"Craggy Chios" is what local boy Homer, the island's first publicist, so to speak, called this starkly beautiful outcropping that almost touches Turkey's coast and shares its topography. The island has suffered its share of misfortunes: the bloody Turkish massacre of 1822 during the fight for Greek independence; major earthquakes, including one in 1881 that killed almost 6,000 Chiotes; severe fires, which in recents years have burned pine forests and coveted mastic shrubs; and, through the ages, the steady stripping of forests to ax-wielding boatbuilders. Yet despite these setbacks, the island remains a wonderful destination, with friendly inhabitants, and villages so rare and captivating that just one of them alone would make this island a gem.
The name Chios comes from the Phoenician word for "mastic," the resin of the Pistacia lentisca evergreen shrubs that with few exceptions thrive only here, in the southern part of the island. Every August, incisions are made in the bark of the shrubs; the sap leaks out, permeating the air with a sweet fragrance, and in September the output is harvested. This aromatic resin, which brought huge revenues until the introduction of petroleum products, is still used in cosmetics, chewing gum, and mastiha liqueur sold on the island today. Pirgi, Mesta, and other villages where the mastic is grown and processed are enchanting. In these towns you can wind your way through narrow, labyrinthine Byzantine lanes protected by medieval gates and lined with homes that date back half a millennium.
Chios is also home to the elite families that control Greece's private shipping empires: Livanos, Karas, Chandris; even Onassis came here from Smyrna. The island has never seemed to need tourists or to draw them. Yet Chios intrigues, with its deep valleys, uncrowded sandy and black-pebble beaches, fields of wild tulips, Byzantine monasteries, and haunting villages—all remnants of a poignant history.