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A Garland of Cycladic islands

Greek ferries have become so fast that I’m almost flying from Piraeus to Syros this moment. I pass the time with a map, on which the Cycladic islands are scattered in the shape of a circular garland. Right away, I know what to do: tie myself a garland, just a small one, of the islands of Syros, Paros, Naxos and Mykonos.

Since the Cyclades are wind-swept, dry and generally barren, the base colours of my garland are, in summer, given: golden brown with grey shades of rocks and green touches of vineyards, olive groves and fig trees. The flowers will be made up by my favourite spots, and I start royally in the north-western corner, with The Queen of the Cyclades, Ermoupolis, the largest town in Syros and the capital of all the Cyclades.

The queen, dressed in white and beige, seems to be wearing two crowns; an Orthodox and a Catholic church, each towering on a hill. Every third inhabitant is Roman Catholic. Further down, in the direction of the harbour, the queen gets broader and broader. Her most conspicuous piece of jewellery, apart from lovely churches, is an impressive neoclassical castle acting as town hall. The market street nearby is a local haunt on weekday mornings.

On Saturday night, all the lights are twinkling on the queen’s gown and her townspeople on their feet to show their faces and take a look at others, in the cafés or strolling up and down the promenade, arm-in-arm. They pass my table in Giannena, a tavern at the end of the harbour, where even a horse trots by, with newly-weds in a carriage decorated with flowers. I guess the queen had lent them her own coach.

The southern corners

At a catamaran’s pace, I move to the south-western corner of my garland, to Paros with the friendly, hilly landscape. The main town, Parikia, is an outstretched white beauty with the cosiest hotel of all, the Vaya. However, my destination is a tavern far from here, so I jump on the bus to Naoussa, a tourist magnet, board a little beach boat for Kolimbithres and hurry up the road to the Ibigla tavern.

This place is to me the epitome of Greece: a small table with a paper cloth and a large Amstel; cheap and freshly made food among hospitable people; on a terrace with a view framed by red geraniums and bougainvillea; just the view of a road with parked cars, rocks and then the sea, in the beginning turquoise, darker further on; in the background, a white revelation, Naoussa; on the horizon, gently rolling mountains.

The jump to Naxos, though geographically short, presents me with an entirely different landscape. Thanks to deep fertile valleys, the garland’s south-eastern corner is surprisingly green. The goal of my desires, Hora, better known as Naxos Town, embraces me with her elegantly curved harbour. Hora is no real queen, just a beauty queen, dressed in white and adorned with a Venetian castle. A rival of mine, Apollo, is standing on a peninsula nearby, as a giant marble portal.

I’ve declared my love to Hora long ago, but she turns me down by daylight, probably tired and maybe a little ashamed of her age and wrinkles. She prefers to be seen at night with all her lights sparkling like jewels. Then, she is so affectionate that I cannot tear myself away from the edging of her skirt, the promenade. To get a perfect view of her, I go to the Meltemi, my regular tavern at the entrance of the harbour, dying to give Hora a loud smacker, exactly like the ferries do when letting their rear iron gate drop onto her quay.

A bow so white and fine

Mykonos is going to be the bow on my garland, fluttering in the wind in the north-eastern corner. Here, I spend the afternoon with my feet at the water’s edge in the Kavos, the least windy café in town, whereas on the opposite side of the bay, on the promenade, the wind is tearing at the sunblinds of the other cafés. From my warm shelter, I enjoy the sight of the whitest and finest town I know.

In the evening, I approach Mykonos slowly and carefully not to be suddenly blinded by the town’s beauty. Beauty costs, so I am well-supplied with pocket money. Luckily, some refuse to participate in the price race, like the popular Bakoja, an old café in the harbour. I forget about high prices when the wind calms down; never is Mykonos more seductive than when calm. Sighing with relief while taking our windbreakers off, we all sit down on the nearest café chair to order a beer, not caring about bedtime.

My garland is now a complete circle and shall, in dreary winter nights, be a comfort, bring back memories and tickle my urge to travel. Perhaps, I will amuse myself organizing a competition to decide who has the most attractive promenade – Ermoupolis, Naxos or Mykonos Town – using criteria like the curve of the harbour, soft lighting, elegant ship arrivals and enticing bars and cafés. There is a definite risk that I’ll have to award three gold medals.

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