Hi everyone – I’m back!
I’ve had a bit of a break – travel in Oz, visitors, and then a bit of a bug to annoy me. But back to it now, to continue the journey around Greece.
I know you’ve all been waiting for me to write about the Cyclades Islands, for this is the region that attracts most tourists. If you think of Greece at all, do you automatically visualize those rather contrived posters seen in art shops – cornflower blue church cupolas and wedding-cake bell towers, whitewashed steps leading to nowhere, odd-looking white cube houses climbing up a hillside, and black islands swimming in deep blue seas? I used to look at these and say “Nah, can’t be real.” I still remember our first trip to the Cyclades, well over twenty years ago, and our astonishment to find it was all true. Here’s what I wrote about about this region in my book: From pallet-box blue seas, dry rocky islands rear up like dragon’s teeth. Tiny villages, like spilt sugar cubes, cling precariously, scatter across, spill down, or cower between steep hillsides of grey stone. They pool into towns in the lush valleys, or spread-eagle at the edge of perfect bays…
It’s easy to reach the Cyclades Islands by ferry from Piraeus, and some of the larger islands are connected by air (if flying, be very careful to pre-book, as the planes are usually small, and fill very quickly). Most islands are at least a good three hours away on a Highspeed ferry, even longer on an ordinary one, but to me island-hopping in the Cyclades isn’t the same unless it’s done on a ferry. Thus, each visit to Greece, I make sure I sail to Naxos.
Naxos Chora rises from the paralia (waterfront) to cover a conical hill with white and golden houses, crowned as usual with a Venetian fortress. It’s curious how so many of the Greek islands are crowned with a Venetian fortress. The Venetians have left their legacy right around Greece, which is fun in a way. They sure knew how to build fortresses. However, on the left of the Naxos quay is the rocky Palatia islet with a massive empty marble doorway, standing like a giant picture frame for the town, the remnants of a Temple of Apollo built two thousand five hundred years ago and called the Portara. The ancient Greeks sure knew how to build temples, too. I think the Venetians suffered from jealousy. They certainly stamped their authority on their captured territory by building massive fortresses or kastros, just to prove who was boss. Make sure you visit the Della Rocca-Barozzi Venetian Museum for a tour of an old kastro tower house and its exhibition of artifacts.
The Naxos Old Town actually hunkers in the thirteenth century kastro precincts. The main problem is finding a way into it, for the tiny narrow streets and passageways wind around in the most puzzling fashion, doubling back and zigzagging until visitors are totally befuddled. It was to confuse the pirates, we’re told. You have to give it A for ambience. Overhanging pink bougainvillea drops blossoms onto the blue painted table tops of secluded tavernas. Massive old arched doorways lead into the entry chambers of the kastro itself, the ceilings crossed with solid black beams. A time-warp hush hangs over these streets, enhanced by the click-clack of donkey hoofs on the old flagstones and the somnolence of eternal summer. At night, the shadows dancing on the old stone walls are wraith-like and bewitching.
The Agios Georgios beach, near the main town, is a lovely place for families – the wide sand and quiet water is children friendly, as are the tavernas along its frontage. The tiny sails of windsurfers dodge in and out flying across the bay like swooping sea birds – it’s one of the best places apart from Vasiliki in the Ionians for windsurfing.
As it’s the largest of all the Cyclades islands, the most fertile, and with the highest mountains, there’s plenty to see around Naxos. The Tragea region of the interior is a veritable artist’s canvas of spiked peaks, verdant valleys, olive groves, and unspoiled villages perching precariously on the slopes of bald mountains. Heaven for jaded tourists, dedicated hikers, avid explorers or just enervated café crawlers. To reach these pastoral places one needs to catch a bus. In the way of Greece, bus travel is always an experience, and on Naxos it’s no exception. So, to investigate the picturesque town of Filoti and its next-door neighbor, Halki, first find your bus. Buses depart from the small square near the ferry quay, and
climb up from the coastal plain into rolling mountains, through fields of wild flowers, down into lush green valleys and across gray sun-blasted rocky plateaus. Winding through odd little villages crowned with derelict windmills, you’ll pass by old gray stone fortress-like houses called pyrgos, eighteenth century stone tower houses built by the aristocratic families as refuge/fortresses against marauders and pirates. There are vistas back to the sea and up to the sky, switchback bends, and sudden glorious panoramas. In fact, it’s a pretty nice ride.
