The island that mass tourism forgot
Have you ever wondered what the world was like before mass tourism made it nearly impossible to get “off the beaten track”? Back in the 17th and 18th centuries there was only the “Grand Tour”, undertaken solely by aristocrats and prohibitively expensive. By 1939, Thomas Cook was offering holiday flights to the South of France but it was only in 1950 that accessible mass tourism by air took off, when Russian émigré Vladimir Raitz chartered a weekly flight from London to Corsica.
Modern travel is a boon, but it can be a nightmare. Jammed beaches, ugly hotels… I could go on. But travelling around the Greek islands, I’ve realised there are some destinations that have avoided the worst of mass tourism and offer a break from modern life.
The Cycladic island of Tinos is a 30-minute ferry ride from Mykonos, the party island, but could be a million miles away. Greek pilgrims travel there twice a year, on March 25 and Aug 15 (avoid these dates), to walk half a mile from the harbour to the church of Panagia Evangelistria on their knees. Perhaps because the island is so important to the orthodox Greek and Catholic religions, this has put off mainstream tourism, and there are rigid controls against the construction of hotels and swimming pools. The result is something of a miracle.
Everything you eat and drink in Tinos will have been grown there, and the cuisine is superb. There are a lot of churches, windmills and, most famous of all, dovecotes that date back to the 18th century. There are more than 1,000 across the island.
I first encountered them at Tarambados – a magical place. My wife and I were alone as we strolled along beautifully tended streets, through shadowy archways and past walls decorated with marble plaques. No coaches. No souvenirs. The village was a perfectly preserved time capsule. The only people we saw, in a tiny church, were long since cremated and stacked up in wooden boxes as if in some weird safety-deposit vault.
We turned a corner and saw a dozen dovecotes across the hillside. Originally built to house pigeons, not doves – the birds provided meat and fertiliser – they are Venetian in style, like miniature palaces. Surrounded by orange and lemon trees, ancient bridges, mysterious caves… it was as if we’d wandered into a Tolkien novel.
This was the first of a series of unique villages we visited. In Kardiani we watched a wedding being prepared, and drank the local Nissos beer at Dimitra, a café perched on the edge of a twisting alleyway. It was quite crowded, though. Three other people were there. Pyrgos, the island’s largest village, has a cluster of bars and cafes in its exceptionally lovely square. We spent a few hours in Volax, watching a herb and cacti salesman doing not a great deal of business while his fat dog went mad in the sun. This village is famous for the bizarre rock formations that surround it, huge boulders that could have been flicked there by the gods.
Tinos Town is worth a look-in, and Panagia Evangelistria is unmissable. Here, finally, were the crowds. But with the chanting, mystical lighting and flickering candles, the atmosphere was intense, deeply religious.
Panagia Evangelistria in Tinos Town