I first came across Thasos as a schoolboy reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: it was one of those exotic, magical names that sprinkle the Bard’s works and stir the imagination. Lying just off the coast of Macedonia in the Aegean, the island of Thasos is the most northerly of the Greek archipelago. It is also a beautiful holiday destination, untarnished by excessive tourism – and a must for anyone looking for archaeology off the beaten path. Even in early May, the little coastal resort of Potos enjoys seas warm enough for swimming; and, from the beach, you can just about see the outline of Mt Athos in the distance, while a short stroll along the low headland leads to the site of an early Christian basilica.
Thasos has no airport, but three ferry routes link it with the mainland. Approaching by boat after a night flight to Kalamata Airport was as enticing a beginning to a holiday as any I have experienced: as the small port of Keramoti on the flat coastal plain of Macedonia slowly disappeared behind us, the island emerged before us, a forested conical mountain beckoning dark against the glinting sea and azure sky. The restored ancient theatre, visible on the hillside to the east, hinted of archaeological riches to come.
Spoilt for choice
The island’s capital, Limenas, lies within the ancient city of Thasos. There is much to see here, certainly more than can be done in one go. I decided to split my exploration into two tours: one around the lower part of the city, and the second, involving a strenuous clamber, following the course of the city walls and gates. The ancient city is a palimpsest of periods but – as with many less-visited heritage sites in Greece, especially in the wake of the economic crisis – it has been sadly neglected, so bringing a good guidebook is essential to make sense of the remains.
An ideal starting point is the museum, which appears from the outside to be a typical Greek local archaeological museum with its neo-Classical façade. Inside, however, past the gigantic 3.5m-high kouros that dates to about 600 BC – undoubtedly a star attraction – is the large new extension that leads upwards through well-laid-out galleries covering every period from prehistoric to Roman.
Outside the museum are the remains of the late 5th century BC Harbour Gate and wall. The ancient Agora lies adjacent, and contains remains from the 6th century BC to the 6th century AD. Though when I visited it was rather boggy and a little overgrown after the winter rains, the many standing columns and easily identifiable features – the monument to local Olympic champion Theogenes, stoas, and altars – poignantly evoke the passing centuries. The old harbour side with its pleasant cafés and tavernas follows the line of the ancient military port. According to the guides, though not to my eyes, it is possible to see the submerged remains of the 100m-mole that marks the limit of the commercial port.
The challenge when exploring the surviving remains is to unravel the ancient bits amid the modern streets: the late 2nd century AD Roman Odeion, hidden gems such as the little 5th century BC Gate of Hermes with its sculpted figures, tumbled traces of sanctuaries (the best is what survives of the mid 4th century BC Sanctuary of Dionysos), the enormous ruin of the Arch of Caracalla, and, forgotten in a quiet square, an early 6th century AD basilica.
The starting point for a trip that takes in the Theatre, most of the late 6th and 5th century BC walls, the Acropolis, and city gates should be the extreme tip of the harbour. This spot enjoys spectacular views worthy of featuring in any travel brochure for the Greek islands. Around the small modern church stand stark white columns of an early basilica, with the ruins on the promontory beyond, set against a wine-dark sea. From here, the climb ascends the course of the ancient walls to the Theatre, currently under restoration and with a huge crane that interrupts a panorama of the town and harbour. The challenge on this walk is the difficult terrain and the dense vegetation on the summit. What looks straightforward on the map is quite arduous (a definite no-no in hot weather) and potentially dangerous: as with so many interesting archaeological sites, it is a calculated risk to be alone amid rarely visited ruins where an accident is easily possible. Nevertheless, I managed it and felt very proud that I – and my knees – triumphed!
First I arrived at the 13th- to 15th-century medieval fortress, and pushed on through the undergrowth to a huge artificial terrace where once stood two successive temples to Athena – the later one, dating to about 500 BC, had its own massive platform. Just beyond is the small 4th century BC Sanctuary of Pan, carved out of a rocky ledge. Then comes a vertiginous clamber via huge rock-hewn 6th century BC steps down the wall circuit – and magnificent views across to the harbour and sea beyond – to the small Gate of Parmenon and the much bigger Gate of Herakles, with its large and impressive sculpture of the hero.
A good road round the west coast of the island leads quickly to the best of the archaeology beyond the capital. I passed at least two basilicas as I headed through the outskirts of the town. My leisurely day-long drive took me through attractive mountain villages and included a visit to the characterful former capital of Theologos. Its inland location was carefully chosen to be a safe distance from pirate raids. From here, a bumpy downhill path leads to an old bridge across a stream. Back on the road again, I headed back to the coast and the remains of an Early Bronze Age fortified settlement at Skala Sotiros. Protected beneath a concrete roof, the site lies right next to the main road and, though it appears rather dingy at first sight, don’t be put off: it is worth visiting for its unusual anthropomorphic stelae – though those here are copies, with the originals in the museum at Limenas. A little further on, a sign pointed me in the direction of an important ancient pottery workshop, in use from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period, between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC.