Most people who travel to Greece bypass Tinos. And had it not been for for a one-week photography workshop I did there last summer, I, too, would likely have given it a miss. But that would have been a serious mistake. Only a 20-minute ferry trip from the glitz and glitter of Mykonos, Tinos is worlds away in attitude and appearance.
Near the fairy-tale hamlet of Koumaros, introduced to us by Greece Photo Workshops leader Maria, the rocky cliffs of Kolibithra form a perfect horseshoe-shaped bay cradling a sandy crescent beach. With its reputation for having the best breaks on the island – a rarity in a country better known for its still waters – Kolibithra has become a popular yet laid-back spot among Greek surfers.
On the beach, a guy with a man bun staffed the bar, a repurposed vintage Volkswagen van, from which emanated the Eagles classic, Hotel California. The surfers hung around hoping for a swell, their boards propped against a thatched roof lean-to. Other beach-goers sipped mojitos by the bar, swam or lounged under quirky mushroom-shaped wicker parasols.
It was not a vibe I expected to encounter after spending three days in the chora, or capital, best known for its religious pilgrimages to the Church of the Panagia Evangelistria. Unlike most other Greek island choras, Tinos Town lacks island charm, possessing a decidedly more urban and chaotic feel. Ferries from Athens drop pilgrims off all day long, some of whom can be seen crawling on their hands and knees for the entire kilometre from the boat all the way up the red-carpeted promenade on Leoforos Megalocharis to the entrance of the church complex.
Since anyone arriving on Tinos has to come through the chora, Tinos is an island whose powers of seduction are not immediately apparent, but venture beyond and you will soon fall under its spell.
As on Amorgos, another island in the Cyclades chain, the mountains here are steep, the distances between villages on the tortuous roads are vast, and nature has largely been left to its own devices. All this gives the island a wild, untamed, uninhabited feel, not least because of the morning cloud cover, even in the summer, and the violent meltemi winds that batter the shore. While the landscape is heart-stopping in its beauty, the villages enchanting and the beaches lovely, Tinos is not an island for people wanting to rub shoulders with flashy yachters or dance at an all-night beach rave.
Perhaps this is why the island attracts sophisticated Athenians looking for tranquility and seclusion, as well as an increasing number of French citizens, many of whom are buying up old homes in the villages.
On the morning of our first workshop, Nikos, the teacher, had us meet him in the leafy, sun-dappled square of Pyrgos, a village celebrated for its marble craftsmen. It’s no wonder, then, that the doorways and windows of many homes are embellished with sculpted bird, flower and sailboat motifs and that even the street signs are works of art: pretty, asymmetrical slabs of marble inscribed with lovely Greek script.
Throughout the week, Maria drove us all over to explore and photograph some of its other mountain villages – 50-odd communities dotting the rocky, thyme-scented hills, each one a contender in the beauty pageant of Tinian towns. It’s hard to say which is fairest of them all. Is it Pyrgos, the marble village, with its massive plane tree dominating the square? Kardiani, with its winding, bougainvillea-draped lanes and verdant hills plunging down to the Aegean? How about Volax, where many crumbling homes have been hand-painted with poems, and giant granite boulders – once believed to have been flung from the heavens by the gods – litter the countryside? No one knows how they got there, but today the rocks are thought to be debris from a meteorite or a volcanic explosion.
Apart from its abundance of marble and its draw for Orthodox pilgrims, Tinos is also famous for its distinctive, eye-catching architecture – many old dovecotes adorned with geometric designs still perch on the steep hillsides. The emblematic Tinian towers are a legacy of the Venetians who ruled here from 1204 to 1715. The occupiers were the first to systematically breed pigeons for their meat and the droppings also made for excellent fertilizer. Today, about 600 old dovecotes – distinctive towers that housed the birds – remain scattered across the island. Our group visited Tarabados, where a clutch of dovecotes dot the countryside, and we spent an afternoon working on architectural and landscape photography techniques.
Each afternoon, after our photography lesson, Maria and Nikos would take us to a different beach. The two are especially fond of the secluded, unspoiled variety, the kind that require stamina and strong legs – and preferably goats’ feet – for climbing rocky hills en route – and Tinos is blessed with dozens. Apart from Kolibithra and St. Peter’s Beach, one of my favourites was the one in the bay across from Panormos. Viewed from the road above, what you see is a colossal rock, as tall as a building, projecting out from the water, like an island. Fifteen or 20 metres of water separate the giant rock from big humps of flatter rocks that give way to the beach. Locals call it Planitis, or the Planet, because of its lunar landscape and sense of isolation. Indeed, it was at least a 20-minute walk from where we parked the car, hiking past another beach, past a church in the middle of nowhere and traversing a path cut through rocky, shrub-studded terrain to reach our final destination.
While you wouldn’t expect it on a rugged, unpretentious island such as Tinos, the island also boasts an exceptional, authentic culinary scene favoured by foodies and cosmopolitan Athenians. On the first night of the workshop, Maria had booked us a table at Thalassaki, a seafront property on Isternia Bay. Ingredients are sourced locally and the original dishes are so exquisitely arranged that they resemble works of art, like the meringues and vanilla ice cream that come in the shape of roses and the hummus dish topped with tiny wild flowers and adorned with onion slices cut in the shape of flower petals. So highly regarded is the taverna that gourmands and A-listers sail over from Mykonos to dine here. That evening, in fact, a popular Greek singer motored over on his yacht – along with about 50 members of his boisterous entourage.
On two occasions, we went to family-owned O Ntinos at Giannaki Bay, a picturesque west-facing location overlooking the water. As a vegan, I revelled in the fresh meze (appetizers) such as chickpea and fava dips, a lentil and tomato salad and the artichokes and capers drizzled in olive oil. It’s not common to see celebrities on Tinos, but on our first visit to O Ntinos, we spotted Michael Stipe of REM. Only Nikos recognized him and no one bothered him. We spied the singer again during our farewell dinner at the much loved Taverna Naftilos (Nautilus), back at Isternia Bay, when he and his friends entered rival Thalassaki next door.
As we clinked glasses on the terrace at Naftilos, watching the sky metamorphose from burnt orange to watermelon to purple and indigo blue, I felt thankful for my new friends, my new photography skills and to Maria for having brought us here to this magical, unexpected island. But most of all, I felt grateful to the Church of the Panagia Evangelistria. By limiting development and lodging options, the church is essentially ensuring that Tinos remain best known as a pilgrimage destination.
With most tourists eschewing Tinos for glam Mykonos, Tinos seems destined to remain an undiscovered bijou isle, untouched by mass tourism – a secret hidden in plain sight.