The Cyclades is undoubtedly the most satisfying and famous Greek archipelago for island-hopping. It offers to visitors the choice to experience the crazy, the quiet, the famous, the historic, the beautiful and the exotic. Most of them are compact enough to walk around in a few days.
The island of Santoríni, or Thíra, is located in the Cyclades islands in the Aegean. Santoríni is considered to be one of the most beautiful islands of Greece. The island of Santoríni is related to the myth of Atlantis, the amazing views from the villages of Firá and Oia over the submerged volcano, the sunset, the black and red rock. It also has some unique black sandy beaches in blue waters.
Náxos is an island with unspoiled landscapes and great authenticity. Náxos has always been and remains effectivily undiscovered although it is the biggest and largest island of the Cyclades and has crystalline turquoise waters. It has a beautiful medieval capital called Hóra and many picturesque and wonderful mountainous villages, plenty of mountains surround the verdant and fertile valleys, creating an interesting landscape for walking or hinking. The island posseses great sweetness and tranquility.
June, 6 2003. We fly with Olympic Airways to Athens and from there to Santoríni. It's a very small airport building. They are renewing it. We arrive in the evening. It's one hour later than in Belgium. At home I've been searching the internet to find a place to stay in Ioa (pronounced Ia). After a few e-mail I made reservations in Villa Ritza for EUR 25 a day. The last bus has already left from the airport. They don't drive frequently because it isn't high season yet. So we don't have to wait for the next one to come and we take a taxi to the northernmost village of Ioa. First we get to meet the mother of Nikoleta, the woman I have corresponded with by e-mail. She introduces us to her son in law, who owns a small car and scooter rental company nearby. He brings us to a brandnew building just a few hundred metres outside the centre of Ioa. We get a cosy room with two balconies, one on the side of the street for the morning sun, and one on the other side for the sunset. From the last one we have an excellent view over the sea. This is a perfect start! After we've put our things aside we walk over to the centre of Ioa to have a first glimpse. We have dinner on a cosy terrace before we go to bed.
Friday, June 7
After a long lie-in we are going to discover every nook and cranny of Ioa. It is considered one of the most beautiful villages of the Greek islands largely because of its splendid location. The most famous village of Santoríni (Thíra) is perched over impressive huge cliff of 260 metres high and offers extraordinary views over the sea and the submerged volcano (photo). It is a traditional village with brilliant-white painted, cubist houses in cosy narrow paved streets, blue domed churches and sun-bathed verandas (photo). The main pedestrian street has plenty of tourist shops, craft shops and art galleries, restaurants and cafés. At the end of the village stands a typical well-renovated windmill, named Golden Sunset. Nearby you can take the steep stairs at the way down to the beach of Amoudi beach from where it's also possible to take a small boat to the opposite island of Thirassía. From this area the views of the sunsetting are magnificent. In the evening a lot of busses bring tourists from all over the island to Ioa to see the superb sunset from here. It suddenly gets overcrowded and they go and sit all over the place. We are so lucky we can withdraw and enjoy the lovely sunset from our balcony in silence!
The main bus station is located at the entry of the village. This little square is near to our appartment. We take the bus to Firá, the capital city of Santoríni, to get some more information about the schedule of the ferry boats. Firá is another settlement on the caldera rim and from first sight it looks like a bigger version of Ioa but it's busier and not so pleasant. It is made of many white painted houses in stepped streets with blue windows and doors but it also has many beautiful buildings dating mostly from the Venetian invasion, blue domed churches, sun-bathed verandas and an incredible view over the volcano. Firá is a busy town. The central street are crowded and filled with all kind of shops, jewelleries, restaurants, cafés, bars and night clubs. Despite all the tourist traffic concentrated in the town, the area near the cliff is quite and offering a great panoramic view over the submerged volcano. That's where we have a Mythos beer before we return to Ioa by bus. In the evening we put on our hiking shoes for a walk in the fields behind our appartment. We wanna know how far we can go before reaching the sea on this side. There are a lot of donkeys standing in the fields. They aren't only used as working animal but mostly as taxi to bring people down and up to/from the sea on the caldera side. Within these barren terraced fields the plants are very dry and prickly which makes it not so easy to walk through without scratches. We see a lot of fig trees and some kind of cactus plants. Finally we reach the sandy cliff near the sea which looks dangerous to slip down.
