Syros: The real Greek island!
By Karin Shepherd
One of the pleasures of our piece of paradise on Paros is the opportunity to visit other areas of Greece. For our wedding anniversary and my birthday (April 3 & 4) this year Michael and I decided to visit one of the Cyclades islands near us, Syros. Known as the Real Greek island, it can be seen from Paros on a clear day so the ferry trip is not very long. When we boarded I was surprised and slightly dismayed that the ferry taking us there was the Panagia Tinou (Virgin Mary of Tinos). Two years ago we took her to Folengandros and decided on that trip that surely she would be retired soon! Michael's only comment was "Well, at least they painted her". Inside was stuffy; outside smelled strongly of diesel fumes. However, we did not "rock and roll" because Lady Luck was with us, or more precisely, behind us. The strangest thing happened in that the high gusty winds that rocked the boat in the harbor came directly astern once outside the port, making the trip quite easy. Sometimes crossings can be terrible, with the ferries rolling from side to side, and people getting sick. I found a corner seat outside that was free from fumes, and watched Paros fade into the past and Syros appear in my future!
Syros has relatively little tourism since it has few beaches. Most people who travel here are either coming for permits or some other legal action as it is the regional seat of government for the Cyclades. Also medical patients are sent to the hospital here when their own island clinic cannot accommodate their needs. The port has large ship repair dry docks and yards for building and repairing large seagoing vessels.
When traveling to Athens I have often been in this port and gone on deck to see the city, but up to now never set foot on land. When any ferry stops here, men in white jackets, trousers and hats carrying large baskets scamper on board. They are allowed just a few minutes to sell the local speciality called Loukoumia (nougats with various flavors such as mastic, almond or chocolate). It is chaotic when they run through shouting their wares and prices, flinging nougats into outreached hands and taking money. The first time I saw this I was overwhelmed by the activity and did not participate. The second time I gave it a try and managed to order 5 nougats in my limited Greek, but did not understand the price! My transaction did not go smoothly at all; I felt very embarrassed. Amidst this turmoil people and cars are unloading and loading the ferry in a mad dash! A real Greek scene!
Observing this city from the deck led me to come here. I call it a city, but it really is just a big town called Hermoupolis. (Hermes is the god of Commerce. Poli means city.) There is a narrow band of flat land at the port, then the town immediately climbs up and divides itself into two hills. Each hill has a church on top, the Catholic Cathedral known as Agios Giorgios (St. George) on one and the Greek Orthodox Church, Anastasis (Resurrection) on the other. This island is very unusual in Greece in that it has an almost equal mix of Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox. Intermarriage is not discouraged, and each belief is considerate of the other, even joining in each other's festivals in the outlying villages. This is also the island for which the Pope gave permission for Catholics to celebrate Easter on the same calendar date as the Greek Orthodox Church.
So, you can imagine my delight to actually step off the ferry, and know that for the next two days I would be able to visit those lovely churches atop the hills and buy nougats at my own pace.
When we arrived it was late afternoon. On the internet I had found an attractive hotel and had a positive response from the owner, Giorgios. He kindly gave us his "best room" at a cheaper price, which I found amazing, as Easter was only four days away and visitors were arriving, even on Syros. (This is a very busy time on all islands; families gather for Easter as they do for Christmas in America.) We were pleased with the room; the view was over the harbor and the two hills. I must add, Hermoupolis is definitely a town of steps, maybe millions of them; walking anywhere was definitely going to be a tiring challenge!
However, we soon left the hotel to find a restaurant since we wanted to explore some of the city on our way. First was a lovely Greek church with beautiful stain glass windows. We arrived just in time in the fading twilight to see its distinctive pebbled forecourts. The designs were intricate scrolls using only white and black pebbles.
A little further downhill we came to Miaouli Square, the town centre. It is dominated by the magnificent Town Hall. Next to it is a theater which they say is styled after La Scala in Italy and other older stone buildings which now house the telephone company and museums. The other side of the square has a band stand and cafes where we ate our lunch the next day. This is a great area for people watching, but we were looking for a restaurant for dinner, so we hurried through into the many side streets and alleys. This area has many wonderful shops, small fruit and vegetable market stalls and fascinating little restaurants. Choosing was not easy; we decided we liked the looks of one that our hotel owner had suggested.
This was the start of realizing that Syros was truly different than Paros. The architecture is obviously different, but a more subtle variation to me was the food! The menus offered a variety we do not see on Paros; the restaurant staff seemed more professional; people were dressed more stylishly. The effect seemed more cosmopolitan. Coming from such a small tourist island, these differences almost shouted at me. I felt as if I was in an Athens neighborhood or somewhere else on mainland Greece. It did not feel Cycladic. We really enjoyed our meal; I was so impressed with the house wine that I bought a liter and a half poured into a water bottle by the owner! After dinner, we had a leisurely walk back up the steps and streets to our hotel.
