Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea.
– Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
This being Greece, no journey is complete without venturing deep into the Aegean Sea. Just as I am ready to embark for a winding tour of the iconic Cyclades Islands after spending a month in Northern Greece and the Saronic Islands, the Greek Seamen’s Union announces a 48-hour strike! Then a snowstorm hits, covering half of the country in white. Homer did not invent Odyssey for nothing, for every journey is a call to adventure. It is suspense till the last minute when my ferry for Mykonos leaves!
The plan is to island hop my way to Crete and Rhodes through magical Mykonos, petit Tinos, sweet Syros, abundant Naxos, fun Paros, hippie Antiparos, artsy Sifnos, spectacular Milos, and wild Folegandros, ending with mythical Santorini! Just a mini version of a true Greek odyssey, with ten long ferry rides and many more scenic trails. The Cyclades being so vast and so diverse, I know I am merely crossing a threshold, taking a – metaphorical – plunge into the Aegean sea. What is a month in this heart of Antiquity!
Snowing in Mykonos
Mykonos is magical. Despite the hype and all the traps of mass tourism, the chora remains one of the prettiest and most photogenic old towns in all of the Cyclades. Everything looks iconic, from the old windmills to the captains’ mansions, whitewashed houses and colourful windows, little churches and all-white chapels, always with just a touch of colour from blooming bougainvillea in pink, purple, or magenta.
It being February, there are no lounge chairs, rowdy bars, or beach parties. For three surrealistic days, it feels like a gift of a lifetime to have Mykonos all to myself. I walk around chora at all hours – in the morning, late afternoon, and at night – hiking up and down, turning round and round, never ceasing to be amazed by all the details in traditional Cycladic architecture perfected over centuries. The clean, sleek lines and round corners, purity of form and colours, and minimalistic design that follows function – small windows and flat roofs protect the homes from the wind while white houses help keep the houses cool.
From the picturesque neighbourhood of Little Venice, one gets lost in a maze of pedestrian streets until reaching the landmark Church of Paraportiani and the castle ruins right by the sea. A storm has just passed through the region with thick, darkening cumulus clouds heightening the dramatic effect of the Mykonos-cape. And when I venture further towards Fokos and Ano Mera, it starts hailing and snowing. What a total Cycladic adventure!
Arriving in Tinos after Mykonos feels like the Poros-after-Hydra effect. Everything feels bland, until I take time to explore the island’s hidden treasures. While the chora is small, it leads one to the most important religious monument in Greece, the church of Panagia Evangelistria, where the miraculous icon of the Holy Virgin was supposedly found. If you are secular, a different path takes you to a hilltop with a stupendous view of the bay of Tinos, nothing short of another kind of miracle!
Chryssa, my ballet teacher neighbour, kindly offers to show me around her newly adopted home. We take the super scenic coastal road up to the beautiful mountain village of Pirgos, famous for her marble, before beginning our treasure hunt for dovecotes in Tarambados. The Venetians built these two-storey fortress-like stone structures to breed pigeons for meat and use the droppings as manure. Today, over 600 of them remain and they are admired as a great example of Cycladic folk art.
Sweet, Beautiful Syros
The capital of the Cycladic Islands since 1833, Syros exudes wealth, class, and elegance. Built by the Ionians and later successively settled by the Persians, Romans, Franks, and Turks, Ermoupolis sits naturally on a beautiful amphitheatral bay, with grand neo-classical buildings, old mansions, and white houses lining the harbour.
As the ferry approaches, the visitor gets a visual map of the island’s rich history with the Catholic Cathedral of Saint George dominating on the very top of Ano Syros on the left – legacy of Venetian domination from 13th to 16th century – and the no less imposing orthodox temple of Anastasis on Vrodado hill on the right. Following the Greek revolution in 1821, Ermoupolis’s growth was propelled by refugees from Asia Minor, Chios, Psara, and Crete and it was named the “city of Hermes” in honor of the god of commerce. It became the main commercial port in all of the eastern Mediterranean, more significant even than Piraeus, where the first hospital, first school, and first modern shipyard in Greece were built.
