Travel: Island-hop in the lap of the gods

Ideal for the eternally curious or the quickly bored, the islands in the Aegean known as the Cyclades are only an hour or two from each other. By Jill Dudley

TINY ISLANDS in blue seas with cheap little ferries bobbing around between them: yes, the Cyclades really are that easy to negotiate. Mind you, it wasn't as easy to get away from the Greek woman beside me who was staring gloomily into her sick-bag. Nor to get past the dozens of backpackers lying full-length in the gangway, unaware of the feet so close to stepping on their upturned sleeping faces.

This was the ferry to Naxos, the largest of the island group. Most of the Cyclades in the Aegean are within an hour or two of each other. Midsummer can be hot but the meltemi, a strong persistent north wind, cools things down and can make for rough crossings. Hence the sick-bag.

The tannoy announced that arrival was imminent. I went down the companion- way to the hold and joined some passengers preparing to disembark. Down there, all smelt of ship's paint, engine oil and diesel fumes, but after a noisy rattling of chains, the ramp was lowered and a smell of seaweed and ouzo came flooding in.

All island ports become a hive of activity when a ferryboat puts in. Hotel minibuses wait for new arrivals and women hold up notices of "Rooms". The hordes on shore wait impatiently until the last car is off and then move in a tidal wave up the ramp. You need to be reasonably strong to island-hop: to survive being hit in the face by an overloaded haversack, or forced along with the scrum pushing from behind.

Every island has its own character and history, though certain patterns emerge. Behind the port you'll usually see whitewashed houses climbing the hillside, with domed churches rising behind them. Tavernas line the seafront; brightly coloured boats tug at their moorings. Further inland, barren mountains rear up, dotted with small white chapels or the occasional monastery.

Naxos itself, by the way, where I had just arrived, was the island to which Theseus brought the beautiful Ariadne after he had killed the dreaded Minotaur in Crete. They were said to have lived on an islet now reached by a causeway to the north of the port and marked by a huge rectangular marble doorway, intended as the portal to a temple of Apollo. The temple was begun in 6BC, but was never finished.

Theseus, being something of a cad, soon abandoned Ariadne on Naxos and sailed back to Athens, stopping off first at the island of Delos, birthplace of Apollo. Delos was the religious centre of the ancient world and today is an archaeologist's dream. It is so popular with experts and tourists alike that visits are rationed to three hours only.

Even if you hate ruins, this small island is enchanting. It is said that Poseidon, god of the sea, raised Delos (the word means "manifest") from the sea bed expressly for the occasion of Apollo's birth, and anchored it on chains of diamonds. Until then, its name had been A-delos ("not visible").

What first strikes you is the light, a brilliance that overlays the tiny island and its sea. The white marble of the ruined temples rises against the mushroom-grey of the island. Three hours is much too short. Just around the corner from Delos is Mykonos, a favourite with the gay community and a jetsetter's playground with dazzling white cubic houses and thatched windmills on the skyline. The hotels and restaurants in Mykonos are expensive and, for the more humble tourist, a day trip with a picnic is a good option.

Mykonos' nearest neighbour, Tinos, by contrast, is less famous for its gay nightlife than for its great church of Penagia Evangelistria. A wide road climbs up to it from the port, and two narrow strips of carpet are laid out for the greater comfort of visitors to reach the fabulous icons inside.

Yesterday, 15 August, was an important date for Tinos: it was the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a celebration throughout the Orthodox world but especially here. The sick and disabled crowd into the Penagia Evangelistria hoping for miraculous cures. Many come with bedrolls and sleep in the vicinity of the church or in its gallery. A woman told me how her daughter, 10 years previously, had been cured overnight of the eczema which had plagued her for years.

An hour or so east of Tinos is Paros. There, in the port of Parikia, is the domed church of Panagia Ekatonta-piliani, parts of which date back to as long ago as the 4th century AD. Given its venerable age, I was unsurprised to see several invalids in the gallery in their sleeping bags, being attended to by relatives with plastic bags of food and bottles of water.

But more than anything, Paros is a backpackers' paradise. Dozens of them sleep on the beach under the stars. For families, the fishing village of Nacussa is better: from there, fishing boats take passengers to sandy bays and coves and collect them later. In fact, many of Paros' island ports hide gaggles of small houses, built around a tortuous maze of marble-paved alleyways, steep steps going up to low doorways or down into cellars and vaulted passages.

Originally, these maze-like village structures were designed to help the islanders escape from pirates. Today, bright with cascading bougainvillaea, jasmine and geraniums, the alleyways are the perfect tourist trap. In Paros' most "touristed" village, Naoussa, the people will be out in force next week, on 24 August, re-enacting a pirate raid led by Barbarossa, the red-bearded Turk. On his arrival back in 1537, he made the village girls dance for him and then made off with the most beautiful. In memory of the event, crowds gather by the quayside after dark to watch out for the imminent raid.

It comes as no surprise when, suddenly, six caiques sail out of the darkness into a harbour lit up by orange flares and manned by pirates brandishing cutlasses. The foremost caique reveals a pirate up the mast, standing aloft with arms out as though crucified. A boat in the harbour puts up a show of defence, firing guns and letting off fireworks. Rockets zoom into the night sky and burst into myriad stars before floating seaward.

Inevitably, the evening ends with the whole village dancing in the plateia to the sound of bazookis, a fiddle and drum. You don't have to buy a ticket to dance. That would not be the Greek style. If visitors keep coming for the sun and the sea, they also come for the wonderful simplicity of Greek life.

FACT FILE

cyclades

GETTING THERE

By air: Virgin Atlantic Airways (tel: 01293 747747) flies daily to Athens. Return flights in August from pounds 171 plus pounds 24 tax, subject to availability.

Easy Jet (tel: 0870 6000 000) flies twice daily from London Luton to Athens. Return flights in August from pounds 141, subject to availability.

Various charter companies fly frequently to Athens direct during the summer, such as GB Airways, Excalibur and Monarch. Charter flights are usually the cheapest option and tour operators such as Lunn Poly and Thomas Cook sell charters to Athens, but they do sell out very quickly in peak season. Thomas Cook Direct (tel: 0990 666222) offers return flights to Athens during August from pounds 195, subject to availability.

GETTING AROUND

By air: Olympic Airways (tel: 0171-409 3400) offers various domestic flights to the Cyclades during peak season. There are airports on Paros, Mykonos, Thira (Santorini), Syros, Milos, Astipalea and Naxos. Return flights (via Athens) to any of these islands in August will be around pounds 250 including tax. "Open-jaw" tickets fly you in and out of Athens and to any combination of islands in between.

By boat:

All three of Athens' ports are easily accessible by bus from Athens and the airport. Most of the Cyclades are served by ferries from Piraeus but some go from Rafina and a few from Lavrio. The National Tourist Office in Athens (at 2, Amerikis; tel: 01 331 0561) publishes a free weekly list of ship departures and prices. Tickets can be bought from travel agents throughout the city or direct from the port (prices will be the same). Faster boats - hydrofoils, catamarans - will cost substantially more. Buying a ticket on board costs around 20 per cent more. Combination tickets for serious island-hoppers will save money.

RECOMMENDED READING

The Rough Guide to Greece (pounds 12.99) has a substantial chapter on the Cyclades, with a detailed section on getting around.

Greek Islands (Cadogan, 14.99) also has very good practical information on island-hopping within the Cyclades.

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