Arriving at the busy port of Aegina town following a 45-minute refreshing boat ride from the port of Piraeus may convince you that the island is almost a suburb of Athens. This is a commonly believed myth and you'll only need to wander down a few cobbled streets and lonely alleyways to realize that you may have judged this nature lovers' haven too soon. Venture on further out of the town and you'll discover the true charms of the island. Sparkling waters of the Saronic Gulf act as the perfect backdrop for archaic ruins and quaint villages where you'll savour authentic dishes made from fresh local produce. Emerald valleys punctuated with wildflowers and crumbling ruins of an entire village deserted centuries ago provide explorers with endless opportunities for experiencing the tranquil beauty of the island on foot, bicycle or even horseback. Thrill seekers can climb 532 meters up Aegina's highest peak to be rewarded with a sublime view over the island and the entire Saronic Gulf. True adrenaline junkies can hop on a paraglider with an experienced guide and sail over pine-covered hills and pistachio groves. If you want to feel the wind in your hair back on earth, Aegina's organized beaches are great for windsurfing. There are also a number of remote beaches that still remain secluded even during the height of summer and are perfect for swimming and sunning. Whether you're exploring the pine woods of the north, the dramatic rocky coastline of the east, the southern fishing villages or the western olive and pistachio groves, you will find natural beauty in every corner of this island.
Aegina's history is as full of ups and downs as its terrain. Excavations have uncovered remains of an ancient settlement dating as far back as 3500 BCE at the site of Kolona which lies just northwest of the port. The island was continuously inhabited throughout the Bronze Age and various artifacts reveal that Minoan, Mycenean and Dorian influences were present. During the Archaic Age, Aegina became a powerful shipping center and attained substantial power due to its proximity both to the city-state of Epidarus in the Peloponnese and Athens. This advantage ultimately led to the island's shaky relations with Athens which saw it as a rival to her own naval capabilities. During the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC, Aegina aligned with rival Sparta, sealing its fate at the hands of the Athenians. In 431BCE the native Aeginetans were forced off the island and sent into the Peloponnese while Athens claimed it as her own. Eventually it was conquered and ruled successively by the Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, and Ottoman empires until the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Aegina played an important role in the Greek Revolution and served as the first capital of liberated Greece from 1826 – 1827. Though its duration was short, Aegina's contribution to the Greek Independence effort attributed to the island becoming a center of culture and prestige once again. Today Aegina is best known for being the country's top pistachio cultivator. While the island's current claim to fame may pale in the limelight of its past glory, invaders still arrive in boatloads to claim their territory, though this time in the form of weekending Athenians and foreign tourists.
As you come into Aegina's harbor, you are greeted by the small whitewashed chapel of Agios Nikolaos and the hustle and bustle of people getting on and off ships. The friendly commotion dies down a bit after you cross the main road of Leoforos Dimokratias (Democracy Avenue). While the port area may seem overwhelming there are some worthwhile cafes and patisseries serving delectable sweets along the waterfront. The town is built amphitheatrically and aside from Salamina, it's the largest settlement of the Saronic Gulf. Stroll along its cobbled streets and you'll encounter beautiful pale-coloured neoclassical houses with balconies full of flowers. Children run and play in the squares while locals pop their heads in and out of shops greeting friends as they go about their business of the day. Despite the loveliness of the town, you'll probably go unnoticed as you explore the area. This is not to say that the islanders will ignore you, as Aeginian hospitality remains plentiful even though visitors almost outnumber natives in August. Aside from the beautiful architecture and pistachios offered on just about every street corner, other attractions include the Venetian style Markello's Tower as well as the former residences of notable Greek leaders and artists that once made Aegina their home. Among them are Greece's first Prime Minister Ioannis Kapodistriou, leaders of the Greek revolution such as Theodoros Kolokotroni, Spyridon Trikoupis, and Konstantinos Kanaris, as well as the country's most well-known author Nikos Kazantzakis. You also have the opportunity to tour the Government House which acted as the headquarters of the newly independent Greek State as well as the Eunardios School of teaching and the former orphanage.
However if you truly want to get away from it all, just follow the coastal road north for one kilometre until you reach the archaeological site of Kolona. Though there isn't much to see at the site itself, its setting above the turquoise water outlined by green shrubbery is refreshing after the hubbub of the port. Continuing eastward you'll arrive at Kipseli, Aegina's most populated town after the port. A majority of the island's pistachio production takes place here and the groves provide a unique opportunity to see the star of the island up close and personal.
