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CYCLADES

 

Children of light and wind

 

By Giorgos Panagiotakis

 

“Stone walls and waves hand in hand

A foot that gathered wisdom in the sand

Odysseus Elytis, “Worthy it is” *

Once upon a time, there was a floating island travelling the Aegean Sea undetected. Leto was on it, bearing the fruits of her illicit lovemaking to Zeus in her womb. Suddenly, when the island reached the appropriate spot, diamond pillars rooted on its base and stabilized it. The labour pains came instantly and just a few moments later Apollo, the god of light, and Artemis, the goddess of nature and the Moon, were born.

The island was named Delos and has never moved since. Moreover, it soon acquired company. Because, according to another legend, some playful Nereids disturbed Poseidon who transformed them into islands during one of his notorious fits of anger. They are still lying there, scattered around in an anarchic circle. They have the sun bathing them and the wind cooling them. They have the saltiness too, gently resting upon the ground thus heightening the flavour of anything that sprouts. 

People built tiny towns on them. They toiled the arid land, struggled with the waves and created a civilization as frugal as the landscape itself. It is a rocky microcosm resting between the blue sky and the sea. A bouquet of islands, each with its own character, yet all scented by herbs and crowned with golden beaches.

They are the Cyclades. The Aegean’s little miracle. A place you will always be enchanted by.

 

 

 

 

A modern prehistory

Scattered between Europe and Asia, the Cycladic islands have always been a natural bridge which connected peoples and cultures. The first signs of habitation date back to 9000 BC, while a mysterious civilization evolves there during the Bronze Age (3000 BC). At that time, the island’s ships dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, transporting products and technical knowledge. Around 1600 BC, however, following volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the Cycladic civilization collapses.  

The remains of the settlements on Santorini, Milos and elsewhere stand as silent witnesses. Yet, most indicative of all are the cycladic marble figurines. Even though we know that some of them were linked to burials and religious ceremonies, their use has not been fully clarified. Today, they are an object of admiration and are considered symbols of age-old universal values. At the same time, they interact with contemporary art, since the simplicity of their structure, the cleanness of their material and their anthropocentric nature have influenced sculptors such as Brancusi, Modigliani, Giacometti and others.

The signs of ancient glory

Antiquity has generously left its marks on many of the Cycladic islands (Naxos, Amorgos, Kea, Milos etc.), although mainly on Delos, Apollo’s homeland. The tiny island was one of the biggest religious centres in Greece and received pilgrims from every corner of the then known world. During Roman years, it evolved into the most important centre of the empire, counting more than 30,000 inhabitants. But its riches and legendary treasures were attracting pirates and all sorts of invaders. Eventually, in 7th century AD, after much plundering and destruction, the island of Apollo was desolated, never to be inhabited again. The excavations, which began in 1872 and are ongoing, have revealed numerous impressive buildings and monuments. By now, Delos is considered a World Cultural Heritage Site and is protected by UNESCO.

 

 

 

Riding the waves of history

In Byzantine times the Aegean is plagued by piracy. Some islands are deserted while the residents of some others are abandoning the coastal areas in favour of inland ones, where they build settlements. As the centuries go by, noble families from Venice and areas of Western Europe impose their dominance, thereby grafting the Cyclades with new cultural elements. The Turks succeed them, taxing heavily and recruiting the residents in their Ottoman fleet by force – something which would eventually turn against them. When the revolution breaks out in 1821, the islanders – now experienced at warfare – man the crews of Greek vessels and contribute to the liberation.

In 1830, the Cyclades are included in the Greek state. At the same period, refugees from the Eastern Aegean and Asia Minor create a new city on Syros, Hermoupolis. The economic and intellectual growth is rapid. Hermoupolis becomes a shipping and industrial centre and is filled with bourgeois houses of neoclassical style which stand to this day. However, the shift from sailing to steam shipping results in decadence. By contrast, the residents of Andros are quick to adapt to the new situation. They build large steamers and by the early 20th century they take the oceans by storm hence bringing wealth to the island, which is nicknamed ‘Little England’. Here, the shipping industry declines following the beginning of the Second World War.

