Βy Valerie Singleton
Local guide books say that the poet Lord Byron was so bowled over by the view from the fortified monastery on the island of Naxos, that he wanted to be buried there. At the same spot nearly 200 years later, I could see why. Beyond the high stone tower, the land plunged to one of the most breathtaking views of the Aegean I have ever seen, where islands of the Minor Cyclades floated like half-submerged crocodilians.
But I wasn’t on Naxos to be a mere sightseer; I was with 10 others on a walking holiday, with a company that bills itself as ‘Walking Plus… (a beach, a temple and a glass of wine)’. I hadn’t done much walking for a while, so I was rather tempted by the bit in brackets. Would I need serious trekking boots, water bottles and a large rucksack? I was slightly nervous when the reply came back “well-worn-in walking boots strongly recommended.” Fortunately, it wasn’t until three days into the holiday that boots and stamina were really put to the test, when we were told: “you’re fit enough to tackle Mount Fanari” (one of the island’s highest mountains).
As the largest island in the Cyclades – about the size of the Isle of Wight – Naxos fits in the full range of Greek landscape – dramatic mountains, deep green valleys, broad plains, long, empty beaches and island-studded sea. It’s remarkably unspoilt, partly because there’s so much water and fertile land for farming and the Naxiots have never relied on tourism. And there’s no international airport, which keeps the big package tour operators away.
There are domestic flights, but the ferry journey from Pireaus, passing Paros, calms the spirit. The group is rounded up at Naxos port by Gilly and Robin, the husband-and-wife team who run Walking Plus, and we eye each other up over a lunch of kalamari, choriatiki (village salad) and local wine on the glittering harbourfront. I wonder how our guides will cope with ages ranging from 40-something to a sprightly 74, and levels of fitness veering, I guess, between fast, hard and tireless to rusty (me). We’re a potentially critical lot, too, with me, the journalist, two couples who’ve been in the holiday business for years, and the 74-year-old, a veteran walker who has tested out virtually every walking holiday operator you’ve heard of.
Our base for the week is 20 minutes’ drive from town, at a hotel called Oasis, on Mikri Vigla beach. There’s a swimming pool, a family of wild black kittens, and we’re looked after attentively by the owner, Manolis. Mikri Vigla reminds me of Faliraki on Rhodes as it was twenty five years ago, with its wide, wild beach and sand dunes, and rough dirt tracks linking scattered homes, studio apartments, tavernas and a couple of supermarkets. A Greece you think has long disappeared. The bread that’s delivered every morning is still warm from the ovens of Yiorgo the local baker. The fruit and honey we find in our rooms, is local. Each day, we will breakfast alone, peacefully on our balconies. Each morning, a goatherd passes by with his flock, bells tinkling. By 9.30am we’re ready to be picked up and taken to the trailhead.
The week begins gently enough, with a three-hour walk along a hillside high above the coast to the mountain village of Apeiranthos and a swim from an empty curve of beach in the afternoon. We’d scrambled down to a sparkling stream thick with watercress and mint and along an age-old path squeezed between walls draped with oregano. We’d peered at a slit above the door of a lumpy stone chapel, through which weakling babies were passed in the belief that this would transform them into fat, healthy children. The Venetians, who occupied Naxos for 300 years, tried to stamp out this pagan custom back in the 13th century. Back at Oasis that evening, Manolis tells us that the ritual still takes place in his home village.
Wandering around the steep arched alleys of Apeiranthos, you get the feeling of the village’s individual character. There’s a distinctive line in chimney styles, a women’s craft co-operative and four tiny, idiosyncratic museums founded by a local hero Manolis Glezos. As a nineteen-year-old, Glezos and a friend were in Athens when the city was taken by the Germans in April 1941. Under cover of darkness, they scaled the Acropolis cliffs, tore down the swastika that had been raised there, and reinstated the Greek flag.
We linger over lunch on a marble terrace high above the valley we’d just explored, and tucked into potato omelettes (an island speciality – Naxos potatoes are exported all over Greece). The island is also famed for its cheeses, and many of the tavernas we ate at during the week served up their home-grown vegetables. The traditional Greek food was fantastic (which I never thought was possible), and John, who’d lived and worked on Mykonos for several years, agreed, “the best I’ve ever tasted. ” He wasn’t as enthusiastic about the local wine, which at its best is a light, refreshing red, at worst a cloudy, sherry-flavoured brew – at which point we were given bottled wine.
