Scattered like a shattered emerald necklace across the Aegean Sea, the Greek Cyclades islands have a different personality for every day of the week. Discover the ravishing beauty of Santorini, the hedonism of Mykonos and laid-back living on Paros, Naxos and Syros.
By Andy Jarosz. Published on 17th March 2014
Image: Sameena Jarosz
“Make sure you visit the graveyard; there you’ll see just how well we live here in Lefkes,” George tells me as I tuck into a plate of local tomatoes and cheese, coated with freshly picked oregano and bursting with flavour. He pulls up a chair in his restaurant and says, “It’s a good life here. We don’t have the same stresses or worries the city folks have.”
I’m exploring the Cyclades on foot, and Paros, as with many of this disparate group of islands to the south east of Athens, is small enough that my route for a day’s walking crosses almost every segment of my island map. Having started the morning in Piso Livadi, a pretty village on the east coast, I’ve followed the marble-paved Byzantine Way to the village of Lefkes, a route that has been used for many centuries. The path snakes its way through scrubland with lizards scurrying across the marble, stopping briefly to soak up the sun before running for cover. Wild flowers are in glorious abundance on either side, and the scent of oregano, sage and thyme lingers in the air as I walk.
As I enjoy my hard-earned lunch, a smiling old lady emerges and waves to George from the house across the road before setting off on her errands. She is 93 years old, he tells me, but she’s certainly not the oldest inhabitant of the village. He describes how the people in Lefkes are better equipped to survive the economic crisis than their compatriots in Athens: “Here, no one has much money. But we have land; we can produce fruits, olives, cheese; we can fish. We have what we need and we help each other.”
Buoyed by lunch and eager to see more of Paros, I set off on the three-hour walk back to the main town of Parikia. Before I leave Lefkes I take George’s advice and stroll down to the cemetery, stepping between the tidy plots with their neatly maintained headstones. I immediately notice the high proportion of residents of the cemetery who have waited until their late eighties and nineties before moving in; even one who lived to 104.
Soon after leaving the village, a couple of wooden signposts provide false hope that I might be able to follow the back roads for the full seven-mile journey; soon the signs disappear and I’m forced to follow the main road. I stop at the Marathi quarry, from which Parian marble was exported to make many of ancient Greece’s finest sculptures including Venus de Milo. I descend into one of the entrances to the mine and shine a torch onto the walls to reveal roughly-hewn marble wherever I look. There is a constant sound of slowly dripping water and while the tunnel is blissfully cool in contrast to the heat outside, I tread nervously and keep one eye on the exit behind me. This is certainly not a place for those who suffer with claustrophobia.
In the morning I wander to Parikia’s harbour, buzzing with activity and fishermen eager to sell their overnight catch to restaurants and local residents. Exhausted men in bright orange overalls wash down the boats while one of their team shouts the details of his catch to passing shoppers. Barracudas, sardines and bream are snapped up straight from the boat by eager customers — local shopping in its purest form.
Walking in Naxos
On Naxos, I head to the western part of the island with local walking tour operator Gilly Cameron-Cooper. We climb steadily until we reach a long-abandoned Jesuit monastery at Kalamitsia and as I follow Gilly into the ruins, she points out the faded blue paintwork clinging to the decaying walls, before we scramble up a bank and enjoy a stunning view over the site.
She came to Naxos in 2002 with her husband Robin and they now organise walking holidays on Naxos and other islands in the Cyclades. Having endured the haphazard signage along the paths of neighbouring Paros, I’m happy to let a local expert take care of the navigation and allow me to enjoy the stunning countryside of Naxos, an island criss-crossed by paths that linked villages long before the advent of motor vehicles.
We pause at the peaceful remains of the church of Agios Mamas, the patron saint of shepherds. An inquisitive donkey latches onto us as the trail eventually takes us up the hillside to a kouros, a giant stone statue dating back 2,500 years and surrounded by St John’s Wort. There are three of these marble figures, which depict Greek gods, at different sites in Naxos, with the largest being over 30 feet in length.
As we rest our feet later in a nearby taverna, Robin describes Naxos as “Greece in a microcosm”, with fabulous beaches, ancient temples and a wide diversity of agriculture on a self-sufficient island. He talks to me about filoxenia — a Greek word translating loosely as ‘love of foreigners’ and embodied by the legendary hospitality I encounter, as locals repeatedly stop me in the street and share their stories, their advice and even their food.
The main town of Naxos is one of the most beautiful in the Cyclades. Rising steeply from the harbour, the old buildings are stacked up tightly against the rocks, with the old Kastro quarter a maze of pretty residential buildings. Wandering through Kastro at midday, the only signs of life among the Venetian mansions are the ever-present cats, crying out for a scrap of food or hiding timidly behind a wall. Restaurants line the seafront, where Takis, a smiling local fisherman, sits in full view of diners and guts his catch while chatting to passing locals and tourists. By the harbour is Naxos’s most celebrated landmark: the Portara is a marble gateway, the only part of the ancient Temple of Apollo standing today. I wander around the ruins at nightfall, watching as a family play on the base of the rocks with the sound of the waterside tavernas behind us barely carrying on the wind.
