DestinAsian - - FLASHBACK -

CAME TO NAXOS IN 1985 to visit a friend who was house-sit­ting for an English­woman who lived in the Kas­tro area of Chora (oth­er­wise known as Naxos Town), the is­land’s white­washed sea­side capital. I re­turned pretty much ev­ery sum­mer after that and have now, to my al­most-daily amaze­ment, resided here full-time for 15 years. Liv­ing alone on a re­mote Greek is­land might not be to ev­ery­one’s taste, but it suits me fine.

Naxos is the largest and ar­guably the most beau­ti­ful of the Cy­clades, a group of some 220 is­lands in the south­ern Aegean Sea. The land­scape is mag­nif­i­cent and its size means that you get it all: moun­tains (in­clud­ing Mount Zas, at 1,000 me­ters the is­land chain’s high­est peak), green val­leys, golden beaches, se­cluded ru­ins, and mar­ble quar­ries that ap­pear like fu­tur­is­tic cities. Un­like the pop­u­lar stereo­type of a Greek is­land, Naxos is not arid and bar­ren, though in high sum­mer it can look pretty dry. Fer­tile soil and reg­u­lar win­ter rains mean Nax­i­ans can grow more than enough veg­eta­bles and fruit to feed them­selves, and their meats and cheeses are fa­mous through­out Greece. Still, this is a rel­a­tively compact is­land, en­com­pass­ing only 430 square kilo­me­ters—about the size of Bar­ba­dos. You can drive it from end to end in a cou­ple of hours.

Three and a half hours by high-speed ferry from the Athe­nian port of Pi­raeus, Naxos is also where, ac­cord­ing to Greek mythol­ogy, Th­e­seus aban­doned Ari­adne on their way back to Athens from Crete after she had helped him es­cape from the labyrinth at Knos­sos, where he had killed the Mino­taur. She then took refuge on the nearby isle of Donoussa and ul­ti­mately con­soled her­self with Diony­sus, the god of wine and bac­cha­nals who is cel­e­brated each year just be­fore Lent dur­ing the is­land’s col­or­ful Car­ni­val fes­tiv­i­ties. Richard Strauss’s opera, Ari­adne auf Naxos, was in­spired by this leg­end.

The Vene­tians had a more pal­pa­ble im­pact on the is­land, rul­ing it for nearly 400 years start­ing in 1207. They were largely re­spon­si­ble for build­ing the hill­top cas­tle known as the Kas­tro; this is where I bought my own house many years ago, and it’s the most won­der­ful thing about Naxos, which has no short­age of won­der­ful things. There are sim­i­lar cas­tle quar­ters else­where in the Cy­clades (on Sy­ros and Fole­gan­dros, for ex­am­ple), but they are not nearly as grand and well pre­served as the one that looms above Chora. The houses within its for­ti­fied walls are beau­ti­ful; some even re­main in the hands of the descen­dants of Vene­tian no­bil­ity, fam­i­lies with names like Barozzi, Loredano, Sforza Cas­tri, Gius­tini­ani. My own house dates to the 16th cen­tury, and while it has nei­ther cen­tral heat­ing nor so­phis­ti­cated plumb­ing, the ceil­ings are dou­ble height and the rooms are vast.

With its domed Ro­man Catholic cathe­dral and me­dieval tow­ers, the Kas­tro is all very at­mo­spheric, es­pe­cially when there are no tourists around. In the win­ter, when I walk my dog through the nar­row cob­ble­stone al­leys, with the black, starry sky above, it’s easy to for­get this is the 21st cen­tury. But sum­mer­time is lovely too, es­pe­cially at dusk— l’heure bleue— when the views take on a vel­vety qual­ity. As the light slowly fades, the sil­hou­ette of the is­land’s iconic Por­tara—a mas­sive mar­ble gate­way built in the sixth cen­tury B.C. as the por­tal to a tem­ple to Apollo—glows golden from its perch on a rocky islet at the en­trance to the har­bor.

Naxos also hap­pens to have the best beaches in the Cy­clades. The most fa­mous of them are found along the south­west coast of the is­land—Aghios Proko­pios, Aghia Anna, Plaka, Kas­traki, Mikri Vigla, and Pir­gaki. They get wilder the far­ther down you go; Plaka, a one­time hip­pie beach fringed with un­du­lat­ing dunes, is fa­vored by nud­ists. But when the south wind is blow­ing and the sea on the north coast is flat and calm, there is no bet­ter place to swim than Abram. A small, peb­bly bay near the top end of the is­land, it lies at the end of a dirt track off the main road and faces west, so the sun­sets are fab­u­lous. It is book­ended by high, jagged rocks; to the left, as you look to­ward the sea, there is a chapel astride a promon­tory and a beau­ti­ful 1930s-style bun­ga­low, which I have long cov­eted. If the weather is right, Abram is also a good place to stay and eat. There is a sim­ple guest­house (Pen­sion Abram) right on the beach with a restau­rant serv­ing tra­di­tional dishes and fish caught that morn­ing by the owner. It re­minds me of one of those lit­tle hotels in far-off-the-beaten-track Caribbean vil­lages. On my last visit, I spent my days swim­ming, eat­ing, and read­ing. All I could hear at night was the crash of the waves and the oc­ca­sional quack from the fam­ily of ducks that lived down be­low.

Far­ther along the coastal road on the is­land’s north­east­ern tip is Apol­lonas. This fish­ing vil­lage doesn’t re­ally have much to rec­om­mend it, ex­cept for a kind of dreamy ends-of-the-earth feel and an enor­mous and un­fin­ished mar­ble kouros (statue of a

nude male fig­ure) dat­ing to the sixth cen­tury B.C. (Bet­ter ex­am­ples of this an­cient sculp­tural form can be found near Me­lanes. One lies in a gar­den, the other on the hill­side above. They are mag­i­cal, par­tic­u­larly the kouros in the gar­den; he seems to be sleep­ing.) But there is a small inn on the quiet south end of the peb­ble beach called Hotel Kouros that is quite peace­ful. And the drive from here to Mout­souna, an old emery port about half­way down the east coast, is thrilling. The road doesn’t fol­low the shore­line but in­stead loops up through moun­tain vil­lages that in­habit a lush land­scape dot­ted with tiny white churches. The views are as­ton­ish­ing—on a clear day, you can look straight out to sea and see Donoussa float­ing mi­rage-like in the Aegean. If you fol­low this route or drive cross-is­land from Chora, be sure to stop for lunch at Koronos be­fore tack­ling the myr­iad hair­pin bends down to Mout­souna. Set in a pic­turesque lit­tle square at the bot­tom of a series of steep steps, Tav­erna Matina serves up home-style Greek food that changes daily de­pend­ing on what the owner, Matina, has in her larder—lamb stew with lemon sauce and dill, say, or se­fouk­loti, a tra­di­tional lo­cal pie with chard, fen­nel, and wild herbs. What­ever she serves, it’s al­ways good.

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