KOS, Greece - The island of Kos is the third largest in the Dodecanese and is well-known as a tourist destination. For those of us with roots there, the island draws us back each summer (hopefully) to visit our family and friends and enjoy the beautiful beaches, delicious fresh food, and the historic sites. Kos is also the island of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who treated patients suffering from various ailments at the Asclepeion, the healing temple, in ancient times.
Having only ever visited in the summer, I once asked my Yiayia years ago, how she could have left the island, her home for so many years. She was originally from Samos, but her family relocated to Kos where she married my Pappou who was from the town of Kefalos on the island and they lived in Kardamena, then Rhodes, before immigrating to America. Yiayia told me simply, “You did not live through the war.”
Post-World War II Kos, like all of Greece, was not an easy place to make a living. And when we wax lyrical about the idyllic beaches and the beauty of the island, the cousins are always quick to mention that winter is something else entirely and along the seashore it is not exactly as relaxing as it is in the summer. “The sea comes up to here,” your cousin points out and you try to imagine a raging sea in a winter storm as you take a sip of your drink staring out at the calm water.
After arriving at the airport in Antimachia, the pine trees along the road to Kardamena give off a clean, pine scent, that brings back memories of previous trips to the island, when the motorbikes and buses full of tourists aren’t spewing exhaust fumes in your general direction. After dropping off the suitcases, there is the requisite visit with the cousins and then someone mentions a Nisiotiki Vradia. You can already hear the familiar rhythms of the nisiotika playing. High winds were blowing that night, pushing me back towards the sea as I watched the musicians and the dancers in traditional costume perform. Practically everyone in town attends the community event including tourists from various countries, mostly Italians, Brits, and Russians this year.
The character of the tourism has changed in recent years due to the increasing popularity of all-inclusive hotels and resorts. There are more young families visiting as opposed to the rowdy Brits who used to fill the beachfront bars every night years ago. The residents used to complain about the drunken tourists, the noise, the mess, now they complain about the lack of tourists in general. Buses from the hotels and resorts do bring the tourists in for a stroll through the town every night and some might spend some money there before lining up for the bus back to their hotels.
Are they looking for an authentic Greek experience when they pass through town? It seems like they mostly pick up a few souvenirs here and there or stock up on bottled water at the supermarket. They might glance at the traditional, handmade items for sale, but it is rare to see the tourists stock up on embroidered tablecloths or replica ancient vases, for example, at least not in the way some of the Greeks visiting from abroad might.
The elections have also brought some hope to the people in the town. The unpopular fountains that were installed in Kardamena’s town square were shut off and will likely be removed eventually. The port in Kos town has also been fixed following the earthquake two years ago, but other structures remain in various stages of repair with scaffolding surrounding them. The minaret has not been replaced next to the former mosque in Kos town square. St. Paraskevi Church still has cracks from the earthquake. The plane tree of Hippocrates is still there, by the Castle of the Knights, and the tourists flock to see it. Hippocrates taught medicine to his students beneath the tree and St. Paul also taught beneath its branches. The current tree is about 500 years old and is probably a descendant of the original tree which stood on the same spot some 2400 years ago.
The charming views are still there and the food made with the freshest local ingredients is not to be missed. The ice cream is wonderful, probably because I’m eating it with a view of the sea. We even had some fresh figs this year which are always a special treat. They seemed especially sweet since we missed them last year.
Floating in the clear blue Aegean Sea beneath a clear blue sky, I feel blessed to be there, I can relax and let all my cares drift away like that sailboat on the horizon. The feeling is priceless and makes me count the days until I can return next summer.