As the first island in Greece to raise the flag of insurrection and to lead the others into the War of Independence which ultimately gained the country its freedom from Turkish dominion, Spetses holds a special place in the Greek imagination. The war in Greece was less than two weeks old when Spetses joined and its goals could not have been achieved without the vital contribution of the improvised navy which Spetses provided together with the islands of Hydra and Psara. A key figure in all this was Greece’s national heroine, Laskarina Boubouli na, who from her base on the island made courageous inroads into the Ottoman hold on Greek territory. Her house is one of the monuments of Spetses. It and the many other large houses, nearly all dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries—including that of the family of Bouboulina’s assassins—constitute the principal interest of the island and compose its urban landscape. It is a sober, classical architecture, similar to that on Hydra—only less concentrated and more scattered on Spetses. Cutting an unusual figure in the midst of this, are three conspicuous monuments of later date, built by the island’s greatest benefactor, the tobacco magnate, Sotirios Anargyros, at the beginning of the last century—his neoclassical mansion, an elite school which bears his name, and a grand hotel which would not be at all out of place on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Anargyros was the first to see that, with the demise of its shipping fleet, the island’s future lay in attracting a wealthy and cosmopolitan tourism.
Judging by the plutocratic estates along the island’s eastern shore, and the yachts that arrive in its waters in the summer, Anargyros’s wishes have been, in one sense, fulfilled. Spetses today is a place of contradictions, with widely diverging qualities of tourism and of architecture: the Anargyros buildings languish and decay while new, luxury housing flourishes; (non-resident) cars are banned, while fleets of motor-scooters create noise and disturbance in their place, sidelining the horses-and traps which were so much a feature of the island’s charm. Before the beginning of this century, the beauty of the island’s crystalline waters and celebrated pine-forests could always be relied on: but devastating and repeated fires in the last fifteen years have left the tree-cover decimated. There is little now remaining still to be burnt, and it will need decades for the landscape to be restored to its former beauty, worthy of the island’s ancient name, Pityoussa, meaning ‘abundant in pines’.
The arrival at Spetses could not be more different from Hydra. The island is low, green, and domesticated, with a long straggling waterfront of miscellaneous buildings. One looks in vain for a real ‘centre’ to the town because Spetses has several centres. This is a function of its development over time. The built area spreads over the whole of the northeast corner of the island. Before looking at individual monuments, it is helpful first to understand the overall development.
The historical development of the town and its architecture
Earliest settlement was at the far eastern extremity of the island where a creek cuts deep into the coast, with a protective headland to its east side. This is the Old Harbour, or Palaio Limani, where artefacts from the Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine periods, as well as Bronze Age remains nearby, show that it was used and inhabited up until the 8th or 9th century, when pirate raids led to its abandonment. It was not until 700 years later, in the late 15th century, that settlers from the Peloponnese returned to the island, building themselves a base at Kastelli—the rise which now forms the highest point of the town, directly south of the point of disembarkation. This was fortified with a wall in the late 17th century. As both security and prosperity grew with the establishment of the island’s commercial fleet, the area of habitation rapidly expanded down the slopes towards the shore to the point now referred to as the ‘Dapia’, where the ferries and hydrofoils arrive. The old harbour became an active boatyard once again, and the island’s richer, merchant families built houses along the 1.5km of shore between the Dapia and the Old Harbour to its east, through the early decades of the 19th century. Later in the 19th century the stretch to the west of the Dapia was favoured and developed. Unlike Hydra there were no geographical confines to the space, and so the town extended freely in all directions. The early houses of the important families are built along Italianate lines, with loggias on their upper floors. The later archontika, or mansions, were built to a more simple, symmetrical design, cubic in form with regularly spaced windows, as on Hydra. At first they had flat roofs, as elsewhere in the islands; but the influence of pitched and tiled roofs from the main land of the Peloponnese soon prevailed. Greater colour and a whitewash to the walls is favoured on Spetses as opposed to the un-rendered stone which prevails on Hydra.
Spetses Island is part of the Argosaronic Island Group, Greece.