Later in the week, we’re dropped in a village lane between groves of gnarled, twisted and still productive olive trees. This is the centre of the island’s olive production, and we learn that it was on Naxos that archaeologists found the earliest evidence – a little pot with traces of oil in it – of the domestic use of olive oil. We’re in a broad plain, ringed by mountains, one of which is Mount Fanari. I look up at its craggy peak, outlined, high above us, against the cobalt blue sky. Would I make it? I had managed the last couple of days without too many aches, so would give it a go. It’s easy to begin with, a walled path above neatly tilled terraces and shaded by pomegranate, apple and walnut trees, but hard work clambering over the boulders of a steep, dried-up stream-bed.
We picnic by an old wine press, its stone slabs set into a long-abandoned terrace. Home-made melitsanasalata (puréed aubergines), cherry tomatoes (from Gilly’s garden) with herbs picked from the countryside; olives, local cheese, and hunks of crusty bread. Fortified, we head for the summit, up a tiny marble path, once the only line of communication between two mountain villages, that zig-zags up the steep mountainside like an angle ruler. A pair of eagles patrols the jagged line of cliffs below the summit, and the fit members of the group get out their binoculars as they wait for the rest of us to catch up. Gilly stops to tell one of her anecdotes about something we see on the way. “Aha, Colchicum bivonae,” she says, stopping at a star-like bloom which we were all about to tread on. “The extract can be lethal to humans, but it’s handy for plant propagation because it doubles the production of new cells.”
We all make it to the summit, and the magnificent panorama of the whole island spread around us, surrounded by the blue haze of the Aegean, is worth the effort. But 40-something Cathie’s blisters keep her on the beach the next day, and even sprightly 74-year-old Pauline from Bolton, oldest Walking Plus guest to date, comments: “Ooh, my knees are saying ‘what the ‘ell are you doing?’”
The free day was welcome when it came. We spent it in Naxos town, sipping frappés and freshly squeezed peach juice on the harbour front, watching island life pass by. You can stroll to the islet with a massive marble portal – all that remains of a temple that looked out over the sea to the sacred island of Delos – and where minotaur-slayer Theseus ungratefully abandoned the Cretan princess Ariadne after she’d helped him out of the Labyrinth. Following Gilly’s written tour of the town makes sightseeing effortless and interesting: we climb through lanes between tightly packed traditional houses, to the kastro, the fortified medieval bourg built by the Venetian overlords, which dominates the town. You can visit a Venetian house, with its faded but elegant furnishings, and catch postage-stamp views of the sparkling harbour through its windows. The archaeological museum is superb, a testament to the island’s rich history from Mycenean times onwards. We find little saucers of burnt offerings – carbonized figs and grapes – excavated from the Bronze Age stone-circle graves we had seen earlier in the week.
On our own, we would never have found those graves, barely discernible among a moonscape of granite boulders, or many of the other places Walking Plus took us to. There was the occasional tourist sight such as a huge 2,500-year-old kouros (statue of a youth) lying on the ground where it had been abandoned by its sculptors or the beautifully restored marble Temple of Demeter, but the only tourists we saw were in the main town. Many of the island’s rarest treasures can only be reached on foot – such as the tiny chapel with rare frescos dating from the 9th century BC. We’d walked for 1 1/2 hours along a marble-paved path shaded by almost-English vegetation, to reach it. Inside, it took a few moments for our eyes to adjust so that we could make out the faded colours and images of birds, fishes and pomegranates. Afterwards, we crossed to the next valley, harshly beautiful in contrast, where rusting machinery and piles of glinting purple and red stones are all that remain of a once-thriving emery mining industry. We followed an old path, no longer used, even by locals, to the miniature port of Moutsouna, where we shared the sandy harbour beach with a lone fisherman in his caique.
I think about Ariadne wailing bitterly at finding herself alone on a strange island, and can think of worse places to be abandoned. What she needed was a companion and guide to discover the island’s magic. We had Walking Plus. And fortunately for Ariadne, the Naxos-born wine god Dionysos came to her rescue. They bore many children and were so happy that the wine god blessed not only Ariadne but the entire island with his fertility. Which must be one reason why Naxos is one of the most beautiful Greek islands to explore on foot.
The above is the original, uncut text that Valerie submitted to the Daily Mail.
A slightly shorter version appeared in the issue of July 9, 2005.