Visiting Naxos Island, Greece With a Dog
*Warning LONG Post ahead*
If there is one thing I remember of Naxos it is the intensely loud and persistent sound of Cicadas having their own House Party in every. single. tree.
No seriously … it was CRAZY! But I am running ahead of myself once again. *sigh* I’ll never catch my tail at this rate!
Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades Islands, at 430 Km2 (167 sq. miles) it has been and remains, the center of archaic Cycladic culture. The capital is known simply as Naxos City or the Hora (a variation of Chora) and was far busier than Santorini’s Oia, or any of the small towns we had seen on Folegandos or Ios. With over 6,500 inhabitants it is a small city and not a town. And Naxos is greener than other islands in the Cyclades because it has Moutnains. Not just rolling hills, no no no … full on moutnains. Three of them in fact. They stop the clouds from passing by and so, Naxos gets more rain. Rain for farming, especially it turns out … potatoes.
We docked in Naxos port, early afternoon, after a full morning of hard, brutal sailing. Well… hard for Mom but loads of fun for Dad. Eager to get on solid ground again (poor Mom…) we immediately made our way to the beautiful “strip” along the marina on the edge of the Meditereanean Sea. Wonderful tavern’s, restaurants, coffee houses, Shawarma huts and little boutiques beckoned. We knew right away this was a more populated area because a variety of other items were also on offer, things decidedly not… Greek. Things like Bubble Tea, Belgian Waffles, Crepes and more. And after the lazy and quiet rhythm of the three previous islands it was actually nice to find ourselves swollowed up by the hustle and bustle of a small and happy crowd.
After a quick bite to eat, that allowed us to also check-out a small map and get our baring’s; we decided to make our way into the old town. As soon as we left the main road along the sea’s edge and that wide marbled promenade; we immediately found ourselves in the now familiar labyrinth like pedestrian streets of the old original town.
Off leash, I gallivanted for a while. Adorable shops sold everything you could want. Olive oil soaps, wood carvings and wares, tourist mementoes, jewelry, art and clothing hung outside on the walls for passersby to see and touch. Mom saw a pair of “Turkish style pants” and tugged at Dad’s arm. She disappeared inside. Two days later we would return to purchase them before sailing away.
We continued and found multiple squares. One had a large Church. Known as the Panagia Myrtidiotissa it is located on top of a small cliff in the old town and has one of the most beautiful views of the Promenade, the Marina and of course, the trademark of Naxos… the Portara.
The most famous landmark of Naxos the Portara, is a massive 2,500-year-old marble doorway that leads oddly to …nowhere. It stands on Palatia, which was once a hill but is now a separate little island connected to Naxos by a causeway. (The Mediterranean has risen significantly since ancient times.) A causeway I really enjoyed crossing as I played catch me if you can with the rising waves that crashed above it in the late evening sun.
The Portara is the entrance to an unfinished temple that faces directly toward Delos, Apollo’s birthplace. For this reason most scholars believe it was dedicated to Apollo, but some think it was built in honor of Dionysus, who was worshipped on Naxos Island.
Either way, the temple was begun around 530 BC by the tyrant Lygdamis, who said he would make Naxos’s buildings the highest and most glorious in Greece. When he was overthrown in 506 BC; only the walls were completed and the temple was never finished.
Evidence from pottery indicates the temple’s cult was abandoned by the 5th century BC. By the 5th and 6th centuries AD, the temple had been converted into a church and then under Venetian and later Turkish rule the temple was dismantled so its marble could be used to build a castle. The doorway, however, was so large and heavy it could not be used, so it remains standing alone among the ruins.
And it is awesome.
Speaking of Venetians and castles. Turns out the Old town neighbourhood known as Brougos has a fortified Venetian Castle (Kastro in Greek). Built under the rule of Marco Sanoudos on the top of a natural hill over where an acropolis once stood, only two of the seven original seven towers remain. We walked in through the North Gate that also survived and is in excellent condition. It’s like being in Greece and then crossing some line that suddenly brings you to medieval Italy. It’s a little unnerving to be honest.
I let myself into the home of a resident that had foolishly left her front door open. The bipeds were mortified and kept calling me back out … but I returned cupped in the ladies arms with an invitation to come on inside and see what the homes were like. The bipeds gratefully accepted.
Massively high ceilings, thick walls and beautiful supporting beams made the place seem both solid and safe yet airy and cool. We were told by the home owner that many of the original Venetian Catholic descendants still lived in the old mansions. She opened her huge windows and wood gabbles and we were greeted with the sound of seagulls and a most spectacular view. Blues as far as the eye could see.
After thanking our impromptu host profusely we wondered off and visited a few more sites within the Venetian walls, including the Catholic Cathedral (13th Century), the Ursulines Monastery and the Catholic Episcopal not to mention of course the fortress walls themselves.
