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Mykonos, Greece

 
     The first Cycladic island we arrived at was Siros.  Once I caught a glimpse of the stunning skyline from my seat inside the ferry, I ran to the deck with my camera.  It looked unreal, almost like a cardboard cut out—full of neoclassical architecture with a unique Mediterranean cube-shaped characteristic. The second island, Tinos, was equally impressive, although a bit less colorful.  Neither, however, compared to Mykonos, our third stop and home for the next few days.  From the boat we saw an endless maze of whitewashed cube-shaped houses and churches, with dashes of sky-blue on the doors and domes, all huddled together up the central hill.  As we got closer to the shore, the little white houses and churches, the colorful little fishing boats in the harbor, the waves lapping on the shore…it all seemed to be straight out of an elaborately staged Broadway show—just too picturesque to be real!
     Mykonos is truly fantastic. One of the smallest of the Cycladic group, it is only 10 miles long and 7 miles wide. An ancient myth says that the rocks strewn across its barren landscape are the solidified remains of the giants slain by Hercules.  Walking around the small town was truly an experience, and we got lost in the labyrinth of streets quite often.  I had read on the ferry that the confusing layout was designed to foil attacking pirates, but at the time it sounded more like a tourism pitch than reality.  It wasn’t until we spent hours traipsing through the endless maze of near-identical little alleys that I began to see how effective this plan may have been. The island was indeed terrorized by the marauding pirates for generations until, after years of pirate raids and chaos, the island eventually fell under Turkish rule (1537), and the Ottomans allowed the islanders to arm their vessels against the pirates.  Unfortunately, this had a contradictory effect, as many of them found that raiding other islands was more profitable than tilling arid land!  At the height of the Aegean piracy, Mykonos actually became the principal headquarters of the corsair fleets—the place where pirates met their fellows, found willing women, and filled out their crews.  I couldn’t help but hum “yo-ho-ho-ho, a pirates life for me” as I walked through the maze of streets. 
     Mykonoits claim that there are exactly 365 churches and chapels dotting their landscape, one for each day of the year.  Little one-room churches are everywhere!  The most famous is the Church of Paraportiani—a whitewashed conglomeration of four chapels, described as “a confectioners dream gone mad.”  With its uneven walls and crooked roofs, it looks like a giant blob of white icing!  We also visited the famous Mykonos windmills—echoes of a time when wind power was used to grind the island’s grain.  On an island as windy as this one, smack in the middle of the Aegean Sea, these mills must have been very effective in generating power!  They are no longer used, but their white bases and blue vanes are a beautiful addition to the landscape. A bit further down toward the town center we came across an area known as Little Venice, where early ship captains built distinguished houses directly on the sea—complete with colorful wooden balconies overlooking the water.  We also stopped into the Aegean Maritime Museum, a charming little museum that houses a collection of model ships, navigational instruments, old maps, prints, coins, and nautical memorabilia.  It was a fantastic day at an incredible location, and the strong sea wind made the warm temperatures just perfect.
     We headed back to our hotel for an incredibly good dinner—the best food I have had yet in Europe. It was the perfect ending to a fantastic day, and we headed back to our rooms to get some much needed rest.  We weren’t there for long, however, before we heard people yelling outside our hotel room, and went out to see that they had discovered a TARANTULA on the wall!  A TARANTULA!  I couldn’t believe my eyes—I even took a picture to prove it to everyone back home. A hotel employee was summoned to exterminate the creature, and as if it were nothing more than a ladybug, he wrapped a cloth around his had and smashed the TARANTULA with one hard punch.  A TARANTULA.  The fact that he wasn’t afraid of it made me uneasy—that must mean he sees them all the time.  Killing TARANTULAS is just old-hat for him. I didn’t sleep well that night.  Arachnophobia—gotta kick it!
