Friday, 17 October 2008

Greece, Island Hopping 2008, Paros and Naxos

Paros and Naxos are two big islands at the hub of the Cyclades ferry network system and although we didn’t stay there this year because of our itinerary it was inevitable that we would have to pass through them on the way to our chosen island destinations.

On Thursday morning, although perhaps not quite so bad, it was still windy enough to prevent the little ferry attempting the trip to Paros so that meant invoking plan B. After settling up at the hotel the owner drove us to the port to pick up a ferry to the village of Pounda on Paros, which was only a five minute journey and was good value at only €1 each. Once on Paros there was a half hour wait for a bus to the port of Parakia so we had a coffee and a beer at a café with the surliest teenage boy in all of Greece who was waiting on the tables. His mother apologised for him but we didn’t leave a tip!

The bus arrived and after it had filled up with passengers drove us for thirty minutes along the coast to Parakia and as we entered the town there were growling busses and impatient traffic that was in complete contrast to the peace and quiet of Anti-Paros. It was about an hour before our ferry and we found a bar with higher prices than we had become accustomed to and a pavement seat next to a very busy road. Parakia is functional rather than attractive, utilitarian rather than stylish, it is the busiest port in the Cyclades, it is noisy and untidy and in my opinion is a place to pass through rather than stay. I did that in 2006 and I am not tempted to rush back, which, to be honest, might be a bit unfair on the place. On the next table were two young girls who were en route for Athens and a flight home but on account of the wind their ferry was cancelled at the last minute and they were going to miss their flight home. This is one of the hazards of island hopping as a missed or cancelled ferry can seriously disrupt an itinerary as we were later to discover for ourselves.

Fortunately the Blue Star Ferry to Naxos is a big boat and was in service as usual and it arrived on time, we boarded and made for the top deck where we watched Paros slip away behind us as we made our way to Naxos and then on to Amorgos. On the top deck there was a spray from the sea that was getting us wet so we had to retreat inside for the last forty minutes of the one hour crossing to Naxos which seemed comfortingly familiar as we arrived in the port past the iconic Temple of Apollo, left the boat and made our way into town for lunch at an Italian restaurant. In my opinion Naxos is much nicer than Paros because all of the ferry chaos is kept in one place and once away from the hustle and bustle of the quayside it is a very cosmopolitan sort of place with a laid back easy charm.

As it turned out we had to stay there longer than we planned because I bought tickets for a ferry to Amorgos and then because of a mix up over the departure port managed to miss it. At the ferry booking office I complained about misinformation and was given a 50% refund but had to buy a much more expensive Sea Jet ticket for a crossing later in the day. That was a lesson learned - always confirm the departure quay and don’t make clever dick assumptions.

Naxos is a friendly island and I have good memories of two previous visits so to fill the time we walked to the ruins of the unfinished Temple of Apollo, which is an ancient monument set in a magnificent location on a headland just outside of the town and which looks directly towards the west. To get there, there is a narrow quay with the sheltered water of the harbour to the south and west and the stormier waters of the Aegean crashing over rocks to the north and the south. In 2006 with the girls it had been exceptionally stormy and although today the sea was a bit excitable it was not nearly so rough and angry on this occasion. We explored around the ruins for a while but they are not very big so this didn’t take too long and then sat on the rocks and enjoyed the waves, the stiff wind and the salt spray and after a while then returned to the town.

Naxos is a very nice place with cool narrow streets that wind themselves intriguingly around the town and are full of character and atmosphere. They were deliberately constructed this way to confuse any invading army or pirates and they are certainly puzzling enough to fool most modern tourists and as we climbed through the labyrinth as it ascended sharply from the harbour side street I am certain that although we walked for some time we never used the same street twice. These old fashioned streets were much more traditional than the busy harbour side, which I suspect has lost its authentic Greek character over the years as it has become increasingly given over to cheap tourist shops and fast food establishments. Here there were a number of old impressive Venetian houses built vertically to make best use of the available space and all in various states of disrepair and renovation. I was glad that they hadn’t all been converted to holiday homes because I like traditional old Greek wooden doors, which have so much more character than those that are used to replace them. And there were iron balconies too that looked both picturesque and perilous and I doubt that you would chance standing on them without full safety equipment or until after at least five bottles of mythos. We visited the Venetian castle, which had an interesting little exhibition with free admission and avoided a typical Venetian style house and museum that had an entrance charge. After we descended from the town we went back to the harbour side that had nice sea front bars and of course just had to stop for a final drink before making our way to the correct quay this time for the hydrofoil journey to Amorgos.

Although I was cross with myself over the mix up and the additional cost involved I think this probably turned out to be a good thing. The sea was still rough and it turned out that the ferry we originally booked, the Express Skopelitis, was very small, very slow and very old and I am not sure that we would have enjoyed nearly four hours on the top deck of a rust bucket in a force seven gale.

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