Saturday, June 8
Near to the square where the busses stop is a very fine backery where we buy large chocolate breads and a baguette with raisins. After breakfast we rent a yellow 80cc scooter to explore the island. We get sunburned of course so we have to buy more sun cream. I drive so I catch most of the wind. Along the way we see a lot of cubist architecture. Our first aim is the ancient site of Akrotiri on the other side of the island. Within the museum you can find rests of a sophisticated outpost of a Minoan colony that once thrived here until sometime between 1647 an 1628 BC when a catastrophe struck: the volcano errupted, its heart sank below the sea leaving a crater (caldera) 10 km in diameter, and earthquakes reverberated across the Aegean. Tunnels through the volcanic ash uncovered structures, two and three storeys high, first damaged by earthquake then burried by eruption. The museum will not set the world on fire but the story behind the largest Minion city outside of Crete is very interesting. They are building a modern new roof above the site so maybe after a few years this will look nice. We drive on to the nearby Kókkini Ámmos beach for a little siesta. It's quite spectacular with the high reddish-brown cliffs above sand with the same colour. The name means 'red sand'. It's a bit crowdy and hot. After three quarters of an hour we begin to bake so time to leave. We drive further to the lighthouse at the southwestern tip of the island. This is really worth while. Away from civilisation. There's this incredible silence and we have a magnificent view over the reddish-brown, black and grey pumice striations layering the cliff-face of island and the caldera. Our next stop is Périssa, a small fishing harbour but mainly known for its long beach and many restaurants. We pick one in the shadow where they play good music and order a fish plate and a pizza for dinner. At 6.30 pm we ride back to Ioa. We stop in Firá over to make reservations for the boat to the caldera tommorow. Today we've been driving about 100 kms.
Sunday, June 9
Early in the morning we take the scooter to Firá. It feels great because it seems like the island is still asleep. Around 10.30 am we board the wooden sailing boat to the Kaméni islets, the hot springs and Thirassía. The take off is at Armeni beach. It takes more or less 15 minutes to go down by the steep stairs. After a half hour we arrive at Nea Kaméni, the central volcano island. On shore, after a walk of 20 minutes in the lunar landscape sown with coal-black en reddish-brown rocks, we discover the volcano's crater and some holes where sulphur steam comes from. There are several seismographs on the island because the volcano is still active. In 1941 the volcano broke into a heavy eruption and somewhere between the 50s and 60s there was a smaller eruption. You can see colourfull traces of yellowish sulphur, greenish from the copper, dark reddish from the rusty iron and gray from the lava. Next we sail to Paleá Kaméni where you can swim from the boat to hot springs with sulphurous mud. Afterwards we go ashore Thirassía, the quietest island in the Cyclades. It takes us about 15 minutes to climb the stairs going up to the small white and blue village and it's very hot. The views are as dramatic as any on Thíra, and tourism has little effect on island life. Lukely there's a small taverna where we can buy some cold drinks. Around 15.30 pm we sail back, first to Amoudi en then to Armeni where we get off. Meanwhile the temperature is rising up to 35°C and no wind. And we have to climb the stairs again. So when we arrive at our villa again we are happy to take a shower and to relax the rest of the evening enjoying another beautiful sunset. And tonight we've earned a delicious dessert!
Monday, June 10
World Championship Football in Greece. Today the Belgian Red Devils play against Tunisia. We go to a café near the bus station to watch the game on television. In the afternoon we take the bus to Firá once more where we relax and shop a little bit, and make reservation for the ferry boat to Naxos tommorow afternoon. Let's call this a lazy day.
