- Written by Mike Fraiman
Samothraki, the Little Island of Great Gods
This ancient Greek island, with no airport but enough goats to outnumber humans 33 to one, takes hours to reach by ferry—and is worth every minute.
Story and photos by Dario De Santis
Art lovers may know the Nike of Samothrace, a winged victory statue displayed in the Louvre that, despite being headless, is one of the most celebrated sculptures in the world. This famous statue was discovered in 1863 on the namesake Greek island.
Being a lover of art and history myself, I knew the island—spelled alternately as Samothrace and Samothraki—would be a dreamscape for me. I wasn’t wrong.
As far as I know, the only way to get to Samothraki is by ferry from Alexandroupoli, a 43-kilometre journey taking more than two hours. Due to its small and predominantly mountainous territory, there is no airport in Samothraki; because of this, combined with its scarce maritime connections and tucked-away location in the northern Aegean Sea, Samothraki is well off the beaten path.
You won’t find exciting nightlife, crazy parties, ranks of souvenir shops or Michelin-starred restaurants, but rather traditional villages, empty pebbly beaches and pristine nature.
When I think of Samothraki the first picture that pops up in my mind is the bulk of Mount Saos covering nearly the entire surface. Although it’s no longer sprouting lava and ashes, the sight of Mount Fengari (at 1,611 metres, it's one of the highest in the Aegean) rising from the depths of the sea to the sky with its peak surrounded by clouds is nothing short of breathtaking. In Homer’s Iliad it is told that the sea god Poseidon sat on the summit of Mount Fengari (meaning “moon”) to watch the Trojan War ravaging in the Dardanelles.
The small port of Kamariotissa, where we stayed, is the main tourist hub, if I may call it so. Some shops, restaurants and hotels line the waterfront, offering a romantic sea panorama. In June, at the time of our visit, it was nicely quiet and I don’t think it gets much busier even in the high season.
Despite its small size, there are plenty of things to do in Samothraki. We had only two full days at our disposal, so we rented a car and tried to make the most of our short stay.
Our first stop was the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. As its evocative name suggests, it was one of the most important sanctuaries of antiquity, where, for more than 1,100 years, the secretive Cabirian Mysteries were celebrated, of which very little is known. It is been ascertained that they were dedicated to underworld deities predating even the arrival of the Greeks and that famous historical figures such as Herodotus and Philip II of Macedonia were among their initiates.
I felt emotional walking around the ruins of these once grand constructions, gates, walls, theatres and temples plunged in Mediterranean scrub. It was here that the famous Nike was unearthed. As the only visitors, with only the chirping of cicadas breaking the silence, we could perceive something mystical in the air, a sort of energy emerging from the earth.
The sanctuary, however, is not the only place in Samothraki where nature is truly inspiring. The mountainous landscape is the ideal setting for outdoor activities such as trekking, kayaking, rafting, biking and even paragliding. Nearly the whole north and eastern part of the island is covered with lush forests stretching from the slopes of the mountain to the sea, the same route dozens of streams follow to form spectacular waterfalls and natural pools.
We hiked the most popular route, through the gorge of the river Fonias (“the murderer”), from its mouth (don’t miss the medieval Genoese tower next to it!) to three waterfalls. The wooded walk is fantastic, but the part I enjoyed the most was when we dove from the cliffs into one of the pools and swam in the freezing water.
The village of Therma owes its name to the thermal baths present in the area. Instead of going to a spa (no time for that!), we had a coffee in the lovely cafeteria in the village square, under the shade of huge centenary trees.
Next we lunched in a typical, stone-walled taverna, so memorable I still remember the name of the place: Karydies. (To be fair, all the places where we ate in Samothraki had amazing food!)
Oddly for an island, the local specialty is not fish but goat meat. That will sound less surprising knowing that the goat population outnumbers the inhabitants by 33 to one (approximately 100,000 goats to 3,000 humans). An hour before our scheduled departure, we were still eating in a restaurant in Profiti Ilias, said to serve the best goat cooked in the oven of the island.
For defensive reasons, Chora, the charming little capital of Samothraki, was built like an amphitheatre on one flank of the mountain, with all the crammed, stone houses—whitewashed, of course—facing the sea. The outcome was astonishingly beautiful views you can behold from its winding cobblestone alleys, flowery balconies and terraces or from the vestiges of the medieval Gateluzi castle. Watching a fabulous sunset while sipping ouzo in a tavern in Chora was probably the moment I most cherished on this trip.
As you would expect from a Greek island, Samothraki boasts some stunning beaches and crystal waters. The north and eastern coast is quite rugged and wild, as a consequence the beaches here are unequipped, tiny, pebbled and hard to reach (some are actually accessible only by boat).
In return, this shore offers virgin spots and dramatic landscapes like the one we admired at Kipoi, with transparent waves washing up on shiny dark volcanic pebbles. Pachia Ammos, a long stretch of golden sand, is undoubtedly less spectacular but way more comfortable for sunbathing and swimming. Here you can even lie down on a beach chair and enjoy a beer or a frappe.
If you get bored of the beach and want some adrenaline, head for the chapel of Panagia Krimniotissa, located on the hillside right behind Pachia Ammos. If you have the nerve to drive the unpaved, winding and narrow road, you will be rewarded with the marvelous sight of this tiny chapel, perched high on a steep cliff dominating the area. You won’t see Troy, but you might still feel like Poseidon.
Dario De Santis is an Istanbul-based travel guide and Outpost columnist. He's written magazine feature stories on Istanbul (issue #93), Greece (#95) and Albania (#100). Check out more of Dario's work here.
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