The Argo Saronic Islands are located in and around the Saronic Gulf just to the south of the Greek capital of Athens. The main islands in this group are Aegina, Agistri, Poros, Methana and Salamis with Hydra and Spetses beyond. Aegina is a popular weekend holiday retreat for Athenians and it can get very busy. Many mainland Greeks have holiday homes in the Saronic Islands, which are regularly served by ferries from Piraeus and the Peloponnese.
The Greek holiday island of Aegina is famed for it pistachio nuts that grow in abundance right across the island. Holiday visitors making the boat trip across the Saronic Gulf from Athens will find Aegina going nuts this weekend with its annual pistachio festival. The 7th Aegina Fystiki Fest run from September 24-27 with an array of events and exhibitions to celebrate the famed Aegina pistachio or fystiki Aeginis. The island pistachio is a favourite of chefs worldwide for its superior taste and island farmers will be touting their products at the trade fair held in the island's main port. Holiday visitors can get a taste of the Aegina nut in all its glory, from the new crop and spoon sweets to pistachio-based pasteli and oils. This year, Greek artists, sculptors and chefs will showcase their creations, inspired by the Aegina pistachio which is grown exclusively on the Greek island and now boasts a Protected Designation of Origin tag. Other events include photo exhibitions, art displays, theatrical performances and tours of historic island sites. Events draw to a close on Sunday with a display by the Aegina Port Authority's Marching Band. The annual but festival was launched in 2008 to promote and support the cultivation of the unique pistachio. The Aegina Fistiki Fest has grown into the largest commercial event in the region with more than 20,000 visitors browsing the scores of stalls and enjoying the many events. The pistachio not only lends its unique taste and texture to many sweet and savoury gastronomic creations, it also inspires the artists and craftsmen making jewellery, pottery and other creations. After all, Aegina is also known as the artists' island as it is home to hundreds of painters, sculptors, photographers and potters. Many of the island's artists decorate their courtyards, gardens, halls and streets especially for the event while the exhibitions of contemporary ceramics at the Archaeological Museum and Aegina's traditional fish market are a big draw. A full programme of events in English is published here on the festival website. The island of Aeginais a popular Athens getaway as it is located in the Saronic Gulf only an hour's boat trip from the capital.
The bright colours of painted doorways and window add bold highlights to the mansion houses of Hydra. Hydra is only a tiny island in the Saronic Gulf but it's architecture boasts a wealth of history that belies such an diminutive place. Of particular interest to the Hydra holiday visitor will be the splendid mansion houses that are found on the island, many still in private hands and not open to the public, although some of best are still open to visitors. The island of Hydra has now been granted status as a national historic landmark and this helps to protects its beautiful island architecture. Any new buildings erected on Hydra must be in keeping with the island's historic architectural style and help maintain Hydra's traditional character. It has led to a ban on high raise hotels or on any modern developments that could spoil the island's heritage which owes so much to the history of Hydra island, Many of the mansion houses (or archontika in Greek) were built by wealthy island shipbuilders and shipping magnates of the 18th century, a period of great prosperity for Hydra. Built of grey stone ferried from the neighbouring islet of Dokos, the houses were three or four stories high with spacious, high ceilinged rooms. The facades were plain and simple with limestone cornices and often painted in pastel colours with windows outlined in whitewash. Many were designed by Italian architects and the interiors were adorned with carved wooden ceilings while floors of marble were created with intricate geometric patterns. The hillside mansions usually have beautiful and generous walled courtyards with spectacular views of the Saronic sea, often from large terraces. One of the most notable characteristic of Hydra's architecture is the bright colours on the painted shutters, doorways and windows. The rocky soils and the lack of water in the summer meant many mansions had no garden so the owners were generous with paints when adding colour to break the monotony of the grey stonework. Among the more interesting mansions are the house of Tsamados, which greet visitors arriving by hydrofoil on the east side of Hydra's port built around 1800 by Admiral Anastasios Tsamados, a hero of the Greek War of Independence, and now a naval academy. Older still is the Gorogiannis mansion house which dates from 1780 which is unfortunately not open to the public. The Giorgios and Pavlos Kountouriotis manor complex is now home to the Museum of Modern History of Hydra and consists of three buildings and a garden. The Lazaros Koundouriotis mansion, located near the port, is now the island's National Historical Museum and the opulent interior has hand-painted ceiling borders, fine gilt moldings, some exquisite marquetry, and black and white marble tile floors.
