Travel: Island-Hop in the Lap of the Gods Ideal for the Eternally Curious or the Quickly Bored, the Islands in the Aegean Known as the Cyclades Are Only an Hour or Two from Each Other. by Jill Dudley

By Dudley, Jill | The Independent (London, England), August 16, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Travel: Island-Hop in the Lap of the Gods Ideal for the Eternally Curious or the Quickly Bored, the Islands in the Aegean Known as the Cyclades Are Only an Hour or Two from Each Other. by Jill Dudley


Dudley, Jill, The Independent (London, England)


TINY ISLANDS in blue seas with cheap little ferries bobbing around between them: yes, the Cyclades really are that easy to negotiate. Mind you, it wasn't as easy to get away from the Greek woman beside me who was staring gloomily into her sick-bag. Nor to get past the dozens of backpackers lying full-length in the gangway, unaware of the feet so close to stepping on their upturned sleeping faces.

This was the ferry to Naxos, the largest of the island group. Most of the Cyclades in the Aegean are within an hour or two of each other. Midsummer can be hot but the meltemi, a strong persistent north wind, cools things down and can make for rough crossings. Hence the sick-bag.

The tannoy announced that arrival was imminent. I went down the companion- way to the hold and joined some passengers preparing to disembark. Down there, all smelt of ship's paint, engine oil and diesel fumes, but after a noisy rattling of chains, the ramp was lowered and a smell of seaweed and ouzo came flooding in.

All island ports become a hive of activity when a ferryboat puts in. Hotel minibuses wait for new arrivals and women hold up notices of "Rooms". The hordes on shore wait impatiently until the last car is off and then move in a tidal wave up the ramp. You need to be reasonably strong to island-hop: to survive being hit in the face by an overloaded haversack, or forced along with the scrum pushing from behind.

Every island has its own character and history, though certain patterns emerge. Behind the port you'll usually see whitewashed houses climbing the hillside, with domed churches rising behind them. Tavernas line the seafront; brightly coloured boats tug at their moorings. Further inland, barren mountains rear up, dotted with small white chapels or the occasional monastery.

Naxos itself, by the way, where I had just arrived, was the island to which Theseus brought the beautiful Ariadne after he had killed the dreaded Minotaur in Crete. They were said to have lived on an islet now reached by a causeway to the north of the port and marked by a huge rectangular marble doorway, intended as the portal to a temple of Apollo. The temple was begun in 6BC, but was never finished.

Theseus, being something of a cad, soon abandoned Ariadne on Naxos and sailed back to Athens, stopping off first at the island of Delos, birthplace of Apollo. Delos was the religious centre of the ancient world and today is an archaeologist's dream. It is so popular with experts and tourists alike that visits are rationed to three hours only.

Even if you hate ruins, this small island is enchanting. It is said that Poseidon, god of the sea, raised Delos (the word means "manifest") from the sea bed expressly for the occasion of Apollo's birth, and anchored it on chains of diamonds. Until then, its name had been A-delos ("not visible").

What first strikes you is the light, a brilliance that overlays the tiny island and its sea. The white marble of the ruined temples rises against the mushroom-grey of the island. Three hours is much too short. Just around the corner from Delos is Mykonos, a favourite with the gay community and a jetsetter's playground with dazzling white cubic houses and thatched windmills on the skyline. The hotels and restaurants in Mykonos are expensive and, for the more humble tourist, a day trip with a picnic is a good option.

Mykonos' nearest neighbour, Tinos, by contrast, is less famous for its gay nightlife than for its great church of Penagia Evangelistria. A wide road climbs up to it from the port, and two narrow strips of carpet are laid out for the greater comfort of visitors to reach the fabulous icons inside.

Yesterday, 15 August, was an important date for Tinos: it was the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a celebration throughout the Orthodox world but especially here. The sick and disabled crowd into the Penagia Evangelistria hoping for miraculous cures.

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Travel: Island-Hop in the Lap of the Gods Ideal for the Eternally Curious or the Quickly Bored, the Islands in the Aegean Known as the Cyclades Are Only an Hour or Two from Each Other. by Jill Dudley
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