Named from the circle they form around the sacred island of Delos, the Cyclades (Kykládhes) offer Greece’s best island-hopping. Each island has a strong, distinct character based on traditions, customs, topography and its historical development. Most are compact enough for a few days’ exploration to show you a major part of their scenery and personality in a way that is impossible in Crete, Rhodes or most of the Ionian islands.
The islands do have some features in common. The majority (Ándhros, Kéa, Náxos and Tínos excepted) are arid and rocky, and most also share the “Cycladic” style of brilliant-white cuboid architecture, a feature of which is the central kástro of the old island capitals. The typical kástro has just one or two entrances, and a continuous outer ring of houses with all their doors and windows on the inner side, so forming a single protective perimeter wall.
The impact of mass tourism has been felt more severely in the Cyclades than anywhere else in Greece; yet whatever the level of tourist development, there are only three islands where it completely dominates their character in season: Íos, the original hippie island and still a paradise for hard-drinking backpackers, the volcanic cluster of Santoríni – a dramatic natural backdrop for luxury cruise liners – and Mýkonos, by far the most popular of the group, with its teeming old town, selection of gay, nudist and gay-nudist beaches, and sophisticated restaurants, clubs and hotels. After these, Páros, Náxos and Mílos are the most popular, their beaches and main towns packed at the height of the season. The once-tranquil Lesser Cyclades southeast of Náxos have become fashionable destinations in recent years, as have nearby Amorgós, and Folégandhros to the west. To avoid the hordes altogether the most promising islands are Kýthnos or Sérifos and for an even more remote experience Síkinos, Kímolos or Anáfi. For a completely different picture of the Cyclades, try the islands of Tínos with its imposing pilgrimage church and Sýros with its elegant Italianate townscape, both with a substantial Catholic minority. Due to their proximity to Attica, Ándhros and Kéa are predictably popular weekend havens for Athenian families, while Sífnos remains a smart, chic destination for tourists of all nationalities. The one UNESCO site, Delos – once a great religious centre for the Cyclades – is certainly worth making time for, visited most easily on a day-trip from Mýkonos. One consideration for the timing of your visit is that the Cyclades is the group worst affected by the meltémi, which scatters sand and tablecloths with ease between mid-July and mid-August. Delayed or cancelled ferries are not uncommon, so if you’re heading back to Athens to catch a flight, leave yourself a day’s leeway.
One of the lesser known and most low-key of the larger Cyclades, KÝTHNOS is an antidote to the overdevelopment you may encounter elsewhere, so much so that credit cards are still not accepted in many places. Few foreigners visit, and the island – known also as Thermiá, after its renowned hot springs – is even quieter than Kéa, particularly to the south where drives or long hikes from Dhryopídha to its coastal coves are the primary diversion. This is truly a place to sprawl on sunbed-free beaches without having to jostle for space.
SÉRIFOS has long languished outside the mainstream of history and modern tourism. Little has happened here since Perseus returned with Medusa’s head in time to save his mother, Danaë, from being ravished by the local king Polydectes – turning him, his court and the green island into stone. Many would-be visitors are deterred by the apparently barren, hilly interior, which, with the stark, rocky coastline, makes Sérifos appear uninhabited until the ferry turns into postcard-picturesque Livádhi Bay. This element of surprise continues as you slowly discover a number of lovely beaches around the island.
Sérifos is also great for serious walkers, who can head for several small villages in the under-explored interior, plus some isolated coves. Many people still keep livestock and produce their own cognac-red wines, which are an acquired taste.
Of the three islands off the coast of Mílos, only rugged, scenic KÍMOLOS is inhabited. Volcanic like Mílos, it profits from its geology and used to export chalk (kimolía in Greek) until the supply was exhausted. Bentonite is still extracted locally, and the fine dust of this clay is a familiar sight on the northeastern corner of the island, where mining still outstrips fishing and farming as an occupation. Apart from the inhabited southeast, the rest of the island is a nature reserve, which explains the lack of surfaced roads.