Tuesday, June 11
We pack our rucksacks and take the bus to Firá and from there another bus to Athiniós where the ferries dock. We board the Blue Star Paros. This ferry boat goes to Páros and makes an intermediate stop in Íos and afterwards in Náxos. The weather is fine and we sit outside in the sun on a bench on the deck. The trip lasts 2,5 hours. We have been looking in our guide for a room and we've decided to go and find Sofi Pension a little bit outside the centre of Náxos Town (Hóra), near to Grotta, the northern shore of Hóra. When we disembark we are accosted by people offering rooms all over the island. We ignore them and walk through the mass. Suddenly at the end of the pier we see a man and his daughter holding a cardboard saying Sofi Pension. We smile and walk straigh to them. They take us to their house with a mini-bus. They've come to pick up another person who made reservations by telephone. We get a large room with a terrace near the street for EUR 20 per day. But because there's a lot of traffice at night we go to the owner's house to ask if we can change to another room because of the noise. The same day we get a very nice room within his house also with a little terrace. It will cost EUR 25. We get a much more modern room with television, airco, a refrigerator and a large bathroom. This looks very good. The man invites us immediately for a glass of wine and some tomatoes and cucumber. He's very hospitable and shows us his register of guests; a lot of satisfied guests as we can read. We are lucky once more. The next day I'm sitting outside on the coverd terrace while Lotte is going to the nearby supermarket to get something for breakfast. Meanwhile I get a little carafe of white wine and two glasses, the following mornings we get coffee and apricots fom his own garden. This is our man!
Wednesday, June 12
Our first day on Náxos. Time for an exploration walk through the village. The first walk is a traditional stroll to the Palatia or Portara, or the baths of Ariadne, that is on the islet in front of the harbour which we spotted as soon as we arrived in Náxos. This huge marble gate caputures the eye and is undoubtely the most familiar landmark of Náxos (photo). The Portara was built with four blocks of marble, each of a lenght of 6 metres and weighing 20 tons. The temple is never finished. The Portara excatly faces Delos (next to Mýkonos) and this is seen as a reference to Apollo, the temple being identified as the Delion. Seen from Palatia isle, Hóra is a big and unique village overlooked by a well-preserved Venetian castle (photo). A great deal of marble was removed for the building the Kastro area. Therefore only the foundations remain together with the Portara. Apart from its historical and archaeological significance, the islet of Palatia is unique in the Aegean as a spot from which to enjoy the sunset and gaze at Páros, and when the horizon is clear, Delos, Mýkonos and Sýros.
The old town is full of beautiful whitewashed houses with small windows, surrounded by a labyrinth of stone-paved narrow alleys. It considered to be one of the most beautiful Cycladic villages in the entire group for it has a fine architecture, composed of Venetian and Cycladic elements and it has kept an authentic and traditional character and a strong local colour. We follow the narrow uphill, sometimes covered streets, their twists and turns, their steps and with their unexpected dead ends, which bring us to the highest point of the Kastro. It suggests that the only thought the people who build this town had in mind was defence against an enemy attack or a pirate raid. Behind every corner we see beautiful bougainvillaea flowers hanging over the walls from the cheerful courtyards. As we go through the gates of the Kastro we enter what is really another place and age, where tranquility reigns. This marvellous construction has been built following the orders of Marco Sanudo who conquered the Cyclades in 1207 and used Naxos Island as the seat of the Duchy of the Aegean which he created. The castle was containing Sanudo's residence as well as the various institutions and administrations of the duchy. It was designed by an engineer and has a pentagonic shape, built according to Venetian architecture with narrow fragmented streets, attractive courtyards with their flowers and mansions with their coat of arms over the door. The archaeological museum is certainly worth a visit. As we go into the museum we are entering a complex, cool, sometimes even chilly, impregnable mediaeval building. The corridors, the staircases, the small rooms and the vast halls, the windows, each framing a different vignette, and the terrace with its ramparts form a monument which it is certainly worth getting to know. We must add to this that these premises now house the finds from the archaeological excations carried out from the beginning of this century down to the present, both from Hóra and from other parts of the island. A lot of these finds were funeral gifts. We remember mostly the beautiful decorations and abstract design of the engravings, and the marble artefacts, statuettes and vessels. One can trace man's attempt in the 3rd millenium BV to render the human figure.
