Nonplussed In Paros

by Dalia Miller
Photos by Kip Miller

It is nearly noon on a cloudless day in Paros, a speck in the Aegean where well developed tourism has almost overshadowed traditional island life. We are waiting ever so patiently upstairs at the harbor police station, hoping the captain will soon come out of his office so that we can try to have our 40 euro tickets waived. Through the office window, we see his glossy hair brush well built shoulders connected to bulging biceps and we have a déjà vu moment: This handsome island youth is almost a double for the macho bus driver in “My Life in Ruins.” His assistant talks to us between innumerable phone calls, cigarette puffs and sips of Greek coffee. “Try to relax,” he advises. “These things can take time. Can you come back next week?” he asks. “Where are you staying?” He clearly does not understand our American sensibilities.

Sleepy Naoussa is dazzling in the Aegean sun.

Most of our extended traveling paréa (group of friends) had made a glorious trip to neighboring Naxos on the previous day. Ferry schedules being what they are–Greek, that is–our return boat arrived in Paros one and a half hours late. Approaching our three rental cars left behind at the harbor, we immediately noticed tickets slapped on the windshields. The seven p.m. time limit had been exceeded and we were each obligated to pay that 40 euro fine. We calculated the exchange rate and gulped: a hefty amount to pay for something that was out of our control. So here we are today, hoping against hope that Greek generosity will prevail so that we can resume our relaxing idyll on blue and white Paros.

Suddenly, the captain emerges from his office with a megawatt smile on his face. “How can I help you?” We show him the tickets and the printed ferry schedule that proves we should have been back in time to retrieve our cars. He mulls it all over and with an even bigger smile says, “No problem. I am taking care of this. Your tickets are cancelled. But, please, you must complete the papers we give you now.” The assistant hands over the forms and we begin to fill them out. “Where was your father born? And your mother? What are their full names?” Are they counting us in their census? The relevance of these questions escapes us, but we fill in every blank and leave the station with a spring in our step, ready to experience anew all the pleasures of Paros.

A steep lane winds into Naoussa, second largest town in Paros.

Our island is located in the center of the Cyclades, a cluster that includes better known Mykonos and Santorini. Eleven of us—five couples plus our niece—have selected Paros for a seven-day getaway because of its central location, its breadth of accommodations, and the ease of maneuvering around the island. For my husband and me this journey marks our 28th time in Greece, a country we have loved ever since our first trip in 1969.

It is four days earlier. In Athens, noisy protests in front of Parliament are becoming a distraction, and though we totally sympathize with the plight of the people, we are glad to escape the tension in the city. Our flight to Paros is a mere 30 minutes. As we begin to descend, the island comes into view with gently rolling hills and smallish mountains, glittering white villages, bays filled with sailboats and endless beaches. I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about this popular destination in preparation. I have also heard that several Hollywood celebrities and art moguls own summer homes on Paros and its neighboring island, Antiparos. What fun, I think. We land and the adventure begins.

Our luggage is loaded on a small bus and we are on our way to the Aghio Anargyri beach area at the southern edge of Naoussa, second city on the island. We have been holding reservations at a family boutique hotel for over a year. It looks quite appealing from afar and has a small pool adjoining a central tented courtyard where breakfast is served. But on closer inspection our dream falls apart. We had expected the spacious accommodations and luxurious amenities featured on the website, but instead we climb innumerable stairs to small rooms with cheap furnishings and even worse bathrooms. The air conditioning is sluggish at best, when it works. One night of substandard sleep and a lousy shower would be tolerable, but seven? One couple in our group plans to move next door to a luxury hotel after the first night. Our niece is really upset about her “unclean” bathroom. She will move out next, furious after an argument about hotel towels not being permitted on the beach, opting for a pleasant hotel complex across the street at the water’s edge. The rest of us decide to stick it out, unwilling to forfeit our 30 percent deposits, or worse, the entire week’s charges.

Nonplussed, we are determined to make the most out of our sojourn in Paros. A short walk into Naoussa, down meandering lanes crowded with handsome boutiques, bars, and restaurants, brings us to a medieval harbor dominated by a Frankish castle and small boats bobbing at the quay. The scent of grilled fish permeates the air. We are ravenous and quickly seat ourselves at a long table in an airy waterfront taverna, ready to devour platefuls of kalamária and whitebait. On the return walk home, a stop at Naoussa’s cathedral regales us with a folk dance performance by costumed children complete with island musicians and doting parents.

Paroikia retains a medieval air with twisting covered streets.

