An Aegean Sea archipelago diary | Travellers’ Tales

The islands of the Aegean Sea are the original archipelago, which has lent its name to scatterings of islands everywhere else in the world. Under the baking summer sun, Philip Sander explores the Cyclades, from picturesque hill villages to ancient ruins to glistening bays, and feels oddly at home

The Portara, what remains of a 2,500-year-old temple, towers above the main town on Naxos. Vivooo/Shutterstock.comA quiet street in Chalki. Photo by Leoks/Shutterstock.comThe slopes of Naxos are covered with terraced fields and orchards. Photo by Randre/Shutterstock.comThe village of Oia clings to the ridge of Santorini’s volcanic caldera. Photo by Thomas Bresenhuber/Shutterstock.comA typical sight in the village of Lefkes on Paros: whitewashed walls, blue door, profusion of bougainvillea. Photo by Kite_rin/Shutterstock.comThe Greek Islands map

Monday

Homer described it as “wine-dark,” an epithet classical scholars still puzzle over. But from the open deck of the ferry, the water of the Aegean is anything but dark: it is an intense, luminous blue, seeming almost to be lit from deep below. It is a sea-blue unlike any I’ve ever seen, enticing as a siren’s call. I almost want to taste it.

Not long out of Athens’s port of Piraeus, we can already see the first islands of the archipelago. The archipelago, the original one. Archipelago, in Greek, means “chief sea,” an early name for the Aegean. Only later did it come to refer to the hundreds of islands interrupting the waves between Greece and Turkey — and then by metaphorical extension to chains and clusters of islands everywhere in the world. Thousands of miles from my own native archipelago, the Antilles, I feel unsurprisingly at home.

The journey to Naxos takes five hours, and the ferry, the size of a small cruise ship, is amply provided with air-conditioned lounges, cafés, and bars. I prefer to sit out on deck, for the views over a sea as smooth as glass, while brown and green islands pass by on the horizon.

Eventually one of those distant islands turns into our destination: Naxos. I see the mountain peaks, then a smudge that becomes the white houses of the port and capital, known locally as Chora. As the ferry draws closer, the first astonishment: on a rocky islet above the harbour, joined to the main island by a causeway, is a great rectangular frame of marble, twenty-six feet high and almost twenty wide. The Portara is the surviving doorway of a now ruined temple, begun around 530 BC and never quite completed. Two and a half millennia later, it still welcomes travellers to Naxos.

In the early evening we explore the town, built around a steep, small hill topped by a Venetian castle, the Kastro. The streets are narrow and labyrinthine, and many of them are in fact staircases. As we ascend, at a sharp turn an elderly lady calls out from her kitchen. Are we visitors, and where do we come from? She lived in Athens for many years, she tells us, then retired back to Naxos, where she grew up. Can we guess how old she is? Not seventy, not even eighty. Ninety-six! Here is her identity card to prove it. And before we go on we must have sweets from her kitchen, which she hands round in a Christmas tin.

At the highest part of the Kastro, through the Venetian walls, past the Catholic cathedral and the museum, is a terrace with the best view in town. Below are little churches gathered around a square, gardens, the tiled rooftops of old houses, then the harbour, then a long stretch of beach. Behind and above, the hills to the south-east are dotted with villages, and Mt Zas towers above all.

 

Tuesday

The village of Chalki, at the geographical centre of Naxos, boasts not just two tavernas but an art gallery, a distillery of kitron (a potent lemon-flavoured liqueur), and a ceramics workshop. We duck into all of them before we follow an alley that turns into a rough path as the houses peter out, and we find ourselves ascending a hillside past enclosed fields, stone-walled pastures, groves of olive and fig. The view opens behind us: terraced slopes, churches and monasteries, a fertile green where a stream flows at the bottom of the valley.

Halfway up, in the shade of a small church there is a fountain bearing water piped from mountain springs, cold and tasty. Pomegranates hang ripening from one tree and mulberries fall uneaten from another. Ahead is a conical hill topped by a ruined Venetian castle — Naxos and the surrounding islands of the Cyclades were Venetian territories for centuries, and the remains of fortresses are found on every strategic peak. The midday sun grows intense as we walk up through pastureland, and the dry, hot air is fragrant with wild thyme and oregano.

At the pass below the castle we see our next stop: the village of Ano Potamia in the valley ahead. As we descend towards the river, the vegetation grows lush, the trees laden with fruit. We have lunch at a taverna beside an orchard of cherries and plums, figs and apricots.

The afternoon is loud with cicadas as we climb the final hill to reach the day’s destination. Goats in their stone-walled pen chew meditatively, wondering who would choose to hike in the blazing heat. The hillside fields redouble their aromatic exertions, and our lungs are full of the scent of herbs. The path is a rough jumble of stones bordered by thorny hedges. High above, white gashes on the sides of the mountains reveal the marble quarries for which Naxos has been famous since ancient times.

A signpost points us to our goal. On the hillside, beside an outcropping of weathered marble, the broken kouros has lain for 2,500 years, exposed to the sun and the rain.

A kouros is a sculpture of a standing nude youth, life-size or larger — a common genre among the Archaic and Ancient Greeks, often found in temples and sanctuaries of the god Apollo. They press their arms to their sides, are usually depicted taking a step forwards, and have enigmatic smiles. Naxian marble was a favoured medium, and ancient sculptors often journeyed to the quarry not just to select an appropriate block of stone but to do the preliminary carving on site.

