Friday, 24 April 2009
The Cyclades islands, Greece, are composed of 39 islands of which 24 are inhabited. The Cyclades are islands to dream about; sun-kissed outliers of rock and dappled earth lying scattered across the glittering Aegean Sea. Their characteristic white cubist houses, golden beaches, olive groves, pine forests, herb-strewn mountain slopes and terraced valleys make for an irresistible mix. Throw in a dash of hedonism, and a culture that draws vividly on ancient and modern themes, and the Greek Island dream can become reality.
Other realities can be a touch more down to earth, at least for native islanders, who have often struggled for a living through centuries of deprivation. Beneath the tourism gloss, many still raise livestock and grow food on reluctant soil, or chase a diminishing supply of fish from seas that are regularly rough and dangerous. Winters are often grey, bleak and unforgiving.
The Cyclades range from big fertile Naxos, with its craggy mountains and landlocked valleys, to the tiny outliers of Donousa, Iraklia and Anafi, where the sea dominates, with attitude, on every side.
The beaches of Mykonos, Santorini and Ios are awash with sun-lounger society and raucous diversions; their main towns seethe with commercialism. All of this has its appeal, but other islands, such as Andros, Amorgos and Sifnos, have kept tourism to a more sedate scale.
The Cyclades are so named because they form a kyklos (circle) around the island of Delos, one of the world’s most haunting ancient sites. Closing that circle is still one of the most rewarding experiences for the dedicated traveller.
Fantastic, fabulous Santorini deserves all the superlatives. Even the most jaded traveller succumbs to the awesome drama of this surreal landscape, relic of what was probably the biggest eruption in recorded history. That you share the experience with hordes of other visitors is inevitable. Embrace it all.
The caldera and its vast curtain wall of multicoloured cliffs is truly awesome. If you want to experience the full dramatic impact it’s worth arriving by a slower ferry with open decks, rather than by enclosed catamaran or hydrofoil.
Santorini is famous for its spectacular sunsets. The village of Oia on the northern tip of the island is a hugely popular sunset viewing site because there is an uninterrupted view of the sun as it finally sinks below the horizon. From farther south down the caldera edge, the last of the setting sun can be obscured by the islands of Nea Kameni and Thirasia. Take your pick, however. You can enjoy most of the sunset from almost anywhere along the rim of the caldera, especially if you want to avoid the sometimes feverish crush at Oia.
The main port, Athinios, stands on a cramped shelf of land at the base of Sphinxlike cliffs and is a scene of marvellous chaos that always seems to work itself out when ferries arrive. Buses (and taxis) meet all ferries and then cart passengers through an ever-rising series of S-bends to the capital, Fira, which fringes the edge of the cliffs like a snowy cornice.