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Just a few days on the Greek Islands

By Akis Haralambopoulos
Saturday, 19 September 1998

At the end of a business trip a few days on the Greek islands in late July was better than not spending any time on Greece's renown islands at all. Only a few islands could be visited on this occasion so I could not venture too far away from Athens.

The usual thing to do was catch a boat from Pireaus which is south of Athens to the more popular islands in the Aegean sea. Coping with the incessant noise, air pollution and congestion in Pireaus was a necessary evil you have to overcome to enjoy the beauty of Greece's sun drenched and wind swept islands.

The key to travelling around the Greek islands is not taking a car and making sure you catch a ferry boat that gets to where you want to go at a reasonable time. I found this out the hard way. I paid for a ticket on a boat to Naxos at the exit from Pireaus railway station without checking if the boat took cars and trucks. The ticket salesman must have seen me coming! The ticket was surprisingly cheap. It should have come as no surprise that my boat to Naxos carried trucks, cars and even buses and was painfully slow.

The boat left Piraeus at 4:00 pm precisely, as promised, regrettably the boat did not reach Naxos until the next day. Flying dolphins, Greek marketing hype for hydrofoils, I was to later find out, take about three hours.

I had no idea what to expect on Naxos. My map showed the island was only 160 kilometres south east of Athens, there were classic ruins, several good beaches and it was the largest island in the Cycladic chain of islands. The only other vague knowledge about Naxos I had was reading somewhere that the island was famed for the quality of its marble.

At about 2:00 am we were approaching the main town of Naxos. From a distance of about three kilometres from the island it looked like the whole port was totally illuminated and what appeared to be thousands upon thousands of people milling around on the main street. As the boat crawled closer to the island it transpired that there were indeed thousands of people on the main street and to the amazement of all on the boat we could distinguish the blare of a very loud band at one end of a very long main street. The whole place was surreal or were we starting to feel the psychological effects of being on a very slow ferry boat going nowhere?

Upon arrival at the island's main town and port , named "Chora", night seemed to have no meaning for the locals as most of the main town was lit up to the point of broad daylight. There was indeed a band playing music on the main road, in fact the music was sufficiently loud to make the windows on the boat vibrate. Yes, Naxos was definitely the place for me!

The island was in the midst of its annual celebration in honour of their patron Saint, Agios (Saint) Nikodemos. Within moments of arriving the boat's passengers became a part of the throng of humanity on the main road in what could have easily been a scene out of an episode of "The Twilight Zone". Unexpectedly, I overheard the screams of a boy no more than five years old "perimenete, perimenete na me perimenete re poutanes" ("wait, wait, wait for me you whores!") being yelled at his mother and sisters. Both mother and sisters as well as several locals responded with laughter thereby further infuriating the boy concerned. The irony of hearing such curses in the middle of a religious festival was apparent.

This was not "The Twilight Zone" but the start of about three nights of festivities. On the first night the locals including old people, parents and children, enjoyed a live band, folk dancing and speeches. The town's inhabitants did not start to leave the main port street until well after 3 am. A party atmosphere endured through to the morning.

The most striking feature of Chora, is the ruins of the temple Apollo at one end of the town. The views from the temple are well worth the walk up hill to the remnants. In antiquity the temple must have been a magnificent comparable to what contemporary architecture can produce. The main town is dominated by a number of Byzantine churches on a hill and a museum with a good collection of classical artefacts. The old part of the town is cramped with alleyways weaving in every direction. The alleyways are narrow, and your feet only just seem to hang on to the cobble stoned footpaths which are clearly marked out with whitewashed lines. The old part of the town is filled with centuries old houses which seem to contain all manner of modern appliances.

For those interested in enjoying the beaches on the island, the local bus network is well organised and very affordable. Trips throughout the entire island can be made without any difficulty by bus. Hiring a car or a motorbike on any Greek island is a popular method of transport. However, anyone with any knowledge of the almost reckless driving habits of Greek drivers will be sure to opt for frequent bus rides which are more enjoyable and far, far less stressful.

The island's terrain is mostly very rugged and wind swept. Stunning views can be enjoyed of the island, the coast and surrounding islands from the centre of the island. There are also a variety of small coves and beaches, which are good for a swim. A note of caution for those visiting the Greek islands around summer. From midday to around 3 o'clock in the afternoon the sun is exceptionally strong. Most of the locals have an afternoon sleep and go for a swim in the morning or late afternoon. This is a good policy is you want to avoid mild sun stroke and sun burns.

