Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dionysus and My Island- NAXOS

Apparently I am not the only one who loves Naxos- over the course of history this island has been home to many, many civilizations- some of which, I am sure, are yet to be discovered. I will try and give you just a brief overview of its known history to give you a sense of the place...

 Legend has it that Zeus was reared in a Naxian mountain cave called Mount Zas . It was there that the mystical eagle gave Zeus the gift of thunder which he used to become the ruler of Olympus- home of the gods. The island was also where Dionysus, the god of wine, was born  (his cult supposedly still
exists on the island). The island's Cycladic civilization dates back to 3000 BC but archeologists are uncovering older settlements all of the time. The Mycenaeans were there from about 1600-1200BC and the Ionians got rich developing the sea trade in 700 BC. The Macedonians, Romans, Egyptians and Rhodesians ruled in some form of succession until 1204 when a Venetian named Marco Sanudo took over the island and build a huge medieval castle in what is now the center of the Chora (which means "the Main City"- all Greek Islands have a "Chora"). The Sanudos rule lasted until 1566 when the Turk, Barbarossa conquered and plundered the island. The Turks were briefly interrupted by the Russians and finally in 1821, through a war of independence, Naxos was united with the rest of Greece. Pshewww....

The Island is large, covering 166 square miles with it's imposing Mount Zas reaching up 3000 feet. It has good fresh water sources that allows the land to be fertile which is unusual for an island in the Cyclades. It is self sufficient and the food that is grown there is delicious. Amazing, perfect, and sometimes uninhabited beaches run all along it's western shore. It's quaint, charming towns have barely changed since antiquity. Donkeys still carry goods from one village to the next, many roads are still sandy tracts, and for the most part the weather is mild and the sea is blue and calm.

We meet good friends from around the globe here every September. The friends all congregate around my cousin, David, who left England years ago and became a barmen and night club manager on the Island. He knows everything there is to know about the place and makes the most fantastic tour guide. While everyone is not lucky enough to have a David, it will help to know that September is the perfect time to go. The summers are hot and crowded with tourists, but September brings milder temperatures and the families have all gone home. Mind you, there are still plenty of folks around, the restaurants will be full but you can  get a seat and the beaches close to town still have plenty of sunbathers on them but you will be able to find a secluded cove made just for you.

It is HARD to get to Naxos- that is why is has remained so untouched. One of the best ways to get there is by ferry. I think that the Greeks have an amazing ferry system. This sentiment is not held by everyone but it has always worked for us. We board the the ferry in Piraeus which is a port in southern Athens. This gives us time to stay a couple of nights in the Plaka ( the Old Town of Athens -which is magical in its own right and deserves more that a quick mention here) where we dine in the shadow of the Acropolis and stroll around the ancient streets haunted by the likes of Aristotle and Plato. From the Plaka you can get to Piraeus by train (subway) in about an hour. You will want to take the "fast" ferry to Naxos which takes 5 hours- but before you gasp- you will be cutting across the bright blue Aegean Sea in a state of the art hydrofoil equipped with restaurants, bars, cushy seats and even private cabins if you so desire- it's pretty fantastic!

Arriving in Naxos is amazing. The chora is a port with a lovely sea front brimming with tavernas and restaurants . Just off the shore there is an islet that houses the iconic skeletal remains of the Temple of Apollo known as the Portara. Built in the 6th century BC the huge gate is comprised of 3 Naxian marble blocks each weighing 20 tons and faces the island of Delos. In fact Naxos is famous for its marble quarry and many of antiquities masterpieces were carved from her stone.

 A "parallia" runs the length of the waterfront. The parallia is a wide plaza filled with outdoor restaurants on the water side and shops on the city side. Sailboats and small fishing craft bob up and down in the small public marina. Above the parallia is the old town which is a labyrinth of tiny, cut stone alley ways leading up to and through  the venetian castle. The roads were built like this to confuse
pirates- once they got in they would find it hard to get out! There is almost no vehicular traffic save one small but busy road that rings the outskirts of the city. The town is stuffed with wonderful shops carrying amazing handmade jewelry, fashionable clothes, artisan wines, liqueurs, cheeses, bread, crepes, art and romantic, bougainvillea covered outdoor cafes.

Staying right in town is a good option for at least part of your trip. You will not need any transport other than your own two feet and the hotel selection is very good. However, my cousin David, can find you the perfect villa for at least part of your trip- he will even rent you his own amazing place ( property #421180) . At some point in your holiday you should get a rental car or quad bike (in America they are called"four wheelers") and explore the island. There are some amazing places to see that you just won't want to miss. Think twice before you rent a two wheeled scooter though- as many of the roads are still sand and the scooter can easily slip out from under you. There is also a bus that runs from the Chora to some of the popular beaches about every hour or so.

There are also many good walks to be had on the island. One of our favorites is a circular trek outside
of Halki , a town in the interior of the Island that is not to be missed. Here you can take in a vibrant emerging arts scene (check out The Fish and Olive!), have a wonderful meal in the quintessential vine covered greek taverna right in the middle of town then take an amble through ancient olive groves, past venetian towers, byzantine and orthodox churches and explore old vine covered ruins.

Beaches that are not to be missed are lined up along the western shore- Agio Georgios (Saint George's) is right in town and is, for obvious reasons, the most popular. It is shallow and calm and easily accessed . The next beach south is a windsurfing beach called Flisvos, the Cycladic summer winds called Meltemi blow across Naxos causing ideal conditions for all levels of windsurfing- in fact, further down the coast is a two sided beach called Mikri Vigla that has become known as the worlds best windsurfing and kitesurfing beach! It is separated by an otherworldly mound of boulders so the north side is windy and roaring and the other side is sheltered and calm as glass! Next up is Prokopios Beach- with lots of hotels, shops and tavernas- then the tiny, lovely port of Agia Anna which is my personal favorite and is the perfect location to have a cocktail (Banana Bar) before the sunset. Beyond that is Plaka which has miles of white sand and is dotted with beachside tavernas.

Naxos is the center of the Cycladic group making it easy to take a ferry over to some of the more well known and overrun islands such as Mykonos and Santorini. We usually take a few days and explore some of them- and they are amazing- but we always return to our Naxos and think to ourselves "it doesn't get any better than this"!

If you are visiting the Greek Islands (any of them) from the USA it may be difficult to find a decent flight into Athens. So do what we do and stay a couple of nights in a gateway city, Paris for instance. Then stay in Athens (the Plaka) for a couple of nights on your way home. You will not be sorry!

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