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The Greek Island You’ve Probably Never Heard of

PHOTO: Theastock / Shutterstock

Once outside the forgettable main town, the wild, mountainous, windswept island of Tinos will soon cast its spell on you.

The average traveler has never even heard of Tinos. Yet, only a 20-minute ferry ride from Mykonos lies a barely discovered Cycladic Island paradise. Tinos is best known for the Church of the Panagia Evangelistria, a religious pilgrimage site located in Chora, the main town. As a result, the island’s charms may not be immediately apparent, but venture beyond Chora and you’ll soon discover an untamed, ruggedly beautiful island of hidden beaches, enchanting mountain villages, impressive marble work, and extraordinary cuisine. Perhaps this is why Tinos attracts Athenians in search of tranquility and authenticity, as well as an increasing number of French residents, many of whom are buying and renovating old homes in the mountains. After spending a morning visiting the Panagia Evangelistria complex, rent a car and head straight into the mountains. It won’t be long before you fall under the island’s spell.

 

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Secluded and Unspoiled Beaches

Tinos has some of the most pristine, isolated beaches anywhere in the Mediterranean. Many cannot be reached by car, so it’s best to have strong legs and ankles to hike down—and back up—the rocky, sometimes steep, escarpments and long staircases. But the uncrowded beach at the end will be worth the effort.

One of the most popular with in-the-know visitors is the lunar landscape of a nude (not obligatory) beach dubbed “The Planet,” or Planitis, in Greek, across the bay from Panormos. Another is Kolibithra, a windswept surfer beach with the best breaks on the island characterized by quirky mushroom-shaped beach umbrellas and a vintage VW van that serves as a bar. They offer lessons and surfboard rental. There’s also St. Peter’s Beach, which looks spectacular when viewed from high above the road, reached by climbing down a steep, stony hill.

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Fairytale Mountain Villages

On Tinos, each of the 50-odd white and blue villages sprinkled across the mountains is so pretty, it’s impossible to choose the fairest in this beauty contest of Tinian towns. There’s Pyrgos, the famous marble sculptors’ village, with its lovely boutiques and vibrant, sun-dappled square dominated by a gigantic plane tree; Volax, a hamlet of 51 permanent inhabitants, known for basket weaving, massive rock formations, and dozens of crumbling homes that have been lovingly hand-painted with poems; and Kardiani, with a stream running through it, keeping the flora lush and the hills tumbling down to the sea beautifully verdant.

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Surreal Rock Formations

Behind the village of Volax is a mysterious field of giant granite boulders that seem to have been launched from the sky by the gods. These days, they’re believed to be the debris from a meteorite or a volcanic explosion. Nobody goes here and it’s eerily quiet and unexpectedly beautiful, especially when the light of the early morning or late evening sun turns the stones ochre and burnt orange.

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An Unpretentious (Yet Exceptional) Culinary Scene

Tinian cuisine is innovative and distinct from the other Cycladic isles. Typical dishes and ingredients include galaktomboureko, a custard-filled pastry; homemade pasta with tomato and basil; tiniako, Tinian cheese; sun-dried tomatoes; wild fennel; thyme; eggplants; artichokes; and capers. These last two, capers and artichokes, are so tied to the island’s repertory that they even have their own festivals.

The most popular restaurant on the island at the moment is To Thalassaki, located on the jetty at Isternia Bay, so close to the sea that your dinner might get washed away by a rogue wave. Artistically-plated dishes to try include meringues and vanilla ice cream shaped like roses, tiniako with garlic and poppy seeds, and hummus adorned with tiny wildflowers and onion slices shaped like flower petals. Indeed, so beloved is To Thalassaki that wealthy yachters and A-listers regularly sail over from Mykonos. Other good calls on the island are O Ntinos at Giannaki Bay and Taverna Naftilos, next to rival To Thalassaki.

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Exquisite Marble Craftsmanship

Tinos is renowned for its abundance of marble and is celebrated for its accomplished sculptors and intricate marble designs. Flowers, birds, fish, trees and other pretty motifs embellish the doors and windows of buildings and private homes all over the island, but these are especially notable in the mountain village of Pyrgos, where the streets are also lined with marble and street signs are inscribed on lovely, asymmetrically shaped marble plaques. There’s also a marble sculpting school in the harbor, below Pyrgos, and a Museum of Marble Crafts, just outside Pyrgos, which is dedicated to the art and technology of marble sculpting from antiquity to the present. So notable is Tinos for its marble craftsmanship that in 2015 it was inscribed in on UNESCO’s representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

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Distinctive Dovecote Architecture

Another interesting architectural element on Tinos is its dovecote towers.Dovecotes appear on other Cycladic islands, but the ones on Tinos are the most unique. The whitewashed towers are a legacy of the Venetians who occupied Tinos—as well as many other islands in Greece—from 1204 to 1715. The Venetians adorned the towers with geometric designs, giving the structures the appearance of fine lace when seen from a distance. The towers are scattered all over the island, usually on slopes, but the best place to see many of them in one spot is the village of Tarabados. It’s estimated that there are between 800 and 1300 dovecotes on the island.

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PHOTO: Archaeological Museum of Chora Facebook
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Archaeological Ruins

In ancient times, Tinos was an important religious center. In the 5th century BC, the island was known as a center for the worship of Poseidon, whose temple was reconstructed and expanded in the third century BC. Archaeology buffs will enjoy visiting the ruins of Poseidon’s temple in Kionia, as well as the Archaeology Museum in Chora. The museum’s permanent collection contains findings such as ancient pottery and sculptures, architectural pieces, inscriptions, and coins from excavations made all over the island.

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Trekking Paths

Tinos is blessed with 250 miles of marked trekking paths, known as vari, dating back to ancient times. Before modern transport, these stone and slate paths, or “mule paths”, were an important form of transport and communications, as the paths connected isolated towns to the center of the island. Like elsewhere in Greece, the ancient paths take hikers through the countryside, past aromatic plants and wild flowers, pretty valleys and ancient sites. They’re also ideal for exploring the island’s pretty mountain villages and offer the opportunity to chat with locals over a drink or sample the local specialties in a taverna. There are 10 official paths connecting villages.

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PHOTO: Tinos World Music Festival Facebook
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Rich Arts Scene

Tinos draws many painters, photographers, musicians, and other artists to its unassuming  shores, with artists putting on exhibitions in Chora as well as villages like Pyrgos. Each year, the Tinos Quarry Platform, in collaboration with the Cultural Foundation of Tinos, puts on a group exhibition from May to mid-September that attracts artists from all over the world. In 2018, the exhibition is called Oh That I Had a Thousand Tongues. The island also hosts a number of arts festivals: the Tinos World Music Festival in May, Jazz on Tinos in August, and the island’s largest festival, the Tinos Festival, takes places during July, August, and September, showcasing all the arts from theater and dance to photography and painting.

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Religious Pilgrimage

The Church of the Panagia Evangelistria in Chora is the most important pilgrimage shrine of the Greek Orthodox Church, the equivalent of Lourdes in France. Pilgrims from all over Greece travel here to give thanks to the Virgin Mary—the patron saint of Tinos—for answering their prayers and healing them or a loved one. Built in 1823, the imposing complex, with grand marbles staircases and lovely arched colonnades and courtyards, stands atop a gently rising hill. The large complex is often busy in August, but on August 15th, the Day of the Virgin, it will be very crowded, with dozens of pilgrims from all over Greece solemnly covering the distance all the way from the port and up the church stairs on their hands and knees.