The views along the west side of the coast near the main town are impressive around dawn and dusk. At around this time the water has almost a silver colour. Naxos is as picturesque as any island in the Aegean sea that I have been to.

The second night was the pinnacle of this religious festival. At around midnight a number of sailors on their boats in the harbour started firing flares into the sky while what was a stereotypical Greek fisherman with black cap, moustache and greying out black hair on a traditional brightly coloured wooden fishing boat lit up the port with hand held flares to the general merriment of the thousands of onlookers. The fisherman's flares heralded the start of the religious procession.

A half dozen elderly and bearded Greek orthodox priests dressed in black with their trademark chimney top hats led a throng of officials including officers from the Greek defence forces and the local band down the main port street. The procession slowly wound its way to the local church under the gaze of thousands of people from all over the island as well as a large number of visitors from all over the world. Not surprisingly the revelry lasted till well past midnight. I could have stayed on Naxos for several days longer but I decided to take a short one hour boat ride to the world renowned island of Mykonos.

The island of Mykonos is mostly dependent on tourism for its income. Wheat and other grains have not been ground for many years in the many picturesque windmills for which the island is renown. Most of the windmills have long ceased grinding wheat and other grains.

Mykonos is a haven for sun worshippers and party goers. The daylight activities of the majority of visitors to Mykonos consist of touring the island, sunbathing and swimming. The prerequisite for young women sunbathing on Mykonos seems to be not to wear any swimming costumes while males get plenty of exercise regularly walking the lengths of the beach.

By night Mykonos is a party goers heaven. The number of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, coffee shops and other places of social interest are mind boggling. Mykonos nightlife is far more intense than that on Naxos. There must be more bars on Mykonos per permanent inhabitant than anywhere else in Greece. For many, the main town does not sleep. The author became painfully aware of this on his second night. The room was at ground level on one of the main footpaths in the labyrinth of white washed buildings that made up the main town. Trying to go to sleep at around 2 o'clock in the morning was difficult. The revelry, noise and general commotion of partygoers and socialites of one description or another precluded any meaningful sleep until 5 o'clock in the morning. By 8 o'clock it was time to catch the early boat to the neighbouring island of Delos.

The island of Delos was the main reason I had gone to Mykonos. For those interested in a nocturnal lifestyle combined with swimming and sunbathing, Delos probably would not rate. For those prepared to wake up early and take one of the regular hourly boat rides it is well worth it.

Delos is rocky island and about six kilometres long and at most about one kilometre wide. Delos is around one tenth the size of Mykonos and is virtually deserted except for a few houses, which accommodate the archaeological staff that guard and look after the island. Visitors can not stay overnight and must leave with the last boat back to Mykonos.

The island's desolation and the abundance of archaeological ruins is unique. Despite the ravages of time, the onslaughts of pirates and conquerors, thefts, and neglect on the part of various governments Delos continues to exude a history and presence not found on Naxos or Mykonos.

According to legend the beautiful Leto gave birth to Zeus' children the sun god Apollo and his sister Artemis the goddess of marriage and bestower of fertility on Delos. In ancient times Delos was a religious centre where no one was allowed to die or give birth. The religious significance of the island can be gauged by the variety of ruins on the island. The beauty of the Sanctuary, the Gymnasium is matched only by the terrace of the Lions. The features of the Lions are still distinguishable despite the effects of hot strong winds which constantly blast down upon the island. The highlight of any visit to Delos is the walk to the top of the sacred mountain Kinthos. Walking to the top of the summit takes less than an hour. The walk is well worth it. From the wind swept summit there are commanding views of the entire island, Mykonos and other islands surrounded by a deep blue sea. The view of the islands is astonishing and the trip to Delos is easily the highlight of any trip to the Cyclades.

I had wanted to visit Delos from when I was at primary school an I had first seen pictures of the terrace of the Lions in text books on ancient Greek History. There was no difference between what I eventually saw and the pictures of Delos I had almost permanently imprinted in mind. Delos had been worth the lack of sleep and arduous journey on a slow boat to Naxos.

Naxos, Mykonos and Delos were all worth visiting but the smart thing to do is catch a hydrofoil they really are exhilarating standing on the aft deck or in the exposed mid section.

Akis Haralabopoulos travelled to Greece in July 1998 on an unescorted and private basis.