The Islands of the Gods - five Greek islands to revisit this summer
Greece opens to the world (or to some of it, at least) on July 1st, and you can almost feel the collective fluttering of hearts as the Aegean waters, Cycladic sunsets and late Athenean nights are finally within reach again. I first visited Greece three years ago, and I'm not entirely sure why it took me so long. I could say it's because I was living in Asia and it was too complicated to get to, there were no direct flights from where I lived, etc., but those would merely be excuses as none of that stopped me from visiting Albania or Iceland or Namibia. If I'm honest with myself, it's because I was never really all that interested. How can you not be interested in Greece, I hear you cry? I suppose I was into more intrepid travel, taking a boat up the Irrawaddy at dawn to climb ruined pagodas, travelling through Bosnia-Herzegovina by public bus, visiting the spooky mausoleums of pickled former Communist leaders. But Greece... it just seemed a bit too easy, all nice beaches and package tours, too much ouzo, and restaurants where they break your plate. And, more importantly, I was a bit of a travel snob.
So when I finally did head to Greece, at the behest of a special someone with roots there, I didn't really know what to expect. I always research where I'm going in depth but this time I didn't really bother, other than choosing a couple of islands in the Cyclades that looked pleasant enough, and assuming that all of those photos of views of the Acropolis from hotel rooftop bars were obviously photoshopped (spoiler alert - they weren't).
I arrived late one hot August night and, this being summer in Greece, was just in time for dinner. We walked in the dark through streets lined with more than 5,000 years of history, turning a corner and bumping into the Ancient Agora where the Athenians would buy their fruit and veg millennia ago, the Tower of the Winds, considered to be the world's first weather station, and the narrow streets of Plaka where the air was filled with chatter and laughter coming from the streetside tavernas, just getting warmed up at this late hour. All of this was happening at the foot of the Parthenon, on the hillside above, lit up at night so you couldn't possibly forget where you were and the fact that you walked in the footsteps of the ancient Greek gods. I was immediately hooked.
Every day was a new discovery for me. I tried my first Greek frappé, an unpretentious iced coffee made with Nescafé, sugar and milk. I had my first bougatsa, tsipouro and kolokithokeftedes, all words that meant nothing to me but that quickly became favourites and slid into my own vocabulary. I learnt to say the first phrase that anyone should learn in any language ("Where is the toilet?") and tried to work out the location from the answer I was given and that I couldn't understand a word of.
And then we went to the islands, and I really wondered what had taken me so long to open my eyes to this place. Since then, I've hopped across the Cyclades every summer. While I still have many islands to discover ahead of me, here are five of my favourites to add to your list for your first visit back.
My first Greek island, Folegandros swept me completely off my feet. I don't think anything will ever live up to little Folegandros for me. It's not the prettiest island in the Cyclades, it doesn't have the best beaches, the fierce meltemi winds in the summer months make it difficult to swim in some spots and if you're not careful will send your beach umbrella cartwheeling across the sands, hopefully not impaling anyone on the way. But it was the first time I'd ever seen the juxtaposition of this parched, rugged orange and grey landscape against the almost impossible blue of the Aegean sea and sky. Lovely Anemomilos Boutique Hotel is the place to stay (although sadly they're not opening this year - save it for 2021) with its remarkable clifftop location in the village of Chora, where elderly men meet to drink coffee in the leafy, shady squares before night falls and both locals and holidaymakers come out to enjoy all of those things that make summer in Greece such a delight. It was so charming that it felt as if it had been designed intentionally to make me fall in love with it. And right in the village centre was a little restaurant called Nicola's Place. How did they know?
Folegandros is windy, as are all of the Cyclades in summer, but somehow this village remains unscathed. You can sit quietly sipping your breakfast freddo cappuccino by the cliff edge at Anemomilos, but lean slightly over the edge and it's like peering straight into the exhaust of a jet engine. Our stay coincided with the village festival, and over-excited teenage girls were throwing plastic cups and drink cans over the edge, for them to be instantly swept back up and deposited on the ground again. Nature's way of throwing their trash straight back at them.
