Built around a busy harbour which has been guarded since the 14th century by the Castle of the Knights of St John Kos Town is a wonderful mixture of the ancient and modern and a worthwhile holiday destination both in its own right as well as a base for touring the island of Kos with the other Dodecanese Islands and the Turkish mainland with Bodrum (ancient Hallincarnassus) just a short boat ride away.
The town of Kos was founded in 366 BC, in the same area where modern Kos is nowadays found. It reached the apogee of its importance during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, being a crossroad between civilisations, between East and West, the meeting point for both culture and trade. Its public market was of great fame during antiquity and still is thriving today. All around Kos Town you can find signs of the past, reminders of the civilisations that passed through its harbour. There are numerous buildings, built in imitation of the Italian architecture of the colonies in North Africa, most typical being the Municipal Buildings and Court House as well as modern Greek and Ottoman.
When it comes to Greek Islands there is much to choose from and the different areas have their own distinct character. So overall there is much to explore and it is best to make up your own mind between the Ionian Islands, the Cyclades (The “Circle” around Dilos), the Sporades (the “Scattered”), and the Saronic in the Saronic Gulf off Athens. There is the largest island of all Crete and our own favourite the Dodecanese (the “Dozen” after the 12 larger islands) nestled off the coast of Turkey looking upon what used to be the Greek lands of Asia Minor home to Ephesus (Efes), Halicarnassus (Bodrum), Smyrna (Izmir) and of course fabled Troy the protagonist in the epic fight for influence and domination between Europe and Asia so graphically depicted in Homer’s “Iliad” the very first narrative work in Western Literature. There was also a little city there called Constantinopolis (Istanbul) which whether you realise it or not has influenced all your lives.
The Rise and Fall of Byzantium
We get the English word “autopsy” from the Greek “autopsia”, “to see for oneself”, and it didn’t originally just refer to seeing dead bodies but it was the pre-eminent form of Greek Logic. So get a copy of the wonderfully named Frewin Poffley’s “Greek Island Hopping” www.greekislandhopping.com and go see for yourself, as Socrates might have said, it is only logical!
For me, I have a special affinity with the Dodecanese and their heightened sense of solidarity forged in adversity from earning a hazardous living from the sea and land and from asserting their culture, religion and Greek nationality in the face of 700 years of occupation by Crusader Knights of St. John, The Ottoman Turks, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and more benignly the British before they were finally unified with Greece in 1948. They represent a fascinating mix of cultures and diversity and topography even within the islands. For me, my heart is in Kalymnos but my head is in Kos as a more practical base and hopping off point. Whilst it may seem surprising in Britain used to the touristic excess of Kardamena to the Scandinavians’ and Germans Kos is a sophisticated destination, but as everywhere you need to know where to go and what to avoid. I don’t pretend this to be a comprehensive guide but just small and selective list of a few favourites near where I base myself in Kos Town.
Kos Town for such a bustling place provides a surprising number of peaceful retreats among the landscaped gardens and shady squares. Traditional tavernas and cafés around the waterfront also provide a place to escape the air of business that surrounds the island’s capital. Most parts have either been carefully preserved or thoughtfully developed to produce a pleasing resort full of character.
Eleftherias (Freedom) square is the centre of Kos Town. It is the atmospheric open air “Drawing Room” of Kos where everybody goes for their evening stroll, to see and to be seen. It is overlooked on one side by the Nefterdar mosque which was built at the end of the 18th century and the ablution fountain, on the other by the Italian Colonial style Merkato, and by the Theatre and library and the Archaeological Museum on the other sides. Towered over at
night by the illuminated crosses of the Orthodox Cathedral and adjoined by the ancient Roman Agora it provides a superb urban set piece symbolising the rich mix of influences which have made this unique island. Avoid the dubious attractions of “Bar Street” or bars like “Shenanigans” who get business from “looking after” tourist reps. Avoid also the strip of restaurants by the harbour with multi-lingual tourist menus, Nothing too wrong with them but they are a form of culinary wallpaper which you can hardly describe as “Real Greek”. Instead follow me to a small and select bunch of authentic good value venues.
A good pit stop for food and drink is Ideal snack bar on Martiou Street just off Eleftherias Square. Ideal is delightful and always friendly and the Gyros (Chicken or Pork Souvlaki) are the best value and tastiest on the island. It is run by Zoë and her family; She is Greek American from Boston and totally cool. She is also an unfailing source of reliable advice on what to do and what to see but nobody can give you reliable advice in Greece on ferry timetables! It is very American style in its cleanliness and levels of service but the food is satisfyingly Greek and delicious. A Gyros Euros provides a satisfying lunch with a Greek salad and a fresh orange juice. The food here is straightforward and tasty and when you go the second time you are welcomed like family. More importantly it is scrupulously clean and open late. The family also run the highly recommended Mayflower Apartments in Tigaki.
