Some years ago I partook of a wonderful holiday in Naxos, the largest but least touristic island of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea, where with some friends we walked the ancient Donkey trails. And because of it being spring time, the whole of the island was covered in the blooms of wild flowers and herbs, a wonderful sight to behold! The fragrance of Oregano, Thyme, Chamomile, Lavender, and Melissa were a daily delight.
The island is also very rich in archaeological finds and remains as it has been lived on constantly for the past 3000 years.
Simple but beautiful Byzantine churches and monasteries are to be found all over the island, many containing icons of great artistic value, covered in gold leaf and intricate painting, some are also half covered in silver to protect the paintings. The architecture of these churches, while simple, I found very graceful and atheistically pleasing, painted in brilliant white with some of the domes in Greek blue, and the older ones, of which we saw quite a few, are built in natural stone, even the roofs are.
The highest mountain on the island is called Zas and is 1004 metres high; I only ever saw it with its head in the clouds. Some people believe that Zeus was born here while others think that he was born on Crete and grew up here. Naxos is supposed to be the island where Theseus left behind the Cretan princess Ariadne after she helped him escape from the labyrinth where he had killed the Minotaur. Ariadne is then supposed to have fallen in love with Dionysus. Mythology abounds in the Greek islands and it was just lovely to see with my own eyes things that I would have read about long ago.
Gosh, the food was marvellous and I refused to eat anything which was not really Greek. So I had lots of Greek salads made with organic and sun ripened tomatoes, olives, and cucumbers and covered in the most delicious local feta cheese and olive oil. Then there were the goat and lamb dishes, the bean and tomato dishes, absolutely mouth watering, and always the fried potatoes.
They are fond there too of sweet things, lots of honey and sesame seeds and almonds, all this baked scrumptiously, wrapped in filo pastry and served with strong Greek coffee in tiny cups. My favourite was some sort of sweetmeat covered in dry icing sugar and with a delicate flavour of rose essence. Not to forget the drinks, the Ozo I found overrated and did not take to, but there is another drink, a liquor made from the leaves of a tree, a hybrid between lemon and grapefruit, it is called Citron and pronounced Kitron, they come in three different colours, supposed to be three different strengths but the Naxiots were unclear which colour was the strongest! I fancied them all as this drink gave a nice gentle sense of tipsiness which did not last too long and had no nasty after effects and a pleasant enough taste.
The meal that I can remember as being the most wonderful, we ate at a tavern in a remote village after a long strenuous walk through the mountains. Rosemarie, our guide, knew the people and she was welcomed with open arms. We were served a lovely goats stew flavoured with the sort of aromatic herbs we had been walking through, there were long, podgy, green beans in a tomato sauce, potatoes fried in olive oil and rice wrapped in olive leaves and tasting real good. The woman running the place was very fond of roses and not only did she have lovely old scented roses in vases all over the place, they were also on the napkins and tablecloths.
The town of Naxos or Hora as it is called and where we had our accommodation is built on a hill forming a natural acropolis, on top of which is a fortress, dating from the occupation by the Venetians. Along the sides is a labyrinth of streets, narrow and stepped, the houses are a brilliant white and the doors and windows blue, arches are everywhere and some are very low so that even I had to bend down to pass through them. Here and there geraniums and bougainvillea flowers throw a lovely dash of added colour making the whole a beautiful place full of photo opportunities. Word has it that the town was built in this way to fool the pirates and give the town folk the chance to escape when being attacked, apparently the arches connected from house to house, who knows. It is a delightful town and I got lost several times in the labyrinth but enjoyed finding my way out again eventually.
One of the first days we passed the main Greek orthodox cathedral, built on the site of an earlier small church (Zoodochos Pighi), it took its present form in 1780-7, and it is dedicated to St.Nicodemus the Athonite and to St.Nektarios. Large quantities of materials from ancient temples were used in its construction! Its solid granite pillars are supposed to have come from the ruins of Delos. Anyway, we were curious as to what was going on inside as we could hear the singing of a low male voice. At our entrance we were invited in to take part of the baptism of a child. The priest, with a long white beard, was singing and doing his rituals. There was the scent of incense, and candles were lit all over the place. The child was totally undressed as it would then be dressed in a whole set of elaborate new clothes. The church looked interesting; it was covered in icons some of which were exquisite art.
Along the promenade there were the many restaurants, most of them for the tourists but some were clearly the haunts of the locals, mainly the men sitting drinking their Ozo and talking, or is it philosophising which the Greeks do (?), while overhead the octopus were hanging to dry on wooden sticks in the sun.
The walks took us over hills and rocks and through meadows and even over a small river in one valley. The views were magnificent, especially the white villages hugging the mountainsides, Filotis being one of the nicest and nearest to Mount Zas. We passed the olive groves along the valleys. And went along the rocky mountain paths were we would come across herds of goats, we also saw ducks and a lone turkey. We noticed that there are very few cattle here on the island.
There was a lot more that we were delighted to see; there was the Kouros, an ancient statue never fully erected and still lying in its ancient quarry. The marble quarries and the emery and obsidian stone. The ruins of the temple to Demetre. The colour of the deep blue of the Aegean Sea. The interesting looking moths, butterflies, lizards and beetles. The beautiful sunsets. The lovely little shops full of copies of artefacts, some of which I saw in the local archaeological museum, very ancient remnants of life in Naxos and the Cyclades.
I came home very energised and happy, and with lots of photos and stones. On our way back we stopped for one day in Athens and visited the Acropolis. I must say that I was surprised at the effect it had on me, I was very impressed. We also saw the change of the guards which I thought was very funny! We saw the remains of the temple to Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch. Our hotel was very close to this area and the evening of our arrival we hung out in the colourful Plaka district, little streets, some paved in marble, full of life, shops looking vibrant and lively and very full of all sorts of souvenirs but also local produce and stunning Greek tunics and other clothing and jewellery, they were pulsating with the laughter of Greeks and tourists alike all of whom seemed excited to be alive! There was music, and in line with Greek tradition, carnations thrown all over the place.
There is lovely architecture to be seen here too in the houses, so this is a great place for an evening walk.
So flying back after a very satisfying and lovely holiday I feel energised and ready to tackle life in this quiet but lush and green corner of the earth. I have had my shot of travel again for a little while, though some plans are already forming in my head, heartstrings are being pulled…..
I’ll say no more.