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Isles and isles of Greece September 9, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Aegean.

Whether you crave the serenity of Syros or the merriment of Mykonos, there’s a Greek island – with fabulous food and views – waiting for you

Mykonos and Syros share many of the attributes that make the Greek Islands so alluring: clear, deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea; stunning coastlines with hidden beaches of every variety of sand and stone tucked into remote coves; placid panoramas of sailboats, yachts and fishing boats gliding across the water; impressive ports with picturesque waterfronts; and rocky hillsides with prickly pear and agave cacti, flaming oleanders, red bougainvilla, orange trumpet vine, pink and red hibiscus, and lantana of all colors. Thyme, fennel and capers grow wild in fields separated by stacked rock fences, and groves of olive, eucalyptus, pine and fig trees are present wherever you turn.

Both sport lovely tavernas, the simple eateries where families eat, drink and converse, an ideal setting to savor a communal meal and the Greek way of life. Dinner in the summer typically begins around 10 p.m. and winds up sometime after midnight.

Neither island has high-rises nor billboards; both are smoker-friendly. No-smoking areas are all but nonexistent.The similarities end there.

I have to admit, Loula’s place on Mykonos was pretty swell. The last hillside villa on a road on the extreme southwestern tip of the island, the four-bedroom white stucco spread was straight out of Architectural Digest with clean lines and a Moorish-Mexican look with requisite swimming pool, cabana and private beach below, and a sweeping view of the eastern horizon.

But at the end, the nod went to Syros, a compact island about 12 miles long and four miles across with a population of 20,000. If Mykonos is known around the world for clubs that thump with the Euro-pop beat till 10 a.m., then Syros is the anti-Mykonos. Oh, downtown Ermoupolis is noisy at midnight on weekends, but by 3 a.m., its marble streets are pretty calm.

On Syros, tourism is a small part of an economy that runs on government, a large shipyard and agriculture (greenhouses litter the island interior).

Let the cruise ships descend on Mykonos and overwhelm whatever charm is left. Islanders on Syros point out that Ermoupolis may not be worthy as a major cruise line port o’call, but it attracts plenty of yachts and sailboats that jam the amphitheatre-shaped port on weekend evenings during the warm months. The smaller boats pull up next to the sidewalk cafes on the waterfront, and boat owners, captains and crew members gather around tables on their boats a few feet from the rest of the town sitting around their tables, and the whole island watches the street parade until well past midnight.

Mykonos architecture is all white sugar cube boxes — think Santa Fe, N.M., only bleached. Syros is two-story tree-shrouded 19th-century Italian mansions with rock and granite walls and red tile roofs, especially around Poseidonia, where my aunt and uncle live. The architecture and the local preference of referring to Poseidonia as Dellagracia reflect the island’s strong Venetian influence, which dates back to the 13th century. Then again, some inland stretches could be confused for Tuscany if not for the deep blue sea in the distance.

The Mykonos crowd comes from all over the world. Syros visitors come mostly from Greece and in July and August, from Italy and northern Europe. When the high season is over on Mykonos, the island pretty much shuts down — so much for Bulgari jewelry, Italian gelato and Corona Beer T-shirts — until spring.

Syros, whose history dates back to the sixth century B.C. and the pre-Socratic philosopher Pherecides, stays open year-round for business and for pleasure, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Miaouli Square, the main plaza in Ermoupolis, two blocks from the waterfront, is a real public gathering place where kids run and kick soccer balls on the marble tile. The open space is surrounded by the Italian neoclassical Town Hall on one side, and sidewalk cafes on the other three sides — the perfect place to enjoy a thimble-full of strong, muddy Greek coffee and a plate of loukamadis, a Syros dessert delicacy of fried sweet dough drenched in honey and cinnamon that is popular throughout Greece. A small museum at the northeast corner of the Municipal Building has reproductions of human figurines with folded arms found on Syros dating back as far as 2,800 B.C. They look a little bit like the giant heads found on Easter Island in the Pacific and a little bit like the Oscar award. There also are other artifacts from the island.

A block up the hill is the Apollo Theatre, a 150-year-old small theater built on the same blueprint as La Scala Opera House in Milan. Farther up the hill Ano Syros, or High Syros, the splendidly tranquil medieval maze of whitewashed residences and cafés surrounded by narrow footpaths too tight to accommodate any transportation other than a donkey. The biggest difference between Syros and Mykonos was the pace of life, a point driven home when Aunt Roussa took us to a seaside taverna in Kini on a Saturday night and another on Delfini beach on the northwest side on a Sunday afternoon. Both were sublime locations, attracting people from the neighborhood to idyllic little settings meant to be shared by just a few.

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