Even in August Kímolos isn’t swamped by visitors. Just as well, since, although there are around 450-odd beds on the whole island, there is little in the way of other amenities. There is only one bus, no car or motorbike rental (rent your vehicle from Mílos) and few restaurants. Those visitors who venture here come for the tranquillity and for trekking in pristine nature.
ÁNDHROS, the second largest and northernmost of the Cyclades, is also one of the most verdant, its fertile, well-watered valleys and hillsides sprouting scores of holiday villas. Still home to a very hospitable people, an attractive capital, numerous good beaches, plus some idiosyncratic reminders of the Venetian period – such as the peristereónes (dovecote towers) and the frákhtes (dry-stone walls) – Ándhros has a special charm. Driving is also a joy, with precipitous coastal roads offering panoramic views over the Aegean.
The only cloud in your enjoyment of the island may be the current shutdown of all state museums on Ándhros; check if they have opened before you visit.
Two hours’ pleasant walk from Hóra via the village of Fállika, or via a signposted turn-off on the road to Kórthi, you arrive at the finest monastery on the island, Panayía Panakhrándou (closed 1–4.30pm). Founded around 961 and with an icon said to be by St Luke, it’s still defended by massive walls but is occupied these days by just one monk. From the entrance door, a long passageway leads in past gushing springs to the atmospheric catholicon dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin with its impressive and colourful iconostasis. Its lower decoration with Ottoman Iznik tiles is unique in the Aegean and it represents a gift to the monastery by Patriarch Dionysius III in the 1660s.
Four of the six small islands in the patch of the Aegean between Náxos and Amorgós have slid from obscurity into fashion in recent years. Inhabited since prehistoric times, the group is known commonly as the Lesser Cyclades and includes Irakliá, Skhinoússa, Áno Koufoníssi and Dhonoússa. The islands’ popularity has hastened the development of better facilities and higher prices, but, with only limited ferry services, they’ve managed to avoid mass tourism.
Irakliá, the westernmost of the Lesser Cyclades, and with the least spoilt scenery, has just over 150 permanent residents. As the first stop on the ferry service from Náxos, the island is hardly undiscovered by tourists, but with fewer amenities than some of its neighbours, it retains the feel of a more secluded retreat.
The port of Áyios Yeóryios is a small but sprawling settlement behind a sandy tamarisk-backed beach that gets quite crowded in August. Livádhi, a big, shallow beach, is 2km southeast of the port and its crystal-clear waters are the main tourist attraction of the island. The asphalted road continues 3km on to the tiny capital Panayía (Hóra), which has no lodgings to speak of. In season, a local boat sails from the port at 11am to make a tour of the island, stopping at the small sandy beach at Alimiá and the nearby pebble beach of Karvounólakos.
A little to the northeast of Irakliá, the island of Skhinoússa is just beginning to awaken to its tourist potential. Its indented outline, sweeping valleys and partly submerged headlands – such as the sinuous, snake-like islet Ofidhoúsa (Fidoú) – provide some of the most dramatic views in the group.
An asphalted road leads up from the port of Mersíni to the capital, Hóra (also called Panayía), for 1.2km. From Hóra you can reach no fewer than sixteen beaches dotted around the island, accessible by a network of dirt tracks. Tsigoúri is a ten-minute track walk downhill from northwest Hóra and gradually being developed. The locals’ preferred choice of beaches are Alygariá to the south, Psilí Ámmos to the northeast, and Almyrós, half an hour southeast.
ÁNO KOUFONÍSSI (usually referred to simply as Koufoníssi) is the flattest, most developed and most densely inhabited island of the group. With some of the least-spoilt beaches in the Cyclades, the island is attracting increasing numbers of Greek and foreign holidaymakers and as it’s small enough to walk round in a day, it can feel overcrowded in July and August. The best views are not of Koufoníssi itself, but out across the water to mountainous Kéros island.
