My Big Fat Greek Islands

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 24, 2002

From my perch on the top deck of the Blue Star ferry, I watched with curiosity as the formidable mass of rock rose out of the Aegean. As we made our approach, rugged peaks and simple whitewashed houses began to take form. The pair of retired Athenian seamen, a vacationing family from California and other passengers I'd met on board rushed for a glimpse of the rustic Greek island of Naxos.

It was the first stop on my weeklong, stop-and-start journey across the Aegean -- a quest to find the perfect Greek island. For all the pleasures the Aegean offers, I hadn't wanted to face the hordes of sun worshipers who have turned this southernmost corner of Europe into one of the world's most beloved warm-weather playgrounds. So the ancient ruins of Crete and famed landscape of Santorini, the most popular destinations in these parts, would have to wait for another visit. The nonstop party in Mykonos would have to go on without me. I wanted a place that offered the magic of an Aegean island without the crowds.

With hundreds of isles to choose from, I had settled on the Cyclades, the archipelago within easy ferry reach of Athens that circles the historic island of Delos. Naxos, Siros, Tinos and Andros sounded as if they possessed the mix of culture, beaches, culinary tradition and affable residents I was looking for. And all were far more affordable than Mykonos or Santorini.

And so one Sunday last month, my friend Miryam and I chugged out of the Port of Piraeus on the dawn ferry, a four-deck passenger carrier featuring an open-air cafe and a few private cabins. I surveyed my fellow passengers: an Athenian couple off to Mykonos for their honeymoon, a group of card-playing German backpackers, a French family huddled over black coffee and croissants. With the orange ball of sun floating above the city, my spirits began to soar. Then one massive outpost after another began to rise from the sea.

Five hours later, a van was whisking us to our Naxos guesthouse, past guys pitching hotel rooms and fishermen hawking the day's catch. Before long, I was smitten -- by the centuries-old portal towering near the harbor; by the balmy waters of St. George, the sleepy beach where I grabbed a quick swim; by Naxos Citron, the potent local beverage made from lemon rinds. Naxos, home to 18,000 hardy souls, is the kind of place that instantly draws you in.

At the island's populous northern end, where ferries and small boats putter in and out of the harbor, an esplanade is lined with shops and cafes. A couple of blocks up a steep hill is the old town, a settlement of centuries-old mansions that center on a finely preserved Venetian castle. Next to it is Naxos Town, a community dotted with blue-shuttered houses that serves as the island's capital.

Even today, Naxos feels every bit the stronghold of Byzantine nobility, marble artisans and prosperous olive and lemon farmers it once was. Its biggest appeal for visitors consists of the remnants of the cultures they left behind. The imposing harbor-side portal, for example, is all that remains of a temple to Apollo constructed at the end of the sixth century B.C. Aside from the Acropolis, it was among the more impressive ruins I had seen in these parts. I also adored the old town, with its labyrinth of sea-facing mansions that had been built when the island was a duchy of Venice from the 13th to 16th centuries.

The more I explored Naxos, however, the clearer it was that a growing number of visitors have already placed it squarely on the beaten path. In the past five years, a guide told me, tourism has outpaced farming as the main industry, and Naxos seems to be struggling to absorb the crowds. The inviting stretches of sand at Agios Prokopios and Plaka were packed with sunbathers, and the harbor was mobbed with vendors dishing out gyros and fried calamari -- Greece's answer to Big Macs and fries -- to throngs of young Europeans.

And yet it's possible to find remnants here of the unspoiled Naxos that Homer glowingly wrote about nearly 3,000 years ago. Miryam and I took a bus past attractive lemon groves to the magnificent slopes of 3,280-foot Mount Zas, the highest peak in the Cyclades. The highlight was a stop in Halki, a quiet village splashed with marble that is home to Panayia Protothronos, a church covered in 800-year-old frescoes.

That evening we had dinner at Maro's, a storefront restaurant whose fresh fish and rock-bottom prices draw a small but loyal following of residents. The owner served us bass snatched a few hours earlier from the sea, a side dish of sinfully rich fried Naxos cheese and a carafe of local wine. Basic fare prepared with a caring touch, it would turn out to be one of the best meals we'd eat all week.

Siros's Cultural Mix

The next morning we continued our quest, boarding the Hellas Dolphin, a spiffy hydrofoil. A brisk October wind blew in from the north, driving us and most of the other passengers inside. The crowd was almost all Greek, a mix of professionals, holiday-makers and ruddy-faced seamen. We practiced our language skills on a young Athenian shopkeeper. Two hours later, by the time we had learned to count to 10 and bid a stranger good morning, we were on Siros, the capital of the Cyclades, population 30,000.

As usual in these ports, a small circle of men had staked out their places along the harbor, touting their guest- houses. "Twenty-five euros for a room with air conditioning!" "Thirty euros for the best view of the sea!" Eventually we followed a young mustachioed man across the esplanade, down a side street and up four flights of stairs to a spartanly furnished guesthouse. Our rooms were small but clean, furnished with a bed, television and night table -- a bargain at $20 apiece.

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