Cyclades

Welcome to the Cyclades

Tinos villages Cyclades Greece
Tinos villages Cyclades Greece

The islands of the Cyclades are the type of islands that advertise the whole country of Greece in all kinds of travel brochures, on the internet and almost everywhere. Every cliche, every memory, every dream of a sun drenched beach can be realized here. The white cubed houses are justifiably famous, inspiring the work of many modern architects, Le Corbusier among them. The beaches are mostly clean and very good, the food fresh, fellow travelers companionable, and the ferry connections so organised it is easy to sail to more than one “paradise” while on a relatively short holiday. It is not surprising, then, that for many people the Cyclades are Greece; other island chains merely aberrations in national character.

There are 56 Cycladic islands in all, 24 of them inhabited. Their spiritual center might well be Santorini, for although flung to the south geographically, it is to this dramatic, volcano-created island that most people gravitate before venturing further.

The eastern and central islands fan upwards from Santorini in a loose chain which includes the Naxos/Paros/Mykonos back-packers’ beat, takes in little discovered islets like Donoussa and Iraklia, before concluding rather grandly in the rich red soil which is the island of Andros.

Mykonos island in the Cyclades islands of Greece
Mykonos island in the Cyclades islands of Greece

The western Cyclades form a different chain, a spine of islands self-contained in their unity, sharing a common culture linked by history and ferryboat connections. Odd man out is Kea, popular with Athenians and Archaic stone Irons, little known outside the taverns around the Acropolis.

The islands of the Cyclades were inhabited as early as 6000 B.C. The end of the fourth millennium and throughout the third saw an advanced civilization, with many inroads made in art, craft and commerce. A high standard of living was enjoyed, as anyone who visits the Goulandris Museum in Athens, on Neofytou Douka Street, will appreciate. The museum is the world’s first to be devoted exclusively to Cycladic art, exemplified by its long, linear, bright-white sculpture.

This vast backdrop of culture and history might not be evident amidst the gaudy cafes or hedonistic merry-makers of Mykonos, but it is never very far away. One sunset over the Vale of Klima, the valley in Milos where the Louvre’s Venus de Milo was discovered, is all that’s needed.

Architecture in the Cyclades

holidays on Sikinos island