By BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE
Published: September 27, 1998
WHEN you sail toward the island of Naxos, your eye is caught by a monument that not only looks strange and distinctive but is as much a symbol or trademark of the island as the Statue of Liberty is of New York. It’s a giant portal, 21 feet high and 16 feet across, that stands at the end of a natural causeway running out of the port city of Chora. The Portara, as it’s called, was put in place around 520 B.C. by a tyrant named Lygdamis, and was to be a suitably grand entrance to the greatest temple to Apollo in all Greece. But Lygdamis was overthrown in 506, the temple was left unfinished, and 2,000 years later it was still being plundered for its marble. Today you can wander through the remnants of the place, maybe musing on the pride of princes, the hubris of tyrants.
Yet the portal, which weighs maybe 100 tons in all, defied all attempts at removal by the aspiring builders among the Venetians, the Turks, the pirates and the others, foreign and Greek, who occupied Naxos over the centuries. As a result, you can perch on the shiny stone beneath its massive lintel, or stand a few yards away, and look from or through it. You can look west at the adjoining island of Paros, only five miles across the straits, as the setting sun turns the light above its crags white, yellow, red, purple, violet. Or look across at the shimmering whites of a port town that’s still topped by its brown 12th-century Kastro, or castle area. Or look up at the nearest of Naxos’s myriad hills and mountains, with the creamy rectangles of the Monastery of St. John Chrysostom tucked high on its gray-green slopes.
There’s also a mystery about the Portara and the islet of Palatia on which it stands. My more literal-minded side may be aware that this was the acropolis of Naxos in Lygdamis’s era. Indeed, divers or even ordinary folks with snorkels and goggles can take a dip and, I’m told, see ruins that date back to archaic times but are now hidden by the encroaching Aegean. But my less literal self senses magic in the Portara. Especially when it’s gently lighted at night, it looks like a gate in a dreamscape by Dali, de Chirico or one of the other great Surrealists. It leads nowhere, absolutely nowhere — and it also seems to time-warp you back to prehistory. I don’t know what Lord Byron, who wanted to settle in Naxos, thought when he first saw it. The last time I stood on the Portara, I felt I had only to shut my eyes, step through, and I would be in a land of poetry and myth.
Actually, I suspect this is far from a unique reaction, for the Palatia is where Ariadne is said to have been abandoned by the man she trusted. Though versions of the tale vary, she was the daughter of the tyrant Minos, fell in love with the great Theseus, and helped him when he killed her omnivorous half-brother, the bull-headed Minotaur. Ariadne fled with her hero to Naxos, where he left her sleeping beneath what’s now the Portara. As anyone who has heard Richard Strauss’s opera ”Ariadne auf Naxos” will know, she broke into terrible lamentations after his ship disappeared round the rocky horn of Paros on what is still the main sea route to Athens. But divine help was at hand.
Dionysus had been seized by pirates who, unaware he was a god, intended to sell him as a slave in Asia. He turned their oars into serpents, transformed himself into a lion, and filled the boat with so many phantom beasts that his captors jumped overboard in terror and became dolphins. He then landed at Naxos, married Ariadne, turned her bridal crown into stars, and had six children by her. That’s why the island was once known as Dionysia, a place that, thanks to the god’s love of the grape, became and remained famous for its wine.
In fact, a much later peasant myth says that Dionysus was really St. Dionysios, a saint who found a plant that he placed for safekeeping inside the leg bones first of a bird, then of a lion, then of an ass. When he came to Naxos, he buried it, but it kept on growing. As you’ll have guessed, it became the first vine ever, producing a drink that made men sing like birds, then roar like lions, and finally bray like asses. You can get the stuff, either red or white, from the barrel in many Naxian tavernas today, and, though I can’t recall making zoological sounds at the time, I myself found it irresistible. However, the most distinctive local drink is kitron, a delightful liqueur distilled from lemons.
Lemons, figs, peaches, oranges, melons, grapes, tomatoes: Naxos, all 169 square miles of it, is the most fertile of the group of Greek islands known as the Cyclades, as well as the largest and (as Byron clearly felt) the most beautiful. It also has the tallest mountain in fierce, jagged 3,284-foot Mount Za. Zeus was supposedly raised there, in a cave that, until fairly recently, was the place up to which anyone falsely accused of sheep-stealing would clamber in order to protest his innocence. After all, an oath taken before the altar in what had become a Christian as well as a pagan shrine could hardly be disbelieved.
But there are also large, fecund valleys in Naxos, especially the Tragea region in the center of the island, that offer the traveler old villages, Venetian towers, Byzantine churches and, six miles out of Chora, one of the huge unfinished statues that are, as far as I know, unique to Naxos.
There’s another, chunkier statue, a sort of archaic Frankenstein’s monster, that lies on its back amid the rocks above Apollonas, in the extreme north of Naxos. But the one at the island’s core, at Melanes, is more delicate. You walk past abundant wildflowers, through a lemon orchard, and there it is, one leg fractured, its facial features not yet carved, but discernibly a seventh-century B.C. kouros, or youth. Nearly 23 feet long, it has the slim grace of a Modigliani; and no one knows why it and its brothers were never completed. Maybe there were faults in the stone. Maybe political turmoil interrupted the work. Maybe the Apollonian statue was meant to stand on a clifftop welcoming or deterring sailors. Perhaps the Melanes kouros was intended to be sent to Delos, 40 miles to the north. After all, the Naxiotes made many contributions to the holy isle, notably the line of stone lions that are now the most striking of its remaining monuments.
