“The air of the islands, she believed, was different than the air of other regions of the world. It engulfed her now, carrying with it flavors of sun-drenched soil and foam-flecked sea, aromas of virgin woods and naked rocks, its tang of citrus trees and its fizz of foreign wine-misted lips. It carried in its pockets the sounds of children’s laughter, the clatter of drunken brawls, the mandolin music thrumming sensually from decades-old cassette tapes in the colorful souvenir shops where old ladies and young women waved at passersby. It came from near and far, rebounding off the blue-white flag strapped to ferry masts rearing above the sparkling waters, glinting in the brown-eyed winks and twirled mustaches of the locals.”
― Angela Panayotopulos
The last time I was on a plane was in October—9 months ago—the longest amount of time I’ve spent on the ground since I moved to London in 2007. Emilia and I had a week in Naxos, Greece, with my parents who were over from New York.
There were no face masks required, no social distancing rules to constantly remember, no fear of dry coughs, and not an inkling of what the world would look like just a few months later. And while I’m in no hurry to hop on a plane right now, Naxos is somewhere I know I want to return; there is much more to see.
I was a few months pregnant with Sebastian during our Cyclades adventure. Car rides only exacerbated my persistent first trimester nausea, and so we spent much of our time not far from Hotel Grotta where we stayed (a place my parents love and return to time and again, one reason being the lovely staff — hi Nikoletta & Marine!). That meant plenty of time exploring the charming, cobbled streets of the Old Town. It’s been a while, but reminiscing, I thought I’d share some photos and memories of our trip.
We watched stray cats with clipped ears darting across the pathways (which deserved a post of their own), lifted Emilia’s stroller up and down many steps that led us along white walls dripping with richly-coloured bougainvillea, admired the lush green plants sprouting from crevices in stone walls, and ate many meals along the waterfront, watching the ferries slip in to dock.
Wind swept across the island, in areas roughing up the waves as they crashed against the rocks, spraying anyone walking past. But the Old Town was sheltered. The sky was blue. The sun was warm. The people were friendly. The food was tasty. While many of the shops had closed for the season, that also meant we had some brilliantly empty spaces to ourselves, and I found a few gems, like Hora, on the outskirts.
Around every corner, there was a continued labyrinth of passageways and steps. It was difficult to orient ourselves, remember which turns we had already taken and which areas where still untouched by our wandering feet.
Each turn brought something new to discover: traditional bakeries and homes, a majestic Venetian castle, used bookshops, tavernas, boutiques selling local wines and clothing, weathered doors with peeling paint in that recognisable Cyclades blue, and of course the cats. There are newly restored buildings and, among them, intriguing ruins.
We ventured into the fully pedestrianised and intricate maze of the Old Town on many different occasions. We met locals happy to stop for a chat and share some of the history of their neighbourhood, the story of how they arrived in the Old Town or in Greece at all, what they loved about their island and what has changed over the years.
My last Greek island experience was Santorini, a pre-kids (but also pregnant at the time) adventure for Jorge’s 40th birthday. We loved the pristine village of Oía where we stayed, spending most of our our days poolside, walking through the pedestrianised pathways with their shining white walls, potted cacti basking under the still-warm October sun and popping into shops dripping in luxuries we couldn’t afford. We loved it there too, but for different reasons.
Naxos is more rustic, more down-to-earth, more authentically Greek where it was possible to chat with locals, to pick up Greek-grown fruits from crates on the ground of the Old Town market. It was beautiful, but not in the slightly untouchable way of Oía. Here, the beauty came from the remnants of history, the nonchalant ruins slouching with their crumpled walls next to freshly painted homes, the glint of the sun against a blue and white flag, the warped covers of used books in the hidden book shop.
One day, my parents kept Emilia so I could venture off on my own for a few hours, walking further and higher into the Old Town before stopping for tea and strawberries by the sea. I found myself following a short dirt trail up to a concrete pad where some of the only graffiti I saw was scrawled colourfully across the walls marking it as most likely a hangout place for local teens. There was a low wall over which a view of the city stretched out into the distance.
Before we knew it, our time there came to an end and we were back on a small plane heading to Athens for our journey back to London. On both small Aegean flights, Emilia had the privilege of meeting the pilot, a rare treat these days. Thanks Naxos, for a memorable adventure. When the world opens up again, we will surely be back.