Saturday, May 31, 2014

Thrill Ride to Postcard-perfect Mykonos, Crowds and a Geometry Lesson

A nice paint job for a wreck

Generally, when I write about a travel destination, I try to write, with a theme and a hook that pulls the story together as a unified piece at the end. Our visit to Mykonos was a random meandering over a short timeframe, almost an afterthought after a full morning at the ancient religious complex and residential ruins on Delos, leaving me a series of pretty memories that can fill a sketchbook, but which lack any structure. If you are looking for a sublime treatise on travel in the Cyclades, leave now.

Following our morning excursion, my father, son and I were originally scheduled to return to the Ruby Princess, and we assumed we'd need to arrange our own transport to Mykonos for the afternoon. But heavy seas meant our return tender had to detour to the sheltered city pier, which saved us 10 € for a one-way taxi. The cruise port is only about a kilometer from Mykonos Town (Chora), but a winding road with very narrow shoulders makes for the pedestrian version of Russian roulette. Happily we had stowed the Mykonos edition of the ever-dependable Tom's Port Guide series in my camera bag and hadn't left it on the ship, so we were prepared for the unscheduled walking tour.

When we left Delos, swells ranged from 6-8 feet in the open sea. By the time we neared Mykonos, swells were nearer 10-12 feet. About a quarter of the passengers took ill, many violently, forty minutes that must have seemed interminable as they collectively prayed to the large central tub in the ferry's lower level. I felt bad for them but simultaneously grateful I've always had sea legs as I witnessed the exorcism. Sufferers moaned and clutched their little paper bags as the prow pointed up in the sky, then suddenly pitched steeply downward, with an oscillating roll or yaw for good measure.

Approaching Delos, the early morning winds had not yet whipped up the sea. Later, the tiny ship was tossed.

For the rest of us it was a cheap thrill ride; one young man in the front of the boat roared with unbridled joy as we plunged from the crest of each rolling swell, and some of us began to answer his cheerleading. No one was offended; the seasick were too busy hoping for merciful oblivion. But suddenly we entered the confines of the harbor, and the roller coaster ended abruptly, ending our fun, much to the relief of its victims.

Mykonos is worth visiting immediately after Delos, or vice versa. It is a transition from desolation to a crush of crowds. But the architecture is reminiscent, and I imagine Chora as a modern version of what I'd just seen. Technology may change rapidly, but the fundamental footprints of our existence are remarkably the same after dozens of centuries. The main architectural difference, besides erosion of much of the cement-ceramic "skin" to structures in Delos, was the absence of windows in the ancient city, necessitated perhaps by a lack of modern plumbing and air conditioning that probably made ancient Delos a malodorous place. And, what skin remained had an earthen-red tint rather than the bright whitewash of Mykonos. Otherwise, the multi-story homes, zigzag streets tumbling down to the sea, the places of worship, busy harbor smelling of grilled fish, public squares and businesses of Mykonos are not too far removed from their ancient counterparts I suspect. The internet may be faster.

Even the pavement is whitewashed.

Mykonos is not adventure tourism. It is an island to see and be seen on, to photograph, to shop, to go to a beach. It apparently has a vibrant nightlife as well, though that's not my tea-cup, and a brief cruise visit is not suited for such. If we'd had more time I would have liked a glimpse of the greater island outside the main town. My general takeaway is Mykonos is a place to unwind, because there is nothing more pressing. People looking for peace may not find it in the town, however, at least when a cruise ship is in port. The confined, twisting streets and hot press of bodies at the popular spots are not for claustrophobes or introverts. 

Mykonos Town, in its seaside setting, is starkly pretty with its rounded, polygonal white-washed buildings and colorful roofs contrasting against the natural granite and blue sky. That's its main attraction for me. I never realized there are so many shades of white though; it's an architectural form of housing discrimination.

The village has all the gift shops, crafts and cafes that attract some visitors, while others come for the picturesque setting. The Little Venice neighborhood, fronting the Aegean Sea on the westernmost side of the town, is where these things come together. Compared to Athens it (Chora) is a very tidy town. I saw a few isolated graffiti, which seem jarringly out of place in a setting like this.

Little Venice behind Thomas and Dad. That's a busy neighborhood of shops, restaurants and nightclubs. These stairs lead up to the iconic windmills.

We stopped for a gelato to soak in the environment. In a few days I'll be a world-expert on best gelato stops of the eastern Mediterranean. Otherwise, a slow stroll through the narrow streets, peeking in the occasional shop or orthodox church and smelling the smells largely fulfilled my expectations.

Mykonos is another of those places where I felt compelled to chase an iconic image, only to remember I'll find a better one in a magazine. So I stopped trying and just enjoyed the moment. This is surely a special place in early morning or just before sunset. And, the iconic windmills might be easier to frame at that time without the surging crowds. But those idyllic postcard images of the windmills found at every gift shop promote an illusion; it was all I could do to take a picture of my family without a parking lot or a stranger in the frame. Today's high winds put enough water vapor in the air to soften the deep blue sky I've seen in so many professional photographs.

Quick Thomas, take a picture before that throng of other tourists wanders into the frame!

We only accidentally stumbled across the famous Paraportiani church en route to the windmills, another popular spot for dime-store photographers. A very popular church from the outside, it is a lesson in geometry. I left before getting too much education.

Church of Panagia Paraportiani
Εκκλησία της Παναγίας της Παραπορτιανής

Son Thomas was not particularly interested in Mykonos; nothing there was more than 1000 years old, and we saw only one gangly cat. He has his priorities. After ninety minutes, including the ice cream stop, he was ready to call it a day. We lingered for a while longer at the harbor. Since we never made it back to the boat on schedule, a tour bus was chartered by Princess to complete the circuit, and we never had to take that expensive taxi. The wind saved me 20 €, a token payback for the gallons of hairspray it nullified in 1985.

Mykonos is a picture-perfect postcard and a party. It's hard to know the place more deeply in a few short hours. But a few hours here is better than a month at the office.

August 12, 2013
Coming soon: Kusadasi Turkey

Another Greek sunset. Good night Mykonos.