A stroll along the harbour towards the Vaporia Quarter where captains used to live before looping back through the magnificent Apollon Theatre – a mini La Scala built in 1864! – to the grandiose Town Hall is travel in a Cycladic time capsule through the Venetian, French, and Italian influences on beautiful Syros.
For me, the crown jewel of the island is without doubt the 1000-year-old Venetian settlement of Ano Syros. To protect from the pirates, houses were built one on the top of the other, forming an intricate network of stone walls, fortress, narrow lanes with arches and arcades, and wooden balconies, as always, lined with colourful bourgainvillea. I hike up the steep hill twice, before sunset and after sunrise, watching the last light descend upon church domes and early jockeys loading up donkeys ready for yet another long day. What a view from the top over the entire crescent bay with the horizon extending as far as Tinos and Mykonos. The only catch is there is no short cut, with more or less a thousand steps. Ano Syros is great for your heart, in more ways than one! And then there is the soul stirring music flowing out of the hillside taverns, for this is the home of the famous rebetiko master, Markos Vamvakaris. You need not do anything, your soul’s saying it/When everyday, you fool, your head’s broken!
Situated on a hilltop with an ancient castle, Naxos welcomes every visitor with an impressive massive marble doorway called the Portara, the remaining gate of the Temple of Apollo (6th century BC), in honor of the God of Light. From that spiritual threshold, one ventures forth into old town, one of the oldest and prettiest choras in all of the Cyclades, through Bourgos, the old market before narrow paths takes one up to Kastro and a myriad network of lanes descend back to the harbour.
I take advantage of a break in the weather to hike to the Gyroula archaeological site close to the village of Sangri. Built completely of Naxian marble, the well preserved ancient sanctuary (530 BC) dedicated to the fertility goddess of Demeter is situated in a green fertile valley that stands in sharp contrast to other dry islands like Mykonos. On my last morning, I take a bus to the beautiful old mountain village of Apiranthos, renowned for her marble, and then walk down to Filoti and Halki, with a stupendous view of the entire Naxos coastline. Three days are barely enough to visit such a rich and diverse island. Wait for my return, Naxos!
Paros and Antiparos
Often seen as a perfect mix of Mykonos (restaurants and club life) and Naxos (beaches and authentic villages), Paros has been attracting foreign residents for a long time. Parian marble is the most prized by ancient Greeks who used it for the construction of the Acropolis, the temple of Zeus in Olympia, and the temple of Apollo in Delphi. Situated right in the middle with other Cyclades accessible within a short ferry ride, the island is a convenient transport hub in central Aegean. The port town, Parikia, has a small beautiful old chora, but the jewel is windswept Naoussa, the picturesque old fishing village in the northern end. Nearby lies the most famous beach of Kolymbithres with photogenic granite blocks carving out small natural pools.
Paros is a hikers’ paradise with trails covering practially the whole island. Along a small “gold coast”, a scenic trail links Drio to Piso Livadi on the eastern side of the island, passing through tiny seaside villages and enticing beaches.
Just ten minutes’ ferry ride away, Antiparos feels like the ultimate get-away-from-it-all destination. It had been the hippies’ mecca since the 1960s until celebrities (among others, Tom Hanks has a second home here) brought fame to this hideaway hangout. Unfortunately, today, like for so many Cyclades, Antiparos succumbed to the real estate boom in the idyllic Aegean. Just a stroll up the scenic Northern peninsular would tell you why. Despite everything, Antiparos looks paradisiacal!
Where is Sifnos? my friends ask. It remains an out-of-the-radar gem of a Cycladic island worthy of every exploration. Kamares is a relaxing port village with a beautiful beach flanked by huge rocks frоm both sides that providе sheltеr from the strong meltеmi wind in the summer. The island is famous for pottery, the most characteristic form being the photogenic ‘flaros’/clay chimneys that one could see throughout Sifnos. I arrive at the exquisite old capital town of Kastro up North in early morning and follow the fortress wall down a steep path to the iconic Church of the Seven Martyrs with its signature blue dome set against the bluer still Aegean Sea. Only God could have created the Cyclades!
