Long and somewhat narrow, the shape of Kythnos is that of a fat lightning bolt. Kythnos, in the western Cyclades, is just south and a little east of Kea, which is the closest of the Cyclades to mainland Greece. It’s about 100km from the port of Piraeus, 100 sq. km in size, and has 100km of coastline. It is an island of very nice beaches, thermal springs, and, like Kea, is a favorite holiday destination for Athenians because it’s close to Athens. And yet it feels much further away. The island, once home to abundant olive groves in centuries past, has been almost completely deforested.
Kythnos has 2 chief villages accounting for nearly 2/3 of its population of 1,500. Both villages are inland, with Kithnos Town or Hora about 3km north of Dryopida, in the approximate center of the island. Dryopida is 3km east of the island’s port at Merihas.
Kythnos is the first stop for ferries from Piraeus to the western Cyclades, and thousands of tourists have seen its harbor, but not the island. The island has a lot of dry stack stone walls, known as xerolithia, marking property lines, and terraced hillsides for cultivation. Some of these walls are hundreds if not thousands of years old.
Kithnos is home to one of the oldest settlements in the Cyclades, at Maroulas, on the northeast coast, dating from the Mesolithic Period (10,000-8,000 BC). Fast forward about 7,000 years, and the remains of Bronze Age copper smelting facilities have been found on Profitis Elias mountain dating from the 2,000’s BC.
The earliest identifiable residents of Kythnos were the Carians, a pre-Hellenic people probably subject to the Cretan Minoans (3650-1400 BC), who were then displaced by invaders and forced to move to Asia Minor.
Historian Herodotus talks about the Dryopes, a tribe from near Mt. Parnassus on the mainland, who migrated to Evia, then on to the western Cyclades, including Kythnos, around the 13th century BC. The inland village of Dryopida takes its name from this tribe. The Dryopes were displaced by the Ionians, who migrated from the mainland under pressure from the more northerly Dorians, who had moved from into southern Greece.
Herodotus mentions Kythnos in connection with the 480 BC naval battle of Salamis, saying that the island had contributed a couple ships, which contribution is noted at the base of a golden tripod at Delphi.
Kythnos was the birthplace of famous painter Timanthes, whose masterpiece The Sacrifice of Iphigenia was noted for its successful representation of emotion on its subjects.
During the early Christian era Kythnos was part of the Byzantine Empire, and in 1207 she was annexed by the Venetians, who then held the island for 400 years. At this point the island’s name changed to Thermia because of the hot mineral springs found at Loutra, on the northeast coast. The spa there had been a popular place for health and therapy going back at least to Roman times.
The Ottoman Turks took Kythnos in 1617, and allowed a certain measure of religious freedom, but the frequency of pirates in the poorly patrolled Aegean made life insecure. The population of Kythnos was nearly wiped out by plague in 1823, but a few years later it was one of the first islands to revolt against the Turks. After Greece gained her independence from Turkey, Kythnos served for a short time as an exile island for enemies of the nascent Greek state. In 1862 rebels from nearby Syros tried, and failed, to free the exiles on Kythnos.
The Kithiotes led poor, but simple lives during the 1800’s; fishing, farming, and breeding goats and sheep kept body and soul together. Iron ore was discovered on the island around the turn of the 20th century, and for awhile the island provided employment in the mines, until the ore played out in the 1940’s.
At first Kythnos did not benefit from the tourist boom in Greece which took hold in the 1960’s because she lacked a deep water harbor for ferry boats. That all changed when a mole was built in the mid 1970’s, reaching into deeper water and allowing anchorage for ferries.
Kythnos has since modernized, with an up to date tourist infrastructure and a leading position in alternative energy projects. Greece’s first wind park was opened there in 1983. The island’s need for petroleum products for energy was reduced by a further 11% with the introduction of a photovoltaic electrical system. Kythnos is a popular place for mainland Greeks wishing to build vacation homes, and gets its fair share of Greek and foreign tourists.
Merihas, the port, is small, but a favorite of the young for its night life. Since the 1874 construction of the mole the town has grown relatively quickly.
Bus connections to other points on Kythnos can be had from here. There are a number of fine tavernas in Merihas where fresh fish can be enjoyed at tables close to the water’s edge, as well as decent overnight accommodations.
Archeological Site of Vryokastro
A few kilometers to the north are the ruins of the ancient capital, then called Kythnos, now called Vryokastro, which was abandoned in the 7th century AD. This is by far the most archeologically significant place on the island. You follow the road north from the port town of Merihas, which more or less mirrors the coastline. The road rises to a promontory above the small settlement of Episkopi, with its bay and beach, and then cuts inland. Just before the inland turn, at about the 3.75km mark, there is an uphill path off to the left bordered by stone walls leading up the hill to the plateau .
There you’ll find 3 rises, and on the 2 most northerly rises, and the lower area between, is where the center of life on Kythnos once thrived. It was very much a different-looking island then, with plenty of olive, pine, and cypress trees.
There were steps cut into the stony descent for the 250 downhill meters to the harbor on the northwest coast of the island. Recent excavations (1990’s) have uncovered some interesting things. The city’s location was ideal, defensively, commanding a panoramic view of the sea as far away as Hydra, 75km due west, while just a bit further inland from the capital were a series of fertile valleys terraced into the hillsides to the south and northeast which fed the inhabitants of ancient Kythnos.