The old pedestrian street of HÓRA, crossing a low hill behind the ferry harbour, has been engulfed by new room and hotel development, but the town still retains its affable, small-island atmosphere. All the good beaches are in the southeast of the island, improving as you go east along a road that skirts the gradually developing coastline along the edge of low cliffs. Fínikas, a fifteen-minute walk from town, is the first of four wide coves with gently shelving golden sand. The next beach, Fanós, is the youngsters’ favourite, because of the beach bar that dominates the stretch of sand. Next is Platiá Poúnda, where caves have been hollowed out of the cliffs. Further east, the path rounds a rocky headland to Porí, a much longer and wilder beach, backed by dunes and set in a deep bay. It can be reached more easily from the town by following a dirt road heading inland through the scrub-covered hills.
Dhonoússa is a little out on a limb compared with the other Lesser Cyclades, and ferries call less frequently. Island life centres on the pleasant port settlement of Stavrós, spread out behind the harbour and the village beach. Most sunbathers head for Kéndros, a long and attractive stretch of shadeless sand twenty minutes over the ridge to the east; a World War II wreck can be easily spotted by snorkellers. The village of Mersíni is an hour’s walk from Stavrós, while a nearby path leads down to Livádhi, an idyllic white-sand beach with tamarisks for shade. In high season a beach-boat runs from the port to all beaches, many of which are nudist; the locals don’t seem to mind.
AMORGÓS, with its dramatic mountain scenery and laidback atmosphere, is attracting visitors in increasing numbers. The island can get extremely crowded in midsummer, the numbers swollen by film buffs paying their respects to the film location of Luc Besson’s The Big Blue, although fewer venture out to Líveros at the island’s western end to see the wreck of the Olympia which figures so prominently in the film. In general it’s a low-key, escapist clientele, happy to have found a relatively large, interesting, uncommercialized and hospitable island with excellent walking. Families tend to stay around Katápola, while younger tourists prefer Aigiáli.
This is the island to try rakómelo – a kind of fermented grappa with honey, herbs and spices, drunk in shots as an aperitif.
SÍKINOS has so small a population – around 240 – that the mule ride or walk from the port up to the capital was only replaced by a bus in the late 1980s. At roughly the same time the new jetty was completed; until then Síkinos was the last major Greek island where ferry passengers were still taken ashore in launches. With no dramatic characteristics and no nightlife to speak of, few foreigners make the short trip over here from neighbouring Folégandhros or Íos. The end result, however, is the most unspoilt rural countryside in the Cyclades where the clichéd image of a priest riding a donkey can suddenly materialize from over a hill.
The sheer cliffs of FOLÉGANDHROS rise 300m from the sea in places, and until the early 1980s they were as effective a deterrent to tourists as they had historically been to pirates. Folégandhros was used now and then as an island of political exile from Roman times right up until 1969, and life in the high, barren interior was only eased in 1974 by the arrival of electricity and the subsequent construction of a road running from the harbour to Hóra and beyond. Development has been given further impetus by the recent increase in tourism and the ensuing commercialization. The island is becoming so trendy that Greek journalists speak of a new Mýkonos in the making, a fact that is reflected in its swish jewellery and clothes shops. Yet away from showcase Hóra and the beaches, the countryside remains mostly pristine. Donkeys are also still very much in evidence, since the terrain on much of the island is too steep for vehicles.
The island’s real character and appeal are rooted in the spectacular HÓRA, perched on a cliff-edge plateau, a steep 3km from the port. Locals and foreigners mingle at the cafés and tavernas under the trees of the five adjacent squares, passing the time undisturbed by traffic, which is banned from the village centre. Towards the northern cliff-edge and entered through two arcades, the defensive core of the medieval kástro neighbourhood is marked by ranks of two-storey residential houses, with almost identical stairways and slightly recessed doors.
