The incomparable charm of the South Aegean "Polynesia"
Top tourist destination with worldwide appeal
The South Aegean Region consists of numerous islands. Some of them big, some of them small, or just like dots placed in the emerald sea, each one with its own unique beauty powered by the area’s inconsistency itself, they are tiny private ‘paradises’ which have become a worldwide top tourist destination.
The illustrious charm of cultural Dodecanesian and Cycladic identity allows the travellers to experience the insular life and attracts millions of visitors every year. So, the South Aegean Region got the first place of Greek tourist industry for 2018, as from January to September had the most significant raise on travelling collections (up to 21,5%) comparatively to all other Greek Regions.
The landscape and the people
Before everything comes the sea. Separating and, at the same time, uniting people. Located close one to the other and simultaneously close to soars -from the coast of Evia and Attica to Minor Asia- the islands of South Aegean Region connected the locals with the foreigners, the seamen and the farmers, the pirates and the travellers, the immigrants and the repatriates, the excursionists and the tourists. Those islands is where populations came into contact, cooperated, learned about other civilisations and produced culture. Dodecanese consisted of 18 islands, Cyclades of 32 islands, with Rhodes and Syros as capital respectively, with a number of smaller islands and rocky islets that are scattered harmoniously in the Aegean. From the tiny Delos to the summit of Za at 1004 m. in Naxos, the biggest Cycladic island, and from islands Lipsi and Agathonisi to Ataviros mountain and its highest summit at 1240 m. in lady Rhodes, the “Polynesia” of South Aegean Region composes a place of sensational beauty.
The presence of the sea, with scarce rainfalls and cooling etesian winds (Meltemia) from May to September, affects the climate and determines the vast diversity of islands’ landscape. Except from forested areas and abundant greenery, mostly in Dodecanese, the vegetation is mainly low, the water is not much -a defining factor, mostly in Cyclades-, the land is rocky and fragmented. On this limited land, the islanders devised ways of preserving and supporting the precious water and soil. Dry-stones to contain the ground, reed hedgerows to be protected from the wind, stone fences to constrain caprine cattle. Olives, vines, wheat, barley, maybe legumes, a few vegetables and fruit trees are what they cultivate. Where a man hasn't intervene, we find brushwoods, oak and pine forests. So, around these limited sources they built the necessary facilities to cover the everyday production needs: threshing floors, wine presses, windmills, wells, cisterns, pens, dovecotes. Trails are everywhere too, which, for centuries, were the only way of going from one village to the other.
The natural scenery, combined with the agricultural structures found in every island of South Aegean Region, smoothed away the difficulties and the deficiencies and created a unique cultural and aesthetic set.
The architecture of instinct and foreign influences
The admirable vernacular architecture based on the instinct of the local builder was shaped by moderation, high aesthetic, functionality, continuous communication with the landscape, wise use of limited space (Santorini’s cave houses is a typical example) and of course the unavoidably close coexistence with neighbours. One-room houses, rarely of twos, with narrow openings at the front and mazy alleys among them is the signature elements of Cycladic architecture. The need to be protected from the strong winds –Meltemia– from the north during summer and sirocco from the south during winter –and, in old times, from the pirates–, was the reason for the building of beautiful fortified “Choras”, which were walled during Venetian domination (in some cases the external walls of the houses were the part of the fortification). They made the private places part of the public ones with “stegadia” passages, steps, recesses, dovecotes. The picture is filled out with the conqueror’s architectural cultural effect, the sea captains’ houses and the neoclassic mansions of rich owners as the trade flourished, just as and maritime navigation did in 19th century, in places like in Vaporia in Ermoupoli of Syros.
The role of Dodecanese in course of History was complex. Really close to the Asia Minor coast and with a number of conquerors coming one after the other, the Dodecanese architecture is affected by foreign influences. Ottoman elements like the mosques with their minarets, the Hospitallers’ architecture preserved in Rhodes Old Town, the Venetian architecture found at Palio Pyli of Kos, at Ano Symi of Symi, at Chorio of Kalymnos, the architecture of Italian occupation period (1912-1943). In addition, in the urban centres of Cyclades, the economic development led to the appearance of wonderful neoclassic mansions. Next to the grand architectural structures, lie the traditional houses. At their oldest version, they have only one room and a loft made of wood to be used as bed and later, a second floor is added along with a balcony. The buildings’ alternation reveals not just an aesthetic delight but also the historical course of Dodecanese architecture through the centuries.
The cultural narrative of Aegean
No other place represents so abundantly the people’s artistic dynamic, as it shaped during a 30 centuries period, than Cyclades and Dodecanese. Archaeological places like the entire island of Delos, the Acropolis of Lindos, the ancient Kamiros in Rhodes, the Asklepieion in Kos, the prehistoric town of Akrotiri in Santorini. Monasteries of unspeakable beauty like the one of Hozoviotissa in Amorgos and of Panagia Tsambika in Rhodes. Byzantine churches like the Church of Hundred Doors in Paros. Pilgrimages such as Panormitis in Symi and the church of Panagia of Tinos. The monastery of Saint-John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse in sacred island of Patmos. All of the above can be found in picturesque settlements of unique vernacular architecture. In addition, the urban centres with their imposing buildings coexist next to interesting museums almost in every island, where visitors can admire word-class exhibits like the Cycladic “idols” and the magnificent classic sculptures, but also Byzantine mosaics, tools, everyday-use objects, libraries with priceless pieces and heirlooms.
The Feast of the Dormition of Holy Mother of God in 15 August, the “summer’s Easter” is one of the greatest feasts of Orthodoxy. It is the meeting point of the piety with the celebration, of the praises and hymns with the violin and the santouri, of the oblation and requests for a miracle with dancing and joint meals in monasteries’ yards, of the overall joy with the revelry. Lucky whoever can visit the local religious festivals in the name of Holy Mother of God or whoever can taste the communion’s food made in large cauldrons by the community. Another unique experience is the one in Folegandros, the procession of the miraculous Icon from house to house for those to be blessed along with the the families living there.
The Aegean of the sea adventure
The charm of the Aegean islands is not limited to the past. The unique beauty of the Aegean sea is one of the major attractions for Greeks and foreigners. Not just for swimming into the sapphire waters or relaxing at the sunny beaches with full amenities of a wild or peaceful beach culture for all preferences. The sea around those islands is the perfect scenery for a whole series of activities during summer, as here in Greece it lasts from May to middle October: sailing, yachting, kite surfing and windsurfing, water skiing or magical cruises, island hopping, trips to unknown beaches and sea caves with traditional ships, visits to astonishing places like the caldera in Santorini or the mysterious Kalymnos of the sponge divers, seeing the incomparable beauty of Mylos beaches and the exotic Prasonisi in Rhodes.
The South Aegean Region, of Dodecanese and Cyclades, is definitely a unique destination of outstanding beauty, perfect hotel establishments and fascinating sea culture for visitors who wish the best for their vacations. However, there is something more: an emotive experience that takes more than one visit to feel it. You can dream of it, until the moment you come back here to admire the vermilion red sun diving in the Aegean sea.