Big Island with Great Beaches and MountainsJuly 9-12
Wow, this island-hopping stuff is fun! After your third island, you really start to get into the groove, looking forward to the next place with anticipation. We've found that every island, despite their geographical proximity to each other, each has its own unique qualities. Different people, different landscapes, different types of food and attitudes.
Going from tiny, kicked-back Koufonisia to the busy capital of Hora (pop. 12,000) on the big island of Naxos took a shift of mental gears on our part. Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades island group, with some nice beaches and a little-traveled, mountainous interior. It's been an important island for a long time; the ancient Naxians left their mark not only on this island but on many of the other Cyclades, most notably the important site of Delos near Mykonos island.
Octopus out drying, a common sight in the islands
As we got off the ferry in Hora, we were immediately accosted by pension touts offering cheap rooms. This would have been a good thing if we hadn't already had reservations somewhere, but we had called ahead and had a place all lined up. All we needed to do was find the hotel van which was waiting for us somewhere along the busy port-front street. But the touts wouldn't leave us alone, sometimes asking two or three times if we wanted a room, even though we told them we already had one. This gave us the initial impression that perhaps Hora was just as touristy and crowded as Santorini or Mykonos, but after a few hours we discovered our first impressions were wrong. Once you get away from the waterfront area, the town is actually pretty nice. Just one block back from the road, backstreet pedestrian-only alleyways lined with nice shops and relaxed tavernas lead up to the Kastro, the old fortified, walled city where the Venetian Catholics lived hundreds of years ago. There is still a lot of old Naxos left in modern Naxos, despite the fact that Hora is the Cyclades' second-largest town and bustling with activity. One advantage to being in a larger town is that there are more options available to the visitor; more types of restaurants, more lodging options, etc. After nearly two weeks of non-stop Greek food, it was nice to be able to find some Tex-Mex and Asian food for a change!
We stayed in a small, inexpensive hotel in the Grotta area north of town, away from the waterfront noise, with an excellent view of the sea and of Naxos' most-photographed monument: the Temple of Apollo. Situated on a small islet connected to the north side of town by a narrow causeway, the never-finished site was dedicated thousands of years ago to the God of Light. Its major feature is a huge 10 meter (30 feet) tall portal-type doorway made of pure marble. Legend has it that when Greece wins back Istanbul, the door will magically appear inside the portal. Now that would be something to behold! It's quite a mysterious place, as the doorway literally leads to nowhere; looking through from the town side, all you see is the sea beyond. Looking at it at night, we half expected some mystical, glowing sci-fi style portal to open up inside the gate, but alas, that never happened.
The Intriguing Temple of Apollo
We enjoyed our first wedding anniversary here on Naxos, on July 10. Wow, how quickly a year passes. We had a nice sea-view room at the Hotel Grotta, and spent the day at the somewhat busy but still very nice Agia Anna beach, a few kilometers south of town. We even had lounge chairs and an umbrella (they're available for rent)...what a luxury! It was a perfect way to celebrate our first year together.
Naxos is also known for the vast variety of food and drink items its fertile soil produces. Most famous of all is Naxian citron (pronounced "kit-ron"), a sweet liquer made from the leaves of a citrus tree. It's made only on Naxos, and is difficult to get outside of Greece. Naxos also produces fine white wine, good fruits and vegetables, and several nice kinds of cheese. All of this isn't so surprising when you consider that the island's favorite ancient Greek diety is Dionysos, the God of Wine and Ecstacy.
One day, we took a bus up into the mountainous interior and hopped off at the charming village of Filoti, built on the flanks of Mt. Zeus. We stopped in the local market to buy some picnic items and then headed out of town on the small dirt road which leads to Damarionas, an even smaller town several kilometers away. The area is very beautiful, with olive groves and big oak trees and long, ancient stone fences. We found a pathway that led off the road up into a grove of trees, where we sat in complete solitude eating our little picnic lunch under the shade of an oak tree. What a pleasant change from the busy waterfront and beach areas!
Walking in the Mountains
We spent three comfortable days on Naxos before moving on to the well-known (too well-known) island of Mykonos, the most-visited place in the Cyclades.