Post-war poverty forces many islanders to migration. Nonetheless, a new breath of life blows over the Aegean. Artists and bohemians discover the unrivalled beauty of Mykonos and begin to visit it. In the 1960s, travellers expand to other islands and the Cyclades are gradually transformed into one of the most famous tourist destinations.

 

 

 

             

             

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

The architecture of simplicity

Life is simple. At the sight of a traditional Cycladic house this thought springs to mind spontaneously. The plasticity of the structure, economy of materials, wise use of limited space, meditated orientation... It all exudes an earthy simplicity that transforms buildings into integral parts of the landscape. It is no coincidence that Le Corbusier, the man who changed the course of contemporary architecture, considered the Cycladic house the link between tradition and modernity.

The same effortless harmony characterizes the settlements. Most of them were created during the Middle Ages, on naturally fortified positions which protected the inhabitants from pirates. Such typical examples are Ano Syros, the main towns of Serifos, Amorgos and Folegandros, the Castles of Naxos and Sifnos. The alleys are narrow, and the houses embrace one another, creating further fortification against the raiders and the winds. In a Cycladic settlement, private space is a relative notion since, very often, the roof of a house constitutes the yard of another. This cohabitation tightens relations and reinforces the sense of community.

The Cycladic aesthetic of simplicity is evident even in the terracing and the slate walls of the outdoors which are masterfully erected without joining material between the stones. It is also evident in the cave houses of Santorini, in the towers of Naxos, in the intricate dovecotes of Tinos, but also in the hundreds of humble chapels – all of them monuments of folk architecture.

 

A harmonious ecosystem

The sun, the sea and the wind that sneak between the Cycladic mountains have created a peculiar, harmoniously structured ecosystem. The vegetation in most parts is low: thyme, oregano, sage and other herbs grow from the barren land and exude a sweet smell when heated by the sun. Yet, among the mountains we find small streams and valleys as well as rural landscapes created by the interaction between people and the environment.

For a living creature to survive in such a place, it must be resilient and adaptable like the scrawny goats that roam the land almost freely or the lizards and other reptiles hiding among the stones. Moreover, it has to be patient and frugal in its diet, such as the small rodents or birds of prey and seabirds, which greatly toil to find their food. Moreover, it should be lucky like the remaining Mediterranean seals and bottlenose dolphins which – having avoided myriads of hazards – appear on remote shores or in deep waters. It constitutes a truly rare and fragile ecosystem, one that demands our protection.

 

 

A frugal wellbeing

Is it the climate conditions and the soil’s constitution? Or the warm rays of Apollo and the cool breath of Poseidon? Whichever the answer may be, one thing is a certainty: the Cycladic land’s produce is of exceptional quality and taste, as it has preserved its uniqueness due to the isolation imposed by the sea. Thus, the volcanic Santorini gives birth to exceptional wines and the famous fava beans. The fertile Naxos is famous for its potatoes, graviera cheese and meats. Syros rightly boasts of the San Michali smoked cheese and Mykonos of the louza (cured pork) and kopanisti (soft, peppery cheese). High quality honey is to be found on almost every island. As is the case for dairy and horticultural products, but also cold meats, raki, liqueurs and all kinds of herbs.

Of course, no one should leave the Cyclades before tasting the special local recipes: the froutalia (omelette) of Tinos and Andros, the chickpea soup of Sifnos and Paros, the matsata (pasta) of Folegandros, the patatato (goat with potatoes) of Amorgos, the rosto (pork) of Ios and Sifnos, the batoudo (lamb with rice) of Naxos ... The list is endless and full of amazing culinary challenges.

