Late spring is just the perfect season for exploring the great wealth of ancient sites in Athens, the northeastern part of Peloponnese and the islands of the Argo-Saronic Gulf. This month we dedicate to the gulfs near Attica (and Athens), first of all the Saronic Gulf with its islands, but also the Argolic Gulf and the shores around them both.
The Saronic Gulf forms part of the Aegean Sea and defines the eastern side of the Isthmus of Corinth. It is the eastern terminus of the Corinth Canal, which cuts across the isthmus.
The gulf includes the islands of Aegina, Salamis, Angistri and Poros along with smaller islands like Patroklou and Vleves. The port of Piraeus lies on the northeastern edge of the gulf. Somewhere inbetween the Saronic and the Argolic Gulfs is the island of Hydra to be found. What is common for all these islands and the shores around this part of Peloponnese is that they have the most picturesque villages and ports – historical ports like on Hydra and Aegina with old neo-classical buildings and narrow streets made for walking. On Hydra island cars are prohibited alltogether!
Beaches line much of the gulf coast from Poros to Epidaurus, Galataki to Kineta and from Megara to Eleusis and from Piraeus down to Anavyssos. Athens’ urban area surrounds the northern and the eastern coasts of this gulf. Bays in the gulf include Phaleron Bay, Elefsina Bay to the north, Kechries Bay in the northwest and Sofiko Bay in the east.
The volcano of Methana is to the southwest along with Kromyonia at the Isthmus of Corinth, Aegina and Poros. Methana is also the youngest most active volcano center and forms the northwestern end of the cycladic arch of active volcanoes that includes Milos island, Santorini island and Nisyros island. A hydropathic institute at Methana makes use of the hot sulphurous water that still surfaces in the area. The most recent eruption was of a submarine volcano north of Methana in the 17th century.
The gulf has refineries around the northern part of the gulf including east of Corinth and west of Agioi Theodoroi, Eleusis, Aspropyrgos, Skaramangas and Keratsini. These refineries produce most of Greece’s refined petroleum products, a large proportion of which are then exported. Commercial shipping to the refineries, Piraeus and to and from the canal make the gulf quite a busy area with commercial shipping.
The origin of the name comes from the mythological king Saron who drowned at the Psifaei lake (modern Psifta). The Saronic Gulf was a string of six entrances to the Underworld, each guarded by a chthonic enemy in the shapes of thieves and bandits.
The Battle of Salamis, just to the west of modern day Piraeus, was a major turning point in European history which saw the Athenians defeat Xerxes assuring Athens its place as the cradle of modern European culture.
The Argolic Gulf is a small gulf off the east coast of the Peloponnese, opening into the Aegean Sea. Its main island is Spetses. This gulf and its islands are sometimes combined with the Saronic Gulf and Saronic Islands, with the result called the Argo-Saronic Gulf and the Argo-Saronic Islands. It is surrounded by two prefectures, Arcadia and Argolis. The main island that is in the gulf is Bourtzi, a small island with a castle that is now a monument. Other islands in the gulf are Plateia and Psili Nisida which lie south east of Tolo. The gulf is crossed by ferry routes from Nafplio, Spetses, Hydra, Tyros and Leonidio.
The Argolic Gulf is perfect for sailing, particularly for occasional sailors as the Peloponnese mainland wraps around the north and north east of the Gulf, protecting it from the summer Meltemi wind that can reach F7 and above further to the east in the Aegean islands. Yet the Gulf has good, steady sea breezes meaning it still provides entertaining sailing, but without the excesses of wind and waves that can make sailing in the Cyclades and Dodecanese maybe just ‘a bit more exciting’ than some might wish.
The best aspect of the Argolic Gulf though is how quiet it is. There are not many boats or ships sailing in the area and if you want to try the smaller harbours, it is possible to be the only yacht there.
The gulf is also surrounded by history ranging from the small ruined castle above the harbour in Astros to the huge and truly magnificent Palamidi citadel that sits above Nafplio, not to mention the ancient sites of Mycenae and Tiryns.