I’ve already discovered the emphasis of cooking in the Cyclades is on the sourcing of the freshest local produce. In my curiosity to learn more I meet Stelios Manios, who believes he has the perfect job. We sit outside his rusty caravan on an isolated hillside to the north west of Naxos, looking down onto the secluded beach of Abrami Bay. Stelios pulls out a few pastries and a bottle of raki — ‘a morning drink’ he tells me, though I suspect if I drink more than a few glasses I won’t see the afternoon. Around us are several dozen beehives, the centre of Stelios’ honey business. We approach a line of hives and Stelios gets straight to work, pulling out one honeycomb frame after another to check on the density of bees within the hive. While I’ve put on a protective outfit, Stelios wears normal everyday clothing. I ask him if he’s often stung and he laughs, saying he’s been stung thousands of times over the years. As if right on cue, he winces and points to a bee on his hand, its sting embedded in his thumb.
Stelios has followed the family tradition of beekeeping and he hopes one of his children will continue the business. “I’m working together with nature,” he tells me with a broad smile. “The beekeeper takes 10%, nature takes 90.”
The following morning I visit a local dairy where Graviera cheese is being churned out at the end of a busy production line. This is the local cooperative on Naxos, where nine of the island’s dairy farmers bring their milk to be processed and converted into the much-revered cheese. I meet Giannis Kavouras, who has been making cheese in the same way on Naxos for 28 years. He decks me out in white plastic overalls and blue shoe covers before taking me around the plant. The smell of milk is ever-present as I watch men in white coats operating large vats and presses, using cheese-making methods that have changed little over the years; perhaps not surprising given the high regard in which their cheese is held all over Greece.
I travel next to Santorini — the scene of one of the most violent volcanic eruptions ever witnessed by mankind. It’s now a hugely popular holiday destination thanks to the spectacular views from the resulting caldera rim and the multi-coloured sand on its beaches. I decide to follow the seven-mile path from the capital Fira to Oia, a small town famed for its spectacular sunsets. As I walk slowly uphill I pass four ladies, dressed in heavy-looking dark dresses despite the midday heat. They greet me with a cheerful “Yammas!” and stop to chat, telling me they’ve come to Santorini from Athens for the weekend to visit their families.
I make a detour at Imerovigli, where an imposing rocky peninsula hides a secluded monastery on its sea-facing side. It’s a steep climb down from the caldera rim and as I walk slowly around the rock and look back, I can just make out the people in the taverna at the top enjoying a relaxing drink and observing my midday madness. I circle the promontory and reach its seaward face, where the blue roof of the isolated Chapel of Panagia Theoskepasti comes into view. This is one of Santorini’s most beautiful spots but the exhausting walk from the chapel back to the taverna in Imerovigli deters most people, leaving those who make the effort to enjoy it in blissful tranquillity.
Having hauled myself back up to the main path I too stop for a drink and it’s now my turn to watch a solo hiker far below, outlined against the blue of the Aegean Sea. I head on along the crater rim, with a slowly changing but always stunning view along the coast to my left. I eventually reach Oia, at the northwestern tip of the island, where thousands have arrived to watch the day’s end. Having spent the day largely in solitude I grumble quietly at suddenly finding myself amid such a large crowd. Then just as the sun drops to the horizon, casting an orange glow across the sea, a sailing boat drifts into view and creates the perfect sunset scene. Perhaps the hype around the Oia sunset isn’t all hot air after all.
Even on the island of Mykonos, long renowned as a hedonistic party destination, it doesn’t take long to discover its more traditional side. I leave Mykonos Town and its picturesque windmills, wandering along dusty tracks and past deserted beaches to reach Ano Mera, a village in the centre of the island dominated by the Panagia Tourliani Monastery. I take a look inside, under the watchful eyes of two elderly priests who sit in the shade of a simple courtyard. Walking back the silence along the narrow lanes is broken only by the sound of birds and the occasional distant hum of a motorbike. Whitewashed chapels with domed terracotta roofs stand at regular intervals along the roadside, while goats gaze curiously from their fields as I pass by.
A popular day trip from Mykonos, Delos offers a fascinating view of the power and importance of the Cyclades in ancient times. Delos was a major religious and financial centre within the Hellenic world for several centuries. Temples and marble statues were built on the island to honour deities and to show off the wealth and influence of their creators. Now an uninhabited island, Delos remains home to many impressive relics of the ancient world. I walk between the ruins, where poppies spring from the rocks which at one time were the building blocks of grand temples and marketplaces. Songbirds fly gracefully over the island while visitors shuffle en masse from the boats at the small dock to wander among the remains of 2,000-year-old buildings. It’s certainly worth arriving early to escape both the worst of the crowds and the midday heat.
My final journey takes to me to Syros. Though smaller than Naxos and Paros, it’s the administrative capital of the Cyclades. I sit in the grand square in the main town of Ermoupoli and feel somewhere between island and city. There is a parochial charm, as children play in the open even after dark and local residents sit and chat over a coffee and a smoke; but around us are buildings of a grandeur not seen on many Greek islands. Syros had its golden age in the 19th century, when leading architects were brought in to build the mansions and government buildings of Ermoupoli on the back of a trading boom. The mansions of Syros are now largely abandoned, with empty shells hidden behind ornate doorways and elaborate facades. Only the cats enter the ruined buildings as they please.
I climb to the upper town, called Ano Syros, and reach the Holy Church of the Resurrection of Christ, where a jovial priest offers me a piece of Easter bread. His English is impeccable and I soon discover that before he joined the priesthood he owned a chip shop in Australia; he admits with a broad grin that he’s still very partial to his fish and chips. I smile too, realising the good life of the Cyclades can accommodate a multitude of sins.
Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)