A horn of plenty. It’s the traditional image associated with Dionysius, the Greek god of wine and desire who, legends say, seduced Ariadne on one of Naxos’s windswept beaches. This godly “oenophile” actually gave his name to Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades” “Dionysia” is how the ancients knew it.
Another famous association with Naxos concerns the great romantic poet Lord Byron. According to Lawrence Durrell, young Byron was passionate about Greece and had first toyed with the idea of buying Ithaca, but once he saw Naxos, he fell hopelessly in love.
Green, mountainous, abundant with fig trees and grape vines, and inviting rose-gold beaches…Naxos lives up to this divine analogy and seductive track record. It doesn’t fit the Cycladic island “sterile” image at all: barren shards of rock with stark whitewashed houses. It is a lush, verdant, deeply alluring island of many contrasting beauties. An ideal visit requires many days to penetrate its present wonders and millennia-old secrets.
The Portara: ancient gateway to mythical wonders
Arriving by ship, one is struck by its iconic doorway: The Portara. These ruins of a 6-metre-high gateway to a temple dedicated to either Apollo or Dionysius (scholars disagree). A tyrant king of Naxos in the 6th century BC built this massive temple, commanding that it be the biggest in Greece. It must have been spectacular – but evidently it was never finished. The Venetians largely dismantled it in the middle ages, stealing the marble for their fortress at the crown of Naxos town (still standing today), yet the formidable ruins of the great doorway yet remains.
A breathtaking site from anywhere in Hora town at sunset. Stunning anytime of the day. The Portara stands on the island of Bacchus – or ‘Palatia’, as it’s better known — and is accessible by a footpath and up a craggy trail. This was the spot where Theseus had abandoned Ariadne after killing the Minotaur in Crete. So legend says.
Portara – magical at midnight!
We chose to forgo the hot August sun and visit Portara at the end of the evening in Naxos town – around midnight! The thrashing sea pummeled the docks and our little pathway to the site was drenched in Aegean surf and it glistened in the eerie navy-blue evening light. We saw only a few other intrepid souls on our late-night pilgrimage to pay respect to Ariadne and the gods… scrambling up the wet rocky crest to view the absurdist doorway in all its stark splendour. We thought we saw some Bacchanalian worshippers performing some witchy evening ritual just below the temple. Midnight – what a glorious time to visit this ancient ruin!
In all, we spent 7 nights in Naxos between August 5 and August 11, 2020. A strange time to travel (as many of you may think) during a global climate of fear and anxiety. Yet on Naxos, the hot August sun, and warm winds washed the cares away.
Peaceful seaside stay on Plaka beach
Just 20 minutes southwest of busy Hora town with its great Portara and Venetian ruins lies the seaside community of Plaka beach. Once a farming and naturalist area, it is not exactly sleepy anymore but a very pleasant place to enjoy the coast, spectacular sunsets and ocean swimming. A majority of our time in Naxos was spent at a little beach apartment steps from a series of laid-back Plaka beaches, with sunchairs and umbrellas available (free when you spend 15 euros on drinks, food). The Ploes seaside houses, our accommodation was run by two very friendly and accommodating Greek brothers, Christos and Iannis. They were very kind in providing a free transfer from the ferry. Not to mention a fresh-baked bag of Naxos vanilla cookies and a fresh-picked cantaloupe. All around us was a high grove of bamboo plants and copious cactus plants – surprising to find in Greece.
We had a nice wide balcony for makeshift breakfasts (bought at neighbouring markets) and great viewing points for the famous Plaka sunsets.
The waters here are calm and crystal clear with striking views of the neighbouring island of Paros, known for its more stately, serene vibe.
Fresh Seafood, Greek Salads and Naxos Potatoes!
There are a wide range of great tavernas a short or long walk from our Plaka beach resort. Fish and seafood dishes are the thing to order in Naxos. Succulent grilled octopus and calamari are my favourite. Naxos is also famous for its lovely potatoes – which we savoured at many meals! And of course the yoghurt and farm fresh Greek salads with huge chunks of salty feta!
Here are a few restaurants we enjoyed, all with sunset views.
1. Petrino Beach restaurant – Lovely traditional food in a very romantic setting
2. Nikos and Maria beach restaurant – Delightful, casual dining – right on the beach with your feet in the sand (and cats)
3. The Three Brothers – Also options for dining on the beach – and delicious fish
4. Picasso’s – Sick of Greek food? Try the very popular Picassos for incredibly tasty Sangria and great Mexican food! (Greek and Canadian owner)
5. Paradiso – This is the famous one in Plaka with tables spread right across the beach on the water. An idyllic setting. However, they had a very poor singer songwriter playing depressing grunge songs out of key, food just ok, too busy and with too many smokers for us…
The farthest from us Picassos and Three Brothers – meant a 2km walk each way, not so bad under a velvet sky dotted by stars with the evening wind. Though the rural road quite busy until all hours. Paradiso really requires a vehicle from Plaka. Petrino was the closest.
