Syros: The real Greek island!
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.