“You’re Greek?” waiters, archaeological site guards, salespeople and local residents ask us with genuine surprise. The resorts on the eastern Aegean island of Kos are full of tourists, mainly from elsewhere in Europe, as well as the United States, but few Greeks. Some locals complain that many visitors choose to spend their package holidays inside the hotel complexes rather then venturing out and helping the local economy, but it doesn’t look like the situation will change anytime soon given the island’s popularity as an all-inclusive package holiday destination.
For the foreign visitors who flock to Kos in their thousands every year, the island must look heavenly: clean beaches with good swimming conditions and easy access, a landscape ideal for walking and cycling, sunny skies almost guaranteed, historical sites dating from the Neolithic to Ottoman times, bars, clubs and cafes catering to all preferences and styles, and hotels just minutes from the beach at affordable prices for those booking through an international operator.
It is very likely that the scale of tourism development on the island has an offputting effect on Greeks looking for a summer holiday destination, especially as they don’t enjoy the benefits of charter flights and all-inclusive packages. That said, the fact that so few Greeks holiday on Kos does mean they get other perks, such as discounts on purchases and a free drink or glass of wine here and there, much as though they were visiting a Greek community abroad.
A piece of history
What makes Kos worth visiting is that despite its souvenir shop-lined streets, clusters of massive hotels and busy organized beaches, it has managed to retain something of its genuine character. In the old quarter of the main town, for example, Italian and Ottoman buildings abut ancient monuments such as the Agora, the Roman Odeon and the Stadium. There is the Nerantzia Castle, built by the Order of the Knights of Saint John to control the passage to the Holy Land during the Crusades. A plane tree that casts its shadow over Platanou Square is some 2,000 years old and local legend has it that Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, taught his students beneath it. A stroll through the streets of the picturesque villages of Kefalos and Zia reveals traces of traditional architecture. And, more notably, the island has a one-of-a-kind (for Greece) 13-kilometer bicycle trail linking some of its best beaches: from the windswept Faros to the protected wetland of Psalidi, on to Aghios Fokas, a beach with white and black sand.
There are also plenty of popular sites whose character is not threatened by mass tourism, such as the ruins of two early Christian basilicas on the beach of Aghios Stefanos, the forest on the outskirts of Zia where visitors can see wild peacocks, the hot springs of Thermes that spill out into the sea, and the beautiful hiking trails on Mount Dikaios.
Nothing, however, can rival a visit to the Asclepeion, even at high season. Built in the middle of a cypress forest – a tree that was considered sacred by the ancients – with a view over the Aegean stretching all the way to the coast of Asia Minor, the Sanctuary of Asclepius attracted thousands of pilgrims during antiquity – not just patients looking for cures, but also healers seeking to be mentored in the pioneering principles of modern medicine by the great Hippocrates himself.
The monumental staircase that conjoins the three areas of the sanctuary continues to awe visitors today just as it did the pilgrims of Hellenistic and Roman times. With a little bit of imagination you can imagine the cluster of cypresses in the background stretching as far as the eye can see, the columns lying on the ground standing up proudly and the water gurgling through the colonnades, keeping the atmosphere cool.