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This is Day 4 of a travel diary of our wonderful 2-week small ship Cyclades cruise. Every day we pick some images accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.

Portara Gate on Naxos in the Cyclades Greece

Having reached Naxos we visited the local archaeological museum, which houses finds from Naxos and from many other islands. The collection of Cycladic figurines on display here is one of the finest in the world.

We followed the museum visit with a tour of its immediate surroundings, the Venetian-era Castle of Naxos, erected after 1207 by Marco Sanudo, obliterating and reusing the remains of the ancient Naxian city state, which had its acropolis in the same area. Even eight centuries later, some of the mansions within the castle's limits are still inhabited by descendants of the Venetian noble families that joined Sanudo in conquering Naxos and in creating the Duchy of the Archipelago, an entity that originally included all the Cyclades and that existed for 372 years. It is an atmospheric spot, merging nearly seamlessly with the more traditional Cycladic labyrinthine village lanes surrounding it.

In the evening, we took our guests to see the other famous emblem of Naxos Town, the Portara, just before sunset. Set on Palatia, a small islet outside Naxos port and now connected to the main island by a causeway, the Portara is a beautiful structure, and a very intriguing one.

Portara means "big gate" in colloquial Greek, and that's exactly what the Portara is: a large gate or rather a doorway made of enormous marble blocks, with some carved details belonging to the Ionic order. The Portara is nearly 6m (20ft) tall and each of its door-jambs weighs about 20 metric tons.

Although the Portara looks like an isolated monument from a distance, a closer look reveals that it stands on one end of a large rectangular marble foundation, facing roughly northwards. A few column drums are also associated with these foundations. Altogether, it appears that the Portara was the entrance to a monumental marble temple in the Ionic style, and its stylistic elements suggest a very early date, in the middle of the sixth century BC, when fully marble-built temples were unknown in Greece. Indeed, Naxos, a source of first-rate marble, appears to have been the first Greek city-state to have constructed temples built fully of marble, on Delos and on Naxos itself, not long after it had also pioneered the first monumental marble sculptures.

The ancient Portara at twilight on Naxos in GreeceIt seems apparent that this large temple was never completed. We have no clear idea which deity it was meant to be dedicated to, both Apollo and Dionysos have been suggested, as both were key gods for the Naxians. Similarly unclear is why this ambitious structure remained unfinished - maybe it was simply too large to be built and financed at the time? Another proposal is that it was a project of the local ruler, or tyrant, Lygdamis, who was in power from 545 to 524 BC, and that it was abandoned after his demise. The experts point out, however, that its simple style would suggest abandonment at the start, rather than the end, of Lygdamis' reign. There are no good historical sources to decisively prove or disprove these speculations.

There is more to be said about the Portara, as it is a rather problematic structure. For example, the carved details on its different architectural elements don't quite fit together, making it unlikely that they were really meant to be put together the way they now stand, and have stood for millennia.

I don't know what the answers to the many questions about the Portara are, but having seen the monument many times and in many different conditions of light and weather, I know that it is a place of unending fascination. Its setting, offering grand views of Naxos Town, of the sea and of neighbouring Paros, Syros, Delos and Mykonos, is awe-inspiring and memorable. The Portara itself and its huge marble elements are solid and seem untouchable, timeless, shrouded in mystery. I have seen the Portara sparkle brilliantly white in the Aegean's brilliant summer sunlight, loom grey and heavy in the darkness of a rainy day, emit a golden warmth in the soft tones of a September evening, glow pink and seemingly weightless in the fading light of a spring evening, or shine in soft whiteness under the light of a full moon...

To visit the Portara and many other amazing sites in the Greek islands, find out more about our epic Cyclades tour by gulet.

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