PLACES TO STAY
We were walking from the ancient quarries at Marathi back down the valley through oregano, sage and thyme. ‘Calicotome villosa,’ my guide Christoforos Korovesis said, pointing to a pale grey-green bush. ‘Spiny broom – the thorns that made Christ’s crown.’ He had taken me down into the caves named after Pan and the nymphs, where slaves chained to the rockface had dug out the translucent white marble used for the Nike of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. There was a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old votive offering on the walls, a relief of a council of the gods. In the 17th century someone had carved their initials beside it. The air in the valley was aromatic, smelling of wild herbs and the sea, and the evening light very rich.
‘Have you been to Naxos?’ he asked. I hadn’t. ‘They make an interesting pair, Naxos and Paros, so close together. Naxos the masculine, I’ve always thought – rugged, mountainous in the interior, a little wary of strangers, quick to like or dislike. Locals ignore you if the latter but bring you into their homes, singing and drinking raki all night, if they take to you. Or so the old generalisation goes. But Paros, for me, is feminine – with a gentler, rolling terrain, peaceful bays, the waves friendlier, the coasts more inviting. Its people tend to be more open. Perhaps because so many went to sea rather than staying on land. They even had a colony as far away as Hvar in Croatia. They’re cosmopolitan.’
Earlier that afternoon I had by chance met Christoforos’s cousin Manolis Fokianos, dealer in marble, sculptor and karate expert, at his works near Parikía, the island’s capital. His monumental creations stood on plinths among bathroom sinks and tabletops. He had been in the family building-supply business but became dissatisfied – the marble of Paros saved him. He sensed beautiful and dramatic forms in the massive chunks that came his way; when he made deliveries to sculptors he stayed to watch them work and when he felt ready he began to do it himself. Parian marble, no longer quarried, is the best, he said. He showed me a piece he’d made from Naxos marble and then another from the flawless white Parian version known as lychnite.
‘See how much smaller the crystals are in the lychnite?’ he said. ‘It doesn’t crack. You can work it like butter. It lets light through but also traps it. They say it was Rodin’s favourite marble, better for him than Carrara. Also Napoleon was crazy for it. The story of the marble from Marathi is inseparable from the story of Paros and even of classical Greece. And our Ekatontapiliani, the Church of 100 Doors, in Parikía – have you been?’ I hadn’t. He threw up his hands. ‘Then you know nothing of Paros!’ he declared. So I went.
The story is that St Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, stopped at a chapel on the site on her way to the Holy Land and vowed to build a magnificent church there if her wish to find the True Cross was granted. She found it, she believed, when an ill woman who had touched it was cured. After Helena’s death her son began to raise a great basilica, a marvel of arches and domes (though not quite 100 doors) that now stands on the spot where his mother made her promise – which in turn sits on an ancient temple whose pillars can be seen through glass plates on the floor. The Ekatontapiliani is one of the oldest and most important Christian monuments in Greece, but what Manolis insisted I had to see was the marble screen in front of the altar, inlaid with gold and silver icons, including a Madonna that has copies in virtually every home on Paros, carved in seemingly impossible detail. If you stand before it you will never forget it.
The shadows were long when we reached the bottom of the valley. It was windless, peaceful. Ahead of us was a makeshift encampment in which a retired seaman named Tassos Loukis pursued his hobby of carving primitive miniatures, accompanied by his dog and the radio. He had travelled the world and come back for this. The long and winding story of the quarries of Marathi arrived at an endpoint of a kind here, one that circled back to the beginning, for the pieces Tassos sculpted were based on small figurines that had first been made 5,000 years ago. Examples of these in the Archaeological Museum next to the church look like they could have been made by Picasso.
Paros is egg-shaped, its tip inclined slightly eastwards, the central highpoint of Profitis Ilias falling as gently as an unfurling skirt in all directions to the sea. It hasn’t got the defining grandeur of Santorini’s caldera, the otherworldly mineral displays of Milos or the reverberating vision of the apocalypse delivered to St John in a cave on Patmos. It has instead, in pleasing form, the main elements that have long drawn visitors to the Greek islands – cubist villages, long beaches and coves, wandering goats, old monasteries; a mixture of hospitality, informal ease and wildness.
Each of its quadrants has a different feel: the west bustling, dominated by Parikía; the north, encompassing Naoussa, more elegant; the east laidback and beachy; the south more rugged. The mountainous centre would seem the least trodden – you can still see the Paros of a century or more ago. Lefkes, the loveliest of the villages, is here; to its east, Prodromos and Marpissa are labyrinthine and very pretty. Even Parikía is serene, its arcaded pathways winding through the white houses and Venetian villas. Anyone visiting will at some point stop in Naoussa – all the best restaurants are here or nearby – and despite the crowds it still feels delicate and compelling and sometimes glamorous. Nets are mended and octopus tenderised amid the diners. These classic Cycladic hamlets are made to repel storms and invaders and withstand earthquakes. They work with and never against nature, according to chronicler and Lefkes hotelier George Pittas, ‘attaching themselves limpet-like to the rocks, huddling close together in a spirit of solidarity’.