You will need to hire a hardy Suzuki Jimny to get around Folegandros. In fact, you should get one on every island, the touristier the better, ideally with dolphins or water splashes painted on the side. Folegandros is full of remote beaches and hidden coves to explore, with little restaurants where you can replenish your energy post-swim with a plate of rooster with homemade noodles and cold Mythos beer. The island has everything to reel you in. Clifftop paths that lead to clifftop restaurants such as Papalagi Seafood on the way to Agios Nikolaos beach from Agkali, with views of blue as far as the horizon. Friendly tavernas where you stop for one quick beer and spend the next four hours drinking tsipouro and eating little fried prawns. Azure waters to swim in that are always too cold for me, even though I'm always told "it's fine once you're in". Chic boutiques where you can buy floaty kaftans, island-standard white dresses, and all the evil eye bracelets you could ever need. On our last night in Folegandros I danced in the square to live traditional music, the clumsiest of the group of locals and holidaymakers by far, to celebrate the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It was Greece as I'd always imagined it and never imagined it, and it got into my blood. It hasn't let go of me yet, and I hope it never does.
Favourite Folegandros restaurant - Eva's Garden in the heart of Chora, a leafy courtyard where you won't be able to get a table before 11pm if you haven't booked ahead, but you will be able to meet friendly doggo Evropi.
Favourite Folegandros place for a drink - the clifftop terrace of our room at Anemomilos Boutique Hotel as the sun sets in a shimmer of golden light far out to sea.
Favourite Folegandros beach - Chochlidia pebble beach, close to the harbour (and, of course, a little taverna) and sheltered from the winds with perfectly translucent water.
After Folegandros, Milos feels huge. It's not, but it's certainly on the larger side of the Cycladic islands. It's home to the extraordinary landscape of Sarakiniko where rolling white cliffs, polished smooth by the wind and the waves, slope down into the turquoise waters. Visit early in the morning while most other visitors to the island are still having breakfast, and you'll have the place, including its small beach, to yourself. You'll need to rely on your trusty Jimny to get you around Milos as there's plenty to see, from cute villages to ancient ruins. Milos' most famous former resident, and one who should really be returned home, is Aphroditi tis Milou, better known as the Venus de Milo. Currently residing in the Louvre in Paris, the Milo in her name refers to this very island where she was discovered by villagers back in 1820. Head inland to lovely mountain village Plaka for a stroll around its small shops and galleries, and be sure to stop into Palaios Coffee & Pastry for a slide of ladenia, pizza-like dough covered in the sweetest, juiciest little tomatoes and a generous splash of olive oil.
Milos satisfies the thirst for ancient ruins with its centuries-old Roman Theatre, located with the Aegean as the backdrop for what must have been one of the best stage settings in the world. Carry on a few hundred metres further to explore the Catacombs, one of the most important early Christian monuments in Greece, and continue down the hill to colourful Klima, a row of former fishermen's houses where the waters practically lap at their front doors. Things really start to heat up at Paliochori on the south coast where the island's volcanic origins become evident. Backed by orange and red cliffs, the beach is heated geothermally and you can find "hot spots" where hot water bubbles up from underground springs right in the sand. You can rent beach beds and umbrellas here, or just dive into the cool waters for a swim. As always, there's a good taverna for fried anchovies, Greek salad and cold beers, and we had the added entertainment of watching 8-year-old "Captain George" expertly pilot a boat to deliver a litre of beer decanted into a Sprite bottle to a fisherman. Subsequently cheeky little George swam out to an upturned kayak and hid under it, until the chef, fearing that he was drowning, ran out into the sea in full clothes and shoes to rescue him, just before George popped up from under the water, giggling hilariously. Oh how we laughed...
Favourite Milos restaurant - Armira, close to the sea in Pollonia, for the tastiest taramosalata on the island and friendly kittens to play with.
Favourite Milos place for a drink - Palaios Coffee and Pastry for a freddo cappuccino accompanied by a slice of fresh-from-the-oven ladenia and bougatsa.
