Greece – Kos Town
I’m not a fan of cinema and admittedly, my tastes for the art is myopic and often kind of cheesy. Only two movies have impacted my life. The first, “A Walk In The Clouds,” prompted the planting of a vineyard and building of a tasting room in Iowa. The second, “Mamma Mia,” brought me to Greece. It was the middle of summer as I was staring with parched eyes at the descendant of one of the most famous trees in the world, trying to capture a small slice of the shade it offered. Thinking back to the movie, I kept asking myself, “Why isn’t Merle Streep sweating profusely in the movie?” I was on the island of Kos, Greece, where 2,400-years-ago, Hippocrates sat at the very same spot, teaching the art of modern medicine to his pupils. Today, tourists crowd Kos Town just for a glimpse of the infamous plane tree. While Dionysus and Athena can send a shiver of excitement down my spine, make no mistake about it; Hippocrates still rules the island where he was born.
When we arrived, we collected our rental car and found our small, friendly family owned hotel in Psalidi (Andromeda Hotel Apartments), run by brother and sister duo Gregory and Marietta. They suggested the Akrogialo Taverna, a family-run restaurant, for dinner. Akrogiali literally means “on the edge of the seashore” and with tables nestled five feet from the lapping water, ship lanterns from the marina twinkling through the dark and a billowy Mediterranean breeze, it was the perfect place to begin to discover Greece. We watched as Momma Koula and numerous uncles cooked traditional Greek favorites such as mousaka, calamari, dolmas and stifado, while peppering the air with their robust laughter.
The next morning we made our way towards Kos Town to explore the cobblestone streets, and stumbled upon ancient ruins of Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Byzantine civilizations. In fact, Kos itself is a living museum. With very few roped off areas on the island, it’s a place where you can walk amongst the ruins, sit on the mammoth building columns that litter the ground and touch the old mosaics that lie at your feet. The city is so old that it is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad.
Kos is divided into three archaeological zones: the Western, the Eastern and the Central zones. Our first stop was the Western zone and the Roman Odeon of Kos. Built between the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. it is an open-air amphitheatre once used for musical competions and readings. Although it has been restored after the devastating earthquake of 1933, you can still see the original nine rows of marble seats that were designated for the important citizens of their time, while the ordinary people used the granite rows that follow. Underneath the cavea lie a series of workrooms and tunnels. The Odeon is still used today as a venue for cultural events including the Hippocratia festival, which lasts the entire summer.
Located opposite the Odeon lies the Western Excavations. This part of the ancient city consists of many bathhouses with their splendid mosaics, the Stadium, and the Hellenistic Gymnasium known as the Xystos. We arrived early before the masses, and the place was somewhat eerie. As the kids scrambled over walls and strolled the stone paved road of Cardo, the silence of this once bustling area was overwhelming. Yet, as the early morning stirrings of Kos reached us, we began to imagine the ancient sounds of wagon wheels, water flowing through the aqueduct and ovens being lit to heat the baths.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, we headed off to find a place to beat the heat. Tiny white washed churches with their azure roofs dotted the landscape and after visiting several, we soon realized they usually have the best scenic views to be found on the island. Had we been without children, we probably would have spent the entire day seeking out these quaint and somewhat mystical places of worship.
We finally ended up at the Fish Taverna that sits high on the hill, overlooking Markos Beach. There we filled our bellies with the best pasta, complete with a wonderful Yia-Yia, who did the cooking in traditional Greek garb. This place was a little slice of gastronomic heaven.
Next, we headed down to the Aegean Sea. Markos Beach is an organized beach, meaning there were umbrellas, loungers and changing huts available for five euros. The beach itself consist of fine powdered sand and water at the perfect temperature. We spent the afternoon swimming and watching the paragliders hang in the breeze. But, the most memorable event of the afternoon: the expression on our 12-year-old son’s face when he didn’t know where to put his eyes when a lone topless bathing beauty walked by. Priceless.
The next morning, we began our journey within the confines of the Central Zone at the marina. We crossed over the Avenue of the Palms via the Phoinikon Bridge and entered Neratzia Castle. Situated at the entrance to Kos Harbor, its construction began by the Knights of St. John around 1436 in an effort to protect the city from Ottoman attack. Consisting of inner and outer keeps, it is believed that the materials used were taken from ancient archeological sites throughout the island. With interior moats, guardhouses and storerooms, it is an excellent place to spend several hours exploring.
After arranging for a day trip to Bodrum, Turkey via the ferry, we walked to the Agora. Consisting of ruins and massive intricately carved pillars, this used to be the main town market where people socialized and shopped. It was also where we found the double sanctuary of Aphrodite and the sanctuary of Hercules. Needless to say, my husband, the civil engineer, was amazed at the feats of construction that were managed in an age devoid of modern machinery.
In the late evening when we arrived back at the hotel, Marietta pulled me aside. “Tonight is the perfect night,” she said with a sly smile. “You absolutely must go.” I was immediately curious. Marietta handed me a map and pointed to a spot that read “Empros Thermi.” She explained that while packed with tourists during the day, at night it is quiet, and the most relaxing place on the island.
It was dusk as we headed out. A huge moon shone brightly while its silvery rays skipped across the tranquil sea. We parked behind a small tavern and began a long, steep descent towards the coast. As it turned out, the Thermi is a natural volcanic hot spring that emanates from deep within the sea bed. Surrounded by a circular outcropping of rocks that protects the springs from the Agean, we slowly made our way into the water. Sure it was a little smelly, but that was a minor inconvenience as we felt the alternating currents of hot, warm and cold water envelop us while languages from every part of the world whispered into the moonlit night. I floated there with my daughter, staring at the stars and recognized this for what it was; one of those sweet, once-in-a-lifetime moments and I declared, “You will remember this evening for the rest of your life and you will tell your children and your grandchildren about the magic you felt tonight.” That is how special it was.
The next morning, we decided to visit the main archaeological attraction where Hippocrates and earlier healers forever changed how medicine was practiced. We journeyed 3 km. outside Kos Town to the Asklepion. Tradition holds that the temples of Asklepios are always built by and associated with natural springs that were believed to carry the healing powers of the spirits from the earth. Situated on the slopes of Mount Dikeos, legend has it that the three levels of the Asklepion represent the body, the mind and the soul. The first terrace houses the hospital, medical school and lecture halls. On the second stand the temples of Apollo and Asclepius (son of Apollo, the Greek god of medicine and healing) as well as the priests rooms and baths. On the third level are the teaching rooms and the impressive remains of the temple. While the ruins are impressive, the views from this place are magnificent.
Much too soon it was time for us to return to Belgium, and as our plane sped down the runway for takeoff, I realized there were so many things on our list we didn’t see or do. We missed the nearby volcanic island of Nisyros as well as the island Kalymnos, which is famous for the harvesting of sea sponges. Somehow, we couldn’t find the ancient Roman House known as Casa Romana, the fortress known as Antimachia Castle, nor did we see the hilltop town of Zia. Yet, as I looked out the window watching Kos recede, I knew that someday I would be back to this alluring part of the world, only next time it wouldn’t be during the fiery days of summer.