If you continue a bit further down the eastern coast of Peloponnese you’ll be rewarded by Monemvassia, a colossal rock with the remains of a Byzantine town spread across the top and a walled medieval village tucked on its southern side.
Salamis is the largest island in the Saronic Gulf, about 2 km off-coast from Piraeus and about 16 km west of Athens. The capital, Salamina, lies in the west-facing core of the crescent on Salamis Bay, which opens into the Saronic Gulf. The main port of the island, Paloukia is on the eastern side of the island.
The highest point of Salamis is Mavrovouni with 1325 feet. A significant part of Salamis Island is rocky and mountainous. On the southern part a pine forest is located, which is unusual for western Attica. Unfortunately, this forest is often a target for fires.
Salamis Island is very popular for holiday and weekend visits from Athens and Piraeus; the population rises to 300,000 in peak season of which ca. 31,000 are permanent inhabitants. This supports the many cafes, bars, ouzeries, tavernas and consumer goods shops throughout the island. On the southern part of the island, away from the port, there are a number of less developed areas with good beaches for swimming including those of Aianteio, Maroudi, Perani, Peristeria, Kolones, Saterli, Selenia and Kanakia.
Things to see in Salamis
The Cave of Euripides is a ten-chamber cave in Peristeria on Salamis Island, Greece, and the subject of archaeological investigation. Its name comes from its long reputation as the place where the playwright Euripides came for sanctuary to write his tragedies. Finds dated from the late Neolithic onward generally suggest its long-term use as a place of worship. The most notable discovery was a glazed skyphos dating from the late 5th century BC and inscribed with the partial name of Euripides.
Aegina is one of the Saronic Islands, 27 km from Athens. Tradition derives the name from Aegina, the mother of Aeacus, who was born on and ruled the island. During ancient times Aegina was a rival to Athens, the great sea power of the era.
The capital of Aegina is situated at the northwestern end of the island. During the summer months it is a popular quick getaway for quite a few Athenians owning second houses on the island.
Aegina has a triangular shape about 15 km from east to west and 10 km from north to south. An extinct volcano constitutes two thirds of Aegina. The northern and western side consist of stony but fertile plains, which are well cultivated, the most characteristic crop of Aegina today is pistachio. Economically, the sponge fisheries are of notable importance. The southern volcanic part of the island is rugged and mountainous, and largely barren with its highest rise at the conical Mount Oros (531 m).
The beaches are a popular tourist attraction. Hydrofoil ferries from Piraeus take only forty minutes to reach Aegina; the regular ferry takes about an hour, with ticket prices for adults within the 4-15 euro range. There are regular bus services from Aegina town to destinations throughout the island such as Agia Marina. Portes is a fishing village on the east coast.
Things to see in Aegina
Agistri (“fishing hook”) is a small island in the Saronic Gulf. There are only three settlements on Agistri – Milos (Megalohori), Skala and Limenaria. Milos is the main village where the majority of the Greek population of the island lives. Skala is a twenty-minute walk from Milos along the coastal road. Skala is where most of the tourist facilities and hotels are. Limenaria is a very small village on the other side of the island with very little tourism.
Things to do in Agistri
Poros is a small island-pair in the southern part of the Saronic Gulf, at a distance about 58 km south from Piraeus and separated from the Peloponnese by a 200-metre wide sea channel, with the town of Galatas on the mainland across the strait. Poros has about 4,100 inhabitants. The ancient name of Poros was Pogon. Like other ports in the Saronic, it is a popular weekend destination for Athenian travellers.
Poros consists of two islands: Sphairia, the southern part, which is of volcanic origin, where today’s city is located, andKalavria (meaning ‘gentle breeze’), the northern and largest part. A bridge connects the two islands over a narrow isthmus. The Municipality of Poros also includes a part of the mainland, Kyaní Aktí, at the easternmost point of the Peloponnese Peninsula, between the island of Poros and the island of Hydra.