Paros is ringed by beaches – loud ones, remote ones and those characterised by tavernas or water sports. Dmitri, who delivered my motorbike, said his favourite isolated shore is Voutakos. Another island regular I met, Jeremy Downward, who has a house high above Naoussa Bay, is especially fond of the little unnamed ones between Kolymbithres, with its wind-sculpted rock, and Monastiri. Jeremy was working for a bank in Athens in the early 1980s, when flights were subsidised to the point where you could get to the islands for less than 10 dollars, and he and his girlfriend (now wife) Nayia gorged on them. They had been to more than 20 by the time they got to Paros, which struck them immediately. ‘It was the light, the gentle undulations, the softness. And the more we looked both at and in to it, the more entranced we became. If Greece is the birthplace of Western civilisation, the quarries at Marathi are its womb. It brought enough wealth to make Paros a rival to Athens. There’s history in every clod of earth you kick up, of the ancients, as you would expect, and of course Turks and Venetians and pirates such as Barbarossa, and even Russians. On a little island in the bay below, Count Orlov and Admiral Spiridoff directed the Russian campaign to control the Aegean.’
They bought some land not long after their first visit with nothing on it but a kiln. Their four children grew up spending the summer here. Their daughter Kleri now works for Clean Blue Paros, whose aim is to make this the first plastic-waste-free island in Greece, and their son Alkis came back from studying to found Petra Farm where he organically grows capers, oregano, grapes and tomatoes and makes cheese, olive oil, souma and chutneys that are sold in their shop in Naoussa. Everyone plants, harvests, mends walls, fills jars and labels them, and from here you can see the bay with the masts of fishing boats and Naoussa like a field of lilies among the beige and green of the land and the blue of the sea. It was a lucky flight in 1984.
I was last in Paros 26 years ago. I arrived by ferry and took a bus to Naoussa. In the late afternoon there were three people in the square. The little tourist office found me an even littler flat on a roof above a bakery. My neighbours left stuffed tomatoes by the door. There was a cinema under the cypress trees across the street. I drove a motorbike to monasteries and beaches and through the mountains. One afternoon at Petaloúdes, the Valley of Butterflies, thousands of red-winged Jersey tiger moths fluttered in this oasis of cypress and carob trees, like something imagined by García Márquez.
It’s not so terribly different now. The island still runs on a human scale. And it would seem likely to remain so if it resists expanding its airport to take international flights. What I learned had changed was something almost invisible, brought about by Paros’s sweetness and ease, and what to some has become the vulgarisation beyond redemption of Mykonos, which several people have forsaken for this place. To accommodate them large villas have been put up by leading architects and designers, hidden away behind walls or treelines off dirt roads in remote locations within a short walk of isolated beaches.
Alexandra Skaltsogianni was one of the first to do this. She saw the promontory of Makria Miti from a boat more than 20 years ago and imagined herself living here. So she bought a field and got to work, collecting cabinets in antiques shops and pebbles on the beach to inlay into the floor. ‘I built this for myself but could only be in it for a few weeks per year. I thought, “They let their homes in France when they’re not there – why not on Paros?” Some shipowners had the same idea. I think they want their investments on solid ground. That changed everything,’ she told me. ‘A dustman I know got millions for land he’d never used. One farmer said he’d never sell because he couldn’t understand or possibly need such amounts of money. When I started, people thought you must be hard up if you rented out your house. Now it’s fashionable.’ She went on to build 10 more properties, most recently the eco-sensitive Secret Garden House, inserted into the side of a hill to give it what she calls an inside-out effect.
‘The Greece of my grandparents is largely gone,’ said Christoforos before we parted. ‘Though you can still see glimpses of it. The islanders have evolved with the arrival of visitors. First, tavernas. Then on Paros we had clubs. Now with the villas we have people who enjoy a nice tuna carpaccio, and we have created the restaurants that provide excellent versions of this. Locals have become more professional, and this perhaps contradicts the old, spontaneous hospitality. But the human face and feminine nature of Paros remain strong and evident. I feel them whenever I’ve been away and come back.’
WHERE TO STAY
I chose the remote and splendid Mima 3, part of a shipowner’s small collection in Makria Miti, which has olive trees, a pool and beautiful views of adjacent Antiparos. Along with others, it’s available from Serendipity Greek Villas. Parīlio, set in low farmland by Kolymbithres beach, is simply and elegantly designed, with a pool where guests clearly love to hang out and what some say is the best hotel restaurant in Greece (doubles from about £200). For those who prefer the relaxed shores of the east, the best option is Summer Senses (doubles from about £130), which overlooks Pounta beach. Secret Garden House, also known as Paros SG, and similar properties can be booked via Five Star Greece.
WHERE TO EAT
Mario, on the Naoussa harbourside, is wonderful – it would be a misfortune to visit Paros and not try its fish roe or prawn skewers and vegetables from owner Mario Tsachpinis’s organic farm. In the tranquil cove of Xifara, a few miles from Naoussa, Siparos is an ambitious, imaginative place run by a brother-and-sister team; highlights include grouper ceviche and linguine with seafood. The most traditional tavernas can be identified by their year-round opening, as is the case with Tsitsanis in Prodromos. In Aliki, head to Agkairia bakery at the northern end of town for fresh bread and Hello Mango next door for breakfast. Halaris, in Piso Livadi, is good for fish after time spent at some of the eastern beaches.