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.