Kea: the gateway to the Aegean
Often overlooked in favour of its more popular siblings, Kea offers a direct introduction to the Cycladic islands with its important archaeological remains, its multiple natural trails, and its mixed architectural styles.
A sixty-minute sea voyage from Lavrio, Kea, or Tzia as it’s more popularly known among Greeks, is the closest of the Cycladic islands to the mainland. Despite its proximity, which brings more than its fair share of tourists, it is much more than a stepping stone to the Aegean and is deserving of a thorough exploration, preferably on foot. Kea is characteristic for the Cyclades, an archipelago renowned for the blue and white colours of the Aegean and a richness of flora and fauna
First impressions: Kea, a name the island has kept since antiquity, or Tzia, is a popular destination for Athenians. Korissia -the harbour – welcomes visitors with its bustling activity and an array of amenities.
The island is much more than a stepping stone to the Aegean Sea and you should dedicate some time to exploring and getting to know it. The road network, although not always paved, will take you nearly everywhere. If you prefer hiking, old paved paths from antiquity – most of them restored – traverse the island. The www.keapaths.gr website offers some wonderful tips for those who like to go on foot.
History at a glance
Korissia stands on the site of the ancient Greek city of Koressos, one of four powerful city-states on the island that formed a confederation along with Ioulida, Kartheaand Poiessa, nowadays known as Pisses. There is no trace of the glory of ancient Koressos, with the exce statue in the history of Greek art that was excavated in the area of Agia Triada and can be admired at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Back then Kea was also called Hydroussa (derived from hydor, water) since it had an abundance of spring waters, unlike its present arid condition.
The island was celebrated as the birthplace of lawmaker ristides the Just, one of the seven sages of ancient Greece known for his trict laws, as well as of the lyric poet Simonidis, the sophist Prodicus and many ther intellectuals.
The inland settlement of Ioulida, situated on a hill, as the ancient town was, mesmerises your gaze as it slides along the bare mountain slope. Here you have to leave your vehicle and continue into the village on foot.
Walking up the central alleyway, called the piatsa, to the Venetian castle provides a breathtaking view. The architecturally interesting sites include the neoclassical primary school, dating from the early 20thcentury, the Church of Agios Haralambos, patron saint of the island, and the neoclassical town hall.
The visit to the archaeological museum is a must – its exhibits include important findings from the excavations on the island, dating to the Early Bronze Age.
Ioulida is considered one of the best preserved traditional Cycladic villages, though not a typical one, as its architecture is influenced by the mainland in its tiled
roofs and decorative tiles (called akrokerama).
A marked pathway starting from the village of Havouna ends at the archaeological site of Karthea (2 hours), following the traces of the ancient road.
Karthea was the most important of the four city-states on the island, with town planning, a sewerage system, public buildings and continuous settlement from the Geometric period until the early Byzantine period. Its acropolis was distinguished by its great walls. Of note are the ruins of a Doric temple of Apollo Pythios by the sea.
But the excavation of parts of a temple dedicated to Athena is important for revealing the oldest surviving example of a peripteral temple in the Cyclades, a type distinguished by the colonnade (pteron) surrounding the main part of the building.
Quite rightly, Pindar, the ancient Greek poet, had a soft spot for the town, writing, “Even if it is a barren rock, I wouldn’t exchange Karthea for the whole of Babylon.”
Korissia – Otzias: The first thing you’ll come across is the popular beach of Korissia, always exposed to the north summer winds (meltemia).
The route along the northwestern coast passes through Yaliskari and its small organised beach in the shade of tamarisks, though a biological sewage treatment plant is hidden behind them.
The next village is Vourkari, known for its natural harbour and archaeological sites, but not for its beaches. Otzias offers a quite good, windless sandy beach with shallow waters, while you can find rooms for rent all around it. From here one passes the Monastery of Panagia (Virgin Mary) Kastriani and ends up in the golden beach of Spathi Bay (5km), where there is a taverna.
Pisses – Koundouros: From Ioulida you can reach by car the small attractive sandy beaches of Sykamnia, Orkos and Psili Ammos, considered the best beaches on the island. If you follow the southern road towards Pisses and its popular coast, after 5km you reach cosmopolitan Koundouros with its many coves. If you want more peace and quiet, follow the unpaved road leading to the beaches of Lygia, Kambi and Liparo. Here you will see the Cycladic landscape in its more authentic form.
You can rent a 4WD car in Korissia. Either by car or on foot, Tzia is ready to disclose its secrets.
From Ioulida, a tarmac road crosses the southern part of the island, which is covered with thick-grown oaks, before reaching the village of Havouna (18km). After that, rough unpaved roads lead to the isolated beaches of Stravotrahila, Mavia, Vlanti and Kaliskia. From Havouna follow the dirt road that runs along the southernmost end of the island to reach Cape Tamelos, a rocky promontory overlooked by an old lighthouse (8km).
Dating from the 18th century, this monastery, the most important on the island, is tucked away on a high observation post looking towards the islands of Andros and Evia.
Ancient tower in Agia Marina
On the road to Pisses, you can see one of the tallest ancient towers still preserved in the Aegean (4th century BC), built right on the crossroads that led to the ancient cities.
A section of a prehistoric settlement with traces of commercial activity was found in Vourkari, next to the church of Agia Irini; it is one of the most important in the Aegean and dates to as early as 3000BC. At Kokka there are deserted industrial plants dating to the 19th century, when the area was an important coal refuelling point for steamships.
South of Kea’s capital, the mountain is sprinkled with the largest collection of windmills in the Cyclades, evidence of the traditional “green” energy approach that past generations knew well. You can reach it following the path from Ioulida (30min).
Take the marked paved path from Ioulida to reach the Lion of Kea, an impressive sculpture hewed out of rock (6th century BC). Many popular beliefs keep the myth of the Lionta – as the locals call this stony lion – alive. One of these refers to the sprites who terrorised the ancient inhabitants, until Zeus sent a lion to get rid of them. In order to deceive the naughty sprites and to make them never return on the island, the locals carved the lion in the rock.
How to get there
Kea is the closest Cycladic island to Attica. Ferries sail daily from Lavrio (about an hourlong voyage). Information at Lavrio Port Authority, tel 22920-25249.
Intercity Ktel coaches leave from Athens at Heyden St, Pedion Areos, tel 210-880-8080. To reach Pedion Areos, take the green metro line to Viktoria station.
There are petrol stations on the road between Korissia and Ioulida. In Korissia you can rent cars and motorbikes.
Red Tractor Farm, a different philosophy in agrotourism, located on a three-hectare
plot. Tel 22880- 21346, www.redtractorfarm.com
Porto Kea Suites, tel 22880-22870, www.portokea-suites.com
fully equipped apartments in a lush garden, a few metres from the beach,
tel 22880-21335, www.anemousa.gr
Cavo Perlevos Studios, only the road separates the complex from the sea, tel 22880-21120, www.cavostudios.gr
Kastellakia Bay Villas, stone-built, independent villas, ideal for families or groups of friends www.kastellakiabayvillas.gr