I came on holiday to Paros in the Greek archipelago known as The Cyclades because I wanted to see if I could do what so many people do – relax by the sea in the sun for two weeks without going mad. No more rushing around cultural artifacts in museums or long trawls round art galleries or architectural tours of capital cities trying to see how they fit into the greater scheme of World politics.
Well, that was the idea but after a few days on Paros reading Homer whilst relaxing on the beach, I could not turn a blind eye to the many interesting pieces of history just lying around to be examined.
It started when I took a look at the remains of a Venetian fortress that used to guard the little harbour at Naousa and remembered from somewhere at the back of my brain that Venice had colonised/invaded the Greek islands in medieval times. They are long gone now, of course but their ruins are still lying around along with all those even older relics of Ancient Greece’s golden days.
Climbing the walls of the fortress and imagining 13th. Century Paros decided me. I was still going to relax but then I have always found knowledge more relaxing than ignorance and all around me the old meets the new and it would soon have become annoying not to know the whys and the wheres.
Going to the island’s main town, Parikia, a livelier and pleasantly more disorderly town than Naousa, I came across more Venetian remains when I saw this extraordinary-looking tower which was part of the remains of another fortress built in 1260 by the Venetian Duke of Naxos.
It was pretty obvious that the building materials were unconventional to say the least but it was only when I joined a tour of the island led by the irrepressible German guide, Utthe, that I realized that the stones were the ancient remains of a temple to Athena the goddess of wisdom.
Utthe was a bit of a wisdom goddess too and I was enthralled by her stories of the island as I joined a group of German and Dutch tourists on a guided tour. She has lived on the island for thirty-five years arriving as a very wild hippie and settling in a house which still has no electricity or running water. Paros is still a bit of a haven for bohemia but it took Utthe to show me why.
and this pleasant outdoor coffee table was found by the owners of this house when the were restoring it. It is of course another temple pillar but why not put it to a much more sensible use and have it as a rock solid table to have your morning coffee on.
Another bizarre touch was the ceramic cross over the door which was made from some exquisite Turkish tiles which were presumably remnants from the centuries when The Cyclades was a part of the Ottoman Empire. I wondered if this was a sly gesture of reclamation on behalf of the Greeks.
The most famous church in the whole of The Cyclades is the so-called church of Our Lady of the Hundred Gates, the Panagia Ekatondapliani which was founded in the year AD 326. The “gates” are really openings including windows and it is a building of supreme beauty said to have been founded by St Helen, the Christian Greek Empress who stopped off on Paros on her way to Palestine in search of the remains of Jesus’s cross. Legend has it that she found it…well OK, I am not in an argumentative mood.
…….and the wonderfully evocative baptistry with its cross-shaped font where many early Christians were baptised. It is in places like these that you can really feel the presence of those heroic early converts.
Wonderful too are the marble columns in the Lady Chapel where Christian architecture really did spring out of the styles of Ancient Greek temples. Paros is known as the marble island and white Parian marble was the reason for the island’s early prosperity. It is still quarried today but we know it best for what is probably the most famous of all Greek statues, the Venus di Milo which is now in the Louvre in Paris.
I was amazed that the dog didn’t fall off the back of the motorbike but then I realized I was thinking in a Northern European way just as I was when I saw this old vegetable merchant selling his goods from the back of his equally ancient mule. They too seem to have come from Ancient Greece and were quite content with walking pace in the age of the motor car.
I wasn’t there for long but I could see why very rich and very lucky people like the Hollywood actor Tom Hanks have decided to keep a home here. I don’t know where he lives but I suspect it can have no greater elegance than the little town houses with their perfect proportions and simple lines.
Here, I felt, not much had changed since Homer’s time and, I hope, it never will. On other parts of the island, I fear that building for tourism is in danger of getting out of control Maybe the Greek economy crisis will be a hidden blessing and stop the encroachment of holiday villas.
No one knows if Homer, the Western World’s earliest-known poet, ever visited Paros but the second earliest poet, Archilochos (c.680 BC – c.645 BC) was born here. Archilochos, part soldier, part poet, is said to have invented the Iambic metre and is known as the first lyric poet but, sadly, for all his high reputation, only fragments of his work have survived. There is enough though to make you stop and wonder and, as a humble versifier, I felt a strange and unaccustomed sense of humility walking on the ground where Western poetry as we know it began.
you have clung under your lovers
and under your love of lust,
seeing nothing else for this mist,
dark of heart, dark of mind.
I was heading inland to the old capital of Paros, the perfectly beautiful hillside village of Lefkes where you can feel cut off even from the calm atmosphere of the rest of the island.
Walking down those narrow streets with their mysterious side lanes and over-hanging shrubs, I wondered, as we all should when we are on holiday, if we need anything else in life other than beauty, tranquility and sunshine.
With that thought, I found the ideal place for coffee, in the middle of the village, under a tree, isolated and cut off but also, somehow at the centre of life and at the heart of our ancient and shared culture.
When I got back to Naousa, I discovered that I could not get a ferry on the same day as my flight home from the southern Cycladic island of Santorini so I would have to leave this paradise a day early. Tomorrow I will tell you about my twenty four hours on the top of a volcano.