The West of the Island and Mount Kerketeus

The west of Samos is dominated by the mass of Mount Kerketeus (1,434m), one of the most beautiful and dramatic mountains in the Aegean, which, like Mt. Saos (1,611m) on Samothrace, and Mt. Ochi (1,389m) on Euboea, rises steadily from the sea to the clouds, and shares with them a numinous presence and a pleasing symmetry of form. Its lower slopes are green with broom and olive and fir, and its upper slopes are sometimes so pale from the colour of the chalky, bare rock that the mountain seems covered in a mantle of snow. The surrounding area takes some time to reach from any of the main centres or ports of the island, and has a noticeably slower and more peaceful pace of life. Both the road due south from Karlovasi, and the main road west from Pythagoreio through Pyrgos, lead into this part of the island. We begin with the latter.

   Five kilometres west of Pyrgos, a branch road leads south 1.5 km to the village of Neochori built against the cliff of natural rock in a panoramic position, overlooking a fertile landscape of citrus and olive trees. The traditional stone buildings and hillside position are similar to the villages of the north coast, but the light and aspect are quite different. At the heart of its network of narrow, precipitous streets is the church of the Taxiarchis, with a fine, carved iconostasis, recently re-gilded. In spite of its name (‘New Village’), the settlement here is clearly of some antiquity, because the deep valley below represented the only pass through the Ambelos massif, across the centre of the island: there are sculpted niches, probably relating to the cult of the Nymphs, and a rock-cut 6th century bc inscription recording the names of the builders of a wooden bridge across the stream at the bottom of the valley, 1.8 km below Neochori, on the road to Skoureika. (The inscription is about 3m off the ground near the east end of the existing bridge, cut into the rock-face on the east side of the stream, where it passes through a narrow gorge.)
   To the west of Neochori is Koumeika, which has an Ottoman period, marble fountain front, prettily carved with a mixture of Ancient, Byzantine and Ottoman motifs (palmettes, rosettes, crosses, cypress trees etc). Beyond extends the wide, south-facing sweep of the Gulf of Marathokambos, lined with shingle beaches and shallow waters, backed by olive groves below the protective mass of the mountain. The succession of villages along its shore have been developed for a quieter type of tourism than at Pythagoreio. The village of Marathokambos itself sits on the panoramic lower slopes of the mountain behind, 2km from the shore, and can also be reached from Karlovasi (11.5km), on the scenic road via Leka.
   From the western end of the village, 4.2km of unsur faced track winds westwards around the slopes of Mt. Kerketeus to the hermitic complex of the *‘Cave of Pythagoras’ and the church of the Panaghia Sarandaskaliotissa. As much for the dramatic beauty of the setting and the deep valley, echoing with bird song, as for the churches and caves themselves, this is a visit not to be passed over. Mountains, all over Asia Minor and the Greek world, have always attracted religious hermits and monastic communities, and Kerketeus, with its solitude and inaccessible cliffs, is no exception. Many of the rocks and grottoes in this area are marked by small whitewashed, stone churches; the most visible is Aghios Petros, crowning a natural rock-stack to the south of the track, after approximately 2 km.
   From the sharp turn in the road in the valley (4.2 km), the steps lead up towards the sheer rock-face, coming first to Aghios Ioannis, a small 13th century chapel on a ledge over a small water cistern, once accessible through the floor of the chapel. From just below the chapel, a rough track (indicated with red spots of paint) climbs steeply towards a natural arch, and then round, into the ‘Cave of Pythagoras’, which has three chambers leading off a shelf of rock.
   The unverifiable legend that Pythagoras took refuge here with some of his students to escape the persecution of Polycrates, before leaving the island for good to settle at Croton in southern Italy, has persisted since earliest times: on hearing it, the 10th century hermit, St. Paul of Latros, came here to live in the cave and to found hermitic communities on the mountain. He probably taught here in much the same manner as Pythagoras himself might have done. Higher up the main foot-path past Aghios Ioannis at the top of a flight of rock-cut steps, is the church of the Panaghia Sarandaskaliotissa (‘Virgin of the 40 steps’), a single-aisle, stone chapel in the entrance of a deep cave (c. 80m) which dips down steeply into the mountain: about 20m inside, there is a fresh-water pool—one of the primary reasons for hermitic settlement here, in the first place.
