Father Evdokimos is hunched over, deep in thought. His wispy white beard glows in the shadowy antechamber. At first, I imagine he is praying. “I’m making aprons from scraps of fabric,” the abbot explains, without looking up from the vintage Singer. It’s a fitting pastime for the nonagenarian monk, a keen chef who has published his own cookbook. Around him, carved crucifixes and Orthodox icons hang above cabinets overflowing with colourful cloth. “I don’t like sitting around, I like to be useful,” father Evdokimos smiles, unruly eyebrows dancing above rimless glasses. He wears his age, cassock, and venerable status lightly.
To prove his point, the abbot bustles us out of the room and into the kitchen of Panagia Panachrantou, a Byzantine monastery wedged into a mountain ridge on the Greek island of Andros. With its thick stone walls and battlements, the monastery looks more like a fortress. The area is known as Katafigio (refuge) because it was a strategic hide-out during the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule. A pair of silver-plated pistols on the kitchen wall attest to the bravery of the several hundred monks who once resided here. Now there are only four.
Father Evdokimos was assigned the task of cooking for them on the day he arrived in 1958. Today, he has made aubergine pilaf and fasolakia, green beans stewed with tomatoes. In a corner of the tiny pantry, he lights a fire using old, sepia-tinted newspapers and fries fat chips over the flames. “We’re fasting today, no meat,” he says. The black cat hopefully rubbing the abbot’s ankles meows in protest.
The kitchen is a cosy clutter of terracotta pots, hanging baskets, and an unlikely abundance of alarm clocks. Little has changed since the not-so-distant days when there was no road or electricity up here — apart from the beep-beep of a motion sensor, clocking the visitors who have come to admire the church, with its intricately carved iconostasis inlaid with Iznik tiles. It’s half past eleven, but the monks were up long before dawn for morning prayers. “Stop crossing yourself! You’ve done it seven times!” one monk teases another as we take our places at the wooden table.
Although all visitors to the monastery are warmly welcomed, not all of them are invited for lunch. For that, you need an Andros insider. Someone like Allegra Pomilio, a 29-year-old photographer, graphic designer, food stylist and writer from Pescara in Italy, who has turned her family’s summer house on Andros into one of the island’s most beautiful places to stay. Although she modestly describes Mélisses as a bed and breakfast, it’s more than that.
The idea began in 2018 as a series of culinary and creative retreats, hosted by Allegra and a roster of chefs, photographers, florists, and craftspeople (including Emiko Davies, Letitia Clark, and Nicole Franzen). Photographs of romantic table settings, beautifully plated feasts, and ravishing backdrops of rocks and sea, goats and sunsets, sparked an explosion of interest — not just on Instagram, but in real life. With limited places available on the retreats, people kept asking Allegra whether they could stay at the house (which sleeps 12) as paying guests. “Eventually I thought: Why not? I could do that,” Allegra laughs.
When I arrive at Mélisses, just outside the village of Batsi on the island’s western coast, she insists on carrying my bag down the lavender-scented hillside to the Red Mullet suite, a blue-and-white sanctuary with an antique wardrobe, grey stone floors, and an outdoor kitchen overlooking the blue horizon. Steps carved into the rocky shoreline lead past a kitchen garden, a pen full of goats, ducks, and chickens, and down to a secret swimming spot, with a handful of deckchairs shaded by bamboo pergolas.
A dip in the sea is the perfect prelude to an aperitivo by the saltwater infinity pool — a cucumber, lime and gin concoction garnished with bee pollen, served with hot tomato and courgette fritters dunked in yoghurt swirled with basil oil. Sometimes everyone gathers around a communal table for dinner, but for tonight’s feast — tortelli stuffed with herby, lemony anthotiro (a sort of Greek ricotta), whole croaker fish wrapped in fig leaves, and rosemary gelato — tables draped in lace are scattered around the garden. Allegra and a trio of graceful young women glide about, topping up glasses and lighting candles as the lilac twilight turns into a canopy of stars. You could easily drift off the radar here and forget about the rest of the island and the rest of the world.
But that would mean missing out on some of the most unspoilt beaches, beautiful villages, and unexpected scenery in the Cyclades. Divided by three towering mountain ranges, Andros was known as Hydrousa in antiquity for its profusion of artesian wells, freshwater springs, wetlands, and waterfalls. Almost half the island is a protected nature reserve, where the only traces of man’s presence are the grey furrows of drystone terraces. One minute you’re navigating a cliff-edge, deliriously high above a glittering expanse of sea. The next you’re deep in a valley of citrus orchards and century-old manor houses, where the island’s landed gentry spend their summers. You might round a bend and find the landscape has turned to cloud, spectral goats emerging from the fog.
“It’s like three different islands, each with their own landscape and personality,” says Petros Antoniades, co-owner of Livada, an organic farm in the village of Mesaria that provides Mélisses with all sorts of delicious, seasonal greens. Allegra has tracked down many of the best sustainable producers on the island, from the Tridima brothers, who make their own cured meats from free-ranging livestock; to the beekeeping father-and-daughter at 3Melisses, whose organic heather honey tastes like toffee. (The almost identical name is a coincidence; “mélisses” means “bees”). In an old olive press hidden in the sparsely inhabited north of the island, they welcome us with honey-drenched loukoumades (feather-light fried balls of dough) and shots of raki, the local grappa.