By now we were all tired and hungry, so we made our way to a slightly more modern area, where in a large plaza, we joined the rest of our “crew” for dinner at a great little place called Scirroco. Excellent food and value for money! The bipeds ordered a now favorite dish of big white beans in a tomato sauce. I got a slice of chicken and before long we were stumbling back to the sail boat for a good night’s sleep.
The next day was to be a full day on the island. After the rough sail the previous day that lasted over 5 hours, Mom was happy to stay on land. She said that she welcomed a chance to not feel like the boat was slamming into a wall, having to take gravol and sleep through our transit. She wanted to breath the fresh air and enjoy what Naxos had to offer! I had to agree that I wanted to see what treasures and adventures could be found on this large island.
We waited for the rest of our crew to wake up by following the shore to the modern city hall, with its sphinx guarding Naxos City. We then back tracked and stopped for some breakfast and soon were joined by the others.
Toby, our Captain suggested a mini-road trip of Naxos. It was a fantastic idea! Logistically it barely worked out though. Toby, for insurance reasons could not drive any of us. He would need his own car and lead the way. That left 6 people. On Naxos you need an international driver’s license to rent a car and drive on the island. That meant that the bipeds were of no help. Neither were our new friends Marc and his son Jacob from New York! Luckily for us the last two in our crew had the right papers! So, Mike (from Australia – with an international license) got one car and the New Yorkers joined him. We jumped into the car with Mathias (and his European license) our new friend from Germany.
Note: Each car was about 60 Euro for the day. With 3 in the car that was about 20 Euro per person. Car rental location was right across from the Scirroco restaurant if you need to find it!
So, with all those pesky details and logistics settled, off we went! A day of adventured awaited!
Stop #1 – The Temple of Dimitra
In the large and fertile central plateau of Naxos a most important archaic temple was recently discovered. The bipeds were ready for some ancient Greek history and monuments so this first stop was a perfect choice. We arrived at the site, parked the car, followed a nice path with massive thyme and rosemary bushes covering the low walls and made our way to the white marble temple on a small hill.
I don’t know all the terms Dear Reared, so I may have difficulty sharing with you some of what I learned. But basically it was a big hall where the ancients celebrated the mysteries of nature. The building is dated to the time of the tyrant of Naxos, Lygdamis (ca. 530 B.C.) and was part of his ambitious building programme, comparable to that of his Athenian friend Peisistratos. Yes, that’s the same crazy guy that wanted to build that big temple of Apollo on the tiny island in the harbour of Naxos we visited the day before.
Like most, the temple is rectangular in plan, with a row of columns in the interior dividing the space into two aisles. Two corresponding monumental doorways open into the south long side with five columns forming the facade.
I found out (thanks to some great information plaques and a wonderful little museum) that this site is a rare example of a marble temple. Rare because more than 50 % of the ancient building material is preserved! The temple gives unique information about ancient architecture. It reveals information on the construction of marble roofs, about the early forms of the Ionic order, about the curves and optical corrections similar to those observable in the Parthenon in Athens, but here a whole century earlier! It introduces construction techniques that are recognized as forerunners of classical Attic architecture.
Finally, as the site was usurped over and over by different religions, one trying to erase the previous one as much as possible while still keeping as much of the temple intact; it provides evidence for the creative evolution of architecture.
In other words it’s pretty darn awesome. And completely dog friendly! Yes, I was even allowed on leash inside the museum.
Stop #2 – Chalki (a.k.a. Halki) and the Kitron Brewery
One of Naxos’ finest experiences is a visit to the historic village of Halki, which lies at the heart of the Tragaea, about 20 minutes’ drive from Naxos city. Halki is full of handsome façades of old villas and tower houses, the legacy of a rich past as the one-time centre of Naxian commerce. Since the late 19th century Halki has been known for its production of kitron, a delicious liqueur.
We visited the Vallindras Distillery in Halki’s main square. It still distils kitron the old-fashioned way. Still producing the lemon flavored liquid the same way as 250 years ago. The tour is free (dog friendly if the dog is small and on leash). I really enjoyed the old distillery’s atmospheric rooms, which still contain ancient jars and copper stills. Kitron tastings round off the tour and a selection of the distillery’s products are on sale. To arrange a tour in slow season you do need to call ahead (November to April) and phone: 22850 22534 or 6942551161.
Stop #3 – The Church of Drosiani
The church is near the village of Moni in the area of Tragaia, Naxos. It is an Early Christian, tri-apsidal church with a dome. Three single-room chapels are incorporated along the northern side. The interior wall surfaces have wall paintings of various phases. The earliest layer of wall paintings, which dates to the end of the 6th and beginning of the 7th centuries has been revealed in the dome, the sanctum and in the northern apse. The latest layer on both dome and apse is datable to the 13th and 14th centuries; it has been removed from the wall.
The church was probably originally the Katholikon of the Monastery. Later on, information about the Drosiane is given by the Duke of the Aegean Sea, Ioannes IV Crispos (1555) and others. In addition, benedictory inscriptions of the 6th and 7th centuries are preserved on the walls.