Steep mountains, deep gorges and cliff-top towns
I have to admit, I have a serious height phobia. My first trip to Greece in the 90s had me screaming at the top of my lungs as we careened along narrow cliff paths with sheer drop offs and very poor – or non-existent – guard rails. Little holding a reckless motorist or moped rider from plunging to a rocky death. No wonder one sees so many makeshift shrines on the side of Greek island roads. 25 years later, the safety barriers seem to be a wee bit better – and shrines seem to be fewer and farther between.
We rented a snazzy Fiat for two days to explore Naxos’s interior and remote beaches.
Venturing away from the gentle coast is definitely an expedition that requires traversing narrow vertical often one-way paths around mountains and through tiny villages. Still not for the faint of heart.
Our first stop – through some sharply winding narrow mountain paths – was the striking 6thcentury BCE temple of Demeter. Demeter was an important god of grains and appropriately her fine temple occupies a beautiful high crest in the middle of lush agricultural land. A very pleasant excursion and a fine little museum.
I had expected the far-flung mountain villages of Naxos, high up in the cliffs to be simple and rustic. This was not the case. We visited three very scenic, picturesque, but also touristic villages in the interior of Naxos island
The first was the polished and wealthy mountain village of Halki, once the capital of Naxos. Its charming passageways and fine architecture. We stopped for spanakopita and a bowl of thick Greek yoghurt with nuts and honey. Halki (derived from the Greek for bronzesmiths) is famous for the local alcohol “Citron” – made from a local fruit akin to a lemon but with a thick, warty skin. All around the town are fertile valleys of citron and fig trees, olive groves and grape vines…along with some stunning Byzantine stone churches. We ventured along one of the hiking trails – Halki to Mona — in the heat of the afternoon to explore the olive groves, verdant scenery, wildlife and ancient churches of Naxos’s interior.
Some of these ancient churches date back 1000 years. Sadly, on the Sunday afternoon (during COVID times) we were there, nothing was open. Still – a breathtaking hike up and down steep passes through stunning architecture, vineyards, groves – and the odd goat. We picked up shards of Roman pottery and rested in the shade by one ancient brick church, imagining monks of old, feasting on figs or pressing olives fresh picked from the tree.
We stopped at the beautiful town of Filotti for an iced coffee enroute to what was – for us – the most beautiful town of all in Naxos: the mountain top village of Apiranthos, 600 metres above sea level. This is a famous town of Naxian marble – and the streets are paved with it. Famous for its many museums, marble, local embroidery, but most notable, its magnificent views of the Naxian mountain ranges.
Charming village of Apiranthos – 600 metres above sea level
Had it not been my fear of a dark evening drive along narrow careening mountain roads – I would have wanted to stay far longer! Alas… a short, but stunning visit.
Morning swim, moments of grace and graffiti at Alykos Georgios beach
Our final day on the west side of Naxos was spent on a swim excursion to famous Alykos beach. Alykos is a beautiful calm place protected from the summer north winds and under the watchful gaze of the lovely and picturesque chapel of Agios Georgios. Unfortunately, when we were there, some large Italian families descended with their water soccer balls and raucous beach games, making our swim a little shorter than anticipated.
Also, at Alykos beach, we stumbled on some haunting ruins of an old unfinished hotel. Its bare bones starkly overlooked a seaside cliff, and we gingerly explored some striking graffiti art. In fact, a young Austrian girl told us she came just to see the fabulous graffiti here.
Before bidding adieu to beautiful Alykos, we enjoyed solitary sacred moments in the lovely little chapel, entering through a tiny door. I understand these hobbit sized doors – so common in Greek chapels – are deliberate, so that the worshipper must humbly bow upon entry and exit, in respect. We meditated a few moments, lit candles for my mom and dad, and said a prayer to them and St. George, a saint so important to this island.
Goddess treatment at Hotel Grotta — and exploring vibrant Hora, Naxos
It was probably our favourite two days in Naxos. Staying in the old town, high above the port at the fabulous Grotta boutique hotel, in a deluxe room with stunning sunset views. This was one of the best hotels I have ever stayed at. A family affair, run by Nicoletta and her brother who had inherited the 1980s hotel from their parents (now sleekly renovated – even with an interior spa, closed during COVID). The staff exude unbelievable warmth and generosity. Mouth watering breakfasts, pristine clean and spacious rooms… and the most gracious service ever. We received a bottle of wine as a gift in our room – We inquired about ordering olives – and a free bowl of delicious kalamatas just appeared.
Our final days were spent exploring the maze of Venetian streets, art galleries and shops – and splendid dining in the port. Such a vibrant and welcoming place. No one was shuddering in anxiety or checking the latest “panic porn” news on their phones. Servers wore masks – but it did not get in the way of a spirit of joy and celebration, palpable in the air in the heart of medieval Naxos town. Italians, French, Germans, Greeks – and we two Canadians – were here to relax, explore and enjoy.
Forget island hopping. A week in Naxos is a chance to enjoy the best features of many Greek islands, all in one place. Beaches, history, mountains, sunsets, nature, cuisine… This horn of plenty has something for just about anyone, including Dionysus and Lord Byron. Take a week and come experience all the abundance for yourself. Yes, especially now, during these stressful times!