During a sunshine and sand holiday to Kos in May 2014, we visited the active volcano island of Nisyros. This largely untouched island maintains the tradtional Greek lifestyle, with cobbled streets, whitewashed buildings and little of the modern world in evidence.
We arrived in Nisyros via a small ferry sailing out of Kardamena, Kos. Our journey to Nisyros was very enjoyable, most people chose to sit on the top deck and enjoy the sunshine and cool ocean breeze. Upon arrival into Mandraki we could see numerous other tour ferries in the Marina. Our guide informed us that we would first be visiting the town of Mandraki, before heading up to the volcano crater later in the day. This was because all the other tours had already headed up to the volcano first, and by going later we could enjoy virtually having the crater to ourselves.
First we had Mandraki to explore. Our guide led us through the narrow winding streets, pointing out the various features of the town and explaining the history and culture of the island. The streets here were narrow, too narrow for cars, so there were mopeds and funny little three wheeled vans navigating up and down the alleyways.
Our guide told us the story about the Monastery, Panagia Spiliani (Blessed Virgin Mary of the cave)…. It is believed that one night a local farmer saw a light shining from an opening in the side of the cliff and he climbed down to explore. Inside the opening he discovered a cave and in the cave he found a beautiul icon of the Virgin Mary. He took it to the local church Panagia Potamitisas, but the following morning it was missing. The locals believed it had been stolen, however, that night the light again shon from the cave and on entering the icon was found again. It was taken back to the church, but again the next day it was found back in the cave. Believing this was a sacred icon and indeed a sacred place, a monastery was built above the cave and the icon is still displayed in the cave today.
We walked the 270 steps (not wheelchair accessible!) to the monastery, enjoyed the spectacular view out to sea and over the town, and then descended into the cave. Our guide warned us that this was a religious place and asked that people were kind enough to cover their shoulders and legs, stay quiet and refrain from taking photographs. Seeing as it was approximately 32°C when we visited Nisyros, not many in our party were prepared with appropriate covering, but never fear the monastery is prepared!… at the bottom of the steps, prior to entering the cave itself, there are hooks with robes on you can use to cover yourself appropriately. For a small donation you are also able light a prayer candle (something I always choose to do when I visit various religious site like these for my sister).
Inside the tiny cave the icon itself is on display, surrounded by lots of other religious artworks. We sat in the monks pews whilst our guide told us about the icon and various other works, including a particuarly nice painting, displayed on the ceiling, which our guide revealed with great pride, he had painted himself. Our time was limited in the cave as the monks were arriving shortly for afternoon prayer. Remember the cave is a tourist attraction second and a monastery first… check the accessibility before visiting or you may find yourself disappointed.
After leaving the monastery we had some free time to explore the town on our own and grab some lunch in one of the local restaurants. By this point it was really hot and most of the villagers had withdrawn into their houses for an afternoon siesta. All the houses here are painted white to reflect the heat from what the locals describe as the heat of the “cruel summer”. Therefore, we largely had the town to ourselves. We explored the little streets, little shops selling pumice stone and the small town square, before heading back down the the marina to meet our coach to head up to the Caldera.
The drive up to the mountain was winding steep and a little terrifying, but also fascinating at the same time. As we wove our way up the mountains, barely inches from the sheer drop at the roadside, we were rewarded with panoramic views of the island and out to sea, back towards Kos.
Arriving at the main crater site by vehicle we had to pay a conservation fee of €2EUR each to enter the site. This was unexpected as we hadn’t been warned, but was a bargain, and we had cash, so it didn’t really matter. The minute we stepped off the bus the smell hit us. There is nothing quite like the smell of a volcano, unless you share a bathroom with someone who drinks a lot of protein shakes!
Our tour of the site started with a talk from our guide, explaining the locations of the various different craters and the history and the current activity of the volcano. After this we were able to head down into the largest of the craters, Stefanos (Steve), for a closer explore of the crater. Our guide opted to stay at the top of the crater, explaining that he visits the crater reguarly for tours and prolonged exposure to the volcanic gases can be damaging to health. He stayed at the top and had a cigarette instead (!)
We descended into the crater on foot on the narrow foot path, with the stench of rotten eggs burning our nostrils and out onto the crust of the volcano crater itself. We had been warned not to go into the center of the crater where the ground was wet. Some people chose not to heed this advice, but I had heard stories of people’s legs slipping through into the boiling water below and thought better of it. All around the crater you could see little puffs of gas escaping between the cracks of the rocks, staining the ground yellow with sulpher crystals. After a bit of an explore and lots of photo opportunities our desire to escape the smell finally outweighed our avoidance of walking back up the hill, and we made our way back to the top. We had a drink from the cafe, which was very reasonably priced, and used the toilets, which were free, and then it was time to head back to the coach.
The final stop on our tour of Nisyros was the mountain top village of Emperios. With the sun beginning to drop down in the sky we wandered through the largely abandoned village and found a way of life which hasn’t changed much in practically 100 years. There are still a few residents in this tiny village, which is perched precariously on the top of the crater, and the ‘Balcony Taverna’ cafe offers particuarly good sweeping views across the Caldera.
The gases from the crater make their way all the way through the earth to the village, acting as a primitive underfloor heating to the houses. There is also a natural sauna which is quite pleasant, as by this stage the earth has filtered out the sulpher smell and all that comes through is the warmth. After a pleasant stroll through the vllage it was time to head back to catch our ferry and here the terror began!
Firstly, a rather brave (or suicidal) goat who choose to stand in the middle of the road, on a blind corner, on the mountain path, almost caused us to descend the mountain in a much quicker and dramatic fashion than was planned! However, we managed to brake in time and made it back to the marina. Unfortunately in the time we had been on the island, the wind had increased considerably and the sea was much rougher going back. A few brave (or suicidal) souls attempted to stay on the top deck for our journey… however, after the first giant wave crashed over the top of the boat about five minutes into the crossing, the crew had to help them back down to the inside deck where we spent a very hot, claustrophobic and stomach churning hour and a half travelling back to Kos…. check the weather report before booking is the moral of the story here!
All in all we had a wonderful day on Nisyros and I fulfilled a lifelong ambition to visit an active volcano.
If you suffer from respiratory health issues including asthma it may not be advisable to visit the crater (consult your doctor first). It is also not a particuarly suitable tour for people with mobility issues as you would have to miss out on both the monastery and the descent into the crater itself.
If you are travelling to the volcano crater book a tour which visits later in the day. Most tours visit the volcano in the morning so by heading there in the afternoon it is much quieter and you get the crater largely to yourself. Also it means you get to see the Panagia Spiliani (Blessed Virgin Mary of the cave) before it closes for afternoon prayers.
Check whether your entry fees are included in the cost of your tour if not how much they are going to be. You don’t want to be left stranded outside an attraction for hours while the rest of your tour goes inside because you weren’t prepared for entry fees.
Prepare yourself for visiting religious venues by carrying a scarf to help cover youself with should the need arise.
Be respectful of religious and sacred venues and abide to the rules of dress, conduct and photography.