Favourite Milos beach - Sarakiniko for its spectacular weather-sculpted scenery.
Syros is the only place in the world that I've ever landed to find Donna Summer's "I'm Coming Out" being blasted over loudspeakers as you walk across the tarmac. It certainly puts a spring in your step, as if arriving on this lovely island wasn't enough to do so already. Handsome Syros is the administrative capital of the Cyclades and at first sight it feels rather imposing and not at all the stuff of Greek island fantasies. It's the centre of Cycladean business and government, and the main town, Ermoupoli, is full of grand neoclassical villas and mansions, some falling into states of disrepair, others beautifully restored. In the centre of town is the blue and yellow Agios Nikolaos church, a photogenic landmark to help you orient yourself. You'll also find a great selection of souvenir shops and boutiques (don't miss Sandalia Cyclades for their leather sandals and bags - summer staples for the islands), as well as a selection of excellent restaurants, including Mazi set in hidden gardens inside the ruins of a Venetian villa. Ermoupoli is a bustling small town, and on the day we arrived was slightly overwhelmed by the arrival of a cruise ship that had been diverted from one of the other islands due to strong winds. Fortunately this is not a regular occurrence, and after lunch and a wander round, all passengers got back on the ship and lovely Syros was one again quiet and peaceful.
We slept at pretty little Arion Syros with the windows of our balcony open to let the night time breezes in and to be woken by magnificent sunrises. A friendly ginger and white cat chose to visit one morning, sitting by my side as I read Zorba the Greek and waved at the fishermen.
Your Jimny will set you in good stead on Syros as there's plenty to see around the island, although parking at the beaches can be a bit of a challenge if you're not an early bird. Fionikas on the west coast is a good spot for a swim, and an even better spot for lunch at To Kyma, a friendly, no-frills taverna with food so good we went twice. Before sunset, head up into the hills to Ano Syros, or Upper Syros, a medieval settlement of narrow streets, white houses, blue balconies, and clouds of bougainvillea. It's one of the most photogenic spots on the island, home to happy-to-pose village cats, as well as being home to the gelato-coloured Agios Georgios Catholic church and rooftop cafés to catch the sunset as the lights of Ermoupoli twinkle beneath.
Perhaps the most unexpected part of Syros is that one of the best beaches on the island is actually right in the town. Don't expect sand, but throw yourself straight into the aquamarine waters from the promenade. The conveniently located Asteria Beach Bar is perfect for a sundown spritz.
Favourite Syros restaurant - Taverna To Kyma in Foinikas - friendly, unpretentious and right opposite the beach.
Favourite Syros place for a drink - Asteria Beach Bar, right on the "beach" in Ermoupoli.
Favourite Syros beach - Ermoupoli city beach, with its unique views from the water straight back onto the handsome Venetian architecture of this lovely town.
Pretty-as-a-picture Paros is a stunner, and she knows it. Lovely little Naoussa is the village to base yourself in, located around a tiny harbour where fisherman bring in the catch in the early morning, and restaurants and tavernas take over every available square inch of floor space in the evening. It's a buzzy and friendly scene, where you'll be just as welcome to nibble on fried calamari with a beer as you will to go all-out with lobster pasta and bottles of good Greek wine. This is an island where you will eat well and shop well should you find yourself tempted by Naoussa's boutiques which stay open late at night so you can still make that purchase after dinner, encouraged by the wine and cocktails. The narrow lanes of the village are an island idyll, and the loveliest place for a nightcap is Santé, located under a eucalyptus tree where a couple of lanes converge.
I decided to hop on the bus one morning and head to Parikia, the main town on the island, where the ferries arrive. On the surface it doesn't look all that pretty around the harbour, but enter the cobbled streets behind the main road and it's a whole different world. Traditional shops selling sweeping brushes and metal wine jugs stand next to chic boutiques and sandal-makers. I had a pair of gold leather sandals hand-made by a friendly artisan within 30 minutes. A stroll uphill will also lead you to the Frankish Castle and its tower that dates back to 1260 AD, built from the remains of ancient buildings that already existed on these hillsides. You can see the circular columns that have been sliced into round chunks to serve as building materials.
