Largest of all the Cyclades islands and with the highest peaks of the group, Naxos is the central, geographical hub around which they all cluster. Although not the administrative capital, it is the most important island of the group and in many ways the key to understanding the others. It has a patrimony of history, archaeology and monuments which puts it amongst the three or four artistically richest islands in the Aegean.
Because it has always been well watered, well forested, well endowed with minerals, and with a spacious, fertile interior, the island has tended to stand out amongst the other Cyclades which, by comparison, often suffered seri ous deficiencies of water or had little fertile land. Today it still offers the grandest and most varied landscapes in the Cyclades. Although its forests are gone—apart from some groves of immemorial oaks around Mount Zas—it is still rich in water, and its tranquil spring-fed orchards and olive groves in the heart of the island considerably modify our customary picture of the dry ‘Cycladic land scape’. The striking beauty of this central garden of the island is further enhanced by the numerous Byzantine stone churches dotted among the trees, dating from the 6th to the 16th century, and mostly decorated with paints of great quality and unforgettable presence. They are so many in number that even this guide has had to resort to discussing only a selection. They speak of a prosperity on the island, especially in the period after the settling of a tolerant Venetian dominion on Naxos in 1207. But most of all they are the product of the island’s undying sense of its importance as a small realm of civilisation in the middle of the sea.
The fascination of Naxos , however, is not just that it possesses ancient remains and painted churches in great numbers, but that the particular nature of the ruins and churches is so unusual and instructive. The extraordinary, unfinished 6th century bc statues, lying in their rock-cradles in the hills of Naxos , are a treasure-house of information about early sculptural techniques precisely because we catch them as ‘work in progress’; the temples at Gyroulas, at Yria and the ‘Portara’ reveal, in their ruined or incomplete state, the very turning of the wheels in the evolution of architectural ideas. Through these monuments we come to experience vicariously the problems and the ambitious solutions of the ancient artists and builders. Similarly, the icons in Chora and the painted Byzantine churches are of such variety that they are like a history of eastern religious painting in miniature—from Romanising beginnings, through the struggles and un certainties of Iconcoclasm, to the constellation of humble talents with quite diverse artistic personalities and capabilities who worked in these tiny rural chapels in the 13th century. Naxos moves and instructs, where other islands may just ‘show’.
Development in the last few decades, especially around Chora, has been pursued without great care, and much of modern Naxos is an unfitting appendix to its great his tory. Fortunately it is such a spacious island that it has areas, as large as counties, that still preserve a traditional and rural island atmosphere, with far flung corners which are quite undisturbed. And even in the heart of the tourist areas of Chora, there are surprises; the Tziblakis cheese shop, functioning since 1938, is still an Aladdin’s cave of Naxiot produce, the like of which it is hard to find else where—honeys, different types of sheep’s cheeses, oils, herbs, dried fruits, olives, Kitron, Tsipouro, and wines worthy of the name of the island’s patron divinity—Dionysos.
Naxos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.