advertisement

191km (103 nautical miles) SE of Piraeus

Unlike many of its neighbors, whose prosperity depends on the summer tourist season, green, fertile Naxos is largely self-sufficient. This is the largest of the Cyclades, with wonderful groves of olives and fruit trees, wheat fields, and good grazing land for the cows, sheep, and goats whose milk goes into a wide variety of Naxian cheeses. Visitors here will find lots of blessings to count: for starters, there are rolling green hills and valleys with clusters of Byzantine churches, medieval towers, and villages with handsome neoclassical houses. There are long sand beaches, and a capital that has grown up in and around its own massive Venetian castle in the island's capital, Hora.

The Venetians ruled Naxos from 1207 until it fell to the Turks in 1566. The influence of Venetian architecture is obvious in Hora's kastro, some handsome mansions in Hora, and many of the piryi (fortified towers) that punctuate the hillsides. The presence on the island of descendants of the Venetians means that Naxos has both Catholic and Orthodox churches -- sometimes side by side and even sharing a central wall, as at the Bellonia Tower. Yet the glory of Naxos's church architecture is the abundance of small Byzantine chapels, many of which contain exceptional frescoes dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries. These chapels escaped destruction by Naxos's various overlords and remain to charm visitors today -- if, that is, you can find them. Many are poorly signposted and elusive, which means that you will feel triumphant when you track them down. As always, Paul Hetherington's Greek Islands is an invaluable guide to the medieval and Byzantine monuments.

The island's mountain villages, on the lower slopes of Mount Zas, the highest mountain in the Cyclades, preserve the rhythms of agrarian life. The lush -- for Greece -- area known as the Tragea has plains of olive trees, upland valleys, and a cluster of villages, Venetian towers, and Hellenistic watchtowers. Just about everybody's favorite village is Apiranthos, with some marble-paved streets, a particularly handsome Venetian tower, and small shaded plateias.

The airport, good interisland ferry service, and high-speed ferries make Naxos easy to visit. New hotels have appeared in the port, and more hotels cluster on island beaches -- which are among the best in the Cyclades. In short, tourism has arrived -- but, as yet, in a way that makes visiting here easy and pleasurable. As always, it is handy to have a car, although the local bus service is good, if leisurely. If you just want to see Naxos town, a day will do you, but longer will let the charms of the little streets in the old fortress sink in. And, as you would expect of the largest of the Cyclades, there's lots to see out on the island. Unfortunately, some of what you see out on the island may still show signs of damage from severe summer forest fires in 2009.