The village of Filoti clings to the skirts of Mt Zeus, (known locally as Mt Zas – actually the highest point in the Cyclades Islands). It’s a large and pretty place, sprawling across the hillside with prosperous new growth reaching up and out, like the spreading contents of an upended giant white paint tin. The bus stops on a plateia (square), cool and shady under enormous plane trees. Busy tavernas spread their tables out to the roadway – a great place in which to sit with a caffe frappe and watch the world and his dog go by. I usually stroll along a quiet main road, taking me into peaceful outskirts, where farmlets with olive groves, figs, vines and vegies spread into the valley. Wildflowers drape the rocky terrain as the road heads out towards the stark peak of barren rock that is the pointy end of Mt Zas. Hiking trails lead out for the summit, a rather daunting challenge not for the faint-hearted, but sure to provide fantastic views of the whole island hinterland.
Walking out of Filoti, back towards the sea and away from Mt Zas, is a great idea. Downhill all the way, the great little stroll is only two-three kilometers along a winding road. It passes orchards, scattered hamlets, olive groves, lemon trees, fields of wildflowers, rocky hillsides aromatic with wild herbs, to finally head into the little town of Halki. Once upon a time Halki was the region’s commercial center, and is now experiencing a mini resurgence as some of the ruined Venetian houses have been restored to capture the interest of tourists. Halki’s a tiny gem not to be missed. Near the bus stop, a diminutive street leads to a hidden plateia. Walking down the narrow flagstone entry is a transport back to Venetian times, past faded facades with iron balconies propped up with fancy brackets, and wooden shutters closed to the midday sun. Under the shadow of the balconies hide little sophisticated shops – a ceramic studio; a craft gallery with resident weaver; a shop devoted to the olive and its products. Halki also possesses several pyrgos. The Gratsia Pyrgos is just off the main road in the town, a forbidding-looking grey stone square castle.
Another drive to the hillside town of Apiranthos is recommended. As the bus grinds up the further ten kilometers from Filoti, truly magnificent mountain country unfolds. The views are stupendous, the rolling peaks stony and barren, Filoti a white splodge below. Apiranthos differs from Filoti. In many respects it’s more like Halki, with a distinct hint of Venice, but most of its early inhabitants arrived because of the rich emery mines of North-east Naxos, now mostly defunct. These mine owners were well-heeled, and built classical, rather ornate houses of stone and marble, centering on a gray stone kastro/pyrgos pile, originally built upon the natural rock of the mountain. All the footpaths and narrow streets are paved with marble flagstones, giving the town a slightly ancient and rather exotic feel. The main street, which wanders along the median contour of the hillside, is about two meters wide, opening out into several shady plateias, all with huge plane tree umbrellas. Apiranthos is the prettiest of the hillside towns to my mind. Eating lunch at one of the tavernas on the edge of the escarpment is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. Just gazing over the panorama of patchworks fields, vineyards and orchards across to neighboring mountains is soul food.
Tucked away in the oddest places, Naxos Chora hides sophisticated shops, an eclectic collection of handcrafts, woven carpets, knick-knacks and glorious kitsch. One of the nicest things about Naxos is the evening volta (promenade), another Greek tradition. Happy, friendly people, dressed in their best, greet each other with warm hugs and kisses, exclaim over babies, chatter in groups as their young racket around them, and parade up and down in the mild evening air. Surely this must be among life’s most engaging pastimes. The Naxos volta is often high street theater, and on reflection it remains for me as one of the best in Greece. Then, treat yourself to an entertaining meal at Lucullus estiatorio, for ambience extraorinary. And, if you’re looking for a great budget hotel experience in the kastro precinct of Naxos Chora, try the Hotel Anixis, and tell Dimitrios I sent you.
You can read more about Naxos in my eBook Make Mine a Moussaka: http://www.amazon.ca/Make-Mine-Moussaka-Helen-Ellis-ebook/dp/B00FQJ0KX2 and also in my novel One Greek Summer set in Naxos: http://www.amazon.com.au/gp/product/B00JGOG0P0?*Version*=1&*entries*=0