Various fish restaurants, taverns, cafés and bars are lining on the waterfront which is the island's centre of touristy activity. We find an ice cream bar with many flavours of home-made ice! Even the cones are self-made. In front of this ice cream bar is a cheap restaurant but it's almost full-house. It catches the eye there hang a lot of octopus to dry on a cord (photo), mostly in front of restaurants. They are being grilled on the barbecue in the evening. Dishes with lamb or rabbit are also famous on the menu. And you don't have to buy mineral water here. You see public taps everywhere in the city, even in front of our pension. The water comes directly from the sources in the mountains so it's perfectly save to drink.
Thursday, June 13
I found an old little book at the reception of our pension with a lot of walking trails on the island. The description of the walk is in german and the walking maps are drawn by hand. If I remember well the name of the book was Christian Ucke's Walking Tours. We like to walk so we borrow this book for awhile. In the tourist information near the harbour we get the schedule for the busses. And so we take the bus to Halkí (or Chalkí), once the capital of Náxos. We get to see why Náxos is the most fertile island of the Cyclades. It's a place of agriculture and stockbreeding, a place with all the benifits of a fortunate and happy isle. Its green and mountainous highland scenery seems immediately distinct from Santoríni. The difference is accentuated by the unique architecture of many of the interior villages. The Venetian Duchy of the Aegean left towers and fortified mansions scattered throughout the island, while medieval Cretan refugees bestowed a singular character upon Náxos's eastern settlements. I read that Halkí is a fine introduction to what is to come. Set high up, 16 km from the port, it's a cosy, noble and silent pocket-sized town with some lovely churches. The many neo-classical houses and buildings testify about the past wealth and power of the village. Between the olive and citrus plantations we follow a footpath that crisscrosses through the groves leading us to several fine Byzantine chapels (photo) and the ruins of a fortified Venetian mansion. We decide to walk on to Filóti. Easily, it takes only half an hour. Filóti is the largest village in the region. It is a traditional Cycladic village with whitewashed flat roofed houses and narrow flowered streets built amphitheatrically on the slope of mount Zeus, which, at 1000 m, is the highest point in the Cyclades. To get an idea of the old village, we climb the steps up the hill. A superb little main paved square surrounded by picturesque cafés and taverns, shadowed by huge majestic Platanos (plane trees) is the bustling centre of the village. An ideal spot for us to quench our thirst with a cold beer.
Friday, June 14
The next day we rent a scooter to ride to Apíranthos via Halkí and Filóti. After we pass Filóti a hily, winding road brings us to Apíranthos. The marble village, as Apíranthos is called because of its marble-paved streets and the considerable use made of marble in the building of its houses. We take a stroll through the alleys, passing some arcades and piazzas and cul de sacs. The picturesque mountain village is located between two green valleys at an altitude of 650 metres. We drive on to Apóllon over the very scenic, interior mountain route (photo). The road surface is in good condition all the way. Jagged mountain ranges and hairpin bends confront us. A series of slightly less hairy bends leads down a long valley to Apóllon, the most northerly point of the island. It's a small settlement with two beaches behind the harbour. We have a salade and take a rest on the beach. Afterwards we follow the west coastal road back to Hóra. The coastal road is spectacularly beautiful, going high above the sea for most of the way. Along the way we see a lot of archards, full of pears, apples, olives and, above all, apricots. Here and there some little churches and tracks leading to the sea (photo). In the distance we can see the mountains where the marble-quarry is located (photo). Back in Hóra we take a turn to explore the beaches of Ayía Ánna and Áyios Prokópios.