One of the best preserved monuments in Greece. Not many holiday visitors to the island of Aegina will miss out on a visit to the remarkable Temple of Aphaea, often spelt Aphaia near the popular island beach resort of Aghia Marina. This 5th century BC Doric temple is one of the best preserved in Greece with 24 limestone columns of the sanctuary complex still standing. Aphaia was a Greek goddess, a hunting nymph daughter of Zeus, and worshipped exclusively at this temple which was first excavated in 1811 and again in 1901. Unfortunately English and German collectors stripped the sanctuary of its most important artefacts, now held mainly in German museums, although some finds are on display in the museum on Aegina. Archaeological and renovation work was started again in 1966 and has continued on and off ever since. Significant quantities of Bronze Age female figurines have been unearthed which suggest a religious role since the 14th century BC and even a Minoan connection. The temple is approached by a ramp incline from the east near some large stones that are thought to have once been sacrificial altars. Near the entrance are the ruins of a large building, thought to be lodging for temple priests. Just beyond the entrance there once stood a majestic column topped with a sphinx, which is now in the Aegina museum. These early structures are thought to date from 570 BC butdestroyed by fire around 60 years later. The temple seen today was built on the ruins of the older temple. The layout of Aphaia is unusual for its era in that it has six Doric columns at the ends and twelve along its flanks, a two to one relation instead of the more usual three to one. Other notable architectural features, such as slender columns spaced further apart, are thought to have influenced the architectural style of later Classical temples such as the great Parthenon in Athens. The Aphaia temple once had 32 columns constructed entirely of local limestone and covered with marble stucco that was once painted over. Indeed it is believd the temple was once lavishly decorated with bright coloured pigments. The complex also contained many sculptures carved from Parian marble depicting scenes from the Trojan war but the pediments on which these were carved were among the items stolen when Greece was under Turkish occupation. The temple of Aphaia makes an excellent archaeological site to visit while on holiday on Aegina. The small size and area of the temple fits nicely in the beautiful setting on Melagros hill and surrounded by pine trees with the spectacular views over the Saronic Gulf. The best time to visit is early in the morning before 10 am when the bus loads of tourists arrive on guided tours. Although the surrounding pines offer shade from the intense heat of summer, the sanctuary itself is very exposed and offers very little shade. There is a small cafe near the entrance and a small car park. There are daily buses Aegina town to the temple or there are many car and bike hire firms. Agia Marina is the nearest holiday resort with a busy beach area. Those staying in Agia Marina can follow an ancient trail up the hill to visit the temple on foot.
Aegina is noted for its beach volleyball events. They may have just celebrated Christmas but one Greek island is already taking to the sands for a sporting holiday break. Players will be taking part in a beach volleyball tournament between Christmas and New Year to compete in the Aegina Xmas Cup Beach Volley contest. The tournament is open to amateur and professional athletes, sport enthusiasts and all who enjoy the sport. It started in 1990 when a group of friends started the beach volleyball tournament in Aegina and requested approval from the official body. It meant a lot of work for organisers who has to draw up draft notices, regulations, programmes and so on, to update the Municipality of Aegina, the Port Authority, the referees before they could even get started. They raised money locally to cover the costs of medals, prints, tickets and ran two tournaments, one for men and another for women. And this was the days before the Internet was available to everyone and neither were helpful modern devices like laptops and mobile phones. They had an old Bulgarian typewriter to print out notices and used Aegina island's only fax machine located in the island post office. They eventually found a sponsor who also offered free ice cream while the Aegina Town mayor loaned two staff to help plan the event on Aura Beach. Local hotels offered discounts for athletes while local taverna owners offered food . Since then the competition has grown to be a major event in the Greek sporting calendar. Aegina is noted for its beach volleyball with an annual three-day event - The Aegina Masters Beach Volley Tournament held in the summer months. For three days and nights, top Greek athletes compete in beach volleyball matches during the day while at night island clubs entertain the crowds. The Masters Beach Volleyball circuit is now part of the Pan-Hellenic championship promoting this growing summer sport. In 2013 Aegina decided to hold the Aegina Masters Beach Volleyball tournament in the Village of Perdika in June to mark the opening of the summer tourist season.
