The west side of Samos is wilder and largely protected as a park. Mount Kerkis rises in a dramatic heap of gray rock filled with caves, many of which were once inhabited by hermits. In one of these, the philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, born in Samos in 570 B.C., is said to have hidden from the tyrant Polyckrates. To reach the cave, you have to climb a marked trail and then haul yourself up by a rope. If that’s too much, you can mount the nearby 320 white steps instead to the 11th-century chapel Panaghia Sarantaskaliotissa, nestled in the mouth of a different cave and decorated with faded frescoes of the same period.
A hike on Kerkis took me to another cave chapel, Panaghia Makrini, once used as a hermitage and thought to have been built in the 9th century. Inside, 12th-century frescoes of saints, jackals, birds and goats are still visible. Like most of the miniature country chapels of Greece, it is painted dazzling white.
The south side of the island is where to find sandy beaches, dramatic coastline walks, and most of Samos’s ancient history, including a 6th century B.C. underground aqueduct built by the engineer Eupalinos, who ingeniously designed the tunnel, which is nearly two-thirds of a mile long, to be simultaneously dug from opposite ends to meet in the middle — and so it does.
On my drives across the island, I often passed roadside “bee houses” selling honey. Costas Skallari, a native Samian, runs one of these, The Farm Store, a wooden hut on the south side of Mount Kerkis, near the town of Pirgos, where he was born. As well as honey, he sells the herbs that he collects early every morning, including “mountain tea” made of a wild leaf that is said to cure virtually every ill.
“What I love about Samos,” Costas said, “is that it is quiet and full of nature. People say the refugees have driven away tourists, but I don’t think so. It is a beautiful island for everyone.”
Between my explorations, I continued to drop by Alpha Center. More refugees were arriving every day, and the camp had grown so overcrowded that people had to wait in line for hours to get a meal, only to find that the food had often run out. When I returned in October, many volunteers were concerned that people would soon be starving, and freezing to death in their tents during the winter.