There’s no denying that the Greek islands Mykonos and Santorini attract international jet-setters like honey attracts flies. But these days they seem to attract everybody else, too. Are they crowded? You bet.
Part of the Cyclades group of islands in the Aegean Sea, on the eastern corner of the Mediterranean, both islands are endowed with a striking beauty that is distinct from anything else. But that’s just one of the reasons why people keep coming.
Mykonos, perhaps the best-known of the two, has become one of the most recognizable places in the world, with its well-preserved whitewashed houses in a maze of narrow, winding streets and picturesque waterfront. The small island is also famous for its never-stop nightlife: during the summer, the bars, tavernas and clubs in Mykonos start playing dance tunes in the afternoon, and the beat goes on until the morning. In Paradise, Superparadise and Paranga beaches, the epicenters of the action, party animals dance until the sun comes up and only take a break to recover for the next round.
Put firmly on the map by Jackie Onassis in the 1960s, Mykonos remains the Saint Tropez of the Greek Islands. It may not be as exclusive as it once was – today’s scene is a more democratic mixture of day-trippers, cruise ship tourists and celebrities arriving in their private yachts. But whatever their status or reasons for coming – the sandy beaches, the charming old town or the parties – I think that, above all, tourists come to Mykonos to see and be seen.
I started my Greek island-hopping in Mykonos, where I arrived in the early evening on a ferry from Piraeus, the main port near Athens. After a three-hour ride, the boat docked in Mykonos’ new port, a few miles away from Mykonos Town, where getting a taxi was not easy (there are only 15 on the island). When I finally got one – sharing it with a young Chinese man – it was starting to rain lightly. After driving a few minutes on a narrow road by the sea, the driver dropped me off at a curve in the road, saying that cars were not allowed in town. It was already dark, the rain had become steady and the pathway down to Carbonaki Hotel was made of steps that were hard to navigate with a heavy suitcase full of travel brochures. Fortunately, the doorman of a hotel nearby helped me carry my luggage to a flat area at the bottom of the stairs, where he told me how to get to my hotel.
I walked for a few minutes on winding pedestrian and scooter-only streets until I found my hotel. It turned out to be in the middle of the Old Town, and after checking in with a friendly Greek man at the front desk, I left my things there and went out to search for a place to eat. The whiteness around was dazzling; the houses, streets, walls, everything seemed to be freshly painted in the whitest white. I later learned that painting houses once a year is required by law in Mykonos.
The center of town was very crowded with tourists. Some were strolling around the sophisticated boutiques of local crafts, clothes – and the renowned hand-made Greek sandals – and others were visibly enjoying their dinner in the tavernas. Every place was full, there was not a free table for me anywhere. “I can’t imagine what this place looks like in August,” I thought. But I did end up finding a good restaurant – Eva’s Garden – and the meal was outstanding.
The next morning the sun was bright and strong. I had breakfast next to my hotel, in a cute little place called Lalala, where the Greek owner Lambro gave me the ins and outs of Mykonos. While enjoying the freshest food, made to order in his kitchen, I told him that I found the town too crowded, and that I was ready to cut my stay short and move on to Santorini. He advised me against it: “Go to the windmills next to the Old Port, that will make you change your mind,” he said, smiling the broad smile Greeks seem to be born with.
The beauty in the harbor was indeed intoxicating: the blue water of the bay, the well-preserved whitewashed houses set against the clear sky, the famous windmills in the back, and – in the middle of it all – a small Greek Orthodox chapel with the bluest dome, shining under the sun.
Small boats were bringing ashore a large number of people from many cruise ships anchored in the bay, and in a few minutes the harbor was inundated by the passengers. Some of the larger ships carry 3,000 passengers, and during the high season – from May to October – they all stop in Mykonos, every day. It was a mad scene: in just a few minutes there was no space left in the bars and tavernas of the port. I heard later that there’s a movement in town to limit the number of cruise ships allowed at the same time, but that the shop owners – who depend on the months of tourism to make a living – don’t want to hear about it.
As popular as Mykonos is today, it’s hard to imagine that its international fame began as recently as the 1950s, when tourists began visiting the island on their way to Delos, the sacred and uninhabited islet six miles away. Throughout antiquity, small Delos was the religious and political center of the Aegean culture, ever since the year 1000 BC, when the Ionians – the people who then inhabited the Cyclades islands – established it as their most important post. Greek mythology says that Delos was the birthplace of god Apollo, and during antiquity the island was host to the Delian games, the region’s greatest festival. Today in ruins, Delos is nevertheless a testament to Greece’s glorious ancient civilization, and – as I was soon to find out – a must-see for anyone interested in history.
The boat departed from the west end of the harbor in Mykonos Town. After a short ride we arrived in Delos, a UNESCO World Heritage site listed among the most important archeological discoveries in Greece. Mythical Delos has no natural resources, and overnight stays are not allowed; it looked so barren from the port where our boat docked, that it was hard to imagine how it could have been so prominent in ancient history. One theory is that it was chosen by the Ionians for being the safest harbor for vessels sailing between mainland Greece and the shores of Asia, but no one knows for sure.
With the maps we were handed upon arrival, it was easy to locate the Sanctuary of Apollo, said to be the exact place where the god was born and considered the most important site on the island. Even more impressive was the 164-foot-long Avenue of the Lions, with its massive original statues still standing. One of the most bizarre sites was a giant monument of a phallus by the Sanctuary of Dionysus – the god of wine – an emblematic reminder of the orgiastic rites that took place during the Dionysian festivals. A marble phallic bird, symbol of the body’s immortality, adorns the corner of the sanctuary. It’s a known fact that the ancient Greeks regarded the body as a gift to be enjoyed – they were not a sexually-repressed culture.
Back in Mykonos, people were walking towards the windmills of Venetian Town, to watch the island’s famous sunset. The charming medieval area – once home to the wealthy merchants who made Mykonos a major trading port in the Aegean Sea – is crowded with bars and tavernas by the water, ideal places to order ‘sunset cocktails’ and watch the sun go down. I found my spot amongst a group of excited German tourists taking pictures, and for a few minutes the sun was so large and red that everybody fell silent, watching it as it descended slowly. When the last ray of sun disappeared, the crowd applauded. “A rite of passage in Mykonos,” said a smiling and very sunburned German next to me. “Magical,” I replied, really meaning it.
As interesting as it is, Mykonos Town isn’t all there is to see in the island. The beaches on the south coast, a few miles from town, cater to a young, international crowd that picks Paradise and Superparadise beaches as its main destinations. Platis Gialos beach nearby caters to families with children, and all the beaches on the south side of Mykonos sit on a picturesque rocky coastline with calm blue waters. Those on the north coast – Panormos and Ayios Sostis – are very windy and ideal for windsurfing, but are equally beautiful and not as crowded, even in the high season.
I had dinner in Venetian Town after the amazing sunset, feeling a bit sad that I was going to leave Myknos in the morning. It turns out that three days there was not enough for all I wanted to see, as I later told my new friend Lambro. I didn’t have time for a famed Greek Orthodox monastery in a small inland town called Ano Mera, for instance. Founded in 1580, the monastery is famous for an altar made by Florentine artists, considered an important piece of baroque art. It will have to wait for next time.
“People complain that Mykonos is touristy, noisy and overcrowded, but always come back,” said Lambro, when we said goodbye. “You will be back, too,” he added, with his broad smile. I knew he meant it.
We now speak often on WhatsApp. He tells me that the weather has been very nice, that Mykonos is full of tourists, and that his business is doing great.
“Lucky Lambro,” I say. I can’t wait to go back.