On the highest rise, which was where the southern town limits were, a Hellenistic-era fort had been built which was probably the site of a standoff between the Romans and the Macedonian Greeks in 199 BC, with the ascendant Roman army besieging the Macedonians. The fort at that time had covered the ridge with long defensive walls, which are all but erased now.
Some of the remaining blocks of stone are so large that a later legend grew up saying that they were laid in place by dragons. There are a couple of platforms among the ruins that may have served as flooring for temples. There is a 3rd rise to the north where the remains of a temple have been discovered.
Even more recently (2013), a monolithic building was discovered at Vryokastro. The double story building had a great staircase in its center, with the 2nd story used as a sleeping and storage area and was dated a few hundred years BC. Archeologists aren’t sure what purpose it served, but it was probably connected with an ancient temple which stood right next to it.
About 4km inland from Ancient Kythnos is modern Kythnos Town, or Hora, as is the common designation of Greek island capital settlements. Hora is laid out along a kilometer of south-facing ridge line, which, again, is a great defensive position. It’s also a windy spot, and a good location for the wind farm at the peak of the ridge uphill from its eastern end.
It’s not the most hospitable spot for a settlement, and a legend has taken root that says it was the place where a refugee from the destroyed ancient capital in 700 AD decided to live because that was where his horse gave out and died while fleeing the old capital.
Hora has the usual narrow, covered, arched passageways, whitewashed, blue-trimmed buildings, white-painted joints in the paving stones, snaky lanes, and stone staircases leading to the upper and lower parts of the town. Because of its long and narrow configuration there is no one central square, but there are a number of churches worth visiting, which all lay claim to small squares outside their front doors.
If you carry on to the northeast from Hora, after about 4.5km you’ll come to Loutra, site of the ancient baths. They’ve been used on and off ever since humans first discovered them, and the hot waters which were triggered by nearby Mt. Soros, a now quiescent volcano, mix with the sea in a stone basin that make it an ideal temperature and allows for year round bathing, which in the Aegean is restricted during the months of October-May.
By the way, the volcano’s mouth is still there, and shepherds who have lost sheep down its hole have reported the dead sheep coming out at the hot springs at Loutra.
Greece’s first King, Otho, in the years after Greece gained her independence, had a German architect build a spa that could handle 100 patrons in the mid-1800’s. (If you think it strange that Greece had a king after its war of independence, and a non-Greek king at that, you’re not alone. But there were good reasons for this.) Near Loutra are some remains of the Roman baths, and some nearby tombs.
The first modern baths were built in 1782 by a regional ruler, but people didn’t use them because they believed that the hot springs were haunted by neraiedes, or faeries. Even a hundred years later locals believed that Charon, god of the underworld, lived there and planted young men and women in his garden rather than flowers. Slowly the superstitions faded away as international visitors came from far away to partake in the mineral-rich waters of Loutra, which was considered a special aid to rheumatism and arthritis.
You can still bathe in the waters although there is nothing organized about it other than a stone gutter which carries hot water into the sea. Usually you’ll find a small crowd of old people platzing about in the water (which steams during the winter), catching up with each others’ latest news, i.e., gossiping.
Driopida is about 3km in a straight line south of Hora. Whereas Hora has traditional Cycladic flat roofs, the roofs in Driopida are pitched and tiled. Driopida grew more organically from a central area, where the beautiful Church of St. Anna is, spreading out in narrow, twisting lanes like the threads of a web. Driopida has a folklore museum and a small Byzantine museum in St. George’s church.
Driopida’s claim to fame is the cave of Katafiki, one of Greece’s largest and a place of refuge for centuries for locals. The cave takes its name from the Greek word for “refuge,” “katafigio.” The cave served as a mine for a long time. It features a unique curtain of stalactites. It was originally created by the action of water on the softer rock in the earth’s interior, and then expanded by humans when iron ore was found in it. It’s open in the summer only, with tours every 40 minutes.
Kythnos has a number of fine beaches. There is the sandy harbor beach at Merihas, convenient for those just arriving on Kythnos as it is close to the port. A bonus besides its proximity to fish taverns and accommodation are the tamarisk trees fringing the beach and offering shade. A bit north and west is the most popular beach on the island, the non-organized Kolona Beach, which occupies a spit of sand connecting the harbor islet of St. Luke to the mainland. It’s 3km northeast of Merihas in a straight line but more like 5km if you take the coast road. It is a favorite of yachters.
South and east of Kolona Beach, between it and Merihas, is Episkopi Beach, which was once the port of the ancient capital, Kythnos, now called Vryokastro (see above). It’s a small, partly organized 500m stretch of sand protected from high winds by the bay it’s situated on.
Loutra, 10km northeast of Merihas and 6km northeast of Hora, is another very popular beach because of its hot springs, which, as we’ve already mentioned, provide year-round bathing. Loutra has a nice little marina, and plenty of accommodations. It, along with Merihas, is a center of night life on Kythnos.
Kanala, an up and coming village on the southeast coast of Kythnos, is the only village on the island that has a small pine forest. Next door is the island’s best-known monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The Virgin, or Panagia, is considered the protector of Kythnos. The beach there is a mix of sand and pebbles, with a pebbly sea floor.
One of the lesser visited islands of the Cyclades, Kythnos is becoming more and more popular. Now is a good time to visit, while it is still relatively peaceful and quiet.