Saturday, June 15
Walking tour no 1. We take the 11 o'clock bus straight to Apíranthos to go for a hike from there to Filóti. This is a very beautiful route straight through the valleys and over the hills. We only have the description from the book and the drawn map to find our bearings (photo). But we get along very well. We pass several little churches and have excellent views (photo). We ramble in the open country until we reach a old monastery, Moni Fotoditi, surrounded by a field of yellow flowers (photo). We take a break in the shadow near the rampart. To our surprise this little church inside, in contrary to the others we passed, is open. It's very chilly inside. We light a candle. Time to move on (photo). We walk from one valley to another (photo) and after more or less 3 hours we arrive at Filóti and extend the walk to Halkí. We pass the tiny chapel of Áyii Apóstoli but it's closed. They say it has some brilliant thirteenth-century frescoes. I wouldn't know (photo).
Sunday, June 16
Walking tour no 2. Today we take the 11 o'clock bus to the twin villages of Sangrí for another walk of 3 hours. There are a few important momuments from all periods of history in the Sangrí area. We start hiking from Áno Sangrí through the fields of a long valley. Some little Byzantine chapels and windmills are scattered in the fields. A path leading south out of the village leads us to the partially reconstructed remains of a Classical temple of Demeter dating from the sixth century BC (photo). Further on the path we come along the oldest monastery of the island. While we follow a goat path we enjoy the wonderful vistas. Around 4.30 pm we arrive back at Sangrí where we wait for the bus to get back. After dinner we enjoy another lovely sunset by the harbour (photo).
Monday, June 17
By turns we go to the bakery in the old town to get some fresh bread straight out of the oven. After a delicious breakfast on our cosy terrace (photo) we decide to walk along the beach to the hill near Aacute;yios Prokópios. We climb straight to the top of the hill. There's absolutely no path so we find our way up between the rocks and the prickly bushes. The yellowish rocks are covered with orange moss, the thorny bushes are coloured with purple little flowers. We descend to the tourist village of Aacute;yios Prokópios and take the bus back near the supermarket. In the afternoon we watch football on television in our room. Today Belgium plays against world's number one, Brazil. Finally, we loose 0-2 after a very good match.
Tuesday, June 18
We find out there's a general strike going on and that there aren't any ferry boats travelling. It sounds like it could last for 5 days. There goes our plan to hop to another Cycladic island. We can only hope we can get back to Santoríni in time to catch our plane. So, we rent a scooter again. This time we take a 90cc. Hopefully this one has more power than the previous one. With this one we can even go off-road. We ride northward near the west coast. This time we take some time to stop at some places we missed a few days ago. Our first stop is at the site of the fortifies monastery of Our Lady Ypsilotera, also known as Angelakopoulo's castle. It is the island strongest fortification and served as a base and refuge for the farmers of the area in their struggles against their feudal overlords. Inside the little church there's a lot of woodcarving, amongst them a presentation of archangel Michaël conquering the dragon. Next we ride along the tops of steep cliffs, which are intended with islets with attractive beaches. A track leads off to pretty bay of Abrámi, a quiet idyllic spot. In spite of heat it's no option to go for a swim because the water is really cold. Following this route further, we pass by the mediaeval Ayiá tower (photo), which is below the level of the road. This unmistalable landmark used to be a mediaeval lookout post. It's a reminder that this island, apart from its natural beauty, has always been of strategic importance. A little deeper, amongst the plane trees should stand the Ayiá monastery, a former place of pilgrimage, but we can't find it. We ride back to Apóllon again because we missed the major attraction overthere a few days ago. We have to search a little bit but then we find the path from the main road just above the village leading us to the koúros of Apollonas (photo). Lying in situ at a former marble quarry, this largest of Náxos abandoned stone figures is just over ten metres long. Despite of the fact that details are lacking, it serves as an unique singular reminder of the Naxian's traditional sculpture skills (600 BC). As we ride back southwards in the direction of Moní, we first stop hear the old marble quarry above the village (photo). Moní itself isn't such a place of interest. We have a drink and ride on (photo). Via Halkí and Áno Sangrí we dive all the way south to Kastráki. Within the dunes we discover a small nudist beach by accident. Time for us to go back to Hóra because we are getting hungry. As we stroll into town we pass by a very small local restaurant. A greek is grilling fish on the barbecue and the only visitors are local fishermen. He invites us to have dinner at his place. This sounds good to us. We order octopus and fish with a salade of tomatoes and sweet onions. Meanwhile the fisherman treat us to a carafe of rosé wine. The owner tells us its home-made wine. The fish is very fresh and tastes good, the wine too. I think we'll come back again.
