Things to see & do in Karpathos

In Greek legend Karpathos was a stop-off for the Argonauts during their quest for the Golden Fleece. It can feel as if some spell was not long after cast over this idyllic Dodecanese island, not stopping time exactly, but certainly slowing it to a pleasant crawl. Situated between Crete and Rhodes in the south Aegean, more exposed to the meltemi winds of summer but much less to the tourist hordes than its larger neighbours, Karpathos is shyly lowering the veil on the pristine natural beauty and traditional ways of life that make it one of the most interesting Greek islands to visit.
There are 12 or so villages on the long, thin island which is only six kilometres wide, some creeping up the hillsides while others perch next to the sea. The largest of them is the port of Pigadia, the capital and usually the base for walking vacations in Karpathos. In fact Karpathos is reckoned to be among the best islands for walking in the Dodecanese, with signposted and cobbled trails that date back centuries weaving through attractive countryside to link historic villages, hilltop monasteries, archaeological sites and of course plenty of sandy beaches. Evangelia Agapiou from operator Ecotourism Karpathos is very enthusiastic about the benefits of getting around on foot: “Many people here speak good English, and they’re always very friendly and hospitable, from shepherds to farmers and villagers. We go out to meet people, to buy local produce, see how dishes are made with cookery lessons, and it’s a very relaxed and authentic way to explore Karpathos. Another really interesting way to see Karpathos is to walk across the island from south to north, where you’ll meet people from almost every village. You really notice the differences in terrain, nature, food and even dialect.”

What makes Karpathos unique however is a fiercely guarded culture exemplified by its poetic musical rituals: semi-improvised songs called mantinades are performed in a spirit of friendly competitions at weddings and festivals, accompanied by musicians on hand-crafted lyres and bagpipes. This culture has survived mass emigration, sometimes of whole families, after World War II, with many heading to the US before gradually making their way home. The women of Karpathos can often be seen wearing colourfully embroidered and beaded dress with lambskin slippers, while the men still harvest the fields with scythes. Olympos, known as ‘The balcony of the Aegean’ for its magnificent sea views, is a must-visit, in some ways almost a living museum where there are vestiges of a rare matriarchal society and outdoor brick ovens producing bread and pasta offer a hands-on alternative to eating in the restaurants on the coast. But while old ways of life here may be fascinating, the great joy of cultural discovery on Karpathos will always come just from meeting people and getting to know about their lives, something you can only really get anywhere with by traveling with a local guide.

On Karpathos there are nowhere near the crowds you can find on Crete and Rhodes, the islands either side. If you travel with a responsible operator you’ll stay in family hotels, engaging throughout with local guides and craftspeople on itineraries that can be incredibly rewarding for the curious visitor. As Evangelia says: “Karpathos is not as developed as Crete or Rhodes. We simply don’t have the size or the facilities to support mass tourism. And so I am optimistic that we can avoid the problems that other islands face and protect our island and its character, if we focus on sustainable development of tourism here. Yes it is busy in July and August, but come outside these months and it feels completely different.” Sustainable tourism such as this doesn’t only benefit residents of course, but also allows for a more satisfying experience for visitors, as Janis Colville related following a walking and botanical vacation on the island: “We were very happy that our money was spent locally, from eating locally grown and organic food in family owned restaurants, staying in a locally owned apartment, and being with tour guides who were passionate about retaining the local way of life! This vacation was great fun and gave us an extraordinary level of insight into life in a remarkably unspoilt corner of Greece.”

Things to do in Karpathos

Karpathos remains largely untouched by tourism development. The north of the island is protected by Natura 2000 Reserve status and the biodiversity here is especially rich – there are almost 100 species of rare or endangered flowers here, a delight for lovers of botany, birdwatchers and photographers alike. Guided walking routes can take you through the protected areas ensuring you don’t accidentally damage them.
You can take boat trips out to neighbouring Saria, an islet once connected to Karpathos and now separated by a thin ribbon of sea, or climb to the hilltop Acropolis of Arkasa for dramatic coastal views and to explore ancient ruins that date back to Venetian times. You might also visit a handful of small folklore museums in Othos and Menetes to gain a greater appreciation of the island’s distinctive culture. Mildly challenging hiking trails, meanwhile, reveal early Christian churches, Roman cisterns, beehive tombs and more recent architecture in bridges, aqueducts and gently spinning windmills.
There are beaches on all four sides of the island. Those on the west tend to be the windiest, while in the north they can usually only be accessed by sea. Some are more secluded while others have seafood restaurants, taverns and sunbeds for hire. But relatively few visitors come to Karpathos to sunbathe – here it’s all about the walking, and also the bygone culture, which is most apparent during village festivals.

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Best time to visit Karpathos

The best time to visit Karpathos for cultural festivals is during the summer: in mid-August the population swells for Panagias, the Assumption of the Virgin, which is one of the biggest events in Greece. Later in the month a feast day commemorates Saint John in Vroukounta, with locals and visitors hiking for two hours to reach a chapel in a cave, followed by music and dancing into the early hours. For Karpathos walking vacations however, look to spring, April and May, when the weather will be sublime and you can hike for hours without meeting another visitor. Karpathos has a small international airport but is also commonly reached by ferry from Piraeus on the mainland via Crete or Rhodes.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Gilles Messian] [Top box: Gilles Messian] [Flora: Rosa-Maria Rinkl] [Best time: ufoncz]
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