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Return to Tilos

Dawn gently broke over the horizon on my first morning on Tilos after an absence of nearly a quarter of a century and I wondered what had changed or remained the same during this time. I began my journey at the port of Livadia on the east side of Tilos which is the main entry point for most visitors to this small, intimate island that is home to 250 residents. You step on to the dock to see the village of Livadia quietly hugging the shore next to the port at the foot of the mountains that shelter Livadia Bay. If you face eastward, the silky silhouette of the mountains of Turkey appear to rise out of the morning sea mist in the distant background, while early morning fishermen can be seen guiding their boats out of the harbour before fanning out into the open waters of the Aegean. Your gaze drifts upward to the sky and Agriosykia Castle emerges from the rocky mountaintop to cast its watchful eye over Livadia as it has done unfailingly for the past six hundred years.
As the sun slowly rose, I was captivated by the changing pastel hues of the mountains above Livadia which stood in contrast to the unremarkable architecture prevailing in the village below. There are a few noticeable exceptions including the gracefully sculpted Italian architecture of the Tilos Police Station at the port, reminiscent of the Italian domination of the island from 1912 until 1948 at which time the Dodecanese reverted to the modern arms of its maternal Hellenistic past. The incongruity of recent building designs and colours in some portions of Livadia reveal the underlying dreams of hard-working people whose visions reflect a commendable self-reliance tainted by a blindness to their cultural heritage and the merits of community coordination. On balance, though, I found a refreshingly relaxed atmosphere in this town with genuinely accommodating residents.

The village and bay of Livadia

A field of wild lupins, probably Lupinus albus ssp. Graecus

Eager to explore the rest of the island, I took the main road out of town toward the direction of Megalo Horio which is only a ten-minute drive (7 km) from Livadia. As I wound my way through the mountain, I marvelled at the ancient stone walls made centuries ago to corral the animals, the plethora of tiny churches with their ruggedly rustic architecture barely perceptible against the stony hillsides, and the venerable, twisted trunks of windswept oak and olive trees that guard the secrets of the island's past.

Quercus macrolepis

Pistacia terebinthus

Glaucium flavum

Anemone coronaria

The history of this island dates back six million years when it separated from the coast of Asia Minor, and its population can be clearly traced back to the Minoan, Mycenean and Dorian periods between 3,000 BC and 1,000 BC from the artifacts discovered here. But I personally felt the unmistakable presence of the past in the atmosphere surrounding the small churches I visited off the beaten path. Those who enjoy nature walks will find the added bonus of discovering that Tilos is home to two hundred Byzantine churches scattered throughout the island, with as many as forty-one still retaining their original frescoes.
While walking on some of the nature trails filled with green and golden hues of unspoiled flora that abound on this island, the pungent aroma of wild thyme and sage wafting through the air reminded me of the Greek myth explaining the island's name. According to legend, Tilos was named after the youngest son of Alia and Apollo who collected herbs from the island hoping to cure his mother when she became ill. After her recovery, he returned to the island and established a sanctuary in honour of Apollo and Poseidon in order to express his appreciation.

White wagtail - Motacilla alba

Sardinian warbler - Sylvia melanocephala

Continuing on towards the ancient capital of Tilos, I saw the ruins of the castle and fortress of Messaria, brimming with life during the 14th and 15th centuries, rising out of the mountain. Beneath it, the cave of Harkadio is the site of recent excavations that surprised paleontologists when the skeletons of pygmy elephants dating back to 4,500 BC were unearthed. There is an impressive display of this discovery in Megalo Horio, just three kilometres up the road where the main square offers heavenly dimensions of fragrance and colour in this gardener's paradise filled with plumeria, bougainvillea and roses shaded by trees. The bird's eye view offered of the fertile valley below against the cool, blue backdrop of Eristos Bay to the south will tempt any visitor to explore this part of the island. Tilos is gifted with an abundance of natural spring water that enables the cultivation of a dazzling array of fruits, almonds and vegetables. In springtime, this valley becomes a vibrantly coloured canvas brushed with deep reds, swirling yellows, and splashes of blue bursting from the wildflowers that grace this island's soil.


Eristos beach

Later I reached the monastery of St. Panteleimon that was built in 1470, restored in 1703 and 1824, and expanded in 1843. The palm-leafed entrance opens on to a pebbled courtyard, looking like a lush oasis landscaped with flowers, trees, the traditional Greek basil and grapevines. Then into the church whose inspiring, centuries-old frescoes have been released from the plaster covering put on during the Turkish occupation; next one moves to the monks' quarters adjacent to the church and finally to the tree-filled courtyard on a lower level offering picnic tables for those who bring their own lunches or order at the sandwich hut. There is also a glorious fountain of cool, fresh and delicious spring water gushing continuously at the entrance.
My quiet return to Livadia allowed me the time to reflect upon what had changed or remained the same since my last visit. I found the island's natural beauty, tranquillity and unspoiled beaches to have remained exactly as I remembered long ago. The preservation and presentation of its historical past have clearly been enhanced. And despite the few islanders who have been sadly swept up in the cyclone of tourism, I prize above all my discovery that the elusive, unspoiled Greece of yesteryear lives in the hearts of most islanders, which for me is what makes Tilos the real jewel of the Aegean.

Who's watching whom?

Honey bee

A Painted Lady - Cynthia cardui
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