I usually spend days researching the best places to eat and drink before a trip. This time, I have come armed with Allegra’s cheat sheet of her favourite restaurants, beaches, shops, and (she is Italian, after all) aperitivo spots on the island. After a slow breakfast of grape focaccia, yoghurt with home-made granola, figs and honey, and eggs fried with sage, I know I am in safe hands. It would be a challenge to hit all the highlights on her five-page list in as many days, but I am determined to try.
Unlike neighbouring Tinos, which has established itself as a cult favourite among Greek gourmands, or Mykonos, where you’re more likely to find Kobe beef gyros on the menu than a Greek salad, Andros is not particularly well known for its food. The island is better known as the birthplace of many of Greece’s powerful but insular shipping dynasties, whose wealth and patronage offered professional opportunities outside tourism and a wealth of social and cultural institutions unimaginable on other Cycladic islands.
Latterly, Andros has also established itself as a destination for ramblers, thanks to the determined efforts of Andros Routes, a group of volunteers who have waymarked around 150 kilometres of the island’s footpaths, with more trails cleared every year. (If you really want to go off-road, ask Argyris Visvardis, a fantastically energetic guide with Explore Andros, to take you to the Gerolimni waterfalls, where you can swing from a rope into luminous rock pools.)
Close to Mélisses, an easy circular hiking trail leads to Paleopolis, where you can snorkel over the sunken ruins of the island’s ancient capital. On the way back, I stop at To Periptero, a glorified shack, to make a dent in Margarita Vlastari’s enormous fourtalia, the local potato and sausage omelette that’s often studded with whatever happens to be in season. At the aptly named Balcony of the Aegean, a family-run farm-to-table taverna a mile or so to the north, the owners make all their own cheeses. I sample soft goat’s cheese and peppery kopanisti with gently yielding gigantes, Greece’s delicious take on baked beans, and rooster in tomato sauce.
Tucked away at the end of a tapering road, Agia Marina is a sheltered sliver of sand where locals go for fresh fish, stuffed tomatoes, and epic sunsets. The seaside taverna here has been in business since 1960, a retro postcard of blue plastic chairs, driftwood sculptures, and paper tablecloths. A trio of cats sit on the sea wall, watching kids splash in the fading light, and a pair of curious sheep wander past.
The scene at Tou Zozef, a kafenio in the hamlet of Pitrofos, is equally laid-back: Katerina Remoundou has hung her laundry out to dry between the brightly painted tables in the courtyard. Regulars come for Katerina’s unusual signature dishes, such as koskoséla (fried eggs and tomatoes), but she insists I try her daily specials: chicken roast with vine leaves and red peppers, ladenia, a Cycladic-style pizza with caramelised onions and tomatoes, and lyraki, buttery Andriot squash. “Katerina is the oracle of Andros,” Allegra tells me. Sure enough, after lunch Katerina pulls up a chair and gives me a rambling and riveting history lesson. There are tales of celebrated patissiers, Venetian watchtowers, political exiles, migrating birds, and benevolent shipowners. “Andros is a self-sufficient island with a strong sense of community,” says Katerina. “Agricultural life goes on, but every family still has at least one member working at sea. The sea pays our bills.”
This legacy is writ large in the villages clustered around Chora, the elegant capital that juts into the sea like the prow of a ship. In Stenies — jokingly known as the Beverly Hills of Andros, because of the extravagant mansions built by local shipping titans — almost every street, fountain and church carries a marble plaque engraved with the names of the benefactors who paid for them. The same names appear again and again: Goulandris, Embiricos, Polemis.
For my last lunch on Andros, I visit another monastery, Agia Irini. Abandoned for years, the monastery was restored by the late Lefteris Polemis, who joined the merchant navy as a teenager and doggedly worked his way up to captain. In a narrow refectory with picture windows framing Chora, a long table is laden with roast goat, spaghetti bolognese, Greek salad, lyraki and fourtalia. “Everything except the spaghetti comes from our garden and farm,” Lefteris’ raven-haired daughter, Aliki, tells me proudly. Even the great seafaring families have deep roots in the land on this rich and bountiful island.
Rachel Howard was a guest of Mélisses (melissesandros.com), where suites sleeping two cost from €260 per night. Allegra Pomilio also hosts occasional culinary retreats on Andros in spring and autumn.
If Mélisses is fully booked, try Ktima Lemonies (ktimalemonies.gr; doubles from €130), a farm and guesthouse tucked away in the lush valley below Lamyra. Androsbnb (androsbnb.gr) also has a selection of apartments and villas for rent. Explore Andros (exploreandros.gr) offers guided river trekking, rock-climbing, and other outdoor pursuits (from €50 per person). For more on visiting the island see andros.gr
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