Poros is an island with rich vegetation. Much of the northern and far eastern/western sides of the island are bushy, whereas large areas of old pine forest are found in the south and center of the island. It has a good road network and adequate tourist infrastructure, which makes it a popular resort for short holidays. Though possessing no airport, it is easily accessible from Athens via ferry or hydrofoil or from the adjacent mainland at Galatas.
Hydra is one of the Argo-Saronic islands, located in the Aegean Sea between the Saronic and the Argolic Gulfs. It is separated from the Peloponnese by a narrow strip of water. In ancient times, the island was known as Hydrea (derived from the Greek word for “water”), which was a reference to the springs on the island.
There is one main town, known simply as “Hydra port”. It consists of a crescent-shaped harbor, around which is centered a strand of restaurants, shops, markets, and galleries that cater to tourists and locals (Hydriots). Steep stone streets lead up and outwards from the harbor area.
The ferries from Piraeus take about three hours for the transit; the hydrofoils and catamarans substantially less. The island also has ferries to Aegina, Poros, Spetses, Nafplion and Monemvasia.
Garbage trucks are the only motor vehicles on the island, as any other vehicle is not allowed by law. Donkeys, bicycles, and water taxis provide public transportation. The inhabited area, however, is so compact that most people walk everywhere.
Things to see & do on Hydra
Hydra is a bit short of sandy beaches, but there are plenty of smooth rocks and pebbly bays for sunbathers. The water is clear and some locals are diving off the cliff on the road to Kamini — don’t try this unless you know what you’re doing!
The only good swimming spot within easy access of town is the rocky shore called Spilia in the Kamini area on the west edge of town; just walk along the main coastal road leading west for about twenty minutes, and it’s just past the large cafe-bar. The area is not really a beach but rather a rocky spot which has been slightly developed by the addition of a few stairs and level places in the rocks which are good for sunbathing. The view is beautiful. To swim, you need to climb in and out of the water via some rather primitive ladders set in the sea wall (and beware of sea urchins on wall,) which might be difficult for some people. The water, however, is clean, and usually calm except when a boat sails by close to shore. Another twenty minutes further west is Vlihos, a pebble beach featuring rental chairs and two idyllic tavernas at a short walk’s distance. Vhilos is a short €3 water taxi ride away, but the 45-minute walk from the main port of Hydra is breathtaking and well worth the extra time.
In terms of water sports, only the private beach of Mandraki has a windsurfing centre open to public. The best coves are scattered on its southern coast.
Hydrama – Theatre and Arts Centre
The centre was founded in 1999 by theatr professionals to promote the study and practice of ancient Greek theatre internationally and to encourage drame and dance activities locally through the provision and hosting of performances, workshops, seminars and courses. Hydrama website
Cathedral of Hydra (center of town). Tue-Sat 10 AM-5 PM. Spot the belltower to find it, with a small “Ecclesiastical Museum of Hydra” sign pointing the way inside. Opening hours for the interior and the museum are rather more erratic than stated, but the courtyard is always open and worth a peep. Entry to the museum costs about €4.
Hydra Museum (next to ferry dock). Small but reasonably well-presented museum on the seafaring ways of the Hydriots and their disproportionate contributions to Greece’s many wars. Entry to the museum costs about €4.
Spetses (Ancient: “Pityoussa”) is sometimes included as one of the Saronic Islands. Until 1948, it was part of the old prefecture of Argolidocorinthia, which is now split into Argolis and Corinthia. In ancient times, it was known as Pityoussa, and later as Petses. The town of Spetses is the only large settlement on the island.
Ferries and high-speed hydrofoils arrive regularly from Piraeus. The new port is known as Dapia and the old port as Baltizar. Trails encircle the island and total about 25 to 30 km; beaches include Agios Mamas, in the center of town, Agioi Anargiroi and Agia Paraskevi at the back of the island, Zogeria, and two beaches close to the town, College beach and Agia Marina, both of which offer watersports.