The church was restored in 1964. Cleaning of the wall paintings and removal of the most recent layers has been carried out over the years (1964 – 1971).
But I remember it mostly because during our entire visit to the Greek islands, this was the one and only time I was not granted access to a site. I waited outside with Captain Toby. But I admit I was miffed and even whimpered a little. After being included in everything for so long it was a bit of a shock. Still, it is a really small Church and so the tour inside was quick. I only waited about 15 minutes for the bipeds to return.
Stop #4 – Zas Cave – Mount Zeus
Located in the Tragea region on the island, Mount Zeus has the proud distinction of being the highest peak in the Greek Cyclades. In ancient times, the local Greeks believed that the cave on the northwest flanks of the mountain was the birthplace of the god Zeus.
There are two popular routes to the summit and a third which is not often used. The easiest is the Aghia Marina route, nicknamed after the little chapel near where it starts. This well-maintained trail is posted with a number of signs and cairns and is easy to follow to the summit.
The second route is called Aria Spring / Cave Of Zeus. This route is more interesting than Aghia Marina but is also steeper and more of a challenge. Of course this was the route we took! A few spots required the use of hands for the bipeds. It’s about 6 kilometers round-trip. The first part of the trail is easy to follow. The middle portion of the route, beyond the cave, can be difficult to see but is not hard to follow if you have been directed where to go. Beginning at the parking lot, follow the trail past Arai Spring to the Cave Of Zeus.
For those who enjoy exploring the underground, this is a fun and relatively safe cave to explore. Beyond the entrance it widens out to about 10 meters and may be up to 100 meters deep. The ground is very slippery in places. Make sure to bring an adequate light source. There are a few short piled rock walls. It’s amazing to think that in ancient times, some of the inhabitants of Naxos Island would perform ritualistic orgies inside this cavern.
Just above the cave the trail becomes faint and undeveloped as it enters a steep gully. We did not go the rest of the way – but two of our intrepid crew returned later in the afternoon to continue this trek. They told me that the further up you went the less of a trail you could find. Luckily there were some cairns to mark the way and there is a GPS map you can download. So if real trekking and hiking are something you love to do – then Naxos can provide that in spades.
Stop #5 – Koronos – Lunch at Martina’s Tavern
After all this driving, walking, trekking and talking we were now all tired and very very hungry. Our Captain led the way to the small town of Koronos. It’s built on the slopes of a steep cliff and as a result the paths are narrow and frankly just a LOT of stairs. I loved it! We parked at the “top” of the village and walked are way down about half way. I was greeted by locals with lots of enthusiasm all of them marveled at my dexterity and stamina! Tiny but mighty!
Martina’s Tavern is a wonderful spot. Surrounded by hundreds of potted plants and under the shade of an old vine heavy with ripening grapes; the outdoor terrace was the perfect place for us to sit down, and recover. The tavern has its very own fresh water spring, thus wonderfully cool, crisp and clean water is free and abundant.
We ate a marvelous meal of traditional Greek foods. Greek salad, musaka, fries, goat, lamb, fish, watermelon and a lovely cassis syrope in cold iced water are just some of the things I recall. After we were all good and full, the humans all chatted for a while and enjoyed some coffee and tea. I personally found a nice cold rock and took a much needed power nap. After all the day was not over.
Stop #6 – Abandoned Kouros of Melanes
There are several on the island I was told, but I got to see only one; the gargantuan 6th-century BC kouros (male statue) of Melanes that lies in an ancient marble quarry, on the north coast. It is worth a stop. This 10.5m statue apparently represents Dionysos (or Apollo), and may have been discarded because although nearly finished, it cracked. Others say war may have interupted the project, or simply the order was cancelled.
Whatever the reason, it lies there still today. Abandoned but not forgotten. I really enjoyed the chance to get up close and marveled at the immensity of it. I really felt particularly tiny, I must admit. I just can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the artist to see this kouros abandoned and left as if good for nothing so close to… well no one knows what they were for. Some archeologists think that it may have been for holding up a temples roof.
To me – it just seemed … lonely.
After that – we followed the long and scenic road back to Naxos city and our sailboat. Mathias generously offered to drop us off and return the car to the rental place. We were happy to accept. Happy but tired, we quickly freshened up, crossed the marina and just chose a little café on the promenade to have a very light dinner.
Phew … I know. SO much to take in! And we barely covered a third of the island! And I guess that is the point that needs to be made. If you want an island that you can explore for days or even weeks, then Naxos is the Greek island for you. It has just … more. Steeped in mythological mystique and ancient history, and the purported home of Dionysus, the god of Wine, Naxos is fringed with glorious beaches that collide with turquoise waters and sapphire horizons. It’s a place where the past and dreams for the future fuse into a heady cocktail.
Pictures say more than I ever could. And Naxos also provided some of the best photo ops … so take time to enjoy the many (I know once again too many by “good blog” standards) pictures we brought back.