From the cliff-edge Poúnda square, where the bus stops, a path zigzags up – with views along the northern coastline – to the wedding-cake church of Kímisis tis Theotókou, whose unusual design includes two little fake chapels mounted astride the roof. The church, formerly part of a nunnery, is on the gentlest slope of a pyramidal hill with 360m cliffs dropping to the sea on the northwest side and is a favourite spot for watching some of the Aegean’s most spectacular sunsets. Beyond and below it hides the Khryssospiliá, a large cave with stalactites and ancient inscriptions, centre of a strange ancient youth cult, but closed to the public for archeological excavations. However, a minor, lower grotto can still be visited by excursion boat from the port. Towards the top of the hill are a few fragments of the ancient Paleókastro.
Hóra is inevitably beginning to sprawl at the edges, and the burgeoning nightlife – a few dance bars along with a number of music pubs and ouzerís – is to the south, away from most accommodation.
A ninety-minute boat ride to the east of Santoríni, ANÁFI is the last stop for ferries and is something of a travellers’ dead end. It was so for the Argonauts who prayed to Apollo for some land to rest; he let the island emerge from the sea for their repose. If rest is what you crave, you’ll have it here in abundance. Not that this is likely to bother most of the visitors, who come here for weeks in midsummer to enjoy exactly that: its seclusion. Although idyllic geographically, Anáfi is a harsh place, its mixed granite and limestone core overlaid by volcanic rock spewed out by Santoríni’s eruptions. Apart from the few olive trees and vines grown in the valleys, the only plants that seem to thrive are prickly pears. The quiet, unassuming capital, Hóra, provides a daring dash of white in a treeless, shrub-strewn hillock, its narrow, winding streets offering protection from the occasionally squally gharbís wind that comes unencumbered from the southwest.
The remains of ANCIENT DELOS (Dhílos), the Cyclades’ sole UNESCO Heritage Site, manage to convey the past grandeur of this small, sacred isle a few kilometres west of Mýkonos. The ancient town lies on the west coast on flat, sometimes marshy ground that rises in the south to Mount Kýnthos.
Delos’s ancient fame arose because Leto gave birth to the divine twins Artemis and Apollo here, although the island’s fine, sheltered harbour and central position in the Aegean did nothing to hamper development from around 2500 BC. When the Ionians colonized the island about 1000 BC it was already a cult centre, and by the seventh century BC it had also become a major commercial and religious port. Unfortunately Delos attracted the attention of Athens, which sought dominion over this prestigious island; the wealth of the Delian Confederacy, founded after the Persian Wars to protect the Aegean cities, was harnessed to Athenian ends, and for a while Athens controlled the Sanctuary of Apollo. Athenian attempts to “purify” the island began with a decree (426 BC) that no one could die or give birth on Delos – the sick and the pregnant were shipped to the neighbouring island of Rínia – and culminated in the simple expedient of banishing the native population.
Delos recovered in Roman times and reached its peak of prosperity in the third and second centuries BC, after being declared a free port by its Roman overlords; by the start of the first century BC, its population was around 25,000. In the end, though, its undefended wealth brought ruin: first Mithridates, of Pontus (88 BC), then the pirate Athenodorus (69 BC) plundered the treasures, and the island never recovered since.
As you disembark from the boat, the Sacred Harbour is on your left, the Commercial Harbour on your right and straight ahead lies the Agora of the Competaliasts. The Competaliasts were Roman merchants who worshipped the Lares Competales, the guardian spirits of crossroads; offerings to Hermes would once have been placed in the middle of the agora (market square), their positions now marked by one round and one square base.
The Sacred Way leads north from the far left corner of the Agora of the Competaliasts. Formerly lined with statues and the grandiose monuments of rival kings, walk up it to reach the three marble steps of the Propýlaia leading into the Sanctuary of Apollo. On your left is the Stoá of the Naxians, while against the north wall of the House of the Naxians, to the right, a huge statue of Apollo (c.600 BC) stood in ancient times; parts of it can be seen behind the Temple of Artemis to the left. In 417 BC the Athenian general Nikias led a procession of priests across a bridge of boats from Rínia to dedicate a bronze palm tree whose circular granite base you can still see. Three Temples to Apollo stand in a row to the right along the Sacred Way: the massive Delian Temple, the Athenian, and the Porinos, the earliest, dating from the sixth century BC. To the east stands the Sanctuary of Dionysus with its colossal marble phallus.
