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Sunday, March 18, 2007

TINOS, MYKONOS, DELOS: The Divine and the Decadent

Two months from this weekend my friend and I will be in Venice. Then, on the 22nd May we head by ferry to Greece. We're going to make some stops along the way, as well as visit a few islands after we reach Athens. I'm the tour guide because I've visited these places many times before, and written about some of them. My friend wants specifically to see one of the Cycladic Islands, noted for their pristine white churches with blue domes. I suggested that Mykonos is the most typical of these, the picture postcard Greek Island. And as it will be before high season we will not be beset by hedonistic rowdies who roam the island mid-summer, sullying the gorgeous beaches with open fornicating and strolling the labyrinth of cobbled streets nude and drunk. Yes, that's the way Mykonos has become according to a friend who works in the tourism business there. Unless the townfolk have come to their senses and forbidden such disgusting behavior. Unfortunately, in the past, the tourist dollar has meant more than modesty.

I've visited Mykonos twice before, both times off-season (once at Easter and once in early June). It's two 'sister' islands, Tinos and Delos, are also interesting places to see. And this is an article I wrote about them some years ago.

Only a few nautical miles separate them, but the islands of Tinos, Mykonos and Delos, in the Greek Cyclades Islands, are as diverse as the Elysian Fields and the Underworld. The Divine and the Decadent.
Tinos is ascetic: a holy island, famed for one of the most important shrines of the Orthodox Church. Mykonos is a pleasure seeker’s delight. Delos has been the god Apollo’s sanctuary since antiquity.

The bell tower of the Church of the Annunciation looms above the flat rooftops of Tinos. Every August 15 for a hundred years, it has been the scene of a mass pilgrimage symbolizing faith and the Holy Mother.

There are several monasteries and convents on the island, the most significant being the Convent of Kehrovounio. In 1823 a nun received a vision there revealing the hiding place of the miraculous icon, which is now housed in the Church of the Annunciation. Its discovery was taken as an omen of Greek freedom from Turkish bondage.

White seminary buildings surround the Church like a fortress wall. The big iron gates, plated with silver figures of the Virgin and Saints open onto a wide courtyard paved with mosaics of black and white pebbles. The fragrances of candle wax and incense drift out of the open doorways.

The shrine of the Virgin contains the famed icon. The dark, egg-tempera faces of the Virgin and Child are almost obscured by pearls, diamonds, emeralds and rubies. The icon is believed to have miraculous healing powers. Pious worshippers approach in awe. During August, when the pilgrims flock to Tinos from every corner of Greece, it will be almost impossible to find a room at any of the hotels that line the bay.

Take a bus or rent a Vespa to explore Tinos. There are scenic coves and beaches, picturesque villages and campsites. Tinos is the birthplace of several famous artists. In Pyrgos, the home of the great sculptor Giannoulis Halepas has been converted into a museum. Koni is the native village of Nicholaos Gyzis, one of Greece’s most renowned painters. Folk art and handicrafts are displayed in the villages.

The ferry trip from Tinos to Mykonos is only an hour. Mykonos is rocky and barren. The village is stark, vivid, a flaring whiteness against the ink blue sea. Sparkling white cubes of houses and the blue and red domes of miniature churches are strung out along the jagged shoreline. Hidden among the maze of narrow streets are the bars and cabarets that have made Mykonos internationally popular.

Mykonos is a stage for flamboyant jet-setters and sun worshippers, its sheltered harbor a haven for yachts. By day, the village is dazzling, the shop fronts hung with a brilliant array of wares. Narrow cobbled streets curl around the labyrinth of colonnades and arcades. Houses seem to lean against each other; wooden balconies and trellises spill over with magenta bougainvillea and crimson hibiscus. At the end of every whorl of streets, the sun sparkles invitingly.

Evening approaches. The whiteness is haunting. Vivid colors of the sunset reflect off the whitewashed walls. The streets flicker with mysterious shadows. It’s ouzo time. Sit at one of the harbor’s tavernas: sip a glass of this cloudy, licorice-flavored Greek aperitif; watch the last of the sun’s golden rays turn the evening into sheer enchantment.

Early in the morning, take a trip across to the little island of Delos. As the kaiki approaches the ancient harbor, Delos is a sharp, ebony outline against the pale sky. The soft glow of the morning sun shifts across the bleak, rocky shoreline; an aureole appears over the tumbled ruins. The only sound is the gentle lapping of the sea.

Step off the kaiki; walk toward the porticos and pillars of the Sacred Precinct; feel the surge of excitement. Delos is barren, desolate. An awesome eeriness emanates from Apollo’s holy sanctuary. The power of unknown Beings is felt.

Walk along the Sacred Way, following the footsteps of ancient heroes. Odysseus visited Delos on his famed voyage, stopping to pay homage at the god’s altar. Theseus founded the Delian Games here on his triumphant return from the bull-courts of Crete.

Once a verdant, tropical garden island, lush with palm groves and fields of flower, Delos was populated from the tenth century BC. The Greeks assembled here to herald the rite of spring. Now the only inhabitants are scores of lizards basking on the fallen altars.

Solemn stone lions guard the avenue leading to the Sacred lake. The lake is now a dry bed, but there is still a palm tree growing on this spot in remembrance of the birth of Apollo. Here, his mother Leto, clasped her hands around a palm tree when she brought Apollo into the world.
Climb the rocky pathway to the summit of Kynthos, the Sacred Mount. Below, the sea glimmers like a jewel. The island is drenched with dazzling light. The sun burns off the rocks, searing the fields, parching the earth.

Across the narrow channel, colorful fishing boats bob into the shelter of Mykonos harbor. Tavernas and tourist shops begin a brisk trade. Nude bathers frolic in the clear blue sea at Paradise Beach. Another day has begun in the Garden of Eden.
Farther away, on Tinos, the bells in the tower of the Church of the Annunciation toll a litany calling the devout Tinians to worship.

The warm Greek sun beams down. On Delos, Apollos’ presence is felt.

IF YOU GO: The best time to visit these islands is in April or May, before the height of the tourist season.
There is a daily ferry service to Tinos and Mykonos from the mainland ports of Piraeus and Rafina and flights from Athen’s Olympic Airport. Boat tours run each day between Mykonos and Delos.
ADDITIONAL INFO: In Greek Mythology: “The Elysian Fields” were the abode of the blessed after death, or heaven. “The Underworld” was the world of the dead, or hell.

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