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The Island Once My Home

Mykonos and DelosThe Island Once My Home,” By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

A Magnet Through Time

Among such treasures in the Mykonos Archaeological Museum as the 7th-century-BC pithos whose reliefs depict the capture of Troy (an artifact preserved from plunder during World War Two by the Kousathanas family) is a lovely 3rd-millennium-BC mirror. Some anonymous Mykonian woman (a woman, for the object bears a distinctive Delta sign) filled this shallow bowl with water and then, like Narcissus, looked into it to see her reflection.

Unparalleled Paraportiani

It is an apt metaphor for today’s Mykonos, possibly the Mediterranean’s busiest resort in season. The island is a mirror, and depending on your point of view, you will see in it an idyllic Cycladic beauty or a modern-age harlot. Both images are there for the viewing. In practical terms, this island would appear to have little to recommend it: a rocky mass of indefinite shape anchored in the heart of the Cyclades island group, it is bare, almost treeless.

But by some unique, intangible magic, its scattered pearl-white villages and khaki-colored hinterland combine with the cobalt sea that laps its bays and inlets to produce a Calypso-like aura of seduction. Visitors are drawn again and again to its sparse shores.

Named for a grandson of Delos-born Apollo, the island has been occupied, in turn, by Carians from Asia Minor, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Cretans, Carians again, and then Ionians, Persians, and Romans. It was always, it seems, a popular place.

The Byzantine Empire was next to lay claim, followed by the Venetians, until thePirate-proofed streets of Hora island was seized by the pirate Barbarossa in 1537. (The main town, Hora, may be pretty, but its architecture was designed to discourage a frontal assault by marauders from the sea. The backs of the houses “front” onto the seaport, thus forming a protective barrier.)

In 1615, the Commune of Mykonos was established, and the Turks, who followed on the heels of the pirates, granted Mykonos a measure of autonomy. For four years in the 18th century, Mykonos was ruled by the Russians. Pre-revolutionary Mykonos became a formidable naval power, with a fleet of 22 ships, and the island’s most noteworthy heroine, Mando Mavroyenis (1796-1848) was responsible for turning back a Turkish insurgency in October 1822. A marble bust of Mavroyenis, on a tall marble plinth, ornaments the main square of Hora today.

Since the 1950s, Mykonos’s invaders have come primarily from the north and west, bearing easels, then sleeping bags, and now, matching Luis Vuittons and hard currency. Scattered around the 53-square-mile island are some of the Aegean’s loveliest beaches; in Hora, and beyond it, are gourmet restaurants, bars and clubs of every stripe, and a thousand ways to overuse any number of credit cards.

Too, the campers of the 1960s have been replaced by the camp of the 21st century: though Mykonos’s reputation as the gay summer retreat of the Med has been challenged, in recent years, by other islands, other cities, there are still roaring uni-sex bars and clubs alive, well and rocking in Hora in high season, though many of the rest of us prefer to come a bit earlier, or later, in the year, when the wattage dims a little.

Hora’s perfect palette

Hora, That Perfect, White Embrace

Hora, the island’s capital, and major port, resembles nothing so much as a pearly smile, or a perfect, white embrace-made-corporeal, as you approach by sea. Located on the island’s west coast, it is a labyrinth of winding, stone-cobbled streets easy to lose yourself in—or to lose someone else in, a reminder that this was the locals’ best security against centuries of sudden sea raids.

Around the helter-skelter center of town is a circle of broader streets that, together with the waterfront, provide the favorite evening promenade, where everyone literally bumps into everyone else. One of the chief charms of Mykonos and its capital is its human scale: here there is no privacy—everything is seen, heard, known. But also, there is no loneliness, no isolation. The city is like a breathing, convoluted Nautilus shell, home to one and all.