   From below the cave, the track continues back down the gorge to the south coast (3.5 km), meeting the road along the shore which continues west, passing the attrac tive sandy beach of Psili­ Ammos, towards Limnionas (9km), a beautifully sheltered bay offering good accommodation (see Lodging below) which complements the beauty and tranquillity of the setting. Beyond the village of Aghia Kyriaki­ (9 km), the road climbs steeply through rocky scrub and olive, to a rise (13 km) where sudden and spectacular *views of Fourni and Ikari­a open across the water below. From this point on, there is little traffic or concentrated habitation, and even the principal villages, Kallithea (19km) and Drakei (25km) have an air of lassitude and remote abandon—compensated for by their enviable positions and views. There are many fine coves: both to the north at Varsamo and Aghios Isidoros; and to the south, at the bays of Klima and Aghianni (4km south of the main road, via Palaiochori), where the mid 19th century monastery of Aghios Ioannis Eleimonos (‘St. John the Giver of Help’), sits in a shaded and well watered hollow above the shore, looking onto the small islet of Katergo.
   The most significant monuments in this area are the cave churches on the western slope of Kerketeus, above Kallithea. (An unsurfaced road leads up from the cemetery at the southern end of Kallithea; after 1.7km, a left turn at the junction climbs steeply a further 2km to the church of Aghia Paraskevi­, from where a footpath leads uphill 1 km east, to the first of the churches.) The church of the Panaghia Makrini­ sits sunk a little into the entrance of a shallow cave. The original 13th century chapel was incorporated and expanded in the 18th century, into the larger tri-conch structure with cupola which you enter first, but still preserves its original wall-paintings: their condition is deteriorating, but some of the original, intense colour is still visible in the gracious figure of the Virgin Mary, in the south east corner. At Aghia Triada, a short distance further up the path, the church, behind a simple front, is created out of the natural rock of the cave. Below the village of Kallithea to the southeast, is the church of Aghios Charalambos with an interior extensively decorated with 18th century wall-paintings.
   ‘Kerkis’, the modern Greek name of the mountain, is the ancient Greek word used by Theophrastus for the ‘Judas Tree’ or ‘Eastern Redbud’, which still populates the mountain’s northern slopes. Mount Kerketeus, however, is rich in many endemic, or even unique, species of plant. At the highest altitudes (above 1,200m) among the lime stone crevices, the perennial spiny knapweed, Centaurea xylobasis, can be found only here; while lower down on the gravel screes, the rare, delicate, lilac-flowered lark spur, Consolida samia, and, on the floors of the pine woods, Muscari kerkis, a violet-coloured grape-hyacinth, are unique to the island and the mountain, as their names imply. Samos is also rich in orchids, with over 60 species recorded—Ophrys icariensis and O. minutula, being endemic to the islands of this area. Mount Ambelos has its own particular flora also: a number of unusual crocuses (the orange Crocus olivieri, and the blue C. cancellatus) and endemic fritillaries (Fritillaria bythinica and F. carica), as well as the alpine squill, and the crimson-pink, Gladiolus anatolicus. Of the mountains’ interesting birds, most are raptors—the short-toed eagle, long-legged and honey buzzard, and the eagle owl; but there are colourful presences to be seen in the woodland also, such as the blue and red plumage of the rock thrush, with its characteristic white patch on its back; and occasional sightings of shearwaters (both Cory’s and Yelkouan) are to be had out to sea. One species of butterfly has its only European home, high up at the tree-line on Mt. Ambelos; this is the Orange-banded hairstreak.
   The summit of Kerketeus is generally climbed from the south east in about three and a half hours each way: a rough, motorable track leads north from Votsalakia on the Gulf of Marathokambos, branches twice to the left and ends at the beginning of a footpath which climbs up to the convent of the Evangeli­stria (650m); from here a 90 minute climb brings you to Prophitis Elias (1,100m); the final ascent (45–60 minutes) reaches the summit of Vigla at 1,434m. From here, the meeting of Asia and Eu rope can be seen: in fact the peak you are standing on is an extinct volcano, which was brought into being by the slow collision of the Anatolian tectonic plate to the east, and the Eurasian plate to the north and west.

Samos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.

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