Continuing further north you'll pass the two seaside resorts of Vathi and Souvala. Both are relatively low key and backed by numerous trees and greenery. The sea ranges from pale blue to light green and cobalt and the shallow waters make both villages ideal for families with small children. Souvala also has its own small port with connections to Piraeus. Additionally, hot springs reputed to treat several ailments are located just east of the village at Therma. If you continue in this direction you'll arrive in Vagia, another quiet resort with an excellent sandy beach. After Vagia the road curves southwest into the settlement of Mesagros, an area which throughout history was famed for its pottery and has carried on the tradition up until today and Pottery workshops are found all over the area. The region also cultivates grapes and produces small amounts of wine, mainly for local consumption.
Further westward just off the road back to Aegina town is the superlative basilica of Agios Nectarios. The tall bell-towers and several round domes encircled with windows will certainly strike awe in each visitor. The church is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the southern Balkans and Nectarios is the island's patron saint.
One of Aegina's most intriguing sites lies just north of the small settlement of Kondos. Paliohora means “old village” and its crumbling ruins certainly live up to its name. The abandoned complex of stony buildings contains former houses as well as a Venetian castle and several churches, some of which date back to the 12th century. This enchanting place is best explored on foot and meandering down its paths evokes a sense of mystery and romance. Time stands still here and merely wandering through the area will quiet the mind of even the most preoccupied traveller.
Another awe-inspiring site is the divine Temple of Aphaia. This 5th century Doric sanctuary lies 2 kilometers east of the town of Mesagros and is one of Greece's best preserved temples. Its elevated position over the Saronic Gulf make this site mandatory on any visitor's itinerary.
Just south of the temple lies Aegina's key package resort of Agia Marina. The sea is a beautiful shade of aqua here, though the beach (and the town in general) can get quite busy in July and August. Activities such as windsurfing and canoeing are available with many of the seaside shops renting equipment. If you're looking for somewhere a bit more low key, head north of the pier to the rocky coast. You can jump into the turquoise water from these smooth rock formations and easily climb back out again to sunbathe along the rocks. In the high season you'll have company but it's a refuge of quiet compared to the somewhat frantic scene of Agia Marina.
The coastal road snakes southward through dramatic landscapes comprised of seaside cliffs to the east and distant mountain tops of the west. The village of Killindros and the small hamlet of Portes perched on top of a hill tumbling into the sea lie sleepily on either side of the road as it persists southward before turning sharply and passing the village of Anitseio. In the distance lies Mt. Ellanio, Aegina's highest point and home to ruins dedicated to Zeus. At the summit lies the church of Profitis Ilias and reaching it is well worth the work for the immaculate views over the entire island and Saronic Gulf.
The main road continues through the heart of Aegina to the traditional mountain village of Paxia Rachi. Frequently skipped by most travelers, you can have this slice of authentic Greece all to yourself most days and exploring the cobbled labyrinths which snake around stone houses adorned with colourful flowers. A little ways beyond lies the Hellenic Wildlife Hospital (EKPAZ) which serves as the temporary (and unfortunately sometimes permanent home of endangered, injured or mistreated wild animals. Impressively, over 4,000 animals are rehabilitated every year making the centre the largest of its kind in all of Southern Europe. Entrance is free, though donations are kindly accepted and greatly needed.
The main road takes you back to the outskirts of Aegina Town where you'll turn on to the western coastal road which leads to the large bay of Marathonas. Along the bay there are several organized beaches offering a wide variety of marine activities including canoeing, windsurfing and scuba diving. There are also several remote beaches which remain tranquil even during the busy summer months. There are You may also enjoy the several seaside tavernas complete with succulent octopus hanging out to dry and refreshing ouzo waiting to be enjoyed in front of the dazzling sunset.
Farther south is the coastal settlement Aeginitissa which boasts an excellent beach and a laid back vibe. Travel approximately one more kilometer south and you'll arrive in the pretty fishing village of Perdika. Traditional houses, seafood tavernas and coffee shops are just a few of the simplistic charms in store for its visitors. Although it is one of Aegina's most popular destinations, it retains its authentic character. Perdika is also home to some of the island's best accommodation as well as activities such as horseback riding and scuba diving. A small port with boat connections to and from the uninhabited isle of Moni is another advantage. You shouldn't miss the opportunity to swim at Moni's pristine beach complete with golden sand and sparkling cerulean waters. The island is also great for hiking and you may catch a glimpse of the elusive Kri-Kri a species of goat indigenous to Greece.
Touring Aegina and enjoying its various landscapes proves that this island is much more than day trippers and pistachios. Deserted cities, ancient temples and neoclassical buildings whisper echoes of the past into your ears while its array of outdoor activities scream adventure. Whether you're looking for peace and quiet or endless excitement, Aegina never disappoints.
Written exclusively for ecotourism-greece by Sarah McGee