Northwest of the Sanctuary of Dionysus, behind the small Letóön temple, is the huge Agora of the Italians, while on the left are replicas of the famous lions, their lean bodies masterfully executed by Naxians in the seventh century BC to ward off intruders who would have been unfamiliar with the fearful creatures. Of the original lions, three have disappeared and one – looted by Venetians in the seventeenth century–adorns the Arsenale in Venice. The remaining originals are in the site museum whose nine rooms include a marble statue of Apollo, mosaic fragments and an extensive collection of phallic artefacts. Opposite the lions, tamarisk trees ring the site of the Sacred Lake, where Leto gave birth, clinging to a palm tree. On the other side of the lake is the City Wall, built – in 69 BC – too late to protect the treasures.
Bear right from the Agora of the Competaliasts and you enter the residential area, known as the Theatre Quarter. The remnants of impressive private mansions are now named after their colourful main mosaic – Dionysus, Trident, Masks and Dolphins. The theatre itself seated no fewer than 5500 spectators; just below it and structurally almost as spectacular is a huge underground cistern with arched roof supports. Behind the theatre, a path leads towards the Sanctuaries of the Foreign Gods, serving the immigrant population. It then rises steeply up Mount Kýnthos for a Sanctuary of Zeus and Athena with spectacular views out to the surrounding islands. Near its base, a small side path leads to the Sacred Cave, a rock cleft covered with a remarkable roof of giant stone slabs – a Hellenistic shrine to Hercules.
Though not terribly different – geographically or architecturally – from its immediate neighbours, no other Greek island attracts the same vast crowds of young people as Íos. Although it has worked hard to shake off its late-twentieth-century reputation for alcohol excesses and to move the island’s tourism one class up with some success, Íos is still extremely popular with the young backpacker set who take over the island in July and August.
The only real villages – Yialós (for families), Hóra and Mylopótas (for the 18–25s) – are clustered in a western corner of the island, and development elsewhere is restricted by poor roads. As a result there are still some very quiet beaches with just a few rooms to rent. Most visitors stay along the arc delineated by the port – at Yialós, where you’ll arrive, in Hóra above it, or by the beach at Mylopótas. Despite its past popularity, sleeping on the beach on Íos is strictly banned these days and so is nudism.
Homer’s tomb can be reached by car or motorbike (signposted from the road to Ayía Theodhóti, 4.5km from Hóra). An ancient town has long since slipped down the side of the cliff, but the rocky ruins of the entrance to a tomb remain, as well as some graves. There is certainly an ancient tradition, from Pausanias and Pliny, that Homer was buried on the island; furthermore, Hellenistic coins from Íos bear his name and his head. However, it was Dutch archeologist Pasch van Krienen who first discovered these tombs in 1771 and immediately claimed one of them as Homer’s – in reality, though, it probably dates only to the Byzantine era.
KÉA (Tziá), the nearest of the Cyclades to the mainland, is extremely popular with Athenian families in August and at weekends year-round; their impact has spread beyond the small resorts, and much of the coastline is peppered with holiday homes built with the locally quarried green-brown stone. Because so many visitors self-cater, there is a preponderance of villa accommodation and not as many tavernas as you might expect. However, outside August or weekends, the island, with its rocky, forbidding perimeter and inland oak and almond groves, is an enticing destination for those who enjoy a rural ramble: ten separate walking paths have been earmarked and are well signposted.
The only remains of any real significance from Kéa’s past are fragments of temples of Apollo and Athena at ancient Karthaia, tucked away on the southeastern edge of the island above Póles Bay, with an excellent deserted twin beach. It is a good ninety-minute round-trip walk from the hamlet of Stavroudháki (on the paved road linking Ioulídha and Havouná), and the inland paved road is worth following along the island’s summit from Ioulídha, as it affords fine views over the thousands of magnificent oaks, Kéa’s most distinctive feature. Kea Paths offers a walking trip (June–Sept Sat only).
