Where does one start in attempting to explore the Cyclades? Scattered in the heart of the Aegean, the Cyclades offer any kind of holiday you might dream up from contemporary, swinging resort life to quests for clues to the distant past or more recent traditional life styles. Antiquities, medieval monuments, monasteries and churches, quaint ports and charming hamlets fashioned in the distinctive architecture of the region, plus the unmatched scenery and a plethora of fantastic beaches - all warmed by the Aegean sun - can be found on virtually every one of these islands. Each island has its own special cherm, but if for some reason it doesn't appeal to you , then nothing could be easier than hopping on to the next one.
These islands are served by three mainland ports. While most of the boats leave from Piraeus, Rafina is gradually assuming more importance for the more northerly islands, while ferries to Tzia (Kea) are based at Lavrion.
Kea, the closest of the Cyclades, doesn't figure in any tour operator's brochures, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have lovely beaches, arresting scenery and sufficient amenities to make your stay more agreeable. There are taverns, cafes and other entertainments in Korissia (Livadi), the port, and the Hora, typically perched well away from the sea.
The island has several ancient and prehistoric sites, the Monastery of the Virgin of Kastrini on the northeast tip of the island, and a selection of splendid beaches on the west coast.
The other western Cyclades form almost a straight line southward: quiet Kythnos, with its churches, its hot springs, and its windmills; gracious Sifnos, with its lovely villages and exemplary architecture; tiny Kimolos, its houses encircling the medieval castle; Milos, just next door, where the "Venus" came from, with unusual rock formations, early Christian catacombs and very little tourism.
Southeast of Milos lies the row of Southern Cyclades: First, Folegandros with its exquisite Hora and castle; then Sikinos, with its own beautiful capital, one of the most characteristic of these smaller islands; and Ios, the favourite of the younger generation for many years now, with its splendid beaches and easy-going ways.
Next comes Santorini, growing more popular every year, and with reason: there's nowhere on earth like it. Its architecture is the quintessence of Cycladic form; its scenery breath - taking; its archaeological interest, since the discovery of the Minoan palace-city of Akrotiri, intensifying as the excavations continue; its restaurants excellent and its nightlife vivacious. Fira, the capital, and Ia the delightful village opposite, are both built along the rim of the steep cliff that was left when the rst of the island slid into the sea as the volcano erupted. You can see the smoking crater and the islets in the indigo water below that were formed after other, more recent upheavals. Santorini is blessed with 12 more traditional hamlets, the site of ancient Thera, and a number of pleasant beaches.
In the distance isolated Anafi looms on the horizon, forming another link in the Cyclades chain. The eastern Cyclades start with Andros, separated from Euboea by the Cabo Doro, famous for its winds. Though Gavrion is its main port, most visitors prefer to stay in Batsi, which has more facilities for tourists, or the Hora, which has lost little of its early 20th century atmosphere.
Right next Andros is Tinos, the Virgin's island, whose church in the capital and main port is centre for pilgrims seeking cures and the scene of a great religious festival on 15th of August. If you head into hinterland, you'll find a very different atmosphere - of green mountains and unspoilt villages.
West of Tinos, Syros was once a major mercantile centre, and the stately 19th century buildings in the port, Ermoupolis is still lively and bustling today. Don't miss a walk through Ano Syros, the upper town founded by the Venetians, or a trip round the island to its charming seaside village and beaches at Galissas and Dellagratzia (Posidonia).
Nesxt in line, Mykonos, the most famous of the Cyclades, needs introduction. Its charms are legendary. Here is an example of how an enormous amount of tourist development and cosmopolitan lifestyles canco-exist with a traditional architectural heritage. Of course, no visit to Mykonos would be complete without a trip by caique to Delos, one of the most important ancient sites in the land. The silence of this sacred isle contrasts vividly with the excitement across the straits.
Some distance south of Mykonos lies Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades. With its fertile agricultural interior dotted with charming villages, and its coasts rimmed with beaches, Naxos is a fine choice for a holiday. Its port - capital retained the atmosphere of a medieval walled town, with a castle, convents (one housing the Archaeological Museum) and Venetian escutcheons. The island does not lack for antiquities either, the huge gate at the two most famous.
West of Naxos, Paros is one of the most popular of the Cyclades. Whether you're drawn by its history and architecture - Parikia's Church of the Hundred Doors is the oldest in the islands, its wonderful beaches, some of which are ideal for windsurfing, or its restaurants and nightlife, you're bound to find what you're looking for here. If you're in the mood for a tiny island, then venture south of Naxos to the lesser Cyclades - Herakli, Schinousa, Ano and Kato Koufonisi, and Donousa, to the east, where there's little to do but swim and sun yourself. Amorgos, further east, completes the circle. This craggy, wind-swept is -land boasts the ruins of three ancient cities and the prettiest monastery in the group, the Hozoviotissa.
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