Know Your Greek Islands: A Guide To The Dodecanese

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If you’ve ever longed to visit the Greek islands because of pictures like the one above – we urge you to look to the west, to the long island chain hugging the Turkish coastline, through towering Kalymnos, all the way down to mighty Rhodes…

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Welcome to the Dodecanese – a long string of island paradises that we’re so in love with that we created an 8-day tour around them.

Our next available Sailing and Climbing In The Greek Islands tour kicks off in the middle of 2018 – and just to give you a flavour of what’s on offer, we’d like to introduce you to the islands that take centre-stage and have a character all of their own…

First up – your point of arrival.

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Kos: The One Where Modern Medicine Began

A few miles to the southeast of Kos Town stands the ruins of a temple – an imposing structure made of terraces, porticos and free-standing columns. Over two thousand years ago, somewhere near here, the most famous physician in history is said to have received his training – just before going off and laying the groundwork for all modern medicine.

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The Asklepieion (medical centre) of Kos was built in honour of the Greek god of health and medicine, Asklepios – but by the time it was built, the island’s most famous medical student, Kos-born Hippocrates, had established the revolutionary idea that diseases arise from natural sources, not divine ones. Illness could therefore be attended to scientifically, alongside traditional religious practices – and Hippocrates taught diagnostic skills that allowed physicians to identify and treat the first stages of illness, laying the groundwork for preventative medicine.

The modern world owes him an incalculable debt – and this is the island where it all started.

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Pserimos: The One That’s Barely Inhabited

The above photo is a little deceptive.

A few decades ago, Pserimos had over 300 inhabitants. In 2011, it had 80, and today, around half that number of people live on the island full-time. Pserimos is one of the smallest inhabited Greek islands islands – and one of the most increasing empty.

If your idea of an island in Greece is “getting away from it all”, Pserimos has it covered. It’s a place of empty golden beaches and tavernas serving fresh fish – and at just 14 square kilometres, it’s small enough to stroll around in an afternoon.

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Kalymnos: The One With The Climbing

Just across the water from sleepy Pserimos, Kalymnos is where it’s all going on. There are 16,000 people living here (meaning it’s one of the busiest islands in the whole chain), and its dramatic, barren landscape largely unfit for agriculture – and just perfect for rock-climbing. It’s only been a few decades that the island has been open for business in this regard, and new routes up its gigantic mountains are opening up all the time, like this one up the side of Telendos, a mountainous island half a mile from the coast.

Rug & Rock’s tour of the islands spends two days on Kalymnos – which is nowhere near enough time to explore its 80 scalable crags, more than 2,000 climbing routes. You’ll climb until your legs are wobbly, sit in the harbour sunshine sipping on ice-cold beer, buy a few of its famous deep-sea sponges, and collapse happily back in the boat.

There’s too much to do on and around Kalymnos – so assume you’ll be coming back, and enjoy your taste of what’s on offer.

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Astypalaia: The One With The History

Located at the edge of the Dodecanese (it’s nearly inside the next Greek islands chain, the Cyclades), Astypalaia is an 11-mile stretch of rocky coastlines, pebbled beaches…and a truly fascinating castle.

Half of the island’s capital, Chora, climbs the side of a long hill, overlooking a bay that serves as the town’s harbour – and atop the hill is a castle. It’s from Greece’s Venetian period (13th Century), but it also marks the centre-point of the Classical era city-state of Astypalaia – and on the west side of the castle hill, Greek archaeologists recently discovered a graveyard for unfortunate infants and newborns, the largest and strangest in the world, possibly dating back as far as 750 BC.

The history in thick on this island. Watch your feet – you never know what you might find.

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Nisyros: The One With The Active Volcano

From the seaward side, Nisyros doesn’t look that different to its neighbours – the same stunning beaches, whitewashed villages climbing up slopes into a rocky interior. But climb those slopes, and the real nature of the island reveals itself in a 2.5 mile crater. Nisyros is a beautiful, unspoilt Greek island on top of an active volcano. Don’t be too freaked out: the last activity was an explosion of steam in 1888, and while it’s active, it’s showing no signs of erupting anytime soon.

Legend has it that under the island is the loser of an epic battle between the Giants and the Gods, put there by Poseidon himself – and the volcanic activity through history is the giant’s indignant breathing. More scientifically, Nisyros’s volcano is one of the youngest in Greece – and its underground activity fuels a popular thermal spa on the island.

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Leros: The One That Went To War

It looks sleepy enough – but Leros’s history is one of ships, armies and conquest. Greek proto-historian Thucydides mentioned its strategic importance for naval warfare during the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC) – and Julius Caesar was captured by pirates near here, and held for 40 days.

But it’s World War II that dominates. In 1940, the island belonged to Italy (as did much of the Dodecanese) – and the island became the second most-bombed of all the Greek islands, behind Crete, until the Battle of Leros on 15th September, 1943, that eventually became an Allied defeat and resulted in German occupation of the island. Five long years later, it was reunified with its homeland when the Dodecanese was reclaimed by Greece.

Today it’s blissfully peaceful – and you can hardly blame the inhabitants for wanting a quiet life after all that.

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Lipsi: The One That Trapped A Hero

Pity poor Odysseus. Desperate to get home, be reunited with his family and secure his property, he became trapped by Lipsi’s Calypso, a nymph that took a shine to him and imprisoned him for 7 years. Odysseus eventually escaped with a little help from the gods – Zeus despatched Hermes to drop by and give Calypso a thorough telling-off, after which she allowed Odysseus to build a boat and continue on his epic voyage…

The island of Calypso was called Ogygia – and while modern scholars and archaeologists are reluctant to locate it anywhere in the modern world (let alone in the Greek islands), Greeks will confidently tell you that it all happened on Lipsi.

Today Lipsi is locally famous for its dairy products, including its mzithra, a cheese made from sheep’s milk that’s a delicious breakfast snack if you drizzle honey over it.

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Patmos: The One With The Pilgrims

Patmos is a wonder – or, more specifically, an entire book of them. It was here that John the Apostle (also known as John of Patmos and Saint John) allegedly wrote the Book of Revelation, foretelling the Second Coming of Jesus. In 1981 the Greek government bestowed the title of “Holy Island” on Patmos, and it has remained a place of pilgrimage and worship – especially the site of John’s hillside cave, which is now a monastery.

If your tastes are more secular, you’ll find Patmos largely quiet and undeveloped, furnished with wooded hillsides and outstanding beaches. You don’t have to be religious to have a spiritual experience here.


Come sailing and climbing in the Greek islands this coming April, June, September or October.

Click here for more details.


Images: Irene Grassi; Kostas Limitsios; KF; Josh Montague; Anna & Michal; Kinder Travel Guide; anybookers; pug girl; John Karakatsanis; Kostas Limitsios; Pitichinaccio.

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