Volcanic MÍLOS is a geologically diverse island with weird rock formations, hot springs and odd outcrops off the coast. Minoan settlers were attracted by obsidian; this and other products of its volcanic soil made it one of the most important of the Cyclades in the ancient world. Today, the quarrying of many rare minerals has left huge scars on the landscape but has given the island a relative prosperity which today translates into several gourmet restaurants with better wine lists than many of its neighbours. With some 75-odd beaches and sensational views Mílos hasn’t had to tart itself up to court tourism – indeed, the wealthy mining companies that employ a quarter of the population are happy to see tourism stay at low levels. It helps that the western half of Mílos, as well the other islands around it, including Kímolos, is a nature reserve protecting three endemic species: the extremely rare Mediterranean seal, the Mílos viper and the one you are most likely to encounter, the long, crocodile-shaped Mílos wall lizard. Note that the importance of the archeological finds, museums and sites here is only surpassed by Delos and Santoríni.
The main road to SOUTHERN MÍLOS splits at Kánava junction, near the large power station. The sea there contains underwater hot vents resulting in fizzy hotspots that locals use for jacuzzi-like baths. The eastern fork leads to Zefyría, which was briefly the capital until an eighteenth-century earthquake (and subsequent plague) drove out the population. There is little to see in the old town, but a magnificent seventeenth-century church with beautifully painted walls and ceilings. The original iconostasis was transferred to the church of the Dormition in Adhámas, while the icons are displayed in the Ecclesiastical museum.
South of Zefyría, it’s a further 8km down a winding, surfaced road to the coarse sand of Paleohóri, one of the island’s best beaches, warmed by underground volcanism. A little rock tunnel leads west to a second beach, which is backed by extraordinarily coloured cliffs and where steam vents heat the shallow water. Ayía Kyriakí, further to the west of Paleohóri, is a pebble beach under imposing sulphurous and red oxide cliffs.
SÍFNOS is prettier, tidier and more cultivated than its northern neighbours. In keeping with the island’s somewhat high-class clientele, camping rough is forbidden, while nude sunbathing is not tolerated. The island’s modest size makes it eminently explorable. The areas to head for are the port, Kamáres, the island’s capital Apollonía, as well as the east and south coasts. There is nothing in the north worth a peek, except maybe the small fishing village of Herrónisos, but even that is too far and offers too little for the first-time visitor. Sífnos has a strong tradition of pottery (as early as the third century BC) and has long been esteemed for its distinctive cuisine, with sophisticated casseroles baked in the clay-fired gástres (pots), from where the word gastronomy derives. The island is perhaps best appreciated today, however, for its many beautifully situated churches and monasteries, and for the beautiful scenery around Vathý in the far southwest.
From the beach at Glyfó, a fifteen-minute hillside path leads to the longer beach of Apokoftó, with a couple of good grill tavernas. Flanking Apokoftó to the south, marooned on a sea-washed promontory, the seventeenth-century Khryssopiyí Monastery features on every poster of the island. According to legend, the cleft in the rock (under the entrance bridge) appeared when two village girls, fleeing to the spit to escape the attentions of menacing pirates, prayed to the Virgin to defend their virtue. To celebrate the story, a large festival takes place forty days after Easter and involves the spectacular arrival of a holy icon on a large high-speed ferry, and its – often dramatic – transfer to a small boat to be brought ashore.
SÝROS is a living, working island with only a fleeting history of tourism, rendering it the most Greek of the Cyclades. There’s a thriving, permanent community, the beaches are busy but not overflowing and the villages don’t sprawl widely with new developments. As well as being home to a number of excellent restaurants, the island is known for its numerous shops selling loukoúmia (Turkish delight), mandoláta (nougat) and halvadhópita (soft nougat between disc-shaped wafers). In addition Sýros still honours its contribution to the development of rebétika music: Markos Vamvakaris, one of its prime proponents, hailed from Áno Sýros where a square has been named after him.
