I’m heading for Naxos, supposedly the island where Dionysus, the god and fun was born. It’s the largest of the Cyclades and probably the most fertile due to rain clouds forming on its mountains.
I can see those in the distance as I approach Chora, the capital, but I’m immediately impressed by the defensive citadel overlooking the bay, and the remains, Two imposing marble columns topped with a lintel, known as the Portara, rise high into the sky.
Like most islands, the port is lined but behind it, steep alleys lead up to the neighbourhood, topped by the Kastro, a defensive bastion of twelve towers, although only one, the Tower of Crispi remains. It was built by the crusader Marco Sanudo in the 13th century when he founded the Venetian Duchy of the Aegean. Still, many Venetian mansions survive, often with descendants of the original families still living there. Unusually for Greece, there’s a Catholic cathedral here and a 17th century Ursuline convent. Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek, studied in the French Commercial School nearby.
I start at Agios Georgios, Hora’s town beach, and continue south past the beautiful Agios Prokopios, sandy and shallow in a sheltered bay just beyond the headland of Cape Mougkri. This merges into Agia Anna, and then there’s the long, stretch of sand which is Plaka Beach. More gorgeous bays follow, punctuated with rocky outcrops, as far as Pyrgaki, literally the end of the road.
The peaks around Mount Zeus are calling so I get in my car to explore the interior of the island. It’s very green, full of olive trees and grape vines with potatoes growing on the plain near the sea. As I start to climb I see white villages dotted on the hillside with the mountains towering behind them.
The area between Melanes and Kinidaros has been the island’s marble quarry since ancient times and the hillside is scarred by huge gashes. Naxos marble is not as fine grained as Paros but better suited to large structures rather than fine classical sculpture. The rock would undergo rough processing at the quarry before being moved to the final destination.
In Flerio there remain two examples of Kouroi, large marble statues from the 7th and 6th centuries, each measuring about 5.5m. Both of these sleeping have limbs, perhaps by bad workmanship, and they were abandoned forever.
Halki was once the capital of Naxos and it lies at the heart of the Tragaea mountainous region, about 20 minutes’ drive from Hora. Handsome old villas and Venetian tower houses remind you of its and it’s full of arty boutiques. The local distillery, Vallindras Naxos Citron, and is still producing the island’s unique spirit Citron, made from lemon leaves.
At the centre of the island, Apiranthos sits at the foot of Mt. Fanari, at an altitude of 600m and often has snow in winter. It’s close to the marble quarries and its narrow streets are paved with the stuff. Add Venetian towers, pretty two-storey houses, and picturesque squares and you have an undeniable sense of grandeur. Interestingly many of villagers are descendants of refugees who escaped from tyranny in Crete in the 18th century and they retain their own dialect.