When people think of island hopping in Greece, they mostly think about lazy days on the Mediterranean’s clear turquoise waters. But did you know that active travelers lace up hiking boots and head to the islands’ designated trails for views and experiences to remember?
As I sat on my Airbnb balcony in the village of Kardiani, I thought about my own hiking experience. I wondered how close to death I had been. I took another sip of white wine and stared over the waters of the Aegean Sea. Tinos Island in Greece is known for miracles; did I experience one, or was it all in my head?
It all started innocently enough in Pyrgos, a mountain village known for marble sculptors, a maze of primarily white-washed stone homes, and colorful doors and shutters. It was May, and the scent of flowers, citrus blossoms, and the sea led me from street to street. The light bouncing off the ever-present marble makes everything sparkle. Even the bus stop is marble. Marble sculpting is so ingrained into the DNA of Tinos that Tinian marble craftsmanship was granted UNESCO Intangible Heritage status in 2015.
Pyrgos is home to the Museum of Marble Crafts and a cemetery; a literal outdoor museum of art sculpture and mastery. You’ll find life-like images of the deceased carved into marble; their headstones hint at their former occupations. There are carvings of sailboats, ships, and fishing boats for the seafarers who have called this island home and hammers and chisels for the sculptors.
Tinos has gifted the art world with many famous sculptors, including Dimitrios Filippotis, born in Pyrgos in 1839, and Yannoulis Chalepas, born in 1851, who some say is one of the most distinguished sculptors of modern Greece. You’ll find marble art throughout the island in everyday places like water faucets and window arches, and prominent structures like churches as well. Many marble sculptures and statues throughout Greece, including those in the First Cemetery in Athens or Proto Nekrotafeio, come from Tino’s artisans. Even today, Tinos-bred artists are working on restoring the Parthenon and conserving the Acropolis.
I went to Pyrgos for the cemetery, a late breakfast, and a cup of Greek coffee. After talking with a local about what I should see and do while on Tinos, I emerged from this beautiful village with a “treasure map” marked with an “X” with what I thought was good advice from a new friend. I headed to the mountain to find a chapel; I never expected to see what awaited me on the trails.
The Trails Of Tinos
Tinos is the third largest island of the Cyclades and an emerging Greek destination known for several things, including miracles, wind, marble sculptors, and around 100 miles of marked trails for active travelers who enjoy getting off the beaten path. Driving around the island, I often saw people walking along the roadways in hiking gear; they were likely exploring the Tinos Trails.
I later learned I was on Trail E3, the Road of the Marble, one of the largest trails on the island. I didn’t walk the entire 7-mile loop. Instead, I parked on a dirt lot near a tall radio tower to take a narrow trail up the side of the mountain. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was on the correct route until I saw a small painted trail marker and a footpath along a low stone wall. This was the path, or a path, and it headed up. So, I walked into my next adventure along a route only few tourists explore.
Destination: The Chapel On The Hill
The Prophet Elias (also spelled Elijah) has a special relationship to mountains. There are many stories of this prophet; one says that God spared him death and took him directly to heaven on a fiery chariot pulled by horses because of his faithfulness. Throughout the Greek mountains, you will find chapels named after Elias. And I was headed to one of them.
The trail was a medium-to-steep incline at sections and stones set into the path made the route simple. Everything was going well. I was feeling a nice little burn in my calves and glutes. A great after-lunch workout, I thought. And then, I saw the first one.
In the dirt, between the stones, I saw bones. Animal bones (I hoped). There were long bones, short bones, hip bones, and more that I couldn’t identify. I was in the mountains, and mountains have animals, so this was natural… right?
That’s what I told myself, anyhow.
I ventured a little further, saw more trail markers, and consoled myself that this was a marked trail, so everything should be fine. Besides, the bones were clean and white, so they clearly had been there for a while. I kept going.
Then, the next bone came into sight. This one was different. This was part of a tiny goat leg with skin on it! Fresh-ish kill? I wondered.
At this point, I thought of turning back. I stopped and listened. Nothing.
My gut wasn’t sending me warning signs and the only posted sign I had seen about dangerous animals was for vipers, so I kept on. I was already over halfway to the destination, so I just stayed aware, remembering what I had learned about what to do if I encountered a mountain lion while hiking.
This footpath was interesting. The rocks are jagged and stacked and there were several little nooks in the mountainside, for what purpose, I don’t know; maybe for goat herders from previous times. Perhaps they were once temporary homes.
I peered into one to see what might be inside. I should have known. Bones!
And not just bones; this one had a goat head with large horns. Part of me thought that was really cool; the other part looked to see which was closer, the church or my car.
At this point, it was the church, so I kept going, asking for a bit of protection from all the Greek gods, just to be sure!
As I emerged from the narrow rocky path onto a wider area, Elias’s little church on the mountaintop urged me forward. I looked past the jagged rocks at the expansive sea view and quickly forgot about any perceived danger just a few minutes earlier.
A few dozen steps further and I was at the foot of the church. I climbed the rocks around the back of the church and stood at the front of the little white chapel with a traditional Greek blue door and a single metal bell with a heavy rope hanging from it. The backdrop was all sea and stone — breathtaking, sweeping blue with rows of white caps created by the infamous Tinos wind.
I had arrived!
The church’s small courtyard has several stone tables and benches where visitors can enjoy the solitude and views. But that’s not all! Lift the weathered latch on the blue wooden door and you enter a small space with holy images, candles, guest books where hikers penned their thoughts in many languages, and a small table stocked with everything needed to prepare a rustic cup of coffee.
I poured bottled water into the metal cup, lit the propane stove to heat the water, and stepped outside to enjoy the fresh air. Yes, this really is a special place.
An Experience To Remember
They told me that visiting the Prophet Elias’s Church in Tinos was something I would never forget, and I would have to agree. Where else would you climb the side of a mountain populated by goats to make a rustic cup of coffee at a lonely chapel overlooking the sea?
Afterward: I went back to Pyrgos the next day to ask my friend about the bones. Tinos Island has no predators, so I was never in danger. Most likely, they had died of natural causes.