Wandering about Hora, by day or night, and getting lost, is one of the great delights of visiting Mykonos. On a labyrinthine ramble, keep in mind that the harbor and sea are always downhill: and there’s no Cretan Minotaur chasing you here, so just enjoy the whitewashed stairs, chapels and alleyways of this town that has been maintained as an informal, al fresco museum of Cycladic architecture. Seek out the four adjoining chapels known as “The Gossippers,” located smack in the center of town. (Ask where, precisely!) Another cluster of churches, the Paraportiani (meaning “Side Door”), near the harbor, actually four churches (dedicated to Saint Efstathios, the Saints Anargyroi, Saint Sozontas and Saint Anastasia) sharing a single, Sphinx-like roof, comprises my favorite structure in the-world-as-I-know-it.

Paraportiani, backlit

Whitewashed, divine Paraportiani, parts of which may date from as early as the 15th century, is as singular a structure as you are likely to see again in your lifetimes. At dusk, against Mykonos’s pink summer sky, this creation of anonymous builders has inspired myriad painters and photographers, and been the backdrop for numberless snap shots of ephemeral summer loves.

When you’ve spent a day, or days, on the island’s famous beaches, satisfying your cravings for sand, sun and sea, equally noteworthy, if less sybaritic, are Hora’s excellent museums, especially the Mykonos Archaeological Museum, which houses Mykonian, Delian and Rheneian (Rheneia is another khaki-colored island on Mykonos’s horizon) antiquities, and is located on the (San Stephanos) road just above Hora’s yacht marina. The Aegean Maritime Museum, another treasure, is situated in the heart of Hora. It’s a privately endowed wonder which details Greece’s millennia-long maritime traditions. (Don’t miss the lighthouse and the grave “stellai”—copies of the originals—of ancient mariners in the museum’s back garden.)

Lena’s House, just next door to the Maritime, is a lovingly-preserved Mykonian home of the 19th century, and pretty much encapsulates island life as it looked to me when I first came to Hora in 1960. Another small museum, the Mykonos Folk Art Museum, located just near Paraportiani in a former sea-captain’s house is chockablock with 18th and 19th-century Mykonian memorabilia, most of the holdings redolent of the sea.

Above & Beyond Hora

There is literally a different, but equally enticing Mykonos for everyone who arrives on its shores. Hikers will find the walk from Platy Yialos Beach to Elia Beach, on the south coast, a stimulating if sometimes taxing journey, criss-crossing from the coast to the hinterland. Swimmers, snorkelers and spear-fishermen will enjoy the far, far beaches, those now only really accessible by sturdy rental car.

Everyone in the water should look out for the weaver fish—I advise you one and all to wear rubber-soled swimming slippers to avoid treading on this sometimes-lethal little bottom-dweller (pouring all-but-boiling hot water on the sting is an immediate way to neutralize his (her?) poison).

That said, in four decades of constant summer swimming off Mykonos, I have never encountered a weaver fish and, only once, been badly stung by a jellyfish, and then, only when I was stupid enough to dive down to where fishermen’s nets held enticing shells—and a Portuguese Man O’ War—brought Father Theologos, Ano Meraback from the distant depths. (I tried to convince my nearest and dearest that peeing on my badly-stung arms would immediately take away the pain, but had no luck. And no one in the Aghios Ioannis taverna we frequent had the obligatory bottle of ammonia, either. I now travel with jellyfish-sting ointment—ammonia for the most part—and now you, too, know the more “natural” cure if you get stung, yourselves.)

Five miles east of Hora, and all of it uphill, Ano Mera (permanent population: c. 200), the other main village on the island, and the place where I lived, for several years in the 1970s and 80s, is nothing like the harbor town but, instead, like all Cycladic settlements of the 19th and early-20th centuries: rural, family-oriented, and dominated by its church, in this case, the beautiful 16th-century Monastery of the Panagheia of Tourliani. The Virgin of Tourliani is Mykonos’s patron saint, and Her Name Day is celebrated in the little square here in Ano Mera on the 15th of August, a date to mark on your calendars if you’re on the island in high summer.

