Naxos reminds me of a walnut, a strong exterior coastline, rough in parts and a sweet nut once the crust has been penetrated and the kernel has been exposed. It is also like a fruit, all the action and buyer selection is in the skin – the colour, texture, aroma.
The ‘surface of the Naxos fruit’ beats with tourists seeking the long expanses of Plaka beach to bronze by day and, after dark, the plenitudes of beachside restaurants filled every summer night not just with tourists but with the Greek locals and visitors who respectfully arrive for dinner with young children in tow at about midnight.
After an early dinner at maybe 10pm, we can sit there next to the shore, sipping a sorbet, an icecream or ouzo and staring at the nearly millpond bay watching the moths diving onto the surface as if it were solid and immediately leaping back up to swirl and dance in the light.
Just out past the shore we hear a ‘ploop’ and see the ripples from the breaking of the surface by a larger species. We watch more intently and then see a fish ‘flying’ out of the water and doing not one but 8 or more leaps. Transfixed by this free event we gazed into the water for another half hour waiting for each new performance.
The only paradox was our realization that probably this same grand performer will fulfil the role of being a member of the culinary experience of ’fried fresh small fish’ some evening this summer. The life of an entertainer has unexpected twists, turns, hooks and nets.
Naxos is the largest of the Cycladic islands (a grouping of the Greek islands) and, despite the nearly barren mountains, is referred to as the greenest island. It is not however spoilt by tourism even on the ‘skin’, as much of the main tourist market is focused only on Naxos Town (Chora) and the area down through Plaka to Orcus.
Agriculture, cattle, sheep and goats are still an important aspect of the local economy. According to mythology, the wine god Dionysus came from Naxos, and the ancient Greeks saw proof of this in the fact that it was a lush and fertile island. The island today does not reflect its fertile past, though the evidence of adequate ground water is in the bright green grapevines rolling down some of the still tendered tiered hills.
We read in our history and mythology studies that Naxos was a centre for the Cyclades islands from 4000 to 1100 BC. Zeus, the highest god, was born on Crete, but grew up on Naxos. The people of Naxos used to worship him, and a temple was made to his honour at the mountain Za (Zeus). When Zeus’ mistress Semele died before giving birth to their child, Zeus took the embryo and put it in his thigh.
When the baby, Dionysus, was born out of Zeus thigh on Naxos, the nymphs Philia, Coronida and Clidi brought him up on the island, which was to be Dionysus favourite island. Whether Dionysus blessed the island sufficiently for eternal vineyards is still to be seen, but someone blessed Naxos to make some of the finest cheeses known to man.
Seeking Archaic history, one is drawn to Gyroulas to view the temple of Demeter, a rural goddess, built about 800 BC. The excellent museum there records that the whole temple was built of marble, including the roof beams so normally sourced in wood. Whether the reason was architectural choice or resource based, it encouraged us to seek the sources of marble on this island, that was apparently famous among the Greek islands (and also Sicily, where Naxos had a settlement) in the Archaic period.
Archaic marble sites are found, but for us the most amazing representation of the continuity of Naxos was to view the great marble quarry near Kinidaros that has turned a mountain into a white Lego monument, with millennia of rubble rolling down its side.
Heading into the bowels of Naxos from Kinidaros, you pass the marble works and it is time to consider how the ancients dealt with such massive blocks of marble achieving perfect right angles and flat finishes. Maybe they used emery sand, another of the remaining exports of Naxos. At the saddle of the mountain, where you can look up to the right to see a small church on atop the mountain, and on your left the road snakes away towards Apollonas, you can follow the road down to a crescent shaped village known as Moni, that is known for its hand weavers.
We stopped to share the story of weaving, for which the ladies of Naxos are famous, visiting a tiny room near the small square, where we saw a complex loom behind what appears to be last winter’s ‘harvest’. The quality of these works, that combine different yarns including silk, cotton and wool, is excellent, and would require a strong will to not purchase at least one of these fine textiles, the technology not as old as the marble works but also a representation of continuity of life in the heart of the island.
Naxos was to fall under many great states; the Athenians, then the Macedonians, after that the Egyptians and finally it fell under Rhodes’ power. In 41 BC the island was conquered by the Romans. Twelve centuries later the Venetians came and then the Turks in 1564. In 1821 Naxos was ’liberated’, but one wonders whether the powerful and artistic city state of nearly 3000 years ago is really part of that liberation.