In winter many Greek islands go into hibernation, but the Saronic Gulf island of Aegina never closes down. It’s close to Athens but feels like a world away. And there’s nothing like a bit of cool, fresh, salty sea air. The island is 27km or about an hour from the port of Pireaus by slow ferry, and just 40 minutes on the hydrofoil which will then head for Poros and the more glamorous island of Hydra.
There must be preservation measures in place, because the lovely Italian-style, neo-classical waterfront architecture of the capital town, also called Aegina, remains intact. The ochre and rose-washed buildings with their wrought iron balconies and colourful wooden shutters haven’t changed over the decades. Although many of them, in their crumbling glory, need fundamental repairs and probably full-scale restoration.
In summer it is really busy – day trippers and tourists are like packed sardines on the ferries and on the mountainous island, especially on weekends as many Athenians have holiday homes there. Unlike other islands, Aegina doesn’t have many long beaches, but has more small, sheltered coves with deep water. The marina is wall-to-wall yachts in summer and and the parties go on all night. It’s often the first port of call for yachts after leaving Pireaus.
In winter some yachts are still moored there, but the marina is also home to the many fishing boats. Fishermen are still getting some sort of living out of the over-fished Mediterranean. Aegina is almost tourist free at this time of year. Rugged-up Athenians like to go there on weekends, as I did with my friends Janet and Toby, right after Christmas. We lunched on Boxing Day belatedly with friends in their backyard under a greying sky, arriving just in time to see a whole Stilton plonked on the table which was whittled away in no time at all.
Athenians dine on freshly-caught fish at the many outdoor restaurants lining the waterfront, or just have an ouzo and meze, or a Metaxa brandy and meze, and do aspot of people watching. And then go for a stroll to buy some local produce. While olives, figs, honey and wine are produced on the island, the main crop is pistachio nuts, which can be bought by the bag from shops at the port. Adonis Tzitzis and his wife produce Aegina’s famous pure thyme honey called “H Panagiotara”.
I’ve done a few freezing cold weather sailing trips around the Saronic Gulf, and Aegina – with its excellent fish market and cozy back-street bars – is a must. Octopus, kalamari, tiny crabs, shellfish and barbounia are regular fare.
Stray animals are a continuing issue (and tragedy) on Aegina, but the situation is improving. Holidaymakers used to simply abandon their pets when they went back to Athens after their summer holidays, and pet owners on the island did not do very much to curb unwanted breeding. I’ll spare you the horror stories about what happened to unwanted litters. The Charity of Animal Protection has a continuous sterilization program for the strays. Please give Vivi Iakovidis a call on 22970 23257 if you’re in the area and feel like giving a donation to this worthy cause.
- In Greek mythology, Aegina was the daughter of the river god Asopus and the nymph Metope. When Zeus abducted Aegina, he took her to an island close to Attica, which later took her name. The 5th Century Doric temple of Aphaia is the island’s major tourist attraction.
- Aegina is about one hour by ferry from Pireaus. Tickets are about 15 euros.
- Ferries go every hour, but the return service to Pireaus is limited in winter months. Last ferry on a Sunday is about 6pm.
- The Temple of Aphaia is 12km from Aegina town.
- The Archaeological Museum in Aegina town was the first museum in Greece, built in 1829. It houses artefacts from the temple.
- Agia Marina is a family resort area with a wide pebbly beach. Takes about 40 minutes winding over the hills on a bus from Aegina town. (the scenery on this short trip: gnarled olive trees, a red-tiled monastery, whitewashed houses with inky blue and vivid green shutters, scarlet bourgainvilleas tumbling across stone walls. One of my favourite parts of the world)
- The neighbouring island of Agistri can easily be reached by car ferry to Skala (20 minutes), or Flying Dolphin services.
- From late September to May, it’s good weather (mostly) for walking tours across the island. Several different routes are detailed on booklets that you can buy at the local bookstores in Aegina for 5 euros. They’re only available in Greek but English versions should be out early next year.