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Ermoupolis: Queen of the Cyclades

The Cycladic Islands are often referred to as queens. Officially though, there is only one Queen of the Cyclades, that’s Ermoupolis, the main town in Syros and the administrative capital of all the Cyclades.

Boasting an abundance of neoclassical facades, Ermoupolis exudes an old-fashioned grandeur, suitable for a town that was once the leading port of Greece. However, it takes more than a glorious past to become a queen, for in my eyes, a true queen should be beautiful, extravagant and slightly divine. The queen status of Ermoupolis makes me eager to evaluate whether she bears her royal title deservedly or not.

Her beauty is beyond question, despite the amphitheatrical shape of her physique. She wears a crown day and night, consisting of two churches, the Catholic Agios Georgios Cathedral and the Orthodox Anastasis Church, towering on neighbouring hills. The upper part of the Queen’s body is fairly slim, but she widens down towards the harbour where her two legs, identical with the Neorion shipyard and a long mole, are solidly planted in the sea. White and beige appear to be the Queen’s favourite colours.

In the falling darkness, the outline of the Queen stands out more clearly. The floodlit crown is shining, and thousands of lights transform the town into a queen’s gown sprinkled with sparkling pearls, at the bottom wide enough to embrace the whole harbour, and the promenade makes up the festively illuminated edging of her skirt. In the evening, life is lived along the waterfront, where the locals loudly keep up their friendships in taverns, bars and cafes.

Palatial Surroundings

The town is dominated by a huge palace, neoclassical of course, occupying the upper long side of the marble covered Miaouli Square. It’s actually the town hall, always reminding me of the royal palace in Oslo. In the cafes on the square, under white parasols and green branches, the impressive building can be admired quietly. I ascend the 39 steps up to the entrance to go exploring among rows of columns, suddenly finding, in a corner, a carriage covered by plastic, probably the Queen’s special coach.

A smaller palace, the Queen’s library, is next-door neighbour to the town hall. In the tiny garden outside, six marble busts of famous writers are lined up. One of them was unveiled Sunday night in an air of song and music. After the speech, the loudspeakers began to vibrate with opera arias, causing the little birds, cheerfully chirping in the palm trees, to turn up their own volume, while the local colony of white doves fled in panic, settling on the numerous projections of the town hall front.

Queens have a weakness for theatre, and the Queen of the Cyclades has her own, the Apollo Theatre, reached via a short rise behind the library and claimed to be a reduced copy of La Scala in Milan. It now appears in its former glory after years of restoration. Entering its elegant auditorium, held in golden-yellow and dark red with boxes all the way up to the artistically decorated ceiling, could make anybody feel royal.

In the archaeological museum, accessed through the side of the town hall, they readily inform me about the Queen. Although reigning over a 4 to 5000 years old civilization, she was not born herself until 1824, founded by shipbuilders and tradesmen from the islands of Chios and Psara, fleeing from the Turks. Named after Hermes, the god of commerce, Ermoupolis actually developed into a commercial centre, and also a cultural one. The opening of the Corinth Canal in 1893 led to a recession, but Ermoupolis is on the go again, today sporting a population of roughly 18,000, every third of them a Roman Catholic.

Earning a Living
On Saturday night, I saw people in evening dress outside one of the Queen’s lovely churches, the blue-domed Agios Nikolaos.

Brilliant chandeliers and an aisle full of flowers revealed that something special was happening. I got the explanation later when dining in the best situated tavern in town, Giannena, farthest out on the promenade where the mole begins. Here, the whole town walks past on Saturday nights. I suddenly heard a trotting horse, drawing an open carriage decorated with flowers, driving a newly married couple around town. I guess the Queen had lent them her own coach.

No Queen without a large royal family, and I know one of her family members myself, the Prince in the little cafe. For years, he worked as a bartender in one of the music cafes on the harbour, always elegantly dressed, with the charm and posture of a prince. After he opened his own cafe in the neighbouring building three years ago, I found he deserved a royal title, a promotion that seems to be good for his business.

Acting as Queen is expensive, and exactly like the Prince, she is always busy making money. The market street, between the town hall square and the harbour, abounds every morning with fruit and vegetables from her kitchen garden, skinned lambs dangling on their hooks and fish crates overloaded with last night’s catch. The tradition of shipbuilding still survives; nowadays mostly limited to repairs, though.

Mass tourism is unfamiliar to the Queen, whereas she greets financially strong visitors with open arms and offers them anchorage in the middle of the harbour. There, they display their wealth on the quarterdeck of their yachts at night, before going to the Aegean Casino to play black jack and roulette. Those who have no boat, only money and a passion for gambling, are tempted with hotel accomodation free of charge.

Ermoupolis is no doubt the true Queen of the Cyclades, who does not content herself with being a figurehead. Every day, she puts on working gloves to take care of her kitchen garden, if not flexing her steel muscles at the shipyard. But when the evening comes, she puts on silk gloves and shining jewels, suggesting she were a goddess just descending from on high.

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