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Lesser-known Greek islands enchant with mythical views

Apollo's temple overlooks the "Chora," or Old Town, on Naxos and offers spectacular sunset views.

By PEGGY SIJSWERDA | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 17, 2014

The Greek islands have enchanted travelers for thousands of years. Maybe it’s because Greece serves as the backdrop for some of the world’s oldest myths and legends. Stories of Hercules, Achilles and Helen of Troy, like a magnet, pull us to the islands’ rocky shores.

Choosing which Greek island to visit can be daunting, however. About 230 inhabited islands spread across the Ionian, Aegean, and south Mediterranean seas, including the popular destinations of Santorini, Mykonos and Crete. For our first trip, my husband, Peter, and I opted to explore lesser-known isles.

We began our Greek adventure with a one-day jaunt with Olympic Cruises from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to three islands in the Saronic Gulf, southwest of Athens.

Our first stop was the postcard-pretty island of Hydraand its horseshoe-shaped town that encircles the port. Here, horses and donkeys provide the only transportation. The island’s history museum is known for its archives and artifacts related to Hydra’s role in Greece’s War of Independence in the 19th century.

The island of Poros was our second stop, where we hiked to a clock tower overlooking the harbor. At the top, we were greeted by an elderly Greek woman who was sitting on a rock and enjoying the spectacular view.

“Yassas” (pronounced yah-sus), she said, offering us the Greek word for hello, and together we shared the beauty of the moment.

Our final stop was the island of Aegina, where we visited the Sanctuary of Aphaia, a site where worship dates to 1300 B.C. and where the ruins of three temples have been excavated. The surviving temple sits on a hill with sweeping views of green mountains and the cerulean sea.

The next day, we caught the Blue Star Ferry from Piraeus to the Cyclades. The four-hour journey passed quickly, and soon Parikia, the capital of Paros, loomed before us. One of Paros’ most-visited sites is the Holy Shrine of Ekatontapiliani, or a Hundred Doors. While Babis, our guide, explained the church’s history, an older woman wrapped in a shawl entered the cavernous interior, made the sign of the cross and kissed a painting of the Virgin Mary, one of the church’s revered icons.

Nearby, the Paros Archaeological Museum displays a treasure trove of ancient Greek artifacts, including marble sarcophagi, a mosaic of Hercules performing his labors and a grimacing winged sculpture called the Fat Lady, purported to be the first sculpted human figure.

Babis then took us to the Ancient Marble Quarry, a short drive from Parikia, where we met Tassos, a smiling elderly gentleman who was carving a wooden donkey saddle. He spoke no English, but he happily left his task to show us around the quarry and his modest homestead.

The quarry is closed now but once produced tons of Parian marble, known for its translucent quality and ethereal glow. When we left, Tassos gave me a carved piece about the size of a quarter and some tasty dried figs.

Naxos is a short ferry ride away and the largest of the Cyclades, but the Chora, or Old Town, is cozy and quaint with labyrinthine streets. As we stood in front of a tourist sign, a man on a scooter pulled up. Dimitris worked for the Naxos tourism department and offered to be our guide. How perfect.

Unlike many of the smaller Cycladic islands, Naxos has a thriving economy because of its fertile soil. The island produces everything from olive oil to potatoes renowned for their flavor, as well as livestock. Tourism is also important, and you don’t have to look far to find a gorgeous beach with calm, sparkling water.

Dimitris took us to the Temple of Dionysus, then to the Temple of Demeter, located in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. Naxos is home to three larger-than-life stone figures called kouros, which some say were created to honor Dionysus. In a lush grove of trees, we paid homage to one that looked like a sleeping giant.

Every evening Peter and I walked to the Temple of Apollo, also known as Apollo’s Window, at the harbor’s edge. Summertime visitors can see the sun set through the window, but we were happy to watch the sun set wherever it wanted from this magical spot.

Ios, a one-hour ferry ride from Naxos, is known for its tremendous views, but as luck would have it, our visit was marred by wind and rain. So, instead, we focused on archaeological sites such as Skarkos, a prehistoric settlement atop a hill whose ruins undulate in a circular pattern down the sides of the hill.

According to legend, the Greek poet Homer is buried on Ios, so we visited the burial site at the end of a long, winding road on the island’s north side. The trail to the remote, windy spot was lined with cairns, left by pilgrims to honor this ancient poet whose epics continue to influence writers and artists today.

Peggy Sijswerda is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia.

Planning Your Trip

Getting there:

Many of Europe’s domestic airlines offer affordable airfares to Athens.

Accommodations:

We stayed at the Sofitel at the airport (www.sofitel.com).

Costs:

Hotels range from $60 in the low season to $100+ in the high season. Car rental on each islands costs $30-$50 per day. Guides run $75-$150 per day. The tourism office on each island can recommend a guide who will customize an itinerary to your needs.

Food:

Authentic Greek restaurants abound. Ask at the tourist office for local favorites.

More information:

The one-day cruise from Piraeus is a perfect introduction to the islands for folks on a tight schedule: www.olympiccruises.gr. For your transportation to the Cyclades, consider www.bluestarferries.com. You can buy a ticket from Piraeus that includes stops at Paros, Naxos, Ios and Santorini, where you can catch a convenient flight back to Athens — or take the ferry back.

To learn more about these lesser-known Greek islands, go to www.visitgreece.gr; www.paros.gr; www.naxos.gr; and www.ios.gr.

— Peggy Sijswerda

Shops and cafes line the port in Aigina town on the Greek island of Aigina. The islands is known for its pistachios, which are sold in abundance in the harbor's shops.

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