If you believe the guide books, then the Greek island of Karpathos – with its 300 churches, 200 beaches, 125 miles of hiking paths and eight months of glorious sunshine – has been a matriarchal society for a thousand years. And, indeed, it’s true that a family’s property is passed down to the eldest daughter, who usually takes her mother’s name, while the poor sons don’t get a look in.
Especially in the little village of Olympos, built on the side of a mountain in the 15th century to escape marauding Muslim pirates who liked to rape and pillage and then carry off a few locals as slaves. Women here still wear traditional embroidered black costumes, headscarves and fancy hand-made leather boots which can set them back 500 euros a pair but last a lifetime.
Matriarchs or not?
However, my guide Evangelia Agopiou, who knows the place like the back of her hand, isn’t convinced by all this matriarchal stuff. Shaking her head, she insists: “It’s still the men who rule the roost.” Then turning to Kalliope, an elderly woman who is baking what look like Cornish pasties in an open air wood-fire oven, she asks: “Tell me, who does the cooking and washing up in your home?” Kalliope smiles, carefully rearranging the spinach-stuffed delicacies which are called lahanopita in her oven, before eventually replying: “Why me, of course.” “There,” crows Evanvelina triumphantly. “See, it is the same everywhere!”
Except Karpathos isn’t the same as everywhere. The second largest of the Dodecanese, roughly halfway between Crete and Rhodes, it is, in many ways, the island that time forgot. The locals still speak a Doric dialect of Greek similar to what Homer used when he wrote the Iliad and Odyssey 800 years before the birth of Jesus. And, although long a favourite holiday spot for Italians, the island has remained largely undiscovered by British tourists.
People have been living here, though, since Neolithic times – the oldest artefact in the British Museum is the quite rude Karpathos Lady, dating back some 6,000 years. (Er, memo to British Museum chairman George Osborne: The locals would rather like it back one day so they can display it in the little ethnographic museum in their capital Pigadia.) Then along came the Mycenaeans, the Minoans, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans and finally the Italians before the island eventually became part of Greece in 1948.
Places of interest
As artist Popi Hatzidakis, who runs the Bonendis Arts Centre with sculptor husband Panagiotis, in the picturesque village of Menetes, tells me: “Every house here is a living museum.” Her home literally is. It’s been passed down to the eldest daughter in the family since 1734. Give Popi a big smile and she’ll be only too happy to show you round.
A few yards away is the 19th century Church of the Assumption, the most famous church on the island, with at least two miracles credited to its revered icon of the Virgin Mary.
There’s also a fascinating little museum where the delightful Erini, who describes herself as “the Lady of the Museum” enthusiastically shows visitors round.
Where to stay and eat
We’re staying at the extremely comfortable Konstantinos Palace Hotel in Pigadia. It’s the only sizeable town on the island and the seafront is packed with lively restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Night after night we head back to eat at the family-run Orea, near to the harbour. The staff are lovely while the food is always absolutely delicious – especially their Karpathian salad and the Karpathian sausages.
Around the island
We’ve rented a car and driving around the narrow, steep and winding roads through the mountains can be a bit scary but fortunately we only meet the occasional other car. On the other side of the island to Pigadia is pretty little Arkasa, a village that has been inhabited for some 3,000 years and once boasted a fine acropolis. Until electricity came in the 1950s, the 400 residents depended entirely on water power and every house had its own open air wood-fired oven.
By the beach, where now there is a snack bar and a volleyball court, Arab pirates once held a monthly slave market. So I can’t help wondering whether perhaps the good people of Karpathos are considering suing various North African governments for compensation. Many of those ancient pirates camped on the uninhabited little island of Saria, just a few miles north of Karpathos, and several of their stone-built huts still remain. We set off to explore them aboard a boat called the Anastasia with guide Nikos Farmakidis, who regales us with swashbuckling tales about those cut-throat days. Then, after a kebab lunch and with the boat safely anchored in a sheltered little cove, he leads a line of swimmers off exploring through the caves.
Another day we visit the little village of Mesochóri. Many claim it is the prettiest on the island with its white-washed houses and picturesque Vrysiani church, where they throw a three-day festival of feasting and dancing every September. We take coffee and nibble some delicious Karpathian baklava at a little café called the House of Gyros before heading to Lefkos on the coast and tucking into a gargantuan feast of calamari and other seafood at the Panorama restaurant. Then just when we think we have finished and can’t eat one morsel more, out comes a bowl of mouth-watering figs …
Our guide Eugenia promises up the most spectacular sunset we have ever seen. But, disappointingly, some rogue clouds interfere at the last minute. So that treat comes on our final night when we are given a tour of bougainvillea-covered Pyles by the village’s Australian-born president Vena Kamaratos. To paraphrase the old saying: Red sky at night, holidaymakers’ delight. Except it isn’t. For sadly we have to catch the boat back to Rhodes at 8.30am the following morning!
That’s one of the reasons Karpathos has probably slipped under the radar of British tourists. With no direct flights, it means a five-hour ferry journey from either Rhodes or Crete. Still, that has its advantages.
Short stay in Rhodes
For we break our journey home in Rhodes and spend a few days at the wonderful five-star Atrium Platinum Hotel, a short taxi ride outside the historic medieval old town at Ixia Bay. Nothing is too much trouble for the constantly-smiling staff and our room is Luxurious with a capital L. Not only do we have two bathrooms – one with a bubble bath – but instead of going to the hotel’s massive swimming pool complex we can just relax in our own little pool on our balcony. Now, that’s really worth splashing out on!
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