Sifnos is famous for her scenic trails. From Kastro, a marvellous coastal path takes one through old windmills and beautiful chapels to a cluster of old picturesque villages around Artemonas and Apollonia. A bit further, it is a short walk from Falos to the Chrisopigi Monastery before a steep road takes one to the beach in Platis Gialos. Before leaving, I do just one more hike from the sleepy fishing village of Heronissos to Broulidida and hitch a ride up to St. Symeon with a stupendous view over Kamares. In this part of the Aegean, cherry blossoms arrive early in February!
Coming from quaint little Sifnos, the dramatic coastline of Milos feels so impressive, all the more with the world famous Venus de Milo statue, next to an ancient marble amphitheatre, and the catacombs lined up within a kilometre radius. The island is famous for her volcanic landscape, stunning beaches, and picturesque towns. From Tripiti, a narrow footpath descends directly to Klima, a romantic fishing village known for a photogenic row of syrmata/traditional fishermen houses originally painted in different colours so that they could be easily recognizable by the owners. These days you can rent these two-story places and open your door directly onto Milos Bay! From Klima, an old trail leads to the beautiful village of Plaka with a magnificent castle and bird eye’s view. Within an hour’s walk from Adamantas is the most photographed place on Milos, Sarakiniko, a lunar volcanic rockscape shaped by waves driven by north winds. What a spectacular island!
Completely eclipsed by her glamorous neighbour, Santorini, Folegandros is in every way the off-the-beaten-path antidote of mass development in the Cyclades. One is immediately struck by the wild beauty of the arid, mountainous landscape. Sitting on top of a dramatic 200m tall cliff, the beautiful chora with a Venetian quarter is a pleasure to stroll around. A steep path takes the visitor up the iconic whitewashed Panagia church, Folegandros’ trademark from which an expansive view extends as far as Santorini! I had planned to spend three relaxing days in quiet Folegandros but the wind is stirring fast and fury. If you want to leave, it will have to be today, at 4pm, the travel agent says. Spending a grand total of six hours on Folegandros feels all the more like a gift of lifetime!
Last but not least, a full month after my departure from Piraeus, I arrive in the crown jewel of the Cyclades: mythical Santorini that many believe to be the Lost City of Atlantis, a 9,000 year-old utopian island kingdom that had mysteriously disappeared. You don’t have to be a mythologist to appreciate the dramatic setting of the island, however. Born out of a volcanic eruption around 3,600 years ago, Santorini is part of a collapsed caldera upon which ancient settlements were built. It is March and the island is largely deserted except for busy construction workers touching up the million-euro villas. I spend a leisurely week admiring this supreme gift of nature, remembering fondly my first visit during my college days. The walk from Fira to Oia, passing through Firostefani and Imerovigli, remains just as spectacular, with iconic whitewashed houses set in red volcanic cliff like glistening teeth sitting in an old jawbone. No matter which direction you go or what angle you take, the caldera of Santorini – adorned with the signature blue domes – is a true natural wonder!
I linger a little longer in this last of the Cyclades and venture out to visit the volcanic beaches in Akrotiri and Perissa before making my way inland to stroll around the Venetian castles in Emporio and Pirgos. Of course, these are bonuses on top of photogenic Fira and Oia where I return again and again. For just one last shot!
One month, ten islands, a thousand pictures, and infinite memories, with so much light that I cannot capture and too much beauty that I cannot all see. As winter slowly turns to spring, I take my deep plunge into everything Cycladic, from history to architecture, mythology to poetry, feeling blessed by her infinite wealth and generosity. For now, my Greek odyssey continues to Crete and the Dodecanese until I find my way home…
This is part of a four-blog series on my three-month journey through Greece and the Aegean Sea.
Part I: Northern Greece
Part II: Athens and the Saronic Islands
Next: Crete and the Dodecanese!
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan