Samothraki, as you approach it by ferry from Thessaloniki, rises up out of the Aegean sea like a Child's drawing of the tip of a mountain, which is more or less exactly what it is, except the child that first drew it is by now, very, very old indeed. The mountain is called ‘The Moon’ (Fengari in Greek) and it slopes straight down into the sea along most of the islands coastline, broad beaches are relatively few and far between. The island, when seen on a map is vaguely egg shaped and solitary in the northeastern Aegean Sea. It is very close to the Turkish mainland, so much so that its airspace is regularly invaded by sorties of Turkish military jets, testing the diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Poseidon was said to have sat on top of mount Fengari to watch the events of Troy unfold on the mainland (now Turkey).

As the island is so steep there is very little land that is suitable for agriculture. One exception is the small spit of land on the north coast adjacent to Kamariotissa the only harbour, this land is intensively farmed. Unlike many other Greek islands there is no shortage of water here, as a result the island is unusually green and lush. Even Homer described the island as "iliessan" or full of trees. It is so verdant that it is easy to imagine being in the midst of a classical Greek myth, walking by tumbling waterfalls in sylvan glades, expecting a satyr or a nymph to appear at any minute. This is particularly true of the north side of the island where a large river, known locally as ‘the murderer’ winds it way between waterfalls and deep pools through a dense forest of plane trees. It is hard to imagine why the idyllic river has gained such a wicked reputation, that is until you look up into the trees and spot the rotted remains of goats, caught high in the branches, hoisted by the sudden flood waters rushing down from the ‘moon’.

If such tales of woe regarding goats sadden you, don’t worry, a few days on Samothraki and you will develop a different attitude towards them. It is estimated that there are between 80,000 and 100,000 goats wandering the island, approximately 500 goats per square kilometre, they seriously outnumber the population of 2,723 people at 33 goats per person. This massive number of goats is in a way testimony to the amazing fertility of the island, because it is still verdant even though goats eat everything. The novelty of seeing groups of goats climbing on cars, on the beach, on everything, and the magical sound of 100,000 distant, and not so distant, goat bells at night has to be heard to be believed. I do have one friend who has stopped going to Samothraki, he says it is because he can no longer bear to see such a beautiful place ravaged, not by tourists, but by goats.

This brings me to a dilemma. I am protective of places that I like, that still seem untouched by tourism. I thought long and hard about writing this, not wishing to produce an advertisement. In the end I consoled myself with the fact that the people in Samothraki want visitors to support their economy (at least some do), and decided to try to describe the island rather than the holiday destination. If you should decide to go and visit, please go prepared to respect the island and its inhabitants, even the goats.

Having hopefully discouraged the average consumer of holidays, there are some important details that need to be said regarding tourism. Samothraki has no tourist infrastructure, I do recall seeing one hotel in an out of the way location, but to travel here you will need to be resourceful. As with most Greek islands there is a surprising amount of available accommodation, although its quality varies, you may well end up sleeping in someone’s front room, or you could get lucky and find a small house all to yourself. There are some truly amazing tavernas, but they aren’t all neatly presented along a single street, you will have to search to find them. Nightlife is limited to friends that you have made, or if you are lucky a special Rembetika evening in a bar. When I went last, there was only one bank, and it clearly felt no compulsion to provide money to tourists, it was after all there to serve the local agricultural co-operative, I was forced to get the ferry back to the mainland (a full day round trip) to visit a cash machine (My heartfelt thanks to the wonderful café owner who lent me enough to get by for a few days). You can spend a few weeks on Samothraki without hearing another English voice, although chances are you will hear German and Italian spoken, and there are quite a few young Greek backpackers. Numbers of young Greek backpackers increase for the yearly Greek folk music festival.

The small area of land that is under cultivation is farmed in a way that is more reminiscent of France, except for the presence of wild tortoises, and the farmers all seem to share their vehicles and equipment, which are owned collectively through the local agricultural co-operative. The south of the island has extensive olive groves and a beach.

The harbour town of Kamariotissa is very small, but it has shops and a few cafes, and of course the daily ferry to Kavalla. It has the look of an Eastern European soviet era town, despite the inherent tendency of the Greeks to beautify everything with bougainvillea. Spend any time on the island and you will realise that Kamariotissa is a necessary place to visit for thousands of reasons, the small supermarket being about 500 of them, petrol being another.

One look at Kamariotissa and you realize that it hasn’t been there very long, perhaps only a century or so. Chances are that you will begin to wonder where the people lived before this small coast hugging settlement was developed, if you are only there for a ferry hopping visit the answer could escape you entirely because the ‘Chora’ that you come to expect on any Greek island is very well hidden, and for good reason. The history of the Island since the fall of the Byzantine Empire is one of piracy, and terror from the sea, as a result the main town began life as a refuge hidden in a small depression half way up the mountain. The town, Chora, is still invisible from the sea and most of the island. Upon entering the town one is greeted by a densely packed tumble of small dwellings clinging to the walls of a small natural amphitheatre. The buildings are unlike the classic white architecture that you might expect; instead they resemble the more northerly buildings of Thrace and even Macedonia, the earth colours reddened by the mosaic of tiled roofs that are secured with small boulders. The overall effect is one of organized chaos, with steps and doors and windows and outcrops of rock making it hard to tell where one building begins and another ends and very few areas of flat ground. Most of the buildings here in Chora appear to be very old, in fact the whole town is preserved and protected as a heritage site by the government in Athens. Chora feels like a community trapped in time, and the feint antipathy felt between the town and the harbour seems to revolve around which community lives in the real world, it is very difficult to decide which is correct. Overlooking the pass into the secret town there is a large tower or small fortress, built by the Venetians when they protected the island, a close look at the walls will find it to contain mysterious fragments of classical Greek architectural carving, some of which are quite exceptional.

There are 10 other small settlements on the island including, Paleopolis, Xiropotamos, Therma, Profitis Ilias, Lakkoma, Alonia and Kariotes but they are very small.

Samothraki was not always as peripheral as it appears today, this is evidenced by the visible remains of a huge ancient city cloaking the fields to the north west of the island. These are the remains of a massive walled city that grew up to service one of the most essential destinations of the ancient world. The site of the city shares its name Paleopolis (old town) with a scattering of dwellings hugging the coast downhill, which you could easily mistake for an unfinished holiday home development. Both of the Paleopolii don’t manage to make you want to get off the track to visit them.

So why did millions of ancient Greeks see it as a duty to visit this island? The answer is a secret, one that nobody knows the answer to, despite all that is known about this holy site of pilgrimage bordering on the scale of the hajj. The site is the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, the centre of a mystery cult that reached the corners of the civilized world and rivaled those of Delphi and Eleusis, ranked alongside Dodoni, Olympia Delos, Meteora and Holy Mount Athos. Unlike other mystery cults of the ancient world the cult based at Samothraki was open to any who wished to be initiated, even slaves. It is known that Herod, Lissindus King of Sparta and Phillip of Macedon were initiated, while Alexander the Great visited the Holy Altar and donated ritual buildings. Several Egyptian queens are linked with the site including Arsinoe and Cleopatra. During the period of Roman Empire occupation, the Sanctuary faced a new period of growth up to 200 AD. In 49-51 AC even the apostle Paul passed through Samothraki (I wonder what for).

The focus of the thousand years of attention lavished on this island is still there, and it still holds a strong sense of place, it is located in a shallow green valley with a small river cutting through the centre of a sacred grove. A tight cluster of ruins survive thanks to the efforts of archaeologists, these are focused around a central boulder of purple porphyry that is set in a shallow dip at the corner of a temple. Exactly what happened at this place, nobody quite knows, Initiates were sworn to secrecy and without exception they kept the vow. Evidence suggests that a long, highly complex theatrical ceremony took place, during which the initiate was symbolically returned from the dead, after having bull’s blood poured over them, dancing and feasting ensued late into the night. The initiation into the secrets of the Kabeiroi (the mysterious group of ancient gods at the heart of the ritual) had three stages, the second and third are unknown. As an ancient site this is one of the most intriguing, the buildings and temples are all mysterious in their purpose and strange in shape, there are many surviving details that just about offer tantalising clues to what might have occurred here. One building was erected around a trireme warship from Paros, its keel shape still visible. The most famous archaeological find from this site is the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which for some strange reason is now in Paris (The Louvre).

The influence of the great gods is still strong on the island, the great mother who was honoured in the sanctuary by libations of blood and oil is still remembered in the names of certain pools, the goats are all from the old mothers flocks and distinctive marks on the rocks from the hot sulphur springs on the island are known as the ‘old woman’s cloths’. At the summit of the moon if you stand in just the right spot you will be able to see the terrifying faces of the Kabeiroi, shown to you by the shadows and the mists of the mountain.

Samothraki is a beautiful remote island. It can become very claustrophobic if you need external stimulation, or even if you go there just wanting to relax. The island has endless scope for discovery, but its lack of infrastructure will leave you without any means of research or information other than what you can glean from local people, who are without exception interesting friendly and hospitable.

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