On Naxos, archaeologists have found three unfinished kouroi among the quarries — damaged at an early stage of sculpting, and abandoned where they lay, so the theory goes. This kouros on the hillside has broken legs, perhaps the result of a careless accident as the semi-carved marble was shifted to begin the arduous journey downhill. Nearby, closer to the village of Flerio and sheltered among orchards, a second kouros lies broken mid-shin.

The bus back to Chora is only ten minutes late. It drops us off providentially outside an old-fashioned shop crammed with cheeses, herbs, and dried fruit. A bag of dates, dried on their stems, are just the snack to restore our energy after the day’s long walk in the hills. That, and a lingering dip in the shimmering blue water of the bay a hop away from our hotel.

 

Wednesday

Another ferry ride is a chance to read up on the Cyclades, which up to now have been an empty patch in my mental geography. The name of this group of islands comes from the Greek word for “around” — because they cluster in a jagged oval around sacred Delos, supposed birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Naxos is the largest of the group, around the size of Barbados, but with a population of just nineteen thousand.

With a common history and culture, similar landscapes and architecture, the Cyclades nonetheless preserve their distinctions. Andros, nearest to the mainland, is mountainous and well-watered. Ios has long been favoured by hedonistic young backpackers, though nudism is now officially banned on its beaches. Milos is where the celebrated Venus de Milo sculpture was found, and Amorgos is known for a remote monastery built into the side of a cliff. Most famous nowadays are Mykonos and Santorini, among the most popular tourist destinations on the planet.

Santorini is also famous for its volcano, which rumbles away at the centre of a great caldera, formed in a catastrophic eruption 3,600 years ago. One of the largest volcanic events in recorded history, it’s thought to have contributed to the decline of the Minoan civilisation, triggering a tsunami and the failure of crops after clouds of ash blocked the sun.

You get a centre-stage view of this huge geological theatre as you arrive by boat into the drowned caldera, nearly eight miles long by four wide. Nine-hundred-foot sheer cliffs rise from the deep water, and the island’s chief settlements perch atop this vertiginous ridge.

Endlessly depicted in magazines and postcards, Santorini is probably the place you visualise when you think of a Greek island. The view of whitewashed houses and brilliant blue domes clinging to the cliffside in the village of Oia is the sight people journey great distances to see for themselves. It’s gorgeous — until you turn back to the narrow main street and find it jammed with hundreds of heat-stunned tourists.

It’s the same in Fira, the capital, a few miles away along the caldera edge. Walking back through the centre of town to our hotel after dinner feels like joining a long, slow-moving queue. Finally, past the bus station, the crowds thin, and then we hear the jaunty strains of traditional Greek music wafting over a wall.

Peering over, I see three musicians with stringed instruments and a breathless but enthusiastic chain of dancers in street clothes. Some sort of party?

There is a gate in the wall, it stands wide open, and it seems natural to slip in and join the small throng of people admiring the dancers. Eventually a grinning woman comes round with a box of ice cream cones — we have stormed someone’s party, but we’re offered a treat anyway. It’s a group of local schoolteachers, it turns out, celebrating the end of the term, tipsy and merry.

 

Friday

Another ferry, another island. As we dock in Paros, for no reason I can explain, I feel a distinctly satisfying sense of having finally got to the right place. As we walk along the waterfront to our hotel at the end of the harbour bay, the blue-green water winks and beckons.

Fifteen minutes later, having dropped my bag in my room and quick-changed into my trunks, I’m wading in. It isn’t the prettiest beach in the world, and the shore is rocky underfoot, but twenty feet out the pebbles and sea grass give way to sand, and the water is the perfect temperature: cool enough to refresh, warm enough to encourage indefinite lingering. It’s seven o’clock and the sun is far from setting.

A few hours later, in the cool of evening, the little town is bustling, restaurants and shops lit up along Agora Street, though a few paces down any side alley there is silence and soft shadow.

 

Saturday

In the hills of Paros, Lefkes may be the perfect Cycladic village. Houses cluster along a ridge, with regulation blue doors and shutters. Caper bushes spring from stone walls. The plateia or village square is paved with marble. In a grove of olives we pick up the old Byzantine road, paved centuries ago and still in use, at least by hikers. As in Naxos, wild herbs perfume the air — here, sage dominates.

We can see the sea in the near distance as we descend to Prodromos — another picture-perfect village where tending profuse arbours of purple bougainvillea seems to be the municipal hobby. A café at a narrow intersection offers the respite of an espresso freddo, the Greek take on iced coffee, swizzled to a state of creaminess without added milk.

But the sea is calling. There is one more slope to climb, then it’s downhill through a small pine forest to the bay of Piso Lavadi. Three or four tavernas line the quayside, small boats bob at anchor, and the beach is busy but not crowded with frolicking families, and a spaniel intent on the impossible task of catching a minute fish. I go to the water like a homecoming.

It’s our last day in the Cyclades, and tomorrow we take the ferry back to Athens.

But in some other life I haven’t yet lived, that ferry ticket gets torn up.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights from destinations across the Caribbean to Miami and New York City, with connections on other airlines to Athens