frappes and conversation (photo by R. Williams)
The return trip to Diafani was not as anxious as the journey into the mountains, perhaps we were used to it at this point. When we arrived in town Eleni informed us that we had some free time to explore and dine before boarding the boat back to Pigalia. So we did explore the town, and spent some time in their little natural history museum. We discovered that a large part of Karpathos is a refuge for various endangered species.We found an inviting cafe nearly at the edge of town, just above the beach
After the museum, we walked along the waterfront almost the length of the town, until we found a cafe with outdoor seating and a view of the harbor. We looked over the menu, looking for something interesting. When the owner asked what we would like, we asked “Do you have makarounes?” She responded with an astonished “Of course we do!”Makarounes topped with caramelized onions and grated goat cheese became one of our forever favorites.
NOTE: There are multiple spellings of the name Olimbos. Because there is no “y” in the Greek alphabet, and the letters “mp” are pronounced as a “b” there is some confusion when translating to English. Depending on what reference you find, the name of this village may be spelled Olympos, Olimpos, Olibos or Olimbos (which we saw on several maps and road signs). This is not to be confused with Mount Olympus (home of the ancient Greek gods), which is in northern Greece.
Postscript: Accounts of our travels over the following days are published in the next few articles below, so that they appear in sequence.