Busiest of the Cyclades, Capital of Bad Fashion StatementsJuly 12-14
Mykonos is crowded. Too crowded. Long a major destination of Greek Island-hoppers (why, we're not sure), it used to be the favorite spot for yachties and jet-setters of the "see and be seen" mold. Not any more. It still attracts a lot of money (one glance at the huge yachts moored offshore and the over-the-top jewelry stores makes that obvious), but it also attracts a strange group of poseurs that seem to want to bask in this former glory, to say they've been "where Madonna and the King Abdullah of Jordan stayed last week." This does make for some interesting people-watching, however. We saw all kinds of interesting fashion statements on Mykonos: super-small bikini tops with matching super-small "short-shorts" a la the Farah Fawcett era, red-sequined tube tops on platinum-dyed blonde disco queens sporting tight white polyester pants, and men wearing nothing but similary-short cut-off shorts sporting their fancy tatoos and overdeveloped pecs. These are just a few examples, if you're interested in such things, why don't you come to Mykonos and check it out for yourself sometime? It's a riot!
Typical Mykonos Backstreet
Don't get us wrong, there are some very pretty streets on Mykonos (all that money helps keep the whitewashed streets extra white and the buildings extra clean). But it's like a super-sanitized, painted-up version of any Cycladean town. We suppose if this is your only glimpse of a "typical" Cycladean town, you'd be impressed. Not us -- we've seen the real thing in places much cheaper and with far fewer tourists (Amorgos and Koufonisia, for example). Prices are a good 20-40% higher here than elsewhere on the islands. Our two nights on Mykonos were quite enough, thanks.
Mykonos' Windmills at Sunset
The real reason we came to Mykonos was to visit the nearby island of Delos. Delos is one of the most important archeological sites in all of Greece. Grand in scale, a huge portion of the island contains the fine ruins of ancient temples, houses, theaters, and more. Inhabited as early as 3000 BC, the first big temples were built in the 5th century BC. These temples were erected to honor the god Apollo, who legend says was born here along with his twin sister Artemis. Seeing an opportunity to extend its scope of control further into the Aegean, Athens later took control of the island and moved the city treasury there. From then on, a grand city was built complete with houses for the wealthy, more temples, and even a large amphitheater. Uninhabited now, you can only go for day trips from Mykonos or nearby Tinos, each about 30 minutes away by boat. It's a very interesting site, and worth putting up with the chaos and expense of Mykonos for a day or two in order to make a visit here.
Statues of Cleopatra and Dioscrides, Delos
After two nights on Mykonos, we took a 1.5 hour ferry to the refreshingly different island of...
Wealthiest of the Cyclades IslandsJuly 14-16
We went to Syros because it lays on the path back to Athens. We needed to return to Athens (unfortunately) in order to begin our travels on the mainland. It's also one of the few islands on the path back to Athens that is not on most visitors' itineraries. We had also read that Syros was a wealthy island with some nice beaches and an interesting capital, so we decided to check it out.
We were completely surprised by how different Ermoupolis, the island's capital, not only looks but feels. Unlike all the other Cycladic towns, Ermoupolis' buildings are mostly pretty, turn of the century neoclassical structures -- not simple whitewashed things. (Don't get us wrong, whitewash is pretty, but we'd seen nearly three weeks of it at this point!). Much of this is because of Ermoupolis' prominent position as Greece's primary port until Pireaus took over near the turn of the 20th century. A lot of people made a lot of money on the shipping business in Ermoupolis, and while shipping isn't as important here as it used to be, the city is still doing very well in other endeavors. In fact, Ermoupolis remains the Cyclades' largest and wealthiest city. The streets are paved in marble (no kidding) and the back lanes are full of chic boutiques and shops.
The buildings look stately and the people dress smartly -- no bikinis, tank tops or disco inferno wear around town here! Because Syros has long been rich off business activities other than tourism, it's a very pleasant change from the tourist grind on other islands like Mykonos and Santorini. People aren't burned out on tourists, and the town dances to a beat of its own. And surprisingly, things weren't so expensive here. Prices were more in line with what we were paying on the smaller islands of Amorgos and Koufonisia. Another pleasant change.
Syros was our final Greek island. After nearly three weeks of island hopping, we were really in the groove and wanted to keep going. But we had other adventures waiting for us on the Greek mainland. We hopped on a super-crowded ferry to Pireaus, near Athens, and six hours later we were back in the Land of Smog and Demon Taxi Drivers.
Back to Greece pg 3 On to Greece pg 5!
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