There is a “bar street” by the Agora with late night delights including a night club in an original Turkish Hamman. More satisfying though is to head up to Haluvazia, the atmospheric Ottoman Old Town. Off the pedestrianised narrow main street (Apelou Ifestou) you can see the sturdy Ottoman homes and courtyards which survived the 1933 earthquake. Following this street you come to a cross roads where you find on one side the Old Town Café and on the other side Kantouni Bar.
The café is a good place to watch the world go by sheltered by the dappled sunlight filtering through the bougainvillea which grows overhead. The bar on the other side is run by Jimmy and his Mohitos are the real deal! It is a good place to hang out and if you turn up the second time you are greeted as an old friend and free nibbles and drinks are normal hospitality. Both of these establishments being at a cross road are great for people watching and with the shady setting and laid back atmosphere you may well find that you linger longer than you expect. In the evening they are both lively but satisfying venues with a balanced mixture of Greeks and Xenos!
Across from the café is Olive (Elia in Greek) at 27. Apelou Ifestou, a traditional Greek Restaurant affiliated to the Slow Food movement which specialises in authentic local dishes and local produce and which I cannot recommend too highly. At the end of the meal you will be presented with their coup de theatre, a saucer of Olives! When you eat them you will react strangely for these are sweet olives marinated in honey and taste surprisingly delicious. Indeed they are so popular and unique that Elia now sells them in jars to take away. The menu is best described as Greek home cooking with many Dodecanese specialties and a quixotic menu which features headings such as “Barley Juices” (Beers), Vineyard Juices (Wines), Boiler extracts (Teas & Coffees). The emphasis is on quality fresh ingredients with exceptional artisan wines and cheeses in particular. A great place for lunch or dinner and the antidotes to the tourist “bolognaise and cheeps” include specialities such as “pastourma”, “gardoumpa” , “frygadelia”, “tsigarides” , “spetsofai” and “kavoyrdisto.” Don’t worry if this means nothing, just ask the helpful staff. As well as the cool stone restaurant there is a lovely and restful canopied garden at the rear.
Continuing in the same direction you can make a detour west of Platia Dhiagoras to Nikita Nissiriou to the Anatolian Haman. During the Ottoman Period this was the residence of a local pasha whose descendants emigrated to Izmir in 1950; The small Turkish bath inside (the Haman of the name) functioned as the neighbourhood spa until 1970 or so after which the premises operated as a brothel (legal in Greece) before falling into complete disrepair. It has now been restored (since 1992) with the original cedar floors and painted ceilings and has a lovely Arabic style garden at the back and is a stylish restaurant. I complimented the waitress that the excellent Arabic style hummus – the Chef came out and it turned out he was Coptic from Alexandria hence the authentic feel to the food. As if the good authentic Greek / Alexandrine food and the resonance of the Anatolian Haman wasn’t enough the garden overlooks part of the extensive Western Roman archaeological remains.
Kos at one time had a large Turkish minority but with the tensions over Cyprus, many have left the island. About 50 Muslim families remain on Kos and they mostly reside in Platani along with a Greek minority. While referred to as Turkish most of the inhabitants of Platani are actually Greeks who converted to Islam over 300 years ago but the Greeks pretend they are from the Turkish “Occupation.” Similarly you will find Cretans in Bodrum where other settled after the Greek ethnic cleansing of Crete in 1913 which is why in Turkey you will find harbour workers speaking to Greek boat,men in Greek! Everyone seems to get along just fine but the good news is the Turkish restaurants that await visitors.
At Platani on the way to Asklepion there are still Turkish villages with the restaurants reputed to have the best food on the island. Also on the way to Platani you can see the old Jewish and Muslim cemeteries side by side. Platani’s older domestic architecture is similar to styles in Crete from where some of the village’s inhabitants came between 1898 and 1913. There is a working Ottoman fountain near the crossroads and several excellent Turkish tavernas; Arap, Asklipios, Sherif and Gin’s Palace.
They all offer Anatolian-style mezedhes and kebabs and enjoy a reputation, including among the Greeks, as the best eateries on the island. We dined at Arap where all the vegetables are grown on the owners land and the meats sourced on the island. We enjoyed an excellent meal with our Greek friends who are regulars here. I expressed my surprise to Mr. Arap that the menu included a pork chop but he said there was not necessarily a strict interpretation on this before saying he had to earn a living! The food here is a mix of Greek and Turkish and the spirit of this unpretentious family restaurant is contagious. Whatever you order from the extensive menu, it’s impossible for you to choose wrongly. Although there are many meat dishes, vegetarians will have a feast. The roasted red peppers stuffed with feta and the zucchini flowers stuffed with rice are splendid, as is the bourekakia (a kind of fried pastry roll stuffed with cheese). Afterward, you can walk across the street for the best homemade ice cream on Kos.
All of the restaurants here are good with the patrons’ mainly Greek locals who appreciate the quality of the Turkish cuisine as well as the distinct atmosphere of this place which until 1964 was most commonly known as Kermetes (Germe in Turkish). The Turkish community had its own primary school but in the wake of the Cyprus crises of that year the village was given a Greek name and education provided in Greek only.
There are many good hotels on Kos but as elsewhere in Greece there are downmarket package holiday dumps which advertise “Coronation Street” on Sky TV and Heinz beans at breakfast! I’m not really sure why you need to come to Greece for either! There are many excellent large hotels and self contained resorts. We stay on the Psalidi side of Kos Town by the coast which is quieter by the marina and with a cycle path into Kos Town (approx 1 km) which is well used by the mainly Dutch and German visitors. Our place of choice on numerous visits has been the excellent Continental Palace Hotel which is set by the marina back from the road in 2 acres of well tended gardens and with a large 50 m swimming pool.
This is basically a 1960’s precast concrete hotel with two wings joined by the reception area. What sets it apart is the proprietorial instincts of the Greek owner, the demanding standards (including cleanliness and maintenance) set by omnipresent manager Nick and the exceptionally hardworking and committed staff. The location and facilities are not bad either!
When we first arrived there we were greeted by friendly receptionists who showed us to our rooms. There were lifts to help us cart our luggage to our rooms and people were always happy to help. The grounds and the pool were stunning and it was also very clean, the latter factor not an afterthought in Greek hotels. Several visits later we regard the staff (a mixture of Greek and expats including German and Swedish) as old friends. It is invidious to mention names but Irene on reception is an absolute star, worth her weight in gold. She is not just the most helpful individual you will meet at a hotel reception and a font of reliable knowledge and advice but she is also one of the most genuine people you could come across.
We had maid service everyday and they were very friendly and helpful and also the same for the bar staff. The pool was cleaned daily. The balcony views were stunning as they overlooked the sea and our balcony stared across at Bodrum and the Turkish coast just three miles away reminding us that this is the closest point between Europe and Asia. The restaurant was clean and spacious and there is a very generous buffet of freshly prepared foods each evening. There are a selection of cold starters and salads, fresh breads and soup and at least 6 hot courses which generally include a roast meet a stew / casserole, a fish dish, pasta and vegetarian dish. The deserts are home made with some excellent home baking. On Friday night there is a very good barbecue by the pool. The restaurant manager is always on hand at breakfast and dinner and even when we have arrived at an unearthly hour dinner is kept for you. I have read some carping remarks about the food elsewhere which I don’t understand as with many Continental visitors the hotel caters for all tastes and the food offer is both fresh and generous. The professional chefs are scrupulous in ensuring the buffet is fully stocked and not a speck of food or a utensil which is dropped on the floor by customers will be left there for seconds – here as elsewhere in the Continental Palace a high standard is maintained.
One valid criticism is that the price of wines and drinks are too high – for instance a half litre bottle of retsina is 7.50 Euros here and 1.80 Euros in a supermarket. Bar prices are similarly high and not justified in the case of cocktails which are not of good quality as they use plastic tasting pre-mixes and your six euro Mohitos will not have fresh mint. Of course the way the pound has gone ALL euro prices seem bad value. The margins the hotel operates on with the tour operators must be tight (a week in August half board was £242 per person sharing on Hotels.com) so the drinks are their profit margin and they do provide very good FREE entertainment 4/5 nights a week so this obviously finances those evenings.
But these are niggles and the Continental Palace is a great base in a great location and set in beautifully maintained fragrant gardens within a gentle and uplifting seaside stroll of the centre of Kos Town. The vista as we walk into town over the beautiful stretch of water the short distance to the Turkish Coast and the Bodrum peninsular never fails to both calm and inspire. But what stands out in this hotel is the pride in looking after the customer by a great staff under Greek management and ownership. For an insight into the difference you can stop in the hotel grounds at the small private church which is open in the mornings for visitors and is dedicated to the saint whose icon is painted on the outside Agios Gerasimos, Patron of Kephalonia. The owners’ father is called Gerasimos and he built this beautiful little church in his honour. It is a haven for a few minutes reflection within the large haven of the Continental Palace Hotel. This was our sixth stay at this property and frankly we wouldn’t stay anywhere else on Kos.
Ideal Snack Bar and Grill
2, 25th Maritou St., 85300 Kos, Greece, Tel. +30 22420 22142
Elia Traditional Restaurant
Apellou 27 – 85300 Kos, Greece, Tel. +30-22420 22133
Platanos-Kermetes – 85300 Kos, Greece, Tel. +30 22420 28422
Continental Palace Hotel
G. Papadreou St. – 85300 Kos, Greece, Tel. +30 22420 22737, 22915
The Pathos of Jewish Kos
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