Some of our friends are making their first whole day in Paros a beach day, but my husband and I and our adventurous niece can’t wait to explore Paroikia, the capital and main port of the island, just a short bus ride from Naoussa. The harbor windmill is the local landmark and it serves as a compass to help orient visitors. We wind through the bustling old town crammed with upscale handicraft shops, unique art galleries, a variety of restaurants, and an elegant bakery where we sample our favorite Greek sweet: bougátsa. This breakfast phyllo dough concoction is filled with custard or sweetened mizíthra cheese and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon, and anyone who ever tries it becomes addicted to the crunch of the dough and the savory sweetness of the filling. We stop at Yria, a fine ceramics boutique where my husband and I shopped in 1981 on a previous visit to Paros. At that time the local potter and his American wife turned out charming plates and bowls with hand-painted octopus and squid designs. Alas, the shop is now owned by someone else and the merchandise no longer has the same arty quality. For lunch, a miniscule sandwich shop tucked under a huge pink bougainvillea beckons with tantalizing aromas and patrons babbling in a variety of languages, often more than one in the same conversation. We find an empty table and delight in our United Nations meal.

The windmill in Paroikia’s port is the local landmark.
The paréa makes a decision: cars are a necessity if we want to explore the whole island. We strike a bargain with the main rental agency at the Naoussa port and take possession of three mini cars for three days. One of our paréa, a seasoned tour operator on her 61st trip to Greece, is superbly qualified to head our expedition. She guides us down a winding road from Naoussa deep into the center of the island and the mountain village of Lefkes. Once the second largest town in Paros and its first capital, Lefkes gradually diminished in size as many of its residents gave up farming in favor of tourism and relocated to coastal areas. It is a stunning example of Cycladic architecture built dramatically into the mountainside with views to the sea. Indeed, Lefkes is so lovely that it is featured in the popular coffee table book: “The Most Beautiful Villages of Greece.” Whitewashed houses on steep streets are brightened at every turn by flower filled terraces. The central church is an architectural gem and several tourist shops sell locally made ceramics and hand-woven table linens. We stop at a tiny little square enveloped in flowers for a cool drink, and linger to reminisce about previous trips to Greece.

An overburdened gaïdoúri (donkey) makes a delivery in Paroikia.

Southeast of Lefkes, the coastal road winds through Márpissa, another classic Cycladic town, continuing to Alikí just in time for lunch. This beach haven is totally geared for tourism with several tavernas and hotels right at the water’s edge. We choose to Balkóni, a spacious psarótaverna (fish restaurant), and make selections from a diverse menu. From our tables we can see hundreds of tiny sea urchins in the crystal clear water lapping the beach. In the distance lie several uninhabited islets and sleepy Antiparos, once connected to Paros until a seismic event separated the two.


Hungry diners are drawn to “To Balkóni,” one of Aliki’s many fine seaside tavernas.

Our circle tour of the island ends with a stop at the Mycenean ruins that our niece, who loves antiquities and teaches both the Odyssey and the Iliad, had discovered on her morning jog. The site crowns the hill of Koukounariés not far from the massive boulders of Kolymbithres beach opposite Naoussa. Here are remnants of Cyclopean walls from the 12th century BC. Many blackened Bronze Age vessels were found here, suggesting that the site was destroyed by a violent fire, perhaps in battle.

The massive rocks at Kolymbithres, remnants of ancient mountains.

Back in Naoussa, we toast our successful outing at Soso, a quiet restaurant on a back alley away from the port. The specialties of the house are numerous: halóumi (Cypriot cheese) enveloped in pita glazed with honey and sesame seeds, a delicately seasoned fish salad, and several hand-made pasta preparations. With such tantalizing aromas wafting from our table, a bevy of neighborhood cats immediately arrives on the scene, hoping for a stray tidbit. They soon outnumber us, and we discreetly toss a few choice morsels under the table. We have made friends for life: two gatákia (little cats) follow us all the way back to the hotel.

Car day two has been chosen for a mini voyage to Naxos. Our three rental cars head out early for Paroikia. We make a bee line for the most famous site in Paros, the impressive Church of Ekatontapyliani, so named for its 100 doors. Built on the site of an ancient gymnasium, it is a vast ecclesiastical complex comprising a large main church with a beautiful dome, baptistery and chapel dating from the Justinian period. According to popular lore, 99 doors are visible to the eye, but the 100th door is invisible and will only be revealed when the Greeks retake Constantinople. The church complex, revered as the one of the holiest sites in Greece, was built by Ignatius, a pupil of the great architect who designed the world famous Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. A guide leading us through the church relates the following legend: “When the building was finished in Paros, the teacher came to see the work of his pupil and became very envious when he saw how magnificent it was. ‘This cannot be so,’ the teacher said and he led Ignatius to a gallery in the narthex to inspect some alleged imperfection, and when Ignatius leaned over to check it out, he pushed him forcibly. The pupil was thrown off balance by the blow and grabbed his teacher for support, and both fell to their death at the entrance of the church below.” Downstairs, on several column bases framing the baroque door of the church, this story is depicted in relief.

