The island of Spetses lies just off the eastern rim of the Peloponnese, the southernmost of the Argosaronic Islands. It was named by the Venetians the “Isola dei Spezie” (Island of Spices) because of its location on the trade routes, or perhaps because of its fragrant native herbs. A very popular holiday destination with upmarket Athenians, Spetses has been called the “Monaco of Greece”, and as in that Mediterranean resort, its affluent side shows itself in increasingly stark contrast with the contemporary culture of austerity. John Fowles set his 1966 novel “The Magus” in Spetses, and describes it as “a place so beautiful, quiet, and empty as to verge on the terrifying”.
The early inhabitants of Spetses appear in the Early Bronze Age, or first Hellenic period, around 2500BC, and there are also traces going back even further to the Mesolithic. Settlements from the mainland in the 17th century became active in shipbuilding, first for commercial vessels, then increasingly for warships, often converted merchant ships, which were put to good use in Greek-Turkish war, and in the revolution in the Peloponnese in 1769. In 1899, the wealthy tycoon Sotirios Anargyros, fittingly descended from an 18th century Spetsiot shipping family, returned home to build the Poseidonion Grand Hotel, Spetses’ first taste of the seasonal luxuries to come.
Spetses Town is the only town on the island, and it proudly displays the island’s long naval tradition in the old harbour overlooked by grand captains’ mansions, the marina with its luxury yachts, and the 1837 lighthouse, one of the first in Greece and still in use. The Dapia harbour area is the commercial centre where the nightlife happens. The highlight of the year takes place in the second week of September with the “Panaghia Armata”, a ferocious re-enactment of an 1822 naval battle between the Greeks and Turks, with concerts, fireworks, and culminating in the torching of a replica Turkish (of course) warship. The 17th century House of Bouboulina, a heroine of the War of Independence, is now a museum, with a fine Florentine ceiling, rare books, furniture, and porcelain. Hadjiyannis Mexis was another War hero, and his museum displays 4000 years of local history. The Cathedral of Ayios Nikolaos is where the War of Independence was declared on 2 April 1821, and where the body of Napoleon’s nephew Paul, who died in the War, was preserved in a cask of rum for 3 years. Only very few private cars are allowed on the island, so hired transport can be expensive; mostly everything however is within walking distance. Bicycles and motorbikes can be hired, and water taxis and tourist boats will take you to the beaches and to nearby islands. There are a few horse-drawn carriages offering leisurely tours of the island.
Agios Mamas beach in the centre of Spetses town tends to be rather crowded and slightly shabby; a better bet is Ayioi Anagyroi, a large beach on the southwest of the island. Agia Paraskevi is named after a nearby chapel; Zogeria beach is cooled by pine trees stretching down to the water. College Beach and Agia Marina, the most famous beach on island, have bars, restaurants and water sports. Vréllos (“Paradise”) is surrounded by beautiful pine forest, and is the starting point for hikes up to Profitis Elias, the highest point on island, with spectacular views.
From Athens’ Piraeus harbour, there are ferries and the hydrofoil; the ferry journey takes 1hr45min to 3hr15min, depending on the route. You could also fly to Kalamata and travel by coach, or hire a car to Kosta on the Peloponnese coast, and take the 15 minute boat crossing to Spetses. There are also boat connections from Hydra, Aegina, and Poros.
© Michel Koven