Cosmopolitan and welcoming, Spetses is a short hop from the unassuming port of Kosta on the mainland and its more glamourous neighbour Porto Heli. As the boat approaches, the white town with red rooves looms into view against a backdrop of pine trees. In front is the Posedonion Hotel, the oldest hotel on the Greek Islands, and the main harbour of the island, Dapia, which means Fortress.
Owing much of its architectural influence to its sometime Venetian overlords, thankfully protected by law from being replaced with high-rise modern buildings, the fine old houses of the interior can be glimpsed. Above Dapia rises Kastelli, the first major settlement of the island, and to the east, the sky is pierced by the bell tower of Agios Nikolaos.
The Old Harbour, Palio Limano, is hidden behind the lighthouse headland and it is here that the many bars and clubs that rock until dawn are to be found. Behind are narrow streets filled with chic boutiques, taverns, pebbled nautical mosaics and cool cafés that are a perfect place to stroll and while away the hours. Various roads out of town lead to the coast and the sun-drenched beaches while a path leads up to Profitis Ilias, the highest point on the island at 285 metres. The views are sublime across to the Peloponnese and on the opposite side of the Argolic Gulf to Leonido, and beneath your feet the green gem with turquoise shores that could only be Spetses.
Agios Mammas Church
The island is host to many festivals with lively dancing and traditional music, accompanied by eating and drinking. Especially evocative is the celebration of Agios Mamas, held on September 2nd at the eponymous church near Dapia, where children launch small boats with candles in them into the sea after evening mass.
Agios Nikolaos Church
The church of Agios Nikolaos, a former monastery, is the most important on the island as it is here that the captains, priests and ruling families met on the 3rd April 1821 and flew the flag of the revolution for the first time on any island in Greece. Distinctive, with a bell tower of Tinian marble, the corpse of Paul Bonaporte, philhellenic nephew of Napoleon, was kept here in a barrel of rum for five years awaiting repatriation.
Anagyrios and Korgialenios School
Known as the inspiration for the school in The Magus by John Fowles where the author worked in the 1950’s, the institution was established in 1927 as an English-style boarding school for Greece’s wealthy elite. Today, the building hosts conference, seminars and summer schools and there is an amphitheatre within the grounds that hosts a series of performances in late June.
The school was just one of the many legacies of Sotiris Anagyrios who made his fortune in America. As well as a two-storey neoclassical mansion designed by Zizillas, he funded many projects including the building of an aqueduct, initiating a road-building programme and the construction of the Posedonion Grand. His greatest contribution, though, was buying up nearly half of the island which he had reforested with trees, and donated it to the island on the condition that it could never be built upon.
Laskarina Bouboulina was a heroine of the Greek revolution and is Spetses’ most famous daughter. After losing two husbands in pirate battles, she used her fortune to help the fight for Greek independence and sailed on a warship to blockade Napflio. Her exploits bought her fame and advanced the cause beyond Greece. Later, she was killed in an island feud after her son eloped with a girl betrothed to another.
The museum is housed in the 350 year old mansion of her second husband, Dimitris Bouboulis, a wealthy captain and shipowner. Bequeathed by a fourth generation descendant, personal items, weapons, antique charts and maps, books, furniture and portraits help to preserve the story of this extraordinary woman.
Poseidonion Grand Hotel
This grand old dame has occupied a prime slice of seafront since 1914, bringing a shot of Riviera glamour to the island. The brainchild of Sotirios Anargyros, a returning immigrant from America who had made his fortune in tobacco, the hotel became the grandest in the Balkans, hosting celebrities, royalty and wealthy families. Centrally positioned over Dapia, the hotel towers over an expansive seafront square with a statue of Bouboulina, and it is still at the centre of Spetses social life a century on from its inception.
The most important festival on Spetses is Armata which is held at the beginning of September. Many cultural events and performances are held, culminating in a celebration of the naval battle of Spetses from September 8th 1822 where the outnumbered Greek forces prevented an attack on Napflio by the Turkish armada. A replica ship from the Ottoman fleet is built in the old harbour and, after a reenactment of the fight, it is exploded in a tremendous firework display which attracts many visitors to the islands.
Xatzigiannis Mexis Spetses Museum
In a striking building from 1798, the Archontiko, mansion, belonged to the first governor of the island, Xatzigiannis Mexis, and it now houses the Spetses Museum. An eclectic collection ranges from early Hellenistic pottery to Roman statuary, from the findings from a pre- Mycenaean shipwreck to the bones of Bouboulina. A hub of activity during the revolutionary period, from here Mexis urged the people of Psara and Hydra to join the uprising against the Ottomans and there are many relics from the War of Independence.
The traditional shipyards, known as Karnagia from the Italian, have a long history on Spetses and still operate today. In the 18th century, the Spetsiots perfected the art of building large, strong ships from the native pine forests and their vessels sailed all over the Mediterranean. This merchant presence brought great wealth to the island, evidenced in the grandiose architecture of the traditional mansions known as Kapetonospita, Captain Houses. Hidden behind high walls to protect from piracy, the interiors were filled with furniture and objects from all over the world as the broadened horizons of the Captains gave them a cultured outlook.