The island of Naxos looks so different to its neighbours, it’s hard to believe it’s part of the same Cycladic chain. From the shore, plains covered in golden fronds of wheat rise up through foot hills covered in cedars and thick, gnarly olive trees half a millennium old. Tractors chug along narrow roads lined with cactuses, granite mountains rearing up around them and casting dark shadows over the valley. Far above, a solitary eagle floats on the wind.
Naxos has always been a place apart. Its inhabitants look inward and to each other for survival with little reliance on the sea and all that lies beyond. Its most important towns lie in the interior, not on the coast. Halki, deep in the mountains, was its capital until the 1950s, when administrative life shifted to the port town of Naxos. Unlike in Naoussa on Paros or Hora on Mykonos, most old-town buildings here are not white with blue shutters. The streets are wide. Houses are painted in pastel shades and built in the Neoclassical style, with imposing windows.
Halki fell into disrepair in the second half of the 20th century, but is once again the cultural heart of the island. Katharina Bolesch and Alexander Reichardt are credited with its revival. A married couple, they have lived in the town since 1989, producing ceramics, jewellery, lithographs and marble pieces in their workshop. A constant stream of visitors wanders in and out of their gallery, Fish & Olive. “All roads lead to Halki,” says Katharina, delicately placing a pottery olive on the side of a vase, while Alex paints the outline of a fish on a bowl. ‘No-one lived on the coast— we always had what we needed right here. Life was always in the centre of the island.”
In Apiranthos, a few miles along the road, a women’s cooperative has been making the same point since the 1980s. In a room near the top of the village, its windows flung open to the cool mountain air, up to 20 women work embroidering shepherd’s shirts, and weaving tablecloths and blankets ready for sale. Their purpose is to keep the traditions of the mountains alive, and to maintain that all-important self-reliance.
The most fertile of the Cyclades, Naxos’s autonomy was assured by the bounty of its soil. No-one has to cross the oceans to bring in supplies. Even in Halki, apricot, pear and lemon trees grow in every back garden, the fat fruit lying where it falls. It’s no surprise that the protector of the island is Dionysos, god of wine and joy and fertility. “People say there was so much wine here, it ran in the rivers,” says guide Eleni Kontopidi with a laugh. “Perhaps the abundance makes people create. You take everything you have and turn it into art.”
The abundance also makes Naxians preternaturally compelled to eat and to feed. In a farmhouse kitchen in the valley below Halki, Eleni introduces goat farmers Yannis — who sits stirring a fresh batch of cheese, glass of raki resting on the arm of his chair — and wife Maria. She immediately brings out plate after plate of food: courgette fritters; spanakopita pastries spilling out spinach; salads of tomato, cucumber and fennel; and baklava with jelly — all of it home-made with their own produce. They worry they’ve not provided enough . “We take hospitality very seriously on Naxos,” explains Eleni, trying the goat’s cheese. “Living in the mountains, you are cut off from the world, and it makes you feel more solidarity with each other. We don’t spend a lot of money on things, but we always share what we have.”
Bring your trip to an end on an island famed for its sunsets – and unearth surprise or two before you leave
Life on Santorini stops in its tracks an hour or so before dusk. Beaches are abandoned, guided tours are ditched, kids are bundled away from hotel pools, drives are hurriedly completed. It is an unspoken rule that the sole focus of any activity from this point until nightfall is finding an elevated and comfortable spot from which to watch the sun sink slowly an gloriously into the Aegean.
Most head to Oia, a town at the northern end of Santorini, the view from which may have been photographed more than any other in Greece. Fira offers a slightly less frenetic perch for sunset musings. Like Oia, its white buildings and domed churches spill down the cliff-side, seeming to cling to the rockin defiance of all known laws of gravity and engineering.
As the sky starts to fade to violet, through various shades of gold, amber and mauve, couples find a quiet step on which to share a bottle of wine, the conversation from the wedding p aides in full swing on restaurant terraces dies down, and the speedboats and yachts on the water spin to face west. All eyes fix on the sunset, and stay fixed until the first stars and a sliver of silver moon appear in the darkening sky. Then cocktails are ordered, the chatter resumes and the important business of holiday carousing begins again in earnest.
Santorini’s high position on the list of the world’s best sunset locations owes much to geology; the island, and the islets off-shore, are all that remain of a volcano that erupted over 3,500 years ago. Its towns, the essential foreground in any memorable Santorini sunset shot, are built into the caldera’s edge. The ash from the explosion has been instrumental in its modern-day survival too, creating fertile plains which sustained the island’s most unlikely hero: the tomato.
At a factory in the southern plains, Antonis Valvis cranks up a steel engine the size of a combine harvester. Belts whirr, cogs grind and wheels clank. The factory, closed in 1981, once shipped canned tomatoes and tomato paste all over the region, providing the Greek army for over a decade. As the old machines spring to life, a contented smile spreads over the face of Antonis, former chief engineer and now occasional guide. “When the factory was built after WWII, it was very harsh times for Santorini,” he says. “It provided a lot of opportunity. It’s how the villages of the island survived.”
It has now been resurrected as a museum, with all its Heath-Robinson-style machinery intact, art exhibitions housed in the old warehouses and concerts staged in the grounds. No-one leaves without trying the sweet, freshly pressed juice of a Santorini tomato, served in a plastic cup — red from the blood of each farmer and with a scent like the sun, according to Antonis. “To the people of Santorini, this factory is a temple,” he says, knocking bac khis juice. “So come here first, and then go and see the sunset .”