According to ancient legend Nisyros, situated in the centre of Greece’s Dodecanese islands, was created when the god Poseidon (the giant Mer-Man with a trident) picked up a piece of the neighbouring island of Kos and hurled it at the giant Polyvotis, but the truth of how it came to exist is hardly less incredible.
Nisyros is, in fact, an active volcano formed within the last 150,000 above the fault line between the European and African continental plates, and it remains one of the few active volcanoes in the region, last erupting in 1888. There are several small villages on the island, including the town of Mandraki, but while there remain a handful of hotels the majority of visitors to Nisyros travel there from the more inhabited and tourist-friendly Kos.
For €24 we boarded a boat in the seaside town of Kardamena, on Kos’s south coast, and took the 1 hour trip across the Aegean to Mandraki. On the way we passed the smaller, uninhabited islands of Strongyli (itself the result of a pre-historic eruption) and Gyali (now a pumice mine), and on reaching Mandraki paid a further €2 (conveniently not mentioned by the tour operator in Kardamena) for a bus tour to the volcano.
The journey from Mandraki to Nisyros’s caldera was an event in itself. The bus was something of an antique, and our guide gave us a spirited description of island life, telling us how thanks to the high sulphur content Nisyros has no fresh drinking water, and so has to import it from other islands. What’s more, with a population of only 1,000 Nisyros has only one petrol station, owned by the Mayor’s brother-in-law, who – again, according to our guide – “charges what he likes”!
The road from Mandraki to the caldera is bootlace thin, and twists and turns its way up some very steep hills and around some hairpin bends. For full effect, I’d recommend sitting on the right hand side of the bus for the outgoing journey, which offers a white knuckle view of the island’s plunging valleys.
Nisyros has been the home of settlers since at least the 5th Century BC, and these early inhabitants built stone terraces up almost every mountainside for agriculture. These terraces, which I can only imagine took centuries to complete, are an incredible sight in themselves, but nothing prepares you for the Nisyros caldera.
At over 2 kilometres in diameter, it is the closest thing to the lunar landscape I think I’m ever likely to witness, unless commercial space travel takes off any time soon! The bus pulls up next to the discrete but obligatory gift shop and café, on the very edge of the caldera itself, and the air smells pungently of sulphur (think day-old omelette), and is notably warmer than on the coast.
The tour operators had already warned us to wear “trainers or shoes” (rather than sandals or flip-flops), as the climb down into the volcano is rocky and uneven, but even then I found myself wishing I’d taken a pair of decent hiking boots. That said, the path down to the caldera is well-worn after many decades of tourism, and even small children seemed to have little trouble navigating their way to the bottom.
The first thing that strikes you, in the caldera, is the smell – even stronger than on the surface – and the heat. Temperatures down there reach 50°C on an average day, and you can feel that heat through the soles of your shoes. A network of fumaroles in the centre of the caldera emit little jets of steam and a vaguely ominous gurgling sound, and the ground, which consists of powdery, oxygen-rich pumice, sounds hollow when you stamp your feet.
Needless to say, there isn’t a great deal to do in the caldera other than stand, stare and point, but speaking personally it was well worth the boat and bus journeys and every cent of the €26 that got us there.
Back in Mandraki there was time for a quick stroll along the sea front and some excellent, caught-that-day sardines for lunch before boarding the boat back to Kardamena. The following day, along with three friends, I hired a boat that took me on a quick tour of Kos’s south coast, including the famous Bubble Beach. Here, we snorkelled a short distance from the boat to a place where bubbles of sulphur dioxide rise up from the seabed, as a result of local volcanic activity. Our guides for the day, the boat’s owners, told us that if the bubbles ever stop it will be a warning that the volcano on Nisyros is about to erupt. Thankfully, on the day of our visit it was bubbling away nicely!