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Travel and World Culture   
  Photo: Clayton Mitchel
  Photo: Clayton Mitchel

Naxos, Greece: The Tourist Revolution
By Olga Zilberbourg

In the winter, off-tourist season throughout Greece, the islanders on Naxos not only refurbish their stores, hotels, and restaurants for the summer, but also pursue traditional occupations: fishing, wine-and cheese-making, growing tomatoes and citrus, and mining emery and marble for export. The locals say with pride that the island is completely self-sufficient; if necessary, it could survive without the daily ferry deliveries. They are eager to talk about the advantages of their island at all times of day, but particularly around 5 PM while enjoying a glass or two of the before-dinner raki and kitron. These honey and citron-tree based liquors, respectively, are a large source of pride, while the widely-known mainland Greek ouzo is an unwelcome import here. Hospitality, a quality diminished when business owners are called on to work around the clock during the high-season when the throngs of visitors arrive on cruise ship after cruise ship, pours out by the bottle, and no dinner is complete without a complimentary dessert.

“People come for two or three days and stay for weeks,” reports our abundantly friendly host, the owner of Pension Sofi, named in honor his wife. He introduces us to a French couple enjoying their afternoon wine at the table next to the reception desk:

“We wanted to stay for two nights, and this is our second week already,” they graciously nod in agreement.   

Naxos is certifiably an island that is hard to leave. Dave and I make other instantaneous friends there: the pension owner’s son who is working to repaint the building and the adjacent sidewalk for the upcoming summer season; a friendly restaurateur who explains his marketing strategy to us over dinner; a skillful weaver of traditional tablecloths and her husband who can’t stop giving away olive oil, honey soaps and natural sponges every time the labyrinthine streets of Naxos-town (otherwise known as Hora) force us past the door of their shop. During a long beach walk we locate the site of our future retirement home, where we will undoubtedly settle in fifty or so years after we’ve given birth to and raised our children, earned enough money to afford a peaceful old age, and learned the scary-looking and festive-sounding language. No doubt about it, this is the beginning of a life-long love affair—unless, of course, more people like us discover the island and ruin its charm.

Since the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, travel to Greece and to the Greek islands has been growing by leaps and bounds. The influx of tourism has pressured local companies to race each other in updating their fleets of airplanes and ferries and the islanders to convert their family houses into pensions and hotels.  Islands like Santorini have already been overrun and almost entirely resigned to embracing the tourist trade, and the trend is rapidly spreading to the neighboring islands. Compared to Santorini, Naxos is a much bigger island—in fact, the largest in the Cyclades archipelagos—with a larger local population and a reliable source of drinking water. Despite boasting several gorgeous beaches and fascinating ancient (and modern) history, to this day it has managed to maintain a lower profile in the guide books than Santorini or Mykonos. For now, it is off the mainstream radar—which only adds to its allure.

The locals are divided on the question of trade and tourism. Our pension owner, for example, is convinced that there is no better place on the planet, and he’d be happy to have crowds of people competing for his rooms. Many owners of restaurants and shops in the town are of the same mind, but a divide is growing among the others who value their island’s relative seclusion and self-sustainability. Their income is independent of the tourist trade, and they value the quality of life afforded by the island. The tension between these two groups is steeped in the history and culture of the region, and the temperature of their ideological debate is simmering to a slow boil.

“The Venetians ruled this island from 1207 until the island fell to the Turks in 1566. Some descendants of the Venetians still live here,” Frommer’s guide laconically states in its introduction to the listings of the island’s attractions. The entry continues with an equally brief architectural remark: “The influence of Venetian architecture is obvious in the Hora's Kastro and in the piryi (fortified Venetian towers) that punctuate the hillsides.” This, however, doesn’t exactly describe the position of the Kastro and the adjacent Catholic cathedral on top of a hill looming over the Naxos-town, which makes them particularly convenient landmarks for lost souls. The prominent position of the Catholic cathedral over the town’s many Orthodox churches can also seem ironic and immediately raises a number of questions in the mind of a curious traveler concerning the status the present-day Catholic Venetians hold on this overwhelmingly Greek orthodox island.



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