“I, John … was on an island called Patmos … and I heard behind me a loud voice, like a trumpet, saying, ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, write what you see in a book, and send it to the seven churches’.”
This tiny sparse island has an elegance, mystique and allure all of of its own. Its religious significance dates from St John the Apostle’s arrival here in 95 AD, after he was banished from Ephesus in Turkey by the Romans, and where he received and wrote his Book of Revelations. Also from the founding of a monastic fortress in his name 1,,000 years later, in 1088 AD.
It is also one of the most wanted escapes in the Aegean, with celebrities and royals helicoptering in for the tranquility and beauty of the holy isle. They house-party in the restored 16th-19th century sea-captains’ mansions built almost into the foundations of the embracing monastery above. No pools, no air conditioning – so for the tiny elite who value style, beauty and elegance above modern comfort and know that the flashy Mykonos types will not venture up to their haven of chic under the Monastery.
An old cobbled pathway leads from the port of Skala up to the Monastery of St John which crowns the Chora – views across to Samos and Ikaria are your priceless reward for the hike. A maze of narrow, identical streets, dazzlingly white, were built thus to discourage any invader, with doorways leading into vast archontika (mansions), their stone-carved door-lintels topped with a Byzantine cross. Rich Patmian captains traded grain and cotton with Alexandria, Odessa and Venice in the 18th and 19th centuries and erected these imposing residences with building materials and furnishings imported from Europe. So, Venetian mirrors, English silver tea services, French chandeliers and Russian samovars arrived and are now banned from leaving the island. Chora, in the protective clasp of the monastic fortress, was not pillaged by pirates and conquerors (unlike the surrounding islands) and so both population and architecture remained Greek and it is the best-preserved Byzantine settlement in the Aegean.
The island itself has always been dry, and produces meager supplies of staples – barley, wheat, figs, wine-grapes and some vegetables. So the islanders turned their hand to the sea, with a rearing of a few goats and poultry for sustenance. There was relative poverty until tourism arrived, in small elite numbers in the sixties.
The majestic and awe-inspiring Monastery of St John of the Revelation dominates the whole island and the tenor of its life. It is not only a place of scholarship (with 2,000 volumes and manuscripts including the Codex Porphyrius - 33 leaves of gold and silver script on purple vellum - or St Mark's Gospel), but also a place of worship for both Eastern and Western Christians who come from all over the world. The actual site of St John's vision of fire and brimstone is still visible today.
Pretty sandy beaches and wonderful whitewashed Chora, the village clustered under the monastery, with its cobbled lanes and beautiful architecture.
Getting there - eight-hour ferry from Athens or inconvenient transfers from Rhodes and Kos. Cars are not allowed in Chora, so those with mobility problems will find it inconvenient.
Those wanting to meet the Agha Khan, Prince Michael of Greece and John Stephanides. Patmos hosts many exclusive but low-key international guests rather than ritzy hotel life. Enough hip bars, cute boutiques and good tavernas to suit chic clients. Wear vintage kaftans and jewelled sandals if you are a woman, for men, drifts of well-worn white linen - shalwaar kameez style, and a suntan.
Those who need a beach-front villa, air conditioning or a swimming pool, and don't want to drive to beaches - Chora, the place to be, is on a mountain top, and the historic houses have no pools. You have to drive to the beaches below.
The evening light on a terrace in Chora. It paints the white roofs with an umber/terracotta/copper glow, with the islands beyond a burnished bronze. A gathering at the Astiri bar in Chora for a cool cocktail with the hip crowd. Dinner at Bennetos, the elegant restaurant beloved of the yachting fraternity, or at George's Place in Kampos where those in the know go. Psili Ammos is the most beautiful sweep of fine sand and dunes, given over to naturists and some campers, but to yourselves out of season.
Water sports are at Grikos, Kambos, from where you may also take a caique to smaller beaches. Take your own water/picnic. Skala is the base for everything.
Walking and snorkeling and sleeping under a tree near the sea after a good lunch of lobster. Turkey is across the water for lunch (in Bodrum) and ruins (Ephesus, Miletus, Halicarnassus). Bring plenty of books and perhaps some water pistols and your personal blackbook. A villa combined with a boat is, of course, ideal. Ask us about chartering something for the week.
Accommodation needs to booked well ahead as the island has regulars that take the same houses every year and form the elegant crowd in Chora which is the chic place to be. Owners of the houses compete to restore them tastefully and preserve the distinctive architecture, textiles and furnishings of the island, a mixture of Byzantine and Ottoman. Stylish residents float around in immaculate homespun white linen (vintage please), ethnic kaftans and jeweled sandals, meeting for taverna lunches on the beaches and watching the sunset panoramas with a mojito on their terrace.
Easter is the biggest occasion on Patmos and is a spectacle. The country taverna Glaros in Agriolivadi serves traditional and local dishes.