Picture Perfect Patmos

patmos greeceHave you ever fallen in love with a place before you’ve even been there? Several years ago, I became obsessed with the Greek island of Patmos, after reading “The Summer of My Greek Taverna,Tom Stone’s highly addictive account of his adventures operating a taverna on the island.

Stone fell in love with the place and decided to move there with his family after a Greek friend suggested they open a taverna together. Stone’s business partner swindled him but it didn’t diminish his love for Patmos, an island that’s been occupied by the Romans, the Venetians, the Turks and the Italians again from 1912 until 1948.

I’ve been plotting a visit to the place ever since reading the book, but my wife and I had one child, and then another. We finally got to Patmos last week, and unlike many places you fantasize about long before you visit, Patmos did not disappoint.Patmos is a special place. The island is best known for being the site where St. John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation, but it also has stunning scenery, great hikes, lovely beaches, historic monasteries with frescoes and antiquities that date to the Middle Ages, great food and a bustling port. But there are quite a few Greek islands that have all of those things. What sets Patmos apart, in my mind, is the way locals and tourists mix seamlessly in a relaxed vibe.

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On many Greek islands and indeed many touristic places everywhere, tourists inhabit one universe and locals another, and their paths only cross in order to conduct commercial transactions, i.e. you buy, they sell. I did not have that experience in Patmos.

Unlike Kos, for example, no one thrust a menu in my face, or tried to pressure me into taking a boat excursion. I broke bread and prayed with the monks of St. John’s, I spent hours chatting with locals at Agriolivado Beach, and by the time I left the island, I felt like I knew half of its 3,000 inhabitants. I asked Kostas Chatzakis, a banker I met on the island, if there were any tourist traps to avoid.

“There are none,” he said. “If a place wasn’t any good, we wouldn’t go there and they’d go out of business.”

And he was right. I never had a bad meal on the island, and, in fact, I had some unbelievably good grilled octopus, calamari and souvlaki, always for less than 10 euros. It’s a beautiful island for hikers, a terrific spot for seafood lovers and for those with a love of history and beaches. But what I loved about the place is that I never felt like a tourist and was never treated like one.

The best way I can describe Patmos’s laid-back hospitality is to tell you about Andreas Kalatzis, an artist I met who lives in a tiny, 400 year old house in Hora, right near St. John’s Monastery. I’d heard that an artist had a small studio somewhere in Hora, but couldn’t find it. A neighbor pointed me to Andreas’s tiny house, and he answered the door in his bare feet, which were appropriately splattered in paint.

Kalatzis has a small but impressive gallery in the first floor of the house to demonstrate his work, but he has no sign outside, no website, no email address, and like everyplace else in Patmos, there is no number on the door or street name. After seeing some of the religious icons and other paintings he does, I asked him if he had a business card.

“Sure, I do,” he said, before tearing out a large piece of construction paper from a sketchbook.

patmosHe then filed off a square of paper with a razor, then dumped a big dollop of gold colored paint onto his left hand, and reached for a fine paintbrush with his right. I had no idea what was going on, but in a matter of minutes, he’d painted a beautiful little image of an angel releasing a bird. He dated it, and wrote his contact info on the back before handing it to me. (see right)

“Here you go,” he said. “There’s my business card.”

If you go: You can fly to Kos or Samos on a variety of discount and charter airlines and then Patmos is a three- to four-hour ferry ride from either place. I spent a week in a lovely two-bedroom apartment at the Hotel Australis in Skala for just 50 euros a night in late May (the price goes up deeper in the season). The family who runs this place would give you the shirts off their back.

My favorite places to eat were Pitta Konne for souvlaki and Trechantiri Taverna for seafood. And Jimmy’s Balcony in Hora has the best view of any restaurant I’ve ever been to, and the food and drinks are quite good as well.

I’d recommend using Skala as a base, but make sure you rent a car or moped for at least a day to check out all of the island’s nooks and crannies. My favorite beaches were Psili Ammos, which requires a 30-minute hike, Agriolivado, and Kambos. If you want to have a great meal right on the beach, check out the taverna on Lambi Beach, in the north of Patmos. Be sure to hike up to the Ancient Acropolis, and for a truly unforgettable experience ask the monks at St. John’s Monastery, built in 1088, about attending one of their prayer services.