Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Island of Naxos

The road to Lionas, Naxos

After spending an acclimatizing week on a verdant Paros, nothing prepared us for the bold drama of neighbouring island of Naxos. From the moment the ship rounds the northern tip of Paros at Naoussa and the jagged peaks around Naxos town loom on the horizon, we were held in her thrall. The island throws up a mixed bag of weather in this pre-Spring off-season. The Aegean sun casts luminosity onto the brilliant whitewashed, electric-blue painted houses, verdant landscape, and omnipresent white marble. Cool northerly gusts whip up the dark blue sea, then grey scudding clouds swoop down over the high peaks, and torrential showers pass over and by. It is a delight to slip into the slow pace as we ramble and toodle along narrow winding streets, rustic roads, country paths and lonely beaches bereft of summer hordes. 

In a rented Fiat Panda, we set out to visit Koronos in the mountains and Lionas, a pretty cove 800 metres and 9 kilometres below. The drive that passes through the high-perched towns of Chalki, Filoti, and Apiranthos takes us along asphalted, seriously twisting roads with breathtaking vistas, often down around two thousand feet to the glistening blue ocean way below. The mountain sides are strewn with rocks and boulders, criss-crossed by stone walls demarcating property, even high on precipices.

In Koronos, hostess Matine cooked delectable dishes from her own greens, potatoes, cheese, and village lamb and pork. Her taverna is abuzz with loud conversation and oratory, thick with smoke. She put us up in the simple suite of a renovated house in the village. Down on the beach in Lionas, Gundi was entranced by the most interesting beach for rock-picking she has ever combed. The earthy and white tones of the weathered pebbles are varied and marbled; they gleam in their wet coat of seawater. I wander off to just perch and ponder in the marble amphitheatre above the vibrant green sea. What a joy to be here, at the wild remote edge of a Greek island, where a sturdy historied land meets a swirling fabled sea. At night, the glow of the village illuminates the massive rock-face of the south of the cove as darkness envelopes the sea, and the whooshing of the waters, the whistling of the wind above continue unabated.     

One lively evening in Lionas, at the Delfinaki taverna of Manolis and Vasso Koufopoulos, English-speaking Lionas resident Apostoulos taught us of the concepts of filoxenia and aftarkis. He says these are both especially well-honed on Naxos. Manolis’ fine fresh rosé wine was free-flowing and Apostoulos acted as interpreter not only of language, but also of cultural refinements. He explained that filoxenia is what Naxians, and Greeks, welcome visitors with. Once they warm to you, their hearts and souls open up to wrap you in a blanket of stoic insight. Filoxenia, that literally means "love of strangers", is a generosity of spirit, a joyful kind of the-best-of-what's-mine-is-yours attitude in which Greeks take great pride as a defining attribute. Manolis spent over thirty years mining emery from within the local mountains; now he is a proud farmer and food producer. He beams as he brings us olives from the family trees, rosé wine made from the family grapes, honey produced by the family bees, eggs from the family chickens, meat and cheese from his brother’s goats and sheep. And filoxenia is a main reason that he loves to provide this bounty and Vasso loves to cook it.

Aftarkis is an ancient word that literally means ‘sufficient in oneself.’ It is used to describe a person who, through discipline, has become independent of all external circumstances, and who has discovered within him- or her-self resources that meet the demands of any situation that may arise. Naxians display aftarkis probably because of the challenges of surviving and sustaining livelihood, community and culture on a mountainous island.

Naxos is blessed as the most fertile island of the Cyclades. It has a good supply of water in a region where water is usually inadequate. Mount Zas at 999 metres is the highest peak in the Cyclades, and tends to trap the clouds, generating greater rainfall. This has made agriculture an important economic sector with various vegetable and fruit crops as well as cattle breeding, sheep- and goat-rearing, making Naxos the most self sufficient of the island group. Grapes, oranges, lemons, limes, figs, olives find ideal conditions, generating not only fruit, but precious wine and olive oil. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, cucumbers all grow robustly here. Growing wild on the hillsides island-wide are sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, giant fennel. Yellow-flowering clover carpets the soil between the olive and citrus trees. Beekeepers make a delectable thyme honey, especially renowned in Gundi’s favourite little mountain village of Keramoti, so picturesquely located in its high verdant valley. Farmers make milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, and succulent chicken, pork, lamb, beef. Fishermen bring in an array of fish large and small, squid, octopus, and shrimp, (though catches are much smaller than they used to be). This all makes for a local food culture which is vibrant, hearty, and sustained by each succeeding generation of wonderful cooks. Portions are generally large and overly-generous. Naxians love their food and wine, and they love to share it. Filoxenia is alive and well on Naxos.

Back home, I miss the intoxication of it all already…