The cats own Mykonos. They always have. For two millennia, Greek cats have dispatched mice from what was once the verdant breadbasket of the civilized world. Since then, wheat fields, countries and entire empires have flourished and faded, yet the cats remain.
They greet my wife and me at the ferry in Mykonos, legendary party island in the Cyclades islands of Greece. During the bacchanalian summer months of July and August, the beaches pulse with music and machismo. Off-season, from fall to spring, when the maniacal hordes have flamed out, the island becomes a quieter, more civilized place, which suits us down to the ground.
Even more civilized are the digs we’re planning to make our home base for the next week: a private rental villa. The home is a palatial juxtaposition of glass and natural stone, where every room overlooks the Aegean Sea. One end of the nine-metre-long breakfast counter is piled high with local figs, grapes, blood oranges and stone fruits, small but intensely flavoured. We make a dinner of cold cuts, feta and kopanisti, a cheese made only in the Cyclades islands, then settle in to watch the moon and count our lucky stars.
Much like the detritus on our dinner plates, the Greek Islands are scattered across the eastern Mediterranean all the way to Turkey. Each island cluster has its own unique culture and attractions. Mykonos is but one of 25 inhabited islands in the Cyclades. Most visitors focus on one group and might see two or three islands over 10 days.
In town the following morning, we traipse along flagstone streets to the medieval windmills of Kato Myloi. The iconic, thatched-roof silos cut an imposing profile against the sky. We make our way down the rise and along a comely sweep of whitewashed houses, bars and restaurants known as Little Venice. The patio of one café spills into the courtyard of another, where a string of handsome locals sip petite cups of thick coffee, a filigree of felines at their heels. We order the same and settle in at a seaside table. When an errant wave claps the seawall, sending a spray of salty Aegean to season our coffee, it’s time to move on.
Considering its reputation, Mykonos is smaller than I expected. A mere 10,000 residents call the island home, making the main town agreeably compact. We lose ourselves in the alleyways and take many a retail detour en route. Every wiggly lane and low doorway conceals new pleasures: gold jewellery, barely there bikinis, exemplary art. In each store sleeps a cat – or three.
As I brush past a wall, a spray of bougainvillea sheds blood-red petals on the white street. Finally, we emerge in front of the fish markets. A virtual stadium of café seating faces the water, as if a special performance is about to begin. In truth, it takes place every day. Ever since Jackie O made Mykonos famous – holidaying here with Aristotle Onassis in the late 1960s – people-watching has become a big-game sport, even in off-season. Lady Gaga is somewhere on the island, we’ve heard, but today she’s a no-show. In her absence, the main attraction is a fisherman repairing his boat under the watchful eye of a pelican. I amble over and ask him what he’s fishing for. A bilingual local translates. “Octopus,” he answers as he works wood filler into the deck of his boat. “They’re smart . . . but not too smart,” he continues, mimicking a stabbing action I’m grateful not to have witnessed in the flesh. “When I catch one, I call my friend and we go for ouzo.”
I cast a glance at the watchful pelican (he doesn’t seem to be the ouzo type), then realize the man is referring to a human friend. The bird’s name is Petros, we learn, and he has a taste for fish rather than the aniseed-flavoured spirit so popular in Greece. Petros is the third generation of a bird that has been the island’s mascot since the 1950s, when local fishermen adopted a wounded pelican. Petros the Third runs a nice business pestering fishermen and stealing seafood from Nico’s Taverna up the lane.
We leave Petros to his mischievous ways and continue on our way through the Kastro district, the oldest part of town. Soon we come across a church iced thickly with
fondant – or at least it looks that way. Built in 1425, the Panagia Paraportianí chapel was Byzantine by design, although it wasn’t finished until the 17th century. It’s a perfectly romantic spot and, on the steps, two men are canoodling. (Mykonos is popular among gay travellers for its friendly vibe, party scene and great beaches.)
Mykonians tolerate a lot – noise, crowds, silliness – but they put their foot down when it comes to architecture. All hell would break loose should a house not be painted white. Sugar-cube profiles dot the granite cliffs and lend an appealing, ancient air to even the newest developments.
Leaving town, we weave among low stone walls and head for the beach – Agios Ioannis – to savour one of the many shades of blue that Mykonos is famous for. Agios Ioannis, at the island’s westernmost point, is known for its kid-friendly, gently sloping shore. Today there is only a lone jogger. Even Super Paradise (a beach famous for parties), 6 km southeast of town, is totally deserted, which is closer to my idea of paradise. We venture as far east as Kalafatis Beach, a refuge for locals during the summer months, and barely encounter a soul.
We finally settle on lunch at Paraga Beach, just west of Super Paradise. Paraga is one of a smattering of beaches where the restaurants stay open year round. After a glass of rosé and a plate of delectable red mullet, I determine that I could get used to this routine. The beaches of Mykonos are very civilized – with tzatziki and crusty bread available at the wave of a hand – albeit at a price. At one end of the beach are a battalion of beachfront sun-loungers that cost 30 euros a pair to rent in the high season.
Our lunch blends into evening and we soon find ourselves in Avra, a rustic taverna. Along the way we have accumulated some new friends. Among them, Jen, a British rock ’n’ roller who came here on holiday and forgot to leave. “In the 1990s, if you wanted to make a phone call, you had to line up at the post office,” she says. When the food arrives, the uncluttered ingredients are boldly flavoured: wild mushrooms with lemon, fried sesame-encrusted feta, barbecued octopus in a red wine reduction.