It's easy to drive around Paros, and it's definitely worth circumnavigating the island by car. There are good, swimmable beaches on the east coast, including Chrysi Akti, also known as Golden Beach, and a stop at the Poseidon Hotel for a sundowner as the light turns golden is a lovely way to break up the drive. But as night falls, you'll want to be back in Naoussa for yet another great night of cocktails, cuisine and conviviality.
Favourite Paros restaurant - Mario, sitting cheek by jowl with a couple of other restaurants, tables are squeezed right up to the harbour's edge (go easy on the ouzo if you don't want to end up in the harbour itself).
Favourite Paros place for a drink - Santé in the centre of Naoussa, located under a big eucalyptus tree.
Favourite Paros beach - Kolibithres, not so much for the beach itself but for its fantastic taverna.
Naxos, famous for its potatoes, has a bit of everything. Long beaches with endless sunsets, small village squares with musicians playing bouzouki and mandolin, ancient ruins, natural boulder-filled scenery dotted with olive trees. Aside from its rightly famous potatoes, it also produces excellent wines and cheeses. Naxos is just a quick ferry ride from Paros, and the two make a great combination. One of the first things you'll see as the ferry docks is the large portara gate, a 2,500-year old entrance door to what would have been a huge Temple of Apollo, had it ever been completed. Instead, it was abandoned when the ruler of Naxos was overthrown by the Spartans. Centuries later, other stones from what remained of the unfinished temple were taken away to build the island's castle. To reach the portara, walk across a narrow causeway, trying to avoid the waves that wash over it (you will inevitably get splashed) and head up the hill for views over the town and the inland mountains. It's a great place for your first perspective of this lovely island.
You can easily spend a happy few days here, heading inland to the lovely mountain village of Halki with its peaceful car-free centre. Start with a Greek coffee and portokalopita orange cake at an outside table at pretty little Dolce Vita Café, then head just around the corner to Phos Gallery to see the beautiful black and white photography of the island by Dimitris Gavalas. There are numerous hiking trails that lead out of the village into the hills beyond, and a short-ish walk will take you through olive groves to the 11th century Agios Georgios Diasoritis church, complete with original frescoes that still show their original colours today.
It's a lovely drive through the mountains of Naxos, and worth driving at random - see a turning, take it. We ended up on high mountain roads with jaw-dropping views down to the sea and islands in the distance, exploring an abandoned hotel and photographing the street art that covers its walls before splashing in the waters of the adjacent beach, and discovering disused equipment from the emery mines. Naxos used to be the world's foremost supplier of emery, and it has been mined here for over 2,000 years. I knew what an emery board was, but never actually knew what emery was or that it came from a rock, and that those little boards I'd used to file my nails over the years had originated in the beautiful Cyclades.
Back in Old Naxos Town, or Chora, we can wander at will, take in the views from the roof of the Archaelogical Museum, peer in through the open doors of the Venetian houses, drink coffee at rooftop bars, and walk down the hill to the broad sandy stretch of Agios Georgios beach for a swim and a sundowner as we gaze at a typically spectacular Naxos sunset. But for my favourite evening (or morning, or daytime, or night) of all, we'll head to O Fotis, just a couple of kilometres outside town. 40 years ago, Mr. Fotis claimed a narrow strip of tarmac between the sea and the road, with a pine tree for shelter. Today, his "blue corner" clings to a ledge above the beach, practically oblivious to the cars and buses rolling past. They do a mean saganaki and great calamari, and as far as I'm concerned, it's absolutely perfect. Make it your last stop before you have to drag yourself away from the island, and you are guaranteed to leave with a happy belly and a smile on your face.
Favourite Naxos restaurant - O Fotis, squeezed into a curve on the road directly above the beach - even the buses speeding by can't ruin the magic of this place.
Favourite Naxos place for a drink - Flisvos Beach Bar at the end of Agios Georgios beach at sunset.
Favourite Naxos beach - Mikro Aliko, at the end of the road with the abandoned hotel.