Exploring the Rich History of the Idyllic Greek Island of Spetses

The ancient Venetians called the Greek island Spetses Isola de Spezzie, which translates to English as the “Island of Fragrance.” The moniker is attributed to the many aromatic herbs found in the island’s mountainous regions. 

Forming part of the Argosaronic Islands alongside Aegina, Poros, and Hydra, Spetses sits at the entrance of the Argolic Gulf and is the southernmost island of the group. Like Hydra, Spetses played a crucial role in the Greek Revolution of 1821. It is also the birthplace of Laskarina Bouboulina, the renowned female naval commander. Bouboulina was the first woman to achieve the rank of admiral, and she led her fleet to victory in the Greek War of Independence. 

Spetses was one of the first Greek islands to attract international tourists. Today, it can be reached by ferry from the Greek port cities of Piraeus or Kosta. A beautiful island offering both tranquility and a cosmopolitan edge, Spetses is home to numerous picturesque beaches and bays, boasting a charming old harbor and various interesting historical sites. 

Mesolithic flint spearheads have been discovered in the town of Zogheria on Spetses island. Historians believe they were left by inhabitants of the Fraghthi cave on the mainland who ventured to the island in search of drinking water. Spetses’ earliest inhabitants are believed to be seafarers who stopped off as they passed the island on their journey from the Peloponnese to the Cyclades. 

Near the end of the Mycenaean Era (around 1170 BCE), Spetses was attacked by the Mycenaeans. Experts believe that the ancient inhabitants of Spetses played an important role in the Battle of Salamis. The island was also attacked by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. 

Spetses was an important naval base for mainland cities; it was relied on by both the Greek and Roman empires. However, the island’s coastal regions were eventually abandoned by locals following repeated attacks by Ottoman pirates. It is believed that most inhabitants of Spetses fled, seeking refuge in the coastal towns of the Peloponnese, which were defended by Rome at the time. 

Following the division of the Byzantine Empire, Spetses came under Venetian rule. In 1460 the Venetians were replaced by Turks. 

Later came a wave of Arvanite refugees fleeing the Peloponnese, settling in the bays of Agioi Anargyroi and Zogheria. These new island inhabitants started cultivating the land and imported livestock. They quickly realized the significant demand for the island’s pines and built small ships to transport timber across the Mediterranean. By 1715, the community at Kastelli had started to take shape. 

Cooperating with the Russians in the Russian-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, the Greek Coalition turned Spetses’ sizable merchant fleet into a mighty naval power, revolting against the Ottoman Empire during the Orlov Revolt. In response, the Turks destroyed the only village on the island of Spetses in 1770. 

Spetses played a major role in the Greek Revolution. With the courage and patriotism of Spetsiots hailed as unbeatable, the island was the first to respond to the revolutionary call in 1821. Spetses pledged its powerful fleet in the fight to repel the Ottoman Turks, participating in the liberation of Mani, Nafplio, Monemvasia, and Messolongi. It also played a major role in the siege and conquest of Tripolitsa. 

The Spetses fleet also sailed to Crete to attack the Egyptian fleet, which was allied with the Ottoman Turks. Powerful Spetsiot ships were used to transport supplies across Greece throughout the Greek Revolution, carrying weapons and munitions to other islands that joined the fight for liberation. 

Following her husband’s death, the Spetsiot captain Laskarina Bouboulina took command of his fleet, becoming an active member of the secret revolutionary organization Filiki Etairia. She led many important battles, sacrificing her fortune to finance the war and earning a place as one of the most celebrated heroes of the Greek Revolution. Born in 1771, Bouboulina lost two husbands to pirate attacks throughout her lifetime, using the fortune and ships she inherited to fuel Greece’s fight for independence. 

Today, some of Spetses’ most popular attractions include the old harbor, Baltiza. Located 1.5 kilometers from Spetses’ new harbor, Dapia, Baltiza was an important shipbuilding center in the 18th and 19th centuries. Standing to the right of the old harbor, the Baltiza lighthouse is one of the oldest lighthouses in Greece. 

Housed in the Mansion of Hatzigianni-Mexi, a prominent 19th-century tradesperson, the Museum of Spetses exhibits a variety of items cataloging the history of the island of Spetses from ancient to modern times. In addition, the private Bouboulina Museum is located in the home of Bouboulina, displaying a collection of household furnishings and personal objects that belonged to the Spetsiot hero. The traditional mansion is well worth a visit in itself, particularly for the main saloon’s intricately carved wooden Florentine ceiling. 

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