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Naxos: The natural playground

Naxos is the Cyclades’ natural playground, with a diverse landscape capable of disarming even the most avid island-hopper

Naxos: The natural playground
Image: Getty

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I really don’t want to write about Naxos.

It takes just 48 hours to come to that conclusion. After which, I want to stow this beautiful island away, zip my lips, keep it for myself. If Santorini and Mykonos shout, Naxos whispers. And now, it’s whispering to me. Its subtleties are not immediately obvious. Naxos is the biggest island in the Cyclades. It boasts the archipelago’s highest peak (Mount Zeus, at 3,294ft). It’s easily accessible by ferry. It’s not short on resorts or Airbnbs, and come July and August, its restaurants spill over like any holiday town on the Med.

So what sets it apart? I put the question to a waitress at a waterside restaurant. Before us, boats bob in the harbour. Behind, the Venetian Kastro rises like a hilltop labyrinth. 

“It’s not spoiled,” she says after some thought. “We’re simple here. Tourism is young. We have other resources.”

Not like Mykonos, then?

She smiles. “No. Not like that.”

Naxos is a natural. It ripples with mountains and valleys. It reveals surprising lushness and greenery. Look closely, and you’ll see walkers in the folds of its terrain. Maybe a peloton of cyclists will whoosh past. Unlike some Cycladic islands, where arid ground and tourist development mean most produce is imported, Naxian agriculture is thriving. Foodies rave about its sweet tomatoes, small, super-tasty potatoes, its citron and honking farmhouse cheeses. Tourism is slowly making an appearance, but outside of peak season, it doesn’t feel choked by or beholden to it.

“Growing up, we had the kind of freedom that kids who live in big cities don’t have,” says Eleni Kontopidi, my guide on the island. “We’d take our bikes and disappear all day and our parents wouldn’t be worried.”

Mirrored sunglasses perch amid her thick streams of brown, curly hair, as she drives us around in a little blue VW Polo. Eleni had to go away to come back, of course — leaving after high school to spend time in Rhodes, Athens and France, distancing herself from the smallness of the Cyclades. 

“I was one of those people who said I am never going back to Naxos.”

Now here she is, back in Naxos.

We drive towards the heart of the island, where coastal dust gives way to a leafier interior cut with switchbacks and hairpin bends. Snow-white villages remind me of the Moroccan mountains or Las Alpujarras in Spain; I marvel at sparkling churches perched on high peaks. Eleni tells me that each of Naxos’s 44-odd villages has its own dance; that Keramoti, hidden like a berry in a forested valley, was the only one to elude the Nazis during the Second World War.

Naxos natural playground - a naxian shepherd in Apiranthos

Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

At Halki, the inland town that served as the capital under Venetian rule, we stop at a family-run citron liqueur distillery. En route to the pretty mountain village of Apiranthos, we pull over to pick up a hitchhiking shepherd. Within seconds, he and Eleni have found a common link: he knows her grandmother. Walking into thin streets dotted with geraniums, I watch kids on bikes move around the sheperd like fish. Apiranthos’s main square is the size of a postage stamp, but you know you’re in a living, breathing Cycladic town.

“Some people say that once you go to two or three Cycladic islands, they’re all the same,” Eleni muses. “I don’t agree. Sometimes it’s the beaches, sometimes the food, sometimes folklore. There’s always something different.”

For Eleni, on Naxos, it’s the sea. During her time away from the island, she tells me, the blueberry-blue Aegean was calling. Her father loved to go spearfishing, and she took to the water as a toddler. I ask Eleni to show me one of her favourite beaches, and we venture off-track towards Aliko in the south east, where a small cove beckons beneath the concrete husk of an abandoned, half-built hotel. I grab my fins and mask and head into the blue, while Eleni sits on the beach and rolls a cigarette.
Afterwards, she recalls the time a tourist once asked her where to find the best swimming pools on this natural playground. “Are you kidding?” she laughed. “You’re on Naxos and you want to swim in a pool?”

That evening, I walk over the short spit of land connecting Naxos town with tiny Palatia Island, home to Naxos’s most iconic feature: a 2,500-year-old arch that, in the early-evening light, looks like the National Geographic border. The Portara is a gateway to a temple that was never built, but it feels like a window into the rich mythology of the Cyclades, and has stood through wave after wave of cultural influence, from Byzantine to Venetian and beyond. Theseus is said to have abandoned Ariadne here after slaying the Minotaur in Crete, while a young Zeus grew up nearby on his namesake mountain.

I mosey back down for dinner. Naxos has its cocktail bars and tatty restaurants, but somehow manages to absorb them. I see snatches of sea through the passages, and get distracted picking my way along Old Market Street, a spaghetti-like lane twisting past restaurants, cafes, jewellers and souvenir shops tailormade for summer-evening strolls. Pink bougainvillea pops. A yellow bicycle is mounted on a blue shutter. Eventually, I wind my way to Eleni’s dinner tip: Irini’s Restaurant, where a gregarious waiter suggests the lamb stew, served in tomato sauce with those yellow, herby, addictive Naxian potatoes.

“It’s not actually lamb,” he adds, almost as an afterthought, while laying down bread and gathering up menus. “It’s kid. Young goat.”

I wait no longer than five minutes for the stew. The ‘lamb’ is so ridiculously tender, an ant could push it off the bone.

I pick up my pen. Damn it, time to write about Naxos.

See our complete Cyclades guide here — we’ll be publishing tales from across the islands throughout the month.

Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)