Kea: ancient trails, walkers' heaven
What to See
The municipal authorities organize an annual international storytelling festival every July. The Aghia Marina tower, 6.5 km southwest of Hora, is a rare 4th-century BC tower, part of a larger defensive complex. Watch the sunset from the fort in Hora or from the balcony of the Panorama patisserie.
Visit the windmill houses at Koundouros, the Archaeological Museum at Hora and the two art galleries at Vourkari, named Vourkariani and Marina Keas, and the Modern Art Center. Kea is excellent for bird-watching and its flora comprises some 3,000 species.
Where to Eat
Kea is famed more for its meat than its seafood. The local speciality is paspalas, an omelet prepared with cured pork and tomatoes. Also try local cheeses such as xyno, chloro, myzithra and kopanisti; buy fragrant honey, almond cakes and sesame candy bars (pasteli). In Vourkari, Seirios (tel 28280) has good seafood; Rolandos (tel 22224), on the square in Hora, has a wide range of good appetizers and dishes; in Korissia Lagoudera (tel 21977) offers excellent options in Greek traditional cuisine, including moussaka, pastitsio and rooster in wine.
In mythology, Kea, the westernmost of the Cycladic islands – just 12 nautical miles off the coast of the tip of Attica and 52 from Piraeus – was once the home of nymphs who lived in its dense forests. Due to its abundant water sources, it was known as Hydroussa. One day, a lion appeared and began to chase the nymphs, who escaped to Sirius – the brightest star in the sky. Sirius then burned Hydroussa and the other Cyclades with its powerful rays – and, for the most part, deprived them of their verdant glory for good. The lion, however, is still there – albeit in imposing, sculpted rock form, 6 meters long at Liontas, 1.5 kilometer northeast of Hora (or Ioulida), the island’s capital. Kea, which has a total area of 130 square kilometers, has also retained some rare and superb oak forests. The greatest part of its natural beauty, however, seems hidden in its wide network of mostly stone-paved old trails and footpaths, some 36 km in all, which make it a walkers’ haven. Kea, also known as Tzia, flourished in the pre-Classical period (7th-6th centuries BC), when it comprised four independent and economically strong city-states: Ioulida, Karthaia, Poiiessa and Korissia. Some of the walking trails date back to those times. The almond-shaped island’s terrain is mostly arid and hilly, marked by deep gorges and tranquil valleys dotted with chapels.
The highest summit, Profitis Ilias, rises to 568 meters. Farming is the main occupation, but in the last decade or so proximity to Athens has made tourism a fast-growing sector, attracting many wealthy Greeks and weekenders who flaunt their boats and have pushed up realty prices. Some complain, with a little exaggeration that Kea now feels like a suburb of Athens. Hora, about 6 km from Korissia (also known as Livadi), and perched on the side of a steep hill, is charming. A protected traditional settlement, all motor vehicles have to be left outside the settlement – quite a blessing, for whether on foot or by donkey power, it is a joy negotiating the narrow, stone-paved alleyways that pass below arches linking the white houses.
At the entrance to the settlement, note the wall paintings by renowned artist Alekos Fassianos, then visit the neoclassical Town Hall and the former school (both designed by Ernst Ziller). Continue past the ruins of an old fort and ascend the hill toward the deserted windmills, once the biggest windmill park in the Cyclades, comprising 26 in all, that milled the island’s sizable wheat harvests. Hora is a lively place, full of small bars and tavernas along the quaint alleyways.
Kea on the Map
If you stay out late and have to return to Livadi, don’t miss out on a chance to walk down the stone-paved path under the moonlight. Kea’s 86 km of coastline offer few but excellent options for swimming. A relatively quiet and scenic beach southwest of Livadi is Xyla, about 5 km away through rugged landscape. Gialiskari, an easy option some 600 m from Livadi and shaded by trees, gets easily crowded. About 1 km further along is cosmopolitan Vourkari. Opposite Vourkari, the Kokka peninsula was named after the now-ruined coal warehouses, where cargo ships stocked up during the flourishing interwar period. Continue east to Otzias, the island’s largest beach, shady and almost perfectly round, with two picturesque chapels and traditional tavernas. At sunset, walk up to Panaghia Kastriani, an 18th-century monastery built on the edge of a cliff and in an ideal location from which to enjoy the view. Just 300 m from the monastery, follow the wide stone path uphill that will take you to Hora in about 90 minutes though a wonderful landscape with oak forest. Western Kea has excellent beaches – Spathi, Kalidonyhi and Sykamia – accessible only by 4x4 vehicles, or a sailboat!
Whether an adventurous type or not, a visit to ancient Karthaia is a must. About 40 minutes of trekking along a wonderful trail from the village of Stavroudaki and through thick vegetation will lead you to a beautiful beach on the southeastern coast and the ruins of two ancient temples. “Karthaia indeed is but a narrow ridge of land, yet I shall not exchange it for Babylon,” exalted Pindar, the ancient lyric poet.
Shipwreck of HMHS Britannic
The western coast of Kea is a strong pole of attraction for scuba-diving enthusiasts due to several large shipwrecks, including the HMHS Britannic, the Titanic’s sister ship which was requisitioned and operated as a hospital ship during World War I.
Considered more ‘unsinkable’ than the Titanic due to modifications in the design, the Britannic sank in just 55 minutes after an explosion caused by a German mine in November 1916 and was discovered by French explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1975. It is the largest sunken ocean liner in the world.
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