“Cruising to the Cyclades” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first cruise in Greece in 2018. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog, following last year’s precedents in Crete and the Dodecanese and this year’s in the Peloponnese. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
An eventful and very exciting day. I ended last night’s blog by saying “tomorrow, we hope to set out northwards and westwards, to reach Delos“. That is not what happened, as an unexpectedly strong northerly wind would have made that crossing unnecessarily unpleasant. Delos will have to wait. Instead, we went westwards and northwards, crossing some rocky waters, to the main port and capital town of Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades, distinguished by an immensely long history and great cultural depth.
We stopped for breakfast just off the little island of Keros in the so-called Lesser Cyclades. It is currently not permitted to enter Keros, a protected archaeological zone, where a series of surveys and excavations – still ongoing – have revealed an extremely important site of the 3rd millennium BC Early Bronze Age Cycladic culture, a place where hundreds of Cycladic figurines were deposited, all of them broken, and apparently broken somewhere else. Keros was almost certainly an important sacred place of significance to the surrounding islands. Having reached Naxos by mid-day, we continued the same narrative in the local archaeological museum, which houses finds from Naxos and from many other islands, including Keros. The collection of Cycladic figurines on display here is – fittingly – 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.
It 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…
Tomorrow, we will explore a number of sites in the interior of Naxos. Perhaps, we will later proceed to another island. Time will tell…