Although it’s much quieter and more laid back than the nearby islands of Mykonos and Santorini, we found a lot to do on Naxos in the fall of 2019. This was the same island where we hunted for the Kouroi statues and climbed Mt. Zas, and it held a number of other sights and activities as well.
We were staying at a hotel that was a distance from the old part of town so we found free parking and walked around the town of Naxos. You have to be patient driving through the narrow streets of the old town, especially when going near the harbour. Once parked, we found the old town to be compact and very walkable.
The whitewashed buildings of this old part of town reflect a place that has gone through a long history. Naxos has seen the rule of ancient tyrants, been the centre of the Delian League of Greek city-states and then become a vassal state to successive Venetian and Ottoman empires before gaining independence in 1832. If you take a walk through the winding steps and alleyways towards the harbour you will eventually meet narrow streets hosting a variety of businesses as well as restaurants and cafes.
The most recognized landmark in Naxos is the Naxos portara or gate, located on a rocky point next to the main town. It was built during the reign of Lygdamis of Naxos, a tyrant who ruled the island in the 6th century B.C. He had planned to build a great temple to Apollo but the work was unfinished as he was overthrown. All that remains is the marble gate, with some of the blocks of the base of the temple scattered around it. It makes for dramatic sight, and it was also the first sight we saw when the ferry arrived in Naxos.
The island is compact enough to drive around easily, so renting a car is the best way to see the sights. It requires navigating some one-way roads in the mountain towns as well as steep curves and switchbacks but we never got bored.
Driving out of town we went through a number of picturesque villages. Many of the more remote ones were located in the centre of the island where the mountains were highest. In one instance we found a sign leading to a tiny church high up at the top of one mountain. We drove the winding way with our subcompact car complaining the whole way up. It looked deserted but the entrance was open so we went in.
Upon entering the church we saw an elderly lady who invited us in. She was the caretaker and was more than happy to show us around. Although she didn’t speak English she tried her best to explain things including the name, the saint associated with the church and the various relics inside. It was a nice exchange and we thanked her. As we left we noticed she was closing up for the day, but there was no car for her in the small space in front of the church. She indicated she was going to walk down the mountain to the nearby town a few kilometres away so we offered to drive her to the town. It was the least we could do after she was so helpful.
A more restored ruin on Naxos is the Temple of Sangri, located in an open field. Also known as the Temple of Demeter, it was constructed in the 6th century and entirely built from local marble. It was eventually closed during Christian times and then mostly demolished to make way for a basilica built on the same site with the same materials.
Travelling down the coast from Naxos town there were a number of beaches to visit. All had clear water and were not too cold even in October.
Some of the best swimming spots were the beaches located within the Cedar Forest of Alyko near the southwest corner of Naxos. Our favourite was Hawaii Beach (yes, that’s the name), a secluded spot that took a bit of effort just to get to. To reach it you need to find a gentle enough slope to scramble down from from the overlook to the beach below. Once at the bottom you are rewarded with a wide, quiet beach. It also boasts little caves and alcoves useful for storing their items and getting some shade.
Close to this place was a unique ruin that was much newer than the other ones on Naxos. Begun in the late 60s and abandoned by the 1970s, we found the remains of a large hotel or resort complex. I haven’t been able to track down the details about it, other than general information about when it was constructed, but much of the exterior was still there so we did a bit of exploration.
We spent four nights in Naxos and could have done a few more. It is a beautiful island that moves at a slower pace. The people were friendly, the sights were varied and it was easy to get around the island. We’re glad we chose it for our first run through the Cyclades.