Terrific Little Tilos

Feature by Willard Manus

As recently as five years ago, one of the major guidebooks on Greece had this to say about Tilos as a day-trip attraction: "Why anyone should want to visit for just a few hours is a mystery, for while it's not a bad place to rest up on the beach, there is remarkably little to see or do."

The guidebook also went on to kvetch about the island's lack of water, its barrenness, and its short supply of fruit and vegetables.

How wrong can a travel writer be?

Thanks to the discovery in 1986 (after a three-year search) of fresh-water springs by the Greek Geological Society, Tilos is well on the way to becoming a felicitous and verdant island, one of the up-and-coming tourist centers of the Aegean.

Many of its visitors are eco-tourists, especially those interested in bird-watching. Tilos is a stopping-off point for flocks of migratory birds, including such rare species as the Eleonora falcon, Mediterranean shag, and Bonelli's eagle. The birds used to draw hundreds of hunters each fall, but a ban was put in place in 2001 that seems to be holding.

The island, recognized as a Special Protection Area by the EU, is also rich in wildflowers and herbs. The sea around it is home to some of the last sea turtles and white Monk seals in the Aegean.

A four-hour ferryboat trip from Rhodes, Tilos is a long, high, narrow island whose beauty is not immediately discernible from the vantage point of its port town of Livadia. The terrain is mostly flat scrubland here, but once you head up into the steep hills behind Livadia, Tilos shows a more dramatic and appealing side. One passes the ruins of Genoese castles and finds a paved road that winds through countryside dotted with flocks of multi-colored goats, herds of cows, even the occasional bull. Kestrels wheel and dip in the hard-blue sky, crickets raise a racket in the clusters of olive trees.

The road terminates in the Shangri La-like village of Megalo Chorio, home to some two hundred souls. Megalo Chorio has half a dozen tavernas and cafes and is topped by a white-washed chapel and the ruins of a Venetian castle. Nestled in the center of a dazzlingly bright flower garden is a small, charming hotel, Miliou Studios. In summer, the town museum is open from 8.30 am-2.30 pm; among its exhibits are the bones of the midget elephants that roamed round the island five thousand years ago. (The bones were discovered in an island cave in 1974).

South of Chorio is another paved road which corkscrews down to a broad valley which irrigation has transformed into a green belt, a veritable oases. The Tropicana, a country taverna (with a few rooms for rent), sits by the side of the road, about half a mile from Eristos Beach. The Tropicana's specialty is revythokeftedes (chickpea rissoles).

Eristos, a horseshoe-shaped cove with wide, golden sand and a ring of orange, lemon and palm trees, is one of the loveliest spots on the island. Because the cove is located on the lee side of Tilos, the sea is generally calm and clear--and cooled by underground streams. Once an unspoiled beach (with gritty, rock-filled sand, though), Eristos has been developed in recent years--there are a several small hotels and tavernas, plus ubiquitous beachchairs, volley-ball and pedal-boats. Still, the site preserves some traces of its old charm and tranquillity.

Eristos can be reached by public mini-bus, car or scooter. The starting-off point is Livadia, of course. There are also excursion boats that make day-trips to Eristos and many of the isolated beaches and coves that dot Tilos's coastline. Arrangements can be made in one of Livadia's dozen-odd travel agencies, some of which also offer car and scooter rentals.

Another bus goes direct from Livadia to the uninhabited monastery of Ag. Pendelios, set high on a windswept spit of land in the northwest corner of the island. From here one can see all the way across to the neighboring island of Nisyros and even to Turkey's Taurus mountains. On July 25th each summer, a panayiri (religious festival) is held here. The three-day ceremony features chanting priests in black cassocks, children running and playing, live music and dancing, barbecued goat and lamb. Those in attendance sleep out outside, wrapped in blankets and robes.

Tilos is a walker's paradise. From Megalo Chorio, for example, it's an easy climb up to the castle and the remains of Pelagasian walls--twelve-thousand-year-old relics of the earliest known Greek settlements.

Livadia has some challenging hiking trails as well. One leads to a beach on the west (and wild) side of the island, another to the unpopulated parts in the south.

Another brisk climb leads to the ghost town of Mikro Chorio. Tilos's original settlement was built inland as protection from pirates. Abandoned in the 1960s because of its lack of water, the town is slowly coming back to life, with many of its ruined houses being rebuilt. Erinna, one of the least known of ancient Greece's female poets, lived and wrote here in the 4th century BC.

Tilos' nightlife dates from 1989, when the island's first disco, "Yanni's Pub," opened in Livadia. Now there are dozens of other discos, bars and tavernas livening up the scene. The Cafe Bar George is known for its colorful display of orchids; the Paralia Cafe Bar for its view of the sea and its board games like Monopoly.

"Tilos presently has a 750 tourist beds," said Panayotis Christofidis, the island's mayor, "but now that we have water, more hotels and pensions are being built. Also, many of the 2,000 Tilosians who emigrated to Rhodes and Athens in the post-WW II years are beginning to return home.

"They are not only restoring old family homes but opening farms, shops and restaurants. We now have two gas stations!" he said proudly. "And the Bank of the Dodecanese has also opened a branch!"

Before the geologists found water, one of the mayor's duties was to lock up Livadia's wells at night--"to make an economy," as he put it. In those days, fresh water was delivered by boat from Rhodes, a slow and expensive proposition.

Food also had to be delivered from outside. But now, with Tilos' fertile fields producing a cornucopia of citrus fruit, melons, tomatoes, potatoes and olives, the islanders are eating better than ever.

No wine is made on Tilos, but there is a locally produced goat cheese. Other island specialties include honey, preserves and olive oil. The island's "supermarkets" are stocked with the usual packaged goods that can be found everywhere else in Greece.

Winters are "soft" on Tilos, according to the mayor. "We never have snow and last year we hardly had any rain, either. The best thing about winter is that fish is more plentiful and cheap. We eat like kings," he crowed.

Winter tourists are few and far between, which is a pity because the entire island is carpeted with wild, brightly-colored flowers. Most tourists visit in summer and fall, to either take long, exhilirating hikes or bird-watch out in the countryside.

Tilos is what Rhodes and Mykonos were forty years ago--a

relatively unspoiled, "real" Greek island.