 

The spirit of Cyclades

The landscape, the lifestyle and the turbulent history of the Cycladic islands have inspired numerous artists who have made their mark on Greek literature. Poets like Nikos Gatsos, nobelists such as Odysseas Elytis and Giorgos Seferis have hailed their idiosyncratic constitution, while author Emmanuel Rhoides, the creator behind the subversive “The Papess Joanne” matured in the intellectual pinnacle of Syros during the 19th century. Painters Nikiforos Lytras and Nikolaos Gyzis and leading sculptor Yiannoulis Halepas originated among others from Tinos, fittingly called “an island of artists”.

But the spirit of the Cyclades in its purest form can only be felt if one gets carried away by the magical timelessness of folk tradition: the tales, the musical sounds and the songs played in famous festivals of the summer. Once we meet there, under the August moon, and hear their Dionysian sounds of violin and tsambouna (bagpipe) blending with the splashes of waves and the whistles of winds, we will feel the words of the poet Elytis in depth: «Ios Sikinos Seriphos Melos. Each word a swallow to bring you spring in the midst of summer»*

*Verse translation into English: Jeffry Carson and Nikos Sarris

 

The Cycladic festivals

Among of the most vivid elements of Cycladic folklore are the tens of festivals organized every year on the islands. Most take place on the occasion of a religious celebration. The food, wine and all costs are usually incurred by a family, the so-called “panigyrades”. The ritual begins with the holy mass in the church and ends with the feast which often lasts entire days and nights. At the heart of the feast are the musicians with their instruments: the tsambouna (local bagpipe), the toubaki (small drum), the violin, the lyre, the lute... The highlight, sure enough, comes with the dancing – the ballos, the syrtos, the sousta, the Ikarian etc. – when locals and tourists come together and dance till they drop. As the author and researcher George Pittas has written: “Parallel to the purely religious aspect, the public feast with the long hours of willful voluntary work invested in it, the feast and dance, the unique sensation of belonging someplace, all these conditions, create optimism and hope. [...] The festivals are there to remind us that despite everything there is also life. The life we share with others.”

Selected famous festivals

 

Mykonos

Panagia Tourliani

 (Ano Mera)

August 15

Andros

Panagia Thalassini

August 15

Amorgos

Agia Paraskevi

July 26

Tinos

Analypsi Christou (Arnados)

June 5

Koufonisia

Panagia (Kato Koufonisi)

August 15

Kea

Panagia Kastriani

August 15

Naxos

Agioi Apostoloi (Melanes)

June 30

Ios

Panagia Gremiotissa (Main Town)

August 15

Sifnos

Profitis Ilias

July 19

Paros

Naoussa (Pirates’ Festival)

August 23

Milos

Panagia Korfiatissa (Plaka)

September 8

Santorini

Agia Matrona

(Finikia)

October 20

 

 

What to get 

Amorgos: Raki, rakomelo

Anafi: Wine (strofiliatiko), saffron, cheese (vrasto, anthotyro)

Andros: Cheese (manousos, armexia, volaki etc.), sausages, orgeat

Antiparos: Cheese (touloumotyri), souma

Irakleia: Honey, cheese (anthotyro)

Ios: Cheese (askotyri, niotiko)

Kea: Honey, loza (cured pork)

Kimolos: Cheese (xino, manoura, kalathi), rusks (paximadia)

Kythnos: Honey, cheese (trima)

Milos: Cheese (xerotyri, kefalotyri), koufeto (pumpkin and almond sweet)

Mykonos: Kopanisti, louza, sundried wine

Naxos: Potaoes, cheese (graviera, afromyzithra, arseniko etc.), liquer (citron), raki, meat

Paros: Figs, cheese (xinomyzithra, ladotyri), souma

Santorini: Fava, wine (assyrtiko, nykteri, vinsanto), plum cherry tomatoes

Serifos: Honey, capers, spoon sweets

Sikinos: Oil, sour milk, cheese (arseniko)

Sifnos: marzipan, cheese (sourotto, gylomeni)

Syros: Cheese (San Michali), Turkish delight, nougat pies

Schoinoussa: Meat (goat), dried cucumbers

Tinos: Wild artichokes, sundried tomatoes, cheese (dopio), sausages

Folegandros: Honey, cheese (sourotto)