Greece is as much a nation of islands as it is a part of mainland Europe. And these islands feature in the imagination and experience of anyone who dreams of visiting Greece or who has already been. As I prepare for my next visit to the Cyclades islands, Paros, Milos and Ios in particular, I reflect here on my first trip to Greece just under 24 years ago.

Looking from the Venetian fortress to the Venetian harbour of Heraklion, Crete.

Inside Rocca al Mare, Heraklion’s Venetian harbour fortress – looking towards the vaulted Venetian wharehouses.

One of my more memorable trips abroad was a two week visit to Greece in August of 1990. After a three month research fellowship at the Max-Planck Institute just outside of Munich, I hopped on a charter plane for Athens. With only a small backpack and an Insight Guide to the Greek Islands, I had nothing planned. By the time the ‘plane touched down in Athens I had made up my mind to get on a flight to Crete as quickly as I could, spend a few days there and then ‘island hop’ my way back to Athens and my return flight to Munich. And that is exactly what I did.

Not surprisingly given it was the beginning of August, getting on a flight to Crete was not straight-forward. All flights for that day were already fully booked. Not allowing my recently laid plans to start unravelling at the start, I bought a standby ticket to Heraklion and just waited. My impatience ruled out the option of getting an overnight ferry to the island. Luckily I did not have to wait for long, and by midday I was back in the air en route to Heraklion. Travelling solo definitely has its advantages: you have better chances waiting for a single seat!

Captured by Crete

Heraklion is an archaeology traveller’s dream. Not far from the city is the internationally well known archaeological site of Knossos. Much of what has been done at the site in the way of reconstruction is questionable, heavily influenced by some of the earlier, more fanciful interpretations of the remains. But this does not distract from the significance this site has in the history of archaeology. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum not only displays many spectacular artefacts recovered during the excavations at Knossos, it has the best collection of Minoan artefacts.

Looking through my now fading photographs it seems I was very taken with the Venetian Fortress and Harbour built in the 13th century. I walked out to the fortress during the day and early evening, enjoying looking back into the harbour the fortress was built to protect and the city of Heraklion beyond.

The view out over the Second World War Cemetery to Suda Bay, Crete.

Commonwealth World War Two cemetery
at Suda Bay, Crete.

Given my time on the island was limited I decided that the best was to see as much of it as possible was to take a day-trip by bus from Heraklion to Chania and back. Stops along the way to and from the Suda Bay Commonwealth War Cemetery near Chania included the quaint where the artist El Greco was born, and the seaside town of Rethymnon. Although I only spent a two full days in Crete, I fell in love with the island generally, and Rethymnon specifically. Boarding an overnight ferry to Mykonos, for which I had to run for from the bus stop, I remember looking back at the twinkling lights of Heraklion at sunset and thinking to myself I must return.

Since 1990 I have returned twice, each time finding something new to investigate. Crete is my favourite archaeological destination, and during my more recent visit it was the Byzantine churches and frescoes that captured my attention.

The Cyclades

Beautiful sea views from great archaeological monuments on the island of Delos.

The ancient theatre on the island of Delos.

The Cyclades are picture postcard material, white cubed houses overlooking deep blue seas, narrow streets in quaint villages. I had been drawn to these images, but it was also the archaeology I wanted to see – archaeology I had until then no experience of. With over fifty islands in the Cyclades group I was well aware I was not going to be able to visit too many of them. My first stop was Mykonos, from where I took a boat trip to the much smaller island of Delos – location of one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. After spending a glorious day wandering around the extensive ruined cultural centre, and then not being able to find any accommodation in Mykonos, I simply jumped onto the next ferry out and arrived in Paros.

Escaping the midday heat in the cool and narrow streets of an island village.

Escaping the midday heat in the cool and narrow streets of an island village.

Once the mêlée of disembarkation died down at the port of Paros, there were three of us left standing around wondering what to do next. The owner of the nearby campsite came over and offered to take us there, assuring us we would find a place to sleep there. Introducing ourselves on the way over, we discovered the three of us had much in common: we were students, two of us archaeology students, the other studying architecture; I was from South Africa, the other two from Australia – one was Greek-Australian.

After enjoying a few days on Paros we moved on to the next island, Naxos. We ended up ‘island hoping’ together for ten days, when I left the Australians on the island of Santorini to get back to Athens. Besides seeing some well known archaeological sites I had only read about before, the Minoan site of Akrotiri on Santorini another memorable one, exploring the all facets of these islands in the company of other interesting students was a truly memorable experience. We moved from island to island when the mood took us, ate wonderful meals in some out of the way restaurants (thanks largely to one of us being able to speak fluent Greek), slept on the roofs of hotels under the stars and the moon, and laughed … I remember the laughter. We had great fun.

White cubed houses overlook deep blue seas.

White cubed houses overlook deep blue seas.

Athens

The temple of Olympian Zeus in the foreground and the Athens Acropolis in the background.

The colossal ruined temple of Olympian Zeus with the Acropolis in the background.

As much as I could have stayed on in the Cyclades, and visit more islands, I had to be back in Athens to get my scheduled flight home. And before getting on that ‘plane I wanted to fulfil a boyhood dream and visit the Acropolis. When I was young my father visited Athens on a business trip and bought me back a T-shirt with a wonderful image of the Parthenon on it.

Athens and the Acropolis lived up to expectations. While visiting the Acropolis I bumped into the American students I had shared a room with in the hostel in Heraklion. But it was definitely the colossal Temple of Olympian Zeus that took my breath away – started in the 6th century BC but only finished by Emperor Hadrian over 600 years later. On another day I negotiated public transport for a day-trip to Delphi, returning to Athens in time experience an open-air cinema the city is famous for. No, I do not remember what film was showing.

Returning to the Cyclades

A more rural scene on the island of Paros, Greece.

Paros at dusk: a man riding his donkey with his goats following along.

After twenty-four years, next week I am returning to the Cyclades, more specifically the islands of Ios, Milos and Paros. While I have already visited Paros, I know there is still so much more history to see there.

In ancient times Paros was noted for its pure white marble. Marble from Paros was used to carve what is arguably the finest surviving sculptures of Emperor Augusts, certainly it is the best preserved – the Augustus of Prima Porta. Milos too has been the source of exceptional marble for millennia. Another well known ancient statue, the Aphrodite of Milos – or the Venus of Milo as she is better known, was found here on 8 April 1820. Going a bit further back in time, Ios has the award winning prehistoric site of Skarkos, but is also where you will find the Homer’s tomb.

When exploring the Cyclades one is truly following in the footsteps of some of antiquities great characters. Internet connections permitting, you can follow my adventures on these islands on the usual social media channels: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest and Instagram. On this trip to Greece I will be travelling with Michael and Marlys of Easy Hiker.