Island Life in the Cyclades

After four hours of sitting peacefully on the back deck enjoying the arid mountain scenery passing by, I was suddenly crammed into the car deck. I braced myself as the ship shuddered into position and the sirens blared deafeningly on the stern and the wall fell away. Exactly zero seconds elapsed between the ramp making contact and the dock being inundated with a surge of passengers.

And yet, just a few minutes later, the crowd had fully dispersed, the ship had left the port, and island time kicked in. I was in Parikia, the largest town on the Greek island of Paros (Πάρος) in an island chain called the Cycládes (Κυκλάδες, pronounced “Ki-kla-ðes”). Paros is neither the most popular nor the most dramatic of the Greek islands, which is precisely why I picked it as my first stop in the Aegean.

Parikia occupies a wide bay on the island’s western side. In the main square, a photogenic windmill greets visitors and locals alike as they arrive from the capital. The small town rises up the hillside behind the windmill, but I headed off to the left, along the coast northward toward my hostel. A few kilometers up the shoreline and down a couple alleyways, I arrived at a whitewashed house, where the lounging owner eventually noticed my presence and came out to meet me. He showed me to a four-bed dormitory with fluttering blue curtains and a shaded balcony that perfectly embodied my expectations of the Greek islands.

Alleyway on Paros, Greece
Naousa, Paros, Greece
The village of Naousa offers a more laid-back atmosphere than the relative hustle and bustle of Parikia’s ferry port.

Though content to simply enjoy the slow island life from my balcony, I set out to do some exploring. A bus took me around the island to the little village of Prodromos. I wandered through the quiet alleyways looking for the head of a hiking trail that would take me up into the island’s mountainous interior. There weren’t many people around, and I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place, but finally I came across a wall with a hand-painted map of the town that showed the trailhead to be just a few hundred feet away. I set out confidently along the row of trail markers… until I somehow lost them and ended up in a field with some horses that were a little too curious for my liking. I slipped across the field as inconspicuously as I could while the horses trotted at me from all directions. I reached the gate on the far side but it was locked. Feeling trapped, I jumped the low wall, hoping to rejoin the trail. But I was now in a cemetery. I passed between the gravestones to the opposite gate, which fortunately was open, and found myself right back on the main road near the bus stop. For a moment, I considered hailing down the bus to anywhere else, but I decided to give this trail one more try, and I’m glad I did. Once I joined the trailhead again and found where I had gone astray, I discovered a beautiful path paved in marble that led all the way up into the hills, past incredible views of the Aegean and neighboring islands, and ended in Lefkes, a tiny hilltop hamlet of flowery alleyways and chiming church bells.

Hiking on Paros, Greece
A hot afternoon hiking across the treeless interior of Paros left me eager to get back to the coast and jump in the water!

Back in Parikia, the clear water of the Aegean was inviting and I decided that hiking boots are not the best footwear for Greek island beach towns. So the evening became a wander through the maze of whitewashed buildings and cobbled alleys in search of sandals, food, and a dip in the sea. Not quite ready to call it a day, but also not wanting to wander too far from the guesthouse, I spent the final part of the evening exploring the surrounding residential area. The houses here were not the gleaming, picture-perfect structures facing the harbor, but simple homes tucked away behind the trees. Among these homes, I came across one that doubled as a café. The cheerful-looking owner was sitting on the front porch watching her children play in the yard. She invited me in, eager to show me her café. The dining area was empty, which didn’t surprise me given the obscure location, but she didn’t seem to mind. What she really wanted to show me was the array of photographs covering all four walls. They were photos of doors, and she proudly explained to me in the best English she could manage that her photography collection is dedicated to documenting the oldest and most beautiful doorways in Paros. An unusual subject perhaps, but the doorways on display were indeed works of art, with a weathered and faded beauty perfectly suited to the quiet and relaxed pace of life on the island. The woman handed me a menu, and my eyes quickly landed on the perfect dish to end the day – Greek yoghurt mixed with honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds – and I enjoyed my dessert on the front porch while the children paused their game to watch me curiously.

Octopus Drying in Naousa, Paros, Greece
The day’s catch in Naousa, probably on its way to my plate!

The next day, I looked up in awe from the back deck as the ferry passed between a pair of towering cliffs into the caldera of Greece’s most recognizable island. The rim of the black crescent-shaped volcanic wall of Santorini (Σαντορίνη) is dotted with the whitewashed houses and sky blue domes that serve as a backdrop for nearly every Greece travel brochure. In places, the white facades cluster more densely and cascade down toward the water. The ferry rumbled into position below the largest cascade, where a fleet of buses was waiting to transport the new arrivals up the cliff to the island’s capital high above. Switchback after switchback for nearly an hour brought us well over a thousand feet above the sea and into the horrendous traffic jam that is Fira. Throngs of islanders and tourists converge on this town in a chaotic mix of local amenities, luxurious tourism infrastructure, and incongruous Mexican restaurants.

Santorini, Greece
Volcanic Lagoon in Santorini, Greece
A view of Santorini from the volcanic island in the center of the lagoon.

Fira would be my base for the next few days, but I was eager to get out of town nearly as soon as I arrived. So, with my hiking boots back on and a few more hours of daylight left, I set out to the north along the rim of the cliff. As the sun made its way toward the horizon, it illuminated the whitewashed buildings of Fira as if they were clouds. I continued along the road, and the white walls around me eventually gave way to open views of the caldera to my left. This remnant of a great explosion is filled with water from the Aegean through openings in the north and south. The resulting lagoon is interrupted in the center by two new volcanic cones emerging from the sea, a reminder to the inhabitants of the perilous nature of their home. To my right, the backside of the island sloped gently down through vineyards and villages to a runway lit up with a constant stream of planes landing from all across Europe. Picking up the pace a little as I chatted with some other hikers, I watched the sun begin to sink down into the far side of the caldera. As I neared the end of Santorini’s crescent, I entered the town of Oia and the chaos once again surrounded me. Thousands of tourists were in the process of converging down the crowded alleyways past jewelry stores and boutique hotels toward the very end of the island, well known for having the most famous sunset in all of Greece. Fighting my way through the crowds, I thought I wouldn’t make it. But just as the sun made its final descent into the sea, I emerged at the top of the cliff and its cascade of buildings. It was a spectacular sight, but was soon interrupted by the reversing tide of people surging back into the town.

Sunset over Oia, Santorini, Greece
The sun puts on a spectacular show as it sets over Santorini, casting brilliant rays of light across the Aegean and illuminating the white clifftop houses of Oia.

The show over and darkness setting in, I rode the bus back to Fira for dinner – the luxury of Oia was not promising for my budget. In doing this, I saved some money but endured minor terror – the bus driver took hairpin turns at full speed, on a narrow two-lane road, in the dark. Though I couldn’t see past the edge of the road, I knew what was beyond – a steep fall on one side and a steeper fall on the other. And I didn’t even have a seat to hold on to – it was standing room only! Not to worry, though, the driver apparently knew what he was doing. We pulled safely into Fira half an hour later, and I lived to enjoy the next two days exploring Santorini’s picturesque villages and rugged mountain terrain before joining the hoards of other tourists on that busy runway.

Akrotiri, Santorini, Greece
The archaeological site of Akrotiri is like the Pompeii of Greece. Incredibly well preserved multi-story buildings have been excavated from the layers of volcanic ash that wiped out the ancient Minoan civilization some 3500 years ago.
Door to Nowhere, Santorini, Greece
The steep cascade of Santorini’s towns gives the impression of an endless series of doors to nowhere.

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