A formidable kástro crowns Hora in Naxos.

Just beyond the church area several rowdy teenagers are racing with abandon through the gardens that front Paroikia’s archaeological museum. On the sidelines, three fresh-faced girls are acting as cheerleaders. We learn that these high-spirited youths “graduated from high school today” and had just kicked off a spirited celebration that would last until the wee hours. Their fun is exhilarating to watch, but the museum beckons.

An impressive structure, it houses many superb pieces from ancient workshops carved out of translucent Parian marble. I am struck by the anthropomorphic statue of Gorgo (Medusa), a mythical creature with snakes springing from her hair. According to the myth, whoever sets eyes on her will be turned to stone. Noting the explanation, I immediately move on to the Archilochus room, dedicated to the great poet of Paros, considered a rival of Homer. Here one finds a masterpiece of Parian sculpture: Artemis seated on a throne wearing a pleated chiton, dating from 480 BC. Nearby, a magnificent golden amphora from a 7th century Parian workshop combines figures and geometric designs. It had not occurred to me before that Parian marble was the stone of choice for statuary and architectural ornamentation at distant sites such as Olympia, Delphi and Delos. Praxitiles used it to full advantage in his elegant sculpture of Hermes and to this day no marble on earth absorbs light to the same degree. Nonetheless, in the fifth century BC when the Acropolis was being built, Parian marble was eclipsed by lesser stone quarried in Attica’s Mount Pentelikón. For me, this is a real “aha” moment.

Back at the port, we board the ferry for Naxos. The largest of the Cycladic islands, it is known in mythology as the place where Theseus abandoned Ariadne. Today it is noted for its Venetian kástro, traditional music, and farm fresh produce. As we approach Naxos, we are rewarded with a sweeping vista of the hóra (port town) and to its left, the giant portára—the massive marble gateway that today is a door to nowhere. Built on the tiny connecting islet of Palatía, portára was once part of an unfinished temple dedicated to Apollo. Its four marble blocks weigh 20 tons each and in the late afternoon these huge stones glitter like gold against the sky.

The Temple of Artemis dominates a windswept plain in central Naxos.

Even on an abbreviated visit, one can still absorb the flavor of Naxos. We hire three taxis to make a circular tour around the island, with stops at places of high touristic interest. Manolis, the young driver of our taxi, is an amiable local from the village of Sangri. Sweet, lilting dance melodies play nonstop on the car radio and it is clear that Manolis loves his regional music. He is driving slowly on the hilly terrain to allow us to fully take in the scenery. We ask him about his life. Speaking to us haltingly in Greek with a few words of English, he explains how Naxos has been able to hang on to its cultural identity and farming traditions, even though tourism is a growing source of revenue. This island is blessed with many water sources which support numerous crops and large herds of sheep and goats. Manolis says Naxos exports food products throughout Greece. “Our lamb is very tasty,” he adds, “you should try!”

The ancient marble temple of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, is located in the southern half of the interior. Built in the 6th century BC, it declined in subsequent centuries and was later repurposed as an early Christian church. The wind rustles through its columns and we gaze at the temple and surrounding countryside in a state of reverie. Manolis honks the horn and breaks the spell and we pile into the taxi which whisks us to Apeiranthos, the most traditional village on the island. In recent years tourists have been flocking to this picturesque town which boasts a fine folklore museum, marbled streets, a geology museum, and carnival customs unlike any others in Greece. In the folk museum, 18th century rooms are imaginatively recreated and a magnificent 153-piece krevatariá (bedspread) covers a bridal bed. The taxi honks on cue and we continue our little tour, stopping briefly by massive quarries that go back to antiquity, and then at a small side road where a giant fallen kóuros (stylized Cycladic sculpture) lays on the ground. Originally sculpted to hold up a roof, this statue was abandoned by its creator due to a fault in its marble.

Yorgos, the local fixture in Apeiranthos, sits on his stoop, enjoying the crush of visitors who stop to photograph him.