Day Two:  We had booked a trip the day before to the nearby island of Delos--a half hour ride across the Aegean.  For almost 1,000 years, Delos was the center of religion and political life in the Aegean. Greek mythology explains why this tiny island rose to such religious importance. The great Zeus fell in love with the gentle Leto and she became pregnant.  When Hera, Zeus’s wife, discovered this infidelity, she forbade Mother Earth to give Leto refuge and ordered the serpent Python to pursue her.  Leto wandered the earth, and finally Poseidon, taking pity on her, anchored the floating island of Delos with four diamond columns to give her a place to rest.  She gave birth first to Artemis, goddess of the hunt and virginity, and nine days later, to Apollo, god of truth and light.  In gratitude for this place of refuge, Leto promised to make the island Apollo’s seat of worship.
          The sacred heart of the Cyclades, this tiny island’s population actually reached 20,000 at its peak, but because of its sacred status, no one could be born or die on the island.  (Delians facing either of these were shipped off to the nearby little islet of Rheneia when the time was thought to be near.) At one time Delos was the political and trade center of the Aegean League of Islands, thus sparking the interest of Athens and beginning three centuries of struggle between the Delians and the Athenians for control.  During these years, the Athenians ordered at least two “purifications” of the island, forcing the entire population of Delos to move to Asia Minor.  Delos prospered until the second century BCE, when the Romans conquered the area and made the island the location for the slave market, selling as many as 10,000 slaves on any given day.  Foreigners from as far away as Syria, Rome and Egypt lived in this cosmopolitan port, in complete tolerance of one another’s beliefs.   In 88 BC, the king of Pontus, in a revolt against Roman rule, ordered an attack on the island, killing or enslaving the entire population of 20,000.  Delos never fully recovered, and later Roman attempts to revive the island failed because of pirate raids. By the second century AD, after successive sackings, the island was left virtually uninhabited, although under Turkish occupation it became a pirate’s haunt.   On the tour we visited the house of Apollo, where there is an incredibly well preserved floor mosaic, and the house of Cleopatra, a wealthy and influential woman merchant—not of the Egypt fame.  We saw the old aqueduct and plumbing system that was used to support a population as large as 20,000, and sat in the seats of the islands 5,000-capacity amphitheatre.  (It was neat to think that I was sitting where ancient Greeks sat 2,200 years ago.)  We also walked along the “sacred way”, the avenue of the lions, and through the island’s old marketplace.
     After a few hours, we took the ferry back to Mykonos.  The ride back was sooooo rough, and I quickly realized why the Aegean Sea has such a reputation.  I almost felt as if I was on an amusement park ride (minus the fun) because we were rocking so far and at such a fast speed.   Everyone was gripping the rails for dear life, and I notice a few of the passengers had gotten sick.  I did notice that one of the three crew members was very drunk—comforting!  After our trip, we wandered down the narrow streets. Tourism seems to be threatening the charm of this place—we saw Haggen Daz stores and the Body Shop and a slew of other international businesses.  I doubt that McDonalds will ever set up shop here though since every building by law has to be built in the cube style, with whitewashed walls and limited splashes of blue, yellow or red.  However, I couldn’t help but wonder what this place will be like the next time I visit.
     One highlight of the afternoon’s wanders was spotting the town mascot, Petros the Pelican.  I had read about him in the guidebook and hoped to find him somewhere.  Apparently, in the 1950s a group of migrating pelicans passed over Mykonos, leaving behind one exhausted bird.  A fisherman nursed it back to health, and it never left.  Locals say that the pelican in the harbor is the original Petros.  Chances are it is his successor, enjoying the spotlight and carrying on the tradition.  Regardless, I was glad to see it.
     By late afternoon, we were both hot and tired, so we headed back to the hotel. Afraid of the reappearance of “Mr. T”, Alex and I spent the remainder of the evening on the patio talking with Jae-son, a fellow traveler from Korea, about the difficulties of understanding English with so many different accents. (i.e.…When an Aussie asked him what his name (“nime”) was, he had no idea what he was saying.) He said American English is easiest to understand, probably because of the influence of the American media worldwide. We finally gave up the battle and went to bed at around 2 AM—consoling ourselves with the fact that this was our last night with the TARANTULA!