Thursday, June 20
Yesterday we spent a day at the beach. In the evening we walked through the harbour to see if there were sailing boats that were planning to leave Náxos. Nope. It is confirmed that the strike will go until Saturday but there's a possibility that there's a smaller boat going to Thíra in the evening. So, we pack our things. In the afternoon we go and relax on the stairs near the Portara. It's very hot in the sun so I take a swim in the bay. After a drink and a meal we get to know that the boat is called off because there's to much wind. We stroll back to the pension and get back our room (photo).
Friday, June 21
Walking Tour no 3. At 8 am Lotte goes to the information office to hear if there's any boat leaving today. Nope, still to much wind. So we make plans to go for another walk in the country. After breakfast we take the early bus to Halkí fromwhere we will hike to Potamiá. We follow a path that leads us into a mountanious area (photo). We pass through a valley with a lot of grey rocks covered with green, blue and orange mosses and thorny bushes. This path is well-marked. The forbidding Venetian fortress of Apáno Kástro is perched on a peak just north of the path. At first it looks difficult to climb up but after some effort we reach the ruins of the castle on top of the mountain (photo). The fortress once dominated almost the whole of the central part of Náxos. There's quite a lot wind up here but the view over the different valleys is fantastic. The view extends as far as the sea. As we descend on the other side of the hill, the landscape becomes craggy and barren. A footpath connects Áno Potamiá with Mesi Potamiá. From there we try to find our way to Áyios Mámas. We saw it several times standing in the valley when we passed through this part by bus. It's a domed eighth-century church, once the Byzantine cathedral of the island but neglected during the Venetian period (photo). It is important for its architectural form. It has also traces of murals. We take a sandy road up to the main road that connects Hóra with Halkí. It's almost 2 pm. We know that the bus is on its way back to Hóra and yes, we are lucky. We make it in time to the road and make the bus stop to take us. As we arrive in Hóra it's time for a big icecream. We have to make some telephone calls; first to Olympic Airways to confirm our flight and then another to Villa Ritsa on Santoríni to inform Nikoleta that are still stuck. After a little nap we return to the local restaurant. The rosé is again from the house. Later in the evening the owner of our pension comes to inform us that the strike is over and that we will be able to travel back to Santoríni. He's a really kind man. He suggests to bring us to the harbour tomorrow at midday. He brings us some more wine!
Saturday, June 22
In the morning we go to relax on the long golden sandy beach of Agíos Georgíos lined by many restaurants and cafés. We drink a large Nescafé while we sunbathe. The sea is nice uphere. There's no breath of wind. The water is not so cold and it is possible to walk far into the sea. We take a last dive. Sun, sea and vacation. At noon, we stand at the harbour with all our luggage. On the crowdy ferry we try to find a place outside on deck in the sun. At 3 pm we arrive at Athiniós. We take the bus to Fíra and there the one to Ioa. Around 5 pm we are back in our cosy room. We go for a walk downstairs to Amoudi beach. It's a sweltering hot day because there's absolutely no wind. We have something to eat in our favorite restaurant before we sit back on our balcony to enjoy the last beautiful sunset of this holiday (photo). I can say I've had a great deal of pleasure from this trip in the Cyclades. I think I've fallen in love with these Greek islands. Maybe more next year...
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