Naxos – the Greatest of the Cyclades

Naxos – the Greatest of the Cyclades

Our Cycladic adventure had begun from Paros, and now we arrived in Naxos after only a couple of hours’ sail. Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades islands. The main city goes by the same name but is often called Chora (chora means simply “town” or “main town” and there are many Choras all over the Greek islands). The town is situated in a large bay on the northwestern corner of the island, nestled behind a small island with the ruins of Apollo’s temple on it. Between the temple island and the town is a small anchorage, and that’s where we decided to drop the hook.

Naxos anchorage at dusk

Next to the anchorage, there’s a ferry terminal, where huge jets and cruise ships operate several times a day. On the first morning, we were chased away, because a large ferry needed space to manoeuvre. We moved further into the bay and were not bothered again.

Causeway to the temple of Apollo

Our original plan was to stay only for a day or two, enough for a quick visit to the town and, naturally, Apollo’s temple. But the northerly wind started to blow surprisingly hard again. We watched the whitecaps marching outside the breakwater and large waves breaking over the causeway leading to the temple. Suddenly it seemed an excellent idea to get to know the island, instead of sailing on in strong winds amidst cold, salty spray. The anchorage was as protected as they come in the Aegean – with the wind howling in the mast and rigging, but no swell to keep us awake at night – so why not stay a while longer?

We watched the large gate of Apollo’s temple light up as it got dark. That’s where we would go first! This landmark, Portara, is the symbol of Naxos. It’s where you’re supposed to go at sunset to take those epic sunset selfies. Well, we forgot to take our selfies, and perhaps this late in the autumn, the sunset wasn’t quite as epic as it would have been in the summer.

Portara is the entrance to an unfinished temple, and it points towards the sacred island of Delos. Its construction was begun by the Persian tyrant, Lygdamis, in 530 BCE. He wanted to make it the largest and most magnificent building of the whole of Greece, but the project was interrupted a couple of decades later, when the tyrant was overthrown, and never resumed. Only the gate remains of his ambitious venture. Not even the protrusions jutting from the pillars, used in lifting and moving the large marble blocks, were ever removed. A thousand years later, during the 6th century CE, an early Christian church was built on the site. The church door was cut into Portara’s lower part and is still visible.

The dusk was creeping in and the waves were roaring past the island as I stood by this huge gate. It was quite impressive. Where would I be teleported if I walked through it? To the beginning of time, or to some distant future? Or perhaps to mount Olympos, where the Greek gods hang out?

The town of Naxos is old and beautifully aged, albeit perhaps a bit too polished along the more touristy streets. The oldest part is a Venetian castle, built on top of a steep hill by Marco Sanudo, the Duke of Naxos and the Cyclades archipelago. Sanudo had participated in the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in 1204. In 1207 he captured the island with the help of eight warships despite the heroic resistance of the locals and remained in power until 1227 as the vassal of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Naxos and ten other Cycladic islands made up his dominion, while many other Aegean islands were ruled by his crusade buddies.

Naxos town and castle, seen from the temple island

The fortified city had five watchtowers, only one of which still remains, and three city gates. A catholic cathedral and an administrative building and tower were built on the highest point of the hill. The Venetian nobility built their houses next to them, and marble blocks taken from Apollo’s temple were used in large quantities. Later, a tradesmen’s district grew outside the walled city. Today it’s a wonderful maze of shopping streets, archways and stairs.

After 21 successive Venetian dukes, Naxos ended up under Ottoman rule as the Turks conquered the islands in 1537. In 1831, it became part of the liberated Greek State after the Greek War of Independence.

There’s much to see on a large island like Naxos, and now that we had time to see it, we decided to rent a car for a day. In the next blog, we will explore the island’s interior.

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