Whatever you think of the myth that Naxos’s first inhabitants were Maenads, brought from Thrace by the son of the north wind to be the wives of his companions, the inhabitants appear to have been numerous, rich and prosperous from the earliest times. The museum at the capital town of Chora has an exceptional collection both of pottery and of surreal Cycladic figurines — spacemen’s heads, triangular noses, folded arms, pointed breasts — dating from 3200 B.C. onward and discovered in the north of the town, near Palatia. Later, Naxiote seafarers helped the Athenians inflict a decisive defeat on the Persians at Salamis. But the island’s modern history began in 1207 when a Venetian privateer called Marco Sanudo seized it and divided it among his followers, launching a dynasty that continued to rule even after the Turks took nominal control of Naxos 300 years later.
Reminders of Venice are all over the island: in the crenelated tower-houses, part fortresses and part palaces, you find dominating the landscape at Bellonia, Apalyrou and elsewhere; and especially in the mini-city, the Kastro, at the top of Chora itself. You roam, ramble and maybe get lost in streets and tunnels that are far too narrow for any car and match those at Patmos for all-white maziness. Up and up you wind, feeling like a character in a Lewis Carroll dream. You pass tiny shops, mini-churches and houses encrusted with flowers, until you reach an imposing round tower and pass through the big, thick gate beside it.
Inside, there’s plenty to see too: mansions over whose doors the coats-of-arms of Italian families are still carved; a somewhat over-restored 15th-century Catholic cathedral with the same clans’ tombs on the floor and a fine, full-length icon of the Virgin Mary; a large convent-school dating from 1739; and, now housing the archeological museum, the 17th-century college of commerce where Nikos Kazantzakis once studied.
Mr. Kazantzakis, the author of ”Zorba the Greek,” loved Naxos for its ”sweetness and tranquillity,” and when you drive through the island, it is easy to see why. According to local lore, the Potamia Valley in the center is haunted by phantoms of bears, hogs and lambs that can change shape into oxen; but to me it seemed a peaceful place, one that merits its reputation as ”little Mystra” because, like the abandoned Peloponnesian city of that name, it is crammed with Byzantine churches.
Sadly, these are usually kept locked these days for fear of theft, but I managed to inveigle my way into the most important. Near Moni an intricate tangle of domes hides the impressive Church of the Panagia Drossiani, or Dewy Virgin — so called because an icon of Mary supposedly seeps or weeps when danger threatens — and frescoes of Christian figures, some of which are said to go back to the sixth century. A few of the murals in the Church of Protothronos in neighboring Khalki, which I was also able to visit, may be as old, and many are finer and better preserved. An Annunciation is extraordinary in its chaste gravity. A Jesus with flowing locks seems almost to float in the dome, and the saints below his throne have individual enough faces for one to wonder if their models weren’t peasants who lived in the village when Byzantium ruled Naxos 1,000 years ago. Khalki is itself worth a wander, offering as it does maybe the most attractive of the island’s Venetian tower-houses in the tall, square, honey-colored Gratsias mansion.
BUT then several villages deserve a visit: Komiaki, where wise householders keep their fires burning at Christmas, for legend says that around that time snake-eating spirits rise from the underworld and slip down chimneys; maybe Tripodes, beyond whose windmills lies a crumbling, grass-encrusted fortress in which a princess, who became a prophetess after her two suitors killed one another, is supposed to have sat on the three-legged stool that gives the place its name; and most certainly Apiranthos.
If you walk along its marble-paved arcades and alleys — Venetian houses above you on one side, Mount Za on the other, women peacefully working at their embroidery as you pass — you may find it hard to credit the village’s supposed origins. This is that it was founded by Barabbas, whom Pontius Pilate pardoned when he condemned Jesus. The great thief went to Crete, was thrown out, moved to Naxos and created a community whose descendants, according to a legend still current earlier this century, have often been bandits and pirates. All this probably means is that much of the east of Naxos was settled by Cretans, and Cretan refugees were never popular with islanders to the north.
Whatever the truth, you can drive safely round Naxos these days, and cars can be easily rented in Chora. Even the roads, poor only a few years ago, are pretty good; and there are rewards in abundance for your serendipity. Almost by accident, I found myself driving past the village of Sangri and there, on a knoll in a valley between two mountains, was what appeared to an ancient Greek temple not too far from completion. And in fact that’s exactly what it was and is. So much of the original marble is intact that what was once a temple to Demeter is now being painstakingly pieced together by archeologists and may already be visited. Bits of ersatz column and lintel are, it’s true, filling in the gaps; but, given time and weather, maybe Naxos will succeed in its aim, which is to offer a building to compare to the famous fifth-century temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina south of Athens.
But perhaps the greatest pleasure is simply to stop beside the road and look. Stop above the mountain village of Koronos and look at the sea distantly lapping both east and west of the island. Or stop and keep stopping on what must be one of the finest drives in all Greece, the undulating coastal road from Chora to the tiny port of Apollonas. Barely a mile short of your destination, there’s a medieval tower romantically commanding the heights and the depths. Clamber up and look at its ruins. Far below, the waves are lapping against a stone-and-green inlet. Far beyond you can see Mykonos, Delos and Siros in ghostly silhouette. If the island’s most famous visitor wasn’t here, he should have been. It’s as Byronic an experience as you can reasonably expect in 1998.
BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE is the chief drama critic of The Times in London