Beyond Hora, beyond even Ano Mera, hikers will be the ones to find the truly ancient remains on Mykonos but, as one who has rambled the entire island over—investigating these ruins, and much else—I have a word of caution to add. Mykonos is home to deadly (small, black) pit vipers and, though an antivenin does exist, you don’t want to go clambering around the island’s dry stone walls, step into rubbly pits, or put out an unsuspecting hand without looking very, very carefully first. There is also the matter of fierce Mykonian farm dogs. So, if you’re still fascinated by the ancient lintel or wall on the hill, go forewarned. A wonderful source on Mykonos’s ancient remains, by the way, is an Appendix, “Ancient Buildings on Mykonos,” in J. Theodore Bent’s out-of-print, but findable, “Aegean Islands: The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks” (lots of editions; mine dates from 1965).

A Personal History

I first came to Mykonos at the age of ten, in the middle of the night, handed half-asleep, from sailor to sailor to caïque-man, down the steps of our ferryboat. It was winter, and my parents had two names scribbled in a copy of Anne Anthony’s book, “Greek Holiday,” which they’d brought along from Pasadena: weaver Vienoula Kousathana; and painter Luis Orozco.

Red domes and cirrus cloudsOver the course of that first visit, we befriended both Vienoula and Luis, after we’d located them—almost immediately, as it happened, in those early years of tourism, when we were three of perhaps ten visitors on the island—and they remained lifelong friends. I was fascinated with Vienoula’s immense, traditional Greek loom, which she kept in the front room of her house. That room was festooned, floor to rafters, with skeins of yarn dyed all the colors of the Greek landscape, sky and sea. I wrote a poem for Vienoula in 1961, and it hung on the walls of her shop till her youngest son, Nikolaos, took it down, one recent fall, and gave it to me.

Some of Vienoula’s sweaters, knitted and woven for my parents in the early 1960s, are exquisitely beautiful still. One of them, my mother and I never wore. Woven of undyed wool, it was cut on a French pattern, off the shoulders, and decorated with Mykonian lace, made by hand in wool. It bears Vienoula’s distinctive label, could never go out of style, and I am saving it for a display case, some day . . . .

There should be a museum on the island commemorating the work, both tangible and intangible, of this ‘First Lady of Mykonian Tourism.’ She was an incredible role model for generations of weavers, as well as for artists working in mediums of all sorts—but to me, she was just a vibrant, brilliant, loquacious exemplar of philotimo and kalosini, two of those inimitable untranslatables of the Greek lexicon.

What I couldn’t see, in 1961, was that the island would cast its pearly, uncanny, inescapable spell over me personally, and that I would come back again and again, every year, from Athens, and then from very far away indeed, to teach and paint, at first, and then to marry and settle; and, having dissolved that marriage, to return, still, seeking always what Mykonos alone has to offer.

I’ve written so much about what that ineffable something is, and still can’t seemIoanna Zouganeli, weaver of Hora to get it right. The place is bathed in a light that illumines like no other. Swimming in its seas is unlike swimming anywhere else, as denuded of sea-life as those seas have become. And of course, there are the people, always the people. Vienoula is gone, but her sons are still there. As is Luis, with his beloved Dorlies now, at their Orama Gallery. And you’ll read Luis’s own essay on his island in a moment and, in it, learn about the Mykonians’ decades-old, perhaps centuries-old, tradition of guiding and educating and generally smoothing the way for their visitors. In a way, once you step off that ferry or jet, and if you stay for a while, and behave yourself, and generally enter into the warm and enduring spirit of the place, you too will become family. And that is, surely, what brings me back to Mykonos most of all.

When I returned to the island one fall a few years back, bringing for the second time my American (then) fiancé, Dean, we happened to be in Hora on my birthday. The Meltemi, that brisk and persistent northern wind so endemic to the high-summer Cyclades, was blowing, and my sunburned arms were chilled. Just adjacent to Paraportiani, where we were watching the sunset, we saw a tiny weaver’s shop, a primitive place with a big loom predominating. On the walls, on dowels, hung several shawls, the black warp threads brightened by woof yarn the colors of the sea. Vienoula once used to sell these shawls. Now, I have an old, soft shawl by Vienoula, and a new one by Ioanna Zouganeli, the weaver near Paraportiani—plus another happy birthday on Mykonos to remember . . . .