The next day started with breakfast at the harbor side in a lovely coffee house where we mapped out our plans for the day. We would take a taxi to the top of the tallest hill where the Catholic church was and walk back down. This region is called Ano Syros which means "over Syros". This area dates back to Byzantine times. When pirates started plaguing Syros, the inhabitants made for the hills! One trick people had up their sleeves in those days was to build the houses on winding, narrow alleys, making a maze. This would only confuse any pirates who wanted to attack, as they would get lost and turned around very easily (like tourists)! Also, at that time Syros was unique in that it received protection from France because of the high number of Catholics there.
The walk to the church was not far from the taxi drop off and very worth seeing. Most large churches and certainly cathedrals are beautiful, but this one housed a painting of the Virgin Mary that was the most beautiful I have ever seen. The view from the courtyard was outstanding, looking out at sea, viewing the city below and the valley beyond. One felt "half-way to heaven"!
As we walked down past some museums (closed) and interesting houses we often had to stop and figure which alley and steps to take; after awhile I realized that the main route had marble designs in the stonework, while the others did not. We had heard there were café’s and tavernas on the hill side and we were definitely seeking one--the weather was hot! Or was it that we were out of shape and even the walk down was becoming exhausting?
One taverna we were seeking was called Fragosyriani. The father of rebetika music, Markos Vamvakaris, was born in a house next to this taverna in 1905. (Rebetika is folk music popular in the 1950's - 70's which told of Greek problems and was often not appreciated by the government). We found the taverna with the small statue of Vamvakaris outside, but it was closed. Its neighbor, however, was open; we sat, drank a beer and enjoyed the view and a conversation with a Greek mother and daughter from Thessaloniki. From there it was continuous steps down, down, down, until we were at the edge of the main town. A short walk brought us to Miaoulis Square where we badly needed another drink and lunch.
As I mentioned before, this is a great place to people watch. Both Michael and I decided, upon observation, that people here seem to have more money to spend, were smartly dressed and appeared to be mostly working people, happily calling out to one another as they passed. They were mothers and small children feeding pigeons, business men in suits carrying brief cases, women in the latest fashions. There was no feeling of tourism--where people seem unfamiliar with their surroundings, dress in casual kaki and carry maps. Although, we certainly fit that bill--pointing and turning the local town map to get our bearings; gawking at everything while taking photos!
After a relaxing lunch we started walking again -- out along the seafront above some cliffs in an area known as Vaporia. This area is below the Greek Orthodox church on it's hill. We were too tired to do much climbing, so chose to walk on the level and enviously stare at old Venetian mansions! These mansions have now been turned into homes for the aged, schools and here and there, one is still lived in. It is hard to imagine that these lovely homes also saw the Russian and Turkish invasions and eventually went into decline. It is only recently that some were brought back to their splendor and many are still in different stages of disrepair. At night this would be a good place for a Halloween Haunted House stroll.
Syros changed greatly after the Greek War of Independence around 1821. Islanders near Turkey such as Kassos, Sami and Chios found themselves needing protection and ended up coming here to live. They brought with them many skills that helped make this island what it is today. These people gave the name to the port, Hermoupolis, and brought boat building skills which turned Syros into the largest shipping port in all of Greece at that time. Especially important were the large bunkers for coal storage which brought ships from all over the world. Banks and schools were built and cultural events from outside Greece started appearing. The first Greek postcards were made here as well as playing cards. All this meant commerce and forward thinking people. They did not need tourism to survive. What I found amazing is that in the town I found only two shops displaying postcards and anything in the way of tourist paraphernalia! I had to search high and low to find a book about Syros, which I eventually did.
But tourists are slowly finding this island. Outlying villages that have any beaches are now building a few hotels and promoting themselves. However, it is still very small potatoes compared to the rest of the beautiful Cycladic islands that have attractive beaches to offer and villas to rent and windsurfing, etc. Also Syros is one of only eight places in Greece that has a Casino!
Will I come back to Syros? A definite yes!! I am looking forward to returning to with my scooter, taking the back roads over remote hillsides and deep valleys. I will watch for ancient ruins and look for an ancient cave. I want to visit those quiet little villages where shepherds still watch their sheep and goats. I want to see the gardens where the local fruits and vegetables are grown to sell in the big city of Hermoupolis. I will discover a people living a life that is still hard work but has its own sense of peace. I shall find that peace for myself in the warm sun with a blue sea beyond. Yes, the real Greek island beckons . . .
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