The thermal springs of Nisyros

This travel story about a little-visited Greek island originally appeared in Encounters magazine.


The sea is bubbling off the pebbly southern shore of Kos, and a small but noisy crowd of people are bathing in a patch of shallow water marked out by stones. What’s going on?

We didn’t expect to find thermal springs at the end of our hike across the island. As we join the crowd and lower ourselves into the strangely warm seawater, laughing as hot currents mingle with cold, one of the bathers tells us that this coast is volcanic, and warm waters spill forth at temperatures of up to 60 degrees.

An idea is planted. Days later, we are boarding a morning ferry for the two-hour crossing to Nisyros, a tiny island to the south which is a sleeping volcano.

As part of the Dodecanese islands, Nisyros has been controlled by the Ottomans, the Italians and the Knights of St John, but its character is undeniably Greek. As our boat pulls into Mandraki, the main town (population 600), we check off the icons of Aegean island life: a domed church, waterfront cafés with wooden chairs and moustachioed patrons, blue-and-white flags, fishing boats, a whitewashed monastery on the hillside behind.

With no airport, Nisyros is not visited by package tourists. We call in at the first hotel we find on the promenade – it’s a family-run place that includes a breakfast of coffee, fruit and yoghurt, and we get a room with a wrought-iron balcony overlooking the water.

On a little beach opposite, we watch a gaggle of white ducks go for a paddle in the sea. The island has little fresh water, and every resident must adapt. When we walk past again an hour later, the sun is stronger and the ducks are taking shade together under a beach umbrella.

We’ve come here for the thermal baths, and we make our way there in the afternoon. The hot springs have been used since ancient times. An inscription found in Roman ruins nearby says “Happy shall be the man who shall be cured in this way as soon as he passes by the olive-gate of the baths of Hippocrates”. A later visitor, a monk from Florence, wrote: “In the nearby coast, there is a cave visited by all those suffering from pains in order to be healed and after spending there some period of time they leave having regained their health”.

The municipal baths were opened in the 19th century and occupy a building on the shore which looks like a Victorian hotel. At reception, a cheerful woman gives us towels and directs us into separate tiled chambers where hot sulphurous water flows into and out of individual baths. “Twenty minutes!” she says, tapping her wrist, and is gone.

Soon she is back knocking on the door, and that is fine for me: I could only take ten minutes in the steaming waters, but I feel invigorated. Back in the lobby, I gesture to pay, but there’s no charge – the baths are free.

To cool down, we take a breezy table outside the baths and order lemonade. “Vasilios! Vasilios!” the waitress calls out, banging a food bowl for the café’s three-legged cat. But the patient animal has been waiting at her feet the whole time.

In Mandraki that evening, we eat grilled octopus at a restaurant in a square sheltered by fig trees. Afterwards we are given glasses of soumada, an almond-based drink which is made by the islanders.

The second day, and an ancient German bus – the only public transport on Nisyros – carries us up to the hilltop village of Nikia. From this high point we get our first view of the caldera, the still-smoking crater of the volcano.

A stocky man in his fifties drags a suitcase out of the bus behind us, and half a dozen people cry out and run to meet him. We must look too inquisitive, because he breaks away from the group to tell us that he was born here and is visiting his old home from Australia.

The timetable said that the island’s bus would call in later in the day beside the crater. Relying on this, we follow a stone-slab path down from the village, picking our way between almond and olive trees. We see no people for the next three hours; goats seem to be the only inhabitants of the interior.

We’re wearing hiking boots, so when we reach the edge of the crater we decide to scramble down into it. We step into a yellow-stained, moonlike landscape where nothing grows. Bursts of pungent gas escape from the earth. The volcano has not erupted since 1887, but we don’t hang around.

*

“Kalimera!” a woman calls out from her bicycle as we walk the promenade on the third morning – it’s the lady from the municipal baths. We feel like we’ve lived here for ever.

There’s time to explore the castle above Mandraki before our ferry departs. Built by the medieval Knights of St John, it’s a maze of stairways, halls and passages, and each turn reveals a different view of the town or the sun-reflective sea.

A shop near the ferry pier proves that we are not the only visitors to be entranced by Nisyros. I ask the shopkeeper what music is playing, and it turns out to be a CD of folk songs written about the island by a French/German couple who came and liked it. We buy a copy to take home – though I have a feeling we won’t need any help remembering Nisyros.

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