The three taxis bring us to the port for our return ferry. Too bad there is not enough time to stroll up to the impressive kástro overlooking the harbor. We drain frappedákia (iced coffees) as we wait patiently for our boat due to arrive from Santorini, already more than an hour late. Finally back in Paros and very hungry, we dine by moonlight in Paroikia at Franca Scala, an upscale rooftop restaurant overlooking the old market street.

As we depart Naxos at dusk, the giant portára is outlined by the fading sun.

To say that we have become addicted to bougátsa is an understatement. A few of us return to Paroikia the next day to that awesome bakery to take care of our craving. We eat while standing, wiping crumbs continuously and joyously. A local is watching us eat with a big smile on his face. He is friendly and starts asking us questions. He said he had spotted our niece earlier in the day while stopping at her hotel. “So you like bougátsa!” he exclaims. “Where are you from? Where are you staying? Where have you eaten?” Greeks often have no boundaries when it comes to questions. He tells us that he is a Canadian Greek who got fed up with the cold and returned to his island. He runs a restaurant and he hands us his card. I gather that he wants our business. We thank him: Efharistó polí, and finally sit down for a drink. A few minutes later he whizzes by on his bicycle and abruptly hands us a package, disappearing before we can even open our mouths. There are several pieces of bougátsa inside from another bakery near the port. Our ritual has evolved into a comparative bougátsa tasting. We take a few more bites, but decide instead to buy more to take back to our paréa at the hotels. The first bakery is out of bougátses. We had eaten them all. The second bakery is nowhere to be found, but within a short walk is yet a third bakery operated by Cretans named Chaniotis with stacks of bougátses right in the window. We buy some and speed back to Naoussa. Our tour leader known to be an unashamed bougátsa eater, and she smiles from ear to ear as we hand her the package. Another one of our group has been ailing in bed with a fever and we make a delivery to her room, convinced that a good bougátsa will go a long way to make her better. You would think that a good Greek pastry could also sweeten the ill-natured help at our hotel. No! The woman is hopeless, even after we offer her one of our treasures!

Alas, there are no more bougátses at our favorite Paroikia bakery.

Our week will soon be coming to an end. The paréa agrees to meet at Pounta on the southwest side of the island for an outing to Antiparos. We take the ten-minute ferry across, noting that the island is so close that you could surely swim the distance if you were young and in top shape. Antiparos is famed for a huge cave known as “The Shelter” on the hill of Ai Yiannis where stalactites compete with inscriptions made by centuries of visitors from Menander to King Othon and Queen Amalia. The island’s castle dates from the 15th century, passing through many occupiers including Venetians, pirates and Ottomans. More recently, Antiparos has gained luxury homes built by celebrities like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson who prefer the rugged beauty and privacy of the island to neighboring Paros. We have time for a short exploration of the town before our reservation at Anargyros, a waterfront taverna dating from 1925, where the film “Madalena” was made years ago. When we all sit down to dine, the jovial proprietress brings out her specialties: crispy zucchini fritters, soutzoukákia (spiced meat balls in sauce), and grilled local fish redolent with herbs.

Hanging octopi lure patrons at Taverna Anargyros in Antiparos.

By Friday the rental cars are gone and we decompress on the beach, stroll in the neighborhood, spend a few hours at the local internet café, and browse endlessly in Naoussa’s shops. For our final dinner on the island we have a reservation at To Bakiri, a cozy neighborhood restaurant and my personal favorite of the trip. All eleven of us gather on the rooftop and are given the royal treatment at this family run taverna. The mother had lived in New York for many years and is an accomplished Greek cook. I will never forget her stuffed zucchini with avgolémono sauce, chicken souvlaki seasoned and grilled to perfection and Greek salad with the sweetest tomatoes we have ever tasted in Greece. This gracious family cannot do enough to make us feel welcome. From the rooftop, Paros’s cubic houses twinkle in the distance as evening clouds drift across a three-quarter moon. It is a very special send-off for all of us.

Our last day in Paros: Naoussa’s harbor is packed with tour boats.

“Goodbye hotel!” The lady at the desk manages to eke out a tiny smile, suppressing her surly side. We are sure she is really glad we are leaving. All of us board the bus to Paroikia where we will catch the high speed ferry back to Piraeus. We buy The International Herald Tribune and catch up on world news: Tensions are increasing in Athens and more strikes are scheduled. The stock market continues to be volatile. The Middle East is erupting again. The U.S. congress is in gridlock. Some of our paréa are scheduled to return to the States immediately, others in a few days, but my husband and I and our niece are happily staying on in Greece to embark on an eight-day adventure in the Peloponnese. Yes, the world is in turmoil, but here in this eternal land, we remain nonplussed.

Paroikia throngs as we bid farewell to Paros.