Our time on Naxos was structured as a sequence of day-long excursions. One of those was a chauffeured private tour around the island, with stops at several points of interest.
Naxos is the largest island of the Cyclades archipelago and is relatively sparsely populated (the number of permanent residents here is slightly higher than that on Santorini, while having the area roughly 5 times bigger). Accounting for an order of magnitude fewer visitors to Naxos than to the islands with their own international airports, once you leave the Chora, the island feels serenely uncrowded. The small settlements on the horizon only emphasize the proportion of few people to vast spaces.
The Temple of Demeter is one of the places that can get crowded in the peak season, having the unusual distinction of being an archaeological site that is completely free to explore. Our guide suggested that we go there no later than 9:30 in the morning, when we practically had it to ourselves.
The temple was built entirely from local marble in the 6th century BC and remained in use until the 6th century AD. One of the earliest Ionic edifices, with a number of uncommon architectural decisions for a Greek temple, it holds additional interest to specialists and connoisseurs. Fascinating for us ordinary visitors as well.
A couple of tour buses pulled up as we were about to leave, so we have to say that we timed it perfectly.
Our next stop was a private Byzantine church, with amazing frescoes dating from the 11th century.
Yes, private. Having your own church on Naxos is less a matter of status and more a historical quirk of land ownership and inheritance. There are quite a few such churches on the island with quite a few treasuries within. Visiting a private church is normally only possible if you happen to be invited to a service or a celebration hosted by the owners; we benefited from the fact that our guide cultivated friendship and trust with this particular family. The matriarch of the family, dressed in traditional black and lounging in the shade on the porch, blew us air kisses as we expressed our gratitude for being allowed to tour the church. I regret that I decided against asking if I could take her picture; she would have probably agreed.
An interesting thing we learned on the tour is that Greek laws place undue burden on anyone finding items of historic interest on their land. Any such find immediately becomes property of the state, without much in the way of a finders’ fee, and should the government then decide to perform excavations to search for more artifacts, the land owner will be on the hook for the costs. As a result, people go to significant length to conceal the fact that they may have found something. The common thing to do is to take the newly found artifacts and leave them by the door of a random church under the cover of the night. Even private churches find themselves recipients of such unexpected gifts. The provenance of these fragments may never be recognized.
Venetian rule of Naxos left it with a number of castles – called towers – built in the 13th-17th centuries (and nowadays mostly owned by the descendants of the Venetian nobility, as it happens). We stopped by the Bazeos Tower, one of the youngest of the bunch. It is a tall rectangular building surrounded by walls, not lending itself to good photographic angles from the ground level.
The interior holds a small museum and is a seasonal event venue, but we did not venture in.
The figurines adorning the fence across the road from the tower were awfully photogenic
The priest at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Chalki looked tired after finishing an animated discussion with one of his parishioners, but agreed to have his picture taken.
A couple of non-human inhabitants of the island who also agreed to have their pictures taken by staying reasonably still.
Chalki (or Chalkio, or Halki – these Latin transliterations are used interchangeably) is the historic capital of Naxos, with a tiny pedestrian core of a couple of streets and squares.
There are several interesting galleries and local artisan and produce shops, as well as a kitron distillery where we were given a quick tour and a tasting. As might be expected, kitron is not unlike limoncello – and has to be a matter of acquired taste.
Ten minutes walk from the edge of Chalki took us to another 11th-century Byzantine church – that of St George Diasoritis, which is accessible to the general public at no charge in the summer.
Incredible, isn’t it!?
We then proceeded higher up into the mountains. At one viewpoint, we enjoyed sweeping views of the island. This is the perspective to south-west.
Close-ups of the churches from the above view. Unlike on Crete (where they are predominantly orange) or on Santorini (where they are famously blue), the domes and towers of Orthodox churches on Naxos are more frequently as white as their walls.
This perspective is towards the west coast of Naxos, and the island of Paros beyond.
From where we stand, there are about 12 kilometers as the crow flies to the westernmost point of Naxos, and further 5 kilometers or so separating the two bodies of land.
The last stop on our tour was Apeiranthos (interchangeably transcribed into Latin spelling with or without either “n”, “i”, or “e”) – the marble village. Certainly atmospheric – and bigger than Chalki – but after heavy lunch with wine (and let’s not forget three shots of kitron per adult earlier) we were not equipped to do it justice. Here are a few fragments nonetheless.
If you are visiting Naxos and would like to take a customizable tour around the island, I can heartily recommend Nicolas from Naxos Discovery.