Aegina holds blue flag beach party. Aegina may be a hugely popular holiday island base for visitors who plan a trip to Athens but it has never picked up a Blue Flag awards for its beaches. This year is different though after the Agia Marina beach lifted a Blue Flag accolade - making Aegina island the first in the Argo Saronic gulf to fly the coveted clean beach flag. Now the island is to celebrate with a special all-day beach party on Agia Marina beach and everyone on holiday on Aegina is invited. The Municipality of Aegina will host the beach party celebration and treats include an award ceremony, music, treats and plenty of surprises. The Blue Flag is awarded to beaches that meet tough standards on the quality of seawater, beach cleanliness, organization of the swimming area, safety of bathers and the protection of the environment. Islands in the Argo Saronic have always missed out on the awards despite the rest of Greece picking up a total of 393 Greek 'Blue Flags' this year. It made Greece second of 49 countries for clean holiday beaches after the International Jury awarded Blue Flags to 3,103 beaches and 626 marinas worldwide in 2013. To get a Blue Flag award a beach must meet 32 strict criteria. According to the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, international travel agencies and tour firms take special note of Blue Flag beaches when promoting holiday destinations.
Aegina holidays hit hard as Greeks stay away. Although many Greek islands are suffering as the number of overseas visitors continues to fall, the island of Aegina has been hit by even more pain. Hotel owners on the island of Aegina have been even harder hit by the collapse in domestic tourism as troubled Greeks abandon holiday plans and stay at home. Aegina holidays have always been highly popular with Greeks as Aegina sits in the Saronic gulf just 12km from the captal of Athens and with dozens of daily ferries. Aegina has not only attracted weekend holidaymakers, eager to escape the stifling summer heat of Athens, it is also a hugely popular summer holiday hot-spot for Greeks themselves. The growth in domestic tourism on Aegina has been particularly strong over the past decade and last year about 70% of the island's holiday visitors were from mainland Greece. Week-enders from the mainland have given Aegina a party atmosphere and the island has been popular with foreign visitors thanks to easy transfers to the mainland and the many sightseeing excursions on offer. But over the past two years Greeks have stopped coming, and those that do head to Aegina for their summer holidays spend a lot less money, as the eurozone-imposed austerity measures hit Greek families hard. The drop in visitor numbers has been felt across all the Greek Islands this year as potential holidaymakers are put off by the prospect of violence returning to the streets after fresh elections. The Greek tourism association (SETE), has forecast a drop in tourism revenues across Greece and the Greek Islands this year of 15%. As tourism accounts for 18% of Greece GDP and and one in five jobs, tourism is vital for Greece's economy. Dr. Andreas Andreadis, president of SETE, insists there has never been a better time to take a holiday in the Greek Islands. "Greece remains one of the top destinations in the world and we reassure holidaymakers that this summer remains business as usual," he said. Greek hotel owners report summer holiday bookings in the first three months of 2012 down around 10% on last year with a number of large hotels closing their doors. Domestic tourism makes up about 25% of the sector across Greece. The fear is that the all-important summer season on the Greek Islands will be a disaster this year as foreign holidaymakers turn to rival beach holiday destinations such as Turkey and Spain. In a bid to kick-start the 2012 holiday season package tour companies are offering cut price deals for Greek Island holidays and leading tour company Thomas Cook forecast even bigger bargains if Greece does eventually exit the eurozone.