Eventually we head into the soft glow of the whitewashed lanes. With the tourist season over, the hard work is done and the vibe is almost festive. This is when the locals relax. We join them and make the rounds of several watering holes – Uno Con Carne (translating literally to One with Meat), Katarina’s (famous for the best balcony table in Little Venice) and Jackie O’s (one word: loud) – before settling in at Lola, a wine bar whose red velvet decor resembles a jewel box. The owner, Dimitri, tells us that many people come to Mykonos to relax and leave exhausted. I nod sleepily.
The next morning, we take a 10-minute ferry ride to neighbouring Delos. Delos doesn’t just have ruins: it is a ruin. At the height of its power, 900 years BC, the small island was home to 30,000 people (compared to Athens’ measly population of 1,000). Deemed to be the very birthplace of Apollo, the god of basically everything civilized, this ground was so holy that in 5th century BC it was illegal to be born, cause pain or die on the island (though I’m not entirely sure how they prevented the latter). Even the cemeteries were dug up and relocated to Mykonos.
We stroll down the main avenue leading to the Sanctuary of Apollo. A ruined metropolis, Delos has the feel of Washington, D.C., after a catastrophe: wide avenues, pillars, pilasters and stately monuments speak to a city founded on pomp and politics. We climb the trail to examine some of the better-preserved structures. On the way, we pass a deep cistern, gouged into the stone to provide water. In the House of the Dolphins, a mosaic depicting gods astride their cetacean steeds is so vibrant it could easily have been created yesterday. Farther up the hill, we take a rest at the Temple of Isis (goddess of motherhood and fertility) and marvel at what a grand spectacle Delos would have made. On our way back down, we pass by the Sanctuary of Dionysus, which harbours the city’s best-preserved statue – of Dionysus himself.
Flanking the steely-eyed god of wine, mirth and all things decadent are two giant, well . . . phalluses. We stifle our smirks and head past an avenue of giant stone cats (there’s no escaping them) to a shady glade where Apollo was supposedly born.
Ultimately, the downfall of Delos came from within. The Grecian Empire was a collection of city states, sometimes harmonious, sometimes not. In 88 BC, Mithridates VI (from present-day Turkey) attacked, killing or enslaving the population and ransacking the island. Twenty years later a fearsome pirate called Athenodoros plundered Delos. Those who survived, fled. Eventually, the abandoned city of Apollo’s birth was put up for sale by Athens. It attracted no buyers.
Mykonians didn’t escape the occasional ransacking, either. At the first sight of pirates, many coastal villagers fled inland, eventually creating communities of their own. We take the ferry back to Mykonos and drive to one of the only inland towns: Ano Mera. The road is lined with churches, some no bigger than smokehouses – the result of a quirky rule that allows owners to build bigger houses if they also build a church. The red-and-blue domes punctuate the starkly beautiful landscape. Come spring, the stony ground will bloom yellow and blue with wildflowers. In 10 minutes we reach Ano Mera. After the monochromatic landscape, the baroque interior of the Panagia Tourliani monastery is breathtakingly gaudy. We mill around the central square, which is lined with cafés serving rustic iterations of rooster in wine, then head back to town.
We make a short detour to meet up with Jen and her partner Gilles, an artist for whom Mykonos has become an irresistible draw. His paintings portray the simple aspects of village life – working hands, fish, boats. Originally from France, with every painting he becomes a little more Mykonian. Already, a dozen cats have infiltrated his studio, occupying every chair. Gilles hoists one by the scruff and relocates her to an unused corner of the studio. The cat takes a moment to lick her paws before settling down without fuss, certain that she – or one of her successors – will be here long after our empires are gone.
The off-seasons of spring and fall are the best time to go to the Cyclades, when the weather is cooler and the crowds fewer. Infrequent off-season ferry schedules and sizeable distances make overnight stays on the islands more convenient than day trips.
Naxos: Fewer facilities make this island ideal for those seeking a simpler, less touristy vacation. Take a day trip to the lush interior to picnic under ancient olive groves.
Santorini: Rising like a fortress from the water, Santorini is the most spectacular of the Cyclades. The downside to its sweeping majesty is a lack of beaches, and a lot of uphill walking.
Paros: Mykonos’s bigger brother, Paros, has both the cliff-side houses of Santorini and the beaches of Mykonos. While perhaps not as charming as Mykonos, it’s perfect for travellers with little time who want a taste of everything.
AMA Travel Specialist, Greece
Although I have travelled all around the world, nothing prepared me for the beautiful landscape, ancient ruins and charming people of Greece. My adventure began in Athens, at Plaka, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. Most of the streets there are closed to vehicle traffic and you can buy anything from antiques to kitschy souvenirs. If you’re looking for a good bargain, I suggest gold, which is reasonably priced throughout the country. Hit the popular sights of Athens, such as the Acropolis, first thing in the morning to avoid crowds. Be sure to visit the National Archaeological Museum, ranked as one of the top museums in the world.
Greece is home to many islands, each with its own character. Mykonos is known for its nightlife, sandy beaches and iconic windmills. Many of the white-painted villages depicted in watercolor paintings and movies can be found on rocky Santorini, while Rhodes is home to a medieval town that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many Greek operators offer three-day and week-long island tours, but a note about the cruise ships: they’re mainly a means of transportation, and while adequate, they are by no means upscale.
I was able to try some wonderful restaurants while in Greece. Be sure to taste moussaka, a traditional dish of eggplant, ground lamb, tomatoes, onions, olive oil and white wine mixed with kefalotiri cheese. End your meal with a shot of ouzo. Opa! Need help planning and booking a trip to Greece? Call 1-888-989-8423 to speak to Karen or visit your local AMA centre.