The island’s sights – including the best beaches – are concentrated in the south and west; the north is unpopulated and barren, offering little interest. Most people tend to stay in Ermoúpolis, which offers better connections to a variety of beaches, none further than 15km away.
Possessing an elegant collection of grand townhouses that rise majestically from the bustling, café-lined waterfront, ERMOÚPOLIS – once Greece’s chief port – is one of the most striking towns in the Cyclades, and is certainly worth at least a night’s stay.
Medieval Sýros was largely a Catholic island, but the influx of refugees from Psará and Híos during the nineteenth century created two distinct communities. Today, the Orthodox community accounts for two thirds of the population; Lower Ermoúpolis is mostly Orthodox while the Catholics live in the Upper Town and in the majority of the villages. They do, however, commonly celebrate each other’s festivals (including Easter on the Orthodox dates only), lending a vibrant mix of cultures that gives the island its colour.
The long, central square, Platía Miaoúli, is named after an admiral of the War of Independence whose statue stands there, and in the evenings the population parades in front of its arcades. The bougainvillea-covered pedestrian street of Roïdi and side streets east of Miaoúli square are peppered with most of the better eating options.
Up the stepped street (Benáki) to the left of the town hall is the small archeological museum (Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm; free), with three rooms of finds from Sýros, Páros and Amorgós. To the left of the clock tower more steps climb up to Vrondádho, the hill that hosts the Orthodox quarter. The wonderful church of the Anástasis stands atop the hill, with its domed roof and panoramic views over Tínos and Mýkonos.
Below Miaoúli square, and down a side street you can find the elaborate Casino and the Church of the Dormition (Sept–March 7.30am–12.30pm & 4.30–5.30pm; April–Aug 7.30am–noon, 5.30–6.30pm; free), which contains the town’s top art treasure: a painting of the Assumption by El Greco, executed while he was around 20 years old.
Up from the right of Miaoúli square is the Apollon Theatre, built like an Italian provincial opera house, which occasionally hosts performances (during morning rehearsals you can enter and watch for free or visit its small museum for €1.50). Further on up, the handsome Neoclassical Orthodox church of Áyios Nikólaos was built in 1848–70, with an impressive marble iconostasis (7am–2pm & 5–8pm). Beyond it lies the Vapória district, where the island’s wealthiest shipowners, merchants and bankers built their mansions.
On the taller hill to the left from Miaoúli square is the intricate medieval quarter of Áno Sýros, with a clutch of Catholic churches below the cathedral of St George. Just below it lies the Capuchin monastery of St Jean, founded in 1535 to do duty as a poorhouse. Once up here it’s worth visiting the local art and rembétika exhibitions, as well as personal items of the man himself at the Markos Vamvakaris museum (June–Sept daily 11am–2pm & 7–10pm; €1.50).
TÍNOS still feels like one of the most Greek of the larger islands in the Cyclades. A few foreigners have discovered its beaches and unspoilt villages, but most visitors are Greek, here to see the church of Panayía Evangelístria, a grandiose shrine erected on the spot where a miraculous icon with healing powers was found in 1822. A local nun, now canonized as Ayía Pelayía, was directed in a vision to unearth the relic just as the War of Independence was getting under way, a timely coincidence that served to underscore the links between the Orthodox Church and Greek nationalism. Today, there are two major annual pilgrimages, on March 25 and August 15, when Tínos is inundated by the faithful, and at 11am, the icon bearing the Virgin’s image is carried in state down to the harbour.
The Ottoman tenure here, and on adjoining Sýros, was the most fleeting in the Aegean. Exóbourgo, the craggy mount dominating southern Tínos and surrounded by most of the island’s sixty-odd villages, is studded with the ruins of a Venetian citadel that defied the Turks until 1715, long after the rest of Greece had fallen; an enduring legacy of the long Venetian rule is a Catholic minority, which accounts for almost half the population. Hills are dotted with distinctive and ornate dovecotes, even more in evidence here than on Ándhros. Aside from all this, the inland village architecture is striking, and there’s a flourishing folk-art tradition that finds expression in the abundant local marble.