Updated: Jul 20, 2020
The Island of the Happy Cow is ready for its close-up.
Back in December, on the sidelines of the prestigious Invest in Greece forum in New York City, I asked the energetic Greek Minister of Tourism Harry Theoharis if he has a favorite destination in Greece. While he wouldn't be drawn on this (it's hard to play favorites, after all, when you represent an entire country) he did offer a clue: "I come from the mountains so I prefer the mountains to the sea," he said. "People don’t realize that Greece is 80% mountains."
But venture into the wilds of Evia (also called Euboea), which is the biggest Greek island after Crete, and you'll realize pretty quickly just how mountainous Greece is. Vertiginous peaks and switchback roads to match, untamed cliffs plunging to the infinite blue'd Aegean (channeling Homer there, but just wait) and hidden villages almost bafflingly Alpine in character (but with al fresco souvlaki spots reminding you where you are), Evia is an island whose jagged contours smack you like early '80s U2 or Game of Thrones in a parallel universe where GOT is actually real. And it's a place shrouded in Greek mythology as the (shhh!) staging ground for the siege of Troy.
Because, in case you didn't know, the two main cities on Evia, Chalcis (or Chalkida) and Eretria, are both included in the famous Catalogue of Ships in the second book of Homer's Iliad. That means elements of the Achaean flotilla that sailed to Troy were here. According to some sources, King Agamemnon's fleet was held back by inclement weather on the Euboean shore before it could launch, and Achilles' journey to Troy was similarly delayed at the nearby island of Skyros, at a bay that still bears his name.
As for the name Evia, Εὔβοια, it stems from εὖ, like the "eu" in euphoria, and βοῦς or ox", so in antiquity Evia was the Island of the Happy Cow. Or ox. While I did spot some cows (mostly bulls) here and there, mostly there were goats. And some eagles that looked like they could make a meal of a gamboling little kid, given half a chance.
Of course, there's always something that happens when you cross a bridge to go to an island. Crossing this one (looking back to the mainland from the rear window), I had
that same kind of frisson you get when barreling across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan as you leave the dreariness of Queens behind and the drama of the city floats into view, with all the anticipation and inevitable melancholy this palette-in-motion represents (cue intro to Taxi). Because an island however big or small and however built up or sylvan is by definition an escape, and escapes never last do they?
Not that Evia has much time for philosophy. And there are no sights to check off your list. There are no fancy hotels. Tripadvisor is not welcome here. So this is not so much the new Corfu as the anti-Corfu. Because here it's all about nature, and if you waste time taking selfies for Instagram you may very well find yourself falling off a cliff.
And that would be a shame, because then you'd be missing out on some great hikes and "secret" beaches. All of the best beaches, whether long and open or mere coves, are reached only through long and frequently tortuous roads with enough hairpin curves to make you pray to sweet Jesus that your vehicle is in good enough shape to handle them. On our leisurely way to the north coast a fire truck overtook us; we would soon see why: off to the side of one particularly hairy hairpin a car had totally flipped over. Fortunately it had happened on the right side of the road, meaning it hadn't plunged into the ravine below (gods' country doesn't come with guardrails).
Scholars of the Aegean have long known about the importance of communication in ancient times: it's how islanders would warn other islanders about approaching pirates, predatory Turks or a litany of other marauders. How did they do it? By Φρυκτωρίες, frictories, or lighting fires. This was long before lighthouses were to become a thing (on the etymology, Φρύγω, think friction, i.e. to burn), but what they would do is set flames atop rudimentary stone structures. Many of these frictories were set up along the Euboean coast, facing the Aegean. The Frictories "station of residency" guest house, above the hamlet of Limnionas, takes its name from these old ways and is a quirky spot for a sojourn on this remote stretch of coast.
What else? There are hot springs aplenty, most famously at Adipsos in the north where Aristotle is said to have journeyed from his Peripatetic School in Athens to take the healing waters. And Jews! Chalcis is home to Europe's most ancient Jewish community, and though small it's a reminder of the cultural links between Greeks and Jews that go back (though without much fanfare) literally thousands of years...
Also in antiquity Evia vied with Athens for regional supremacy, and the two entities duked it out as neighbors in unruly neighborhoods are wont to do. Euboea lost out to Athena, receding to the footnotes of history, but today if crowds and pollution are out and seclusion and fresh air is in it might be time to reassess the results of the fight. Because—as a even a mere day trip may convince you—Evia is the one sitting in the catbird seat today.
Need a roadmap for exploring Evia by car? Ask us.