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At home with the gods on Naxos

In the touristy Cyclades, the island has managed to hang on to its Greek soul while enchanting visiting hordes.

June 01, 2003|Kathleen de Azevedo | Special to The Times

Naxos, Greece — I was told by several people before I left for Greece last summer that each Greek island has its own personality and no two are alike. This is true, but some islands, like some Greek gods, are better company than others.

Hades, the god of the underworld, would not be my idea of a hot date. I would tire quickly of well-buffed Ares, god of war, and the high jinks of the divine messenger-prankster Hermes. But give me artistic, curly-haired Apollo, looking over Naxos from his temple on the nearby island of Delos, and I would gladly step into his sun chariot.

Having escaped the island of Mykonos, a disco-thumping haven for gorgeous 20-year-olds, my husband, Lewis, and I found ourselves sailing on one of the many Greek island ferryboats into Naxos, the main town that shares the same name as the island.

Two high peaks cradled a lush green saddle between them, and beyond that were higher mountains, bluish-gray in the distance. According to legend, Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, helped the Greek superhero Theseus weave his way through her father's treacherous labyrinth and kill the Minotaur. Theseus whisked Ariadne to Naxos and then abandoned her. However, the beautiful heroine was rescued by Dionysus, god of wine and pastoral free spirit.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Naxos vacation -- A June 1 Travel article about visiting the Greek island of Naxos said that Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote "Zorba the Greek," was born there. He was born on Crete.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 08, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Naxos vacation -- A June 1 story about visiting the Greek island of Naxos said that Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote "Zorba the Greek," was born there. He was born on Crete.

As we sailed into the harbor of Naxos town, sometimes called Chora, I too felt the gods -- the ones I preferred -- were with me on this four-day visit.

At 165 square miles, Naxos is the largest island in the Cyclades, a group of islands southeast of Athens, closer to the Turkish coast than to mainland Greece. At first glimpse, it was apparent that the island had been invaded many times. On Palatia, a tiny peninsula jutting out near the port, is the Portara, a large marble arch built for Apollo around 530 BC by the tyrant-ruler Lygdamis. He never completed the temple because he was run out of town by the Spartans.

In the middle of Naxos a Frankish fortress and castle built in the 13th century rise above the clutches of white buildings on the hillside. Brightly colored sailboats bobbing along a pier lined with restaurants show signs of the newest invaders -- tourists. But unlike the conquering armies before, they have not yet destroyed Naxos.

Tourism is a mainstay in the Greek islands, but often the overwhelming eagerness to please visitors comes at the expense of the islands' soul. Even a tourist will complain occasionally. An elegant elderly man from South Africa who stayed at our hotel in Mykonos, as he had for years, sat in the garden and lamented, "People around here used to play Greek music. Now nothing. I never hear it."

Because Naxos is bigger than its northern neighbor, with more room for tourists to disperse, the struggle to maintain its Greek soul has been less difficult. Still, it's not easy.

One person fighting to preserve Naxos' gentle spirit is Nikolas Karavias, descendant of a longtime island family, the Della Rocca-Barozzis.

My husband and I met Karavias on our first day on Naxos, during a late afternoon walk in the Kastro, the castle and fortress that dominate the island. We wandered winding streets, passing under stone arches and stairs that curved around whitewashed houses and balconies decorated with red geraniums and strings of gourds. He was sitting in an office next to a small courtyard of the castle and selling tickets to a Sunday evening concert. A bit harried, he flung out instructions in Greek, German, Italian and English as a crush of people stood in line, their euros in hand. We bought a couple of tickets, but before we sat down, we picked up a few glasses of free wine. On a small stage, two violinists and a lutenist were warming up.

"What you hear down below," Karavias said, referring to music coming from the touristy beachfront, "is Turkish belly-dancing music. We will be playing Hellenistic music from the Byzantine tradition. These are songs of love, life in the country and adventures of the sea."

The music undulated and trilled. The setting sun transformed the wall of the fortress to a brilliant gold. Palm trees rustled, and the sky turned to lapis lazuli, the color of the stone eyes of a Minoan bull I had seen in a museum.

Then the dancers entered, the women in blue tunics and skirts with white aprons and the men in black vests and pants, red belts and fishermen's caps. They joined hands by grasping white handkerchiefs, which, Karavias explained, represent nets. The dancers wove among and around one another, emulating nets tangling in the waves. During the performance, ushers with flasks circulated, refilling our glasses with Naxiot red and white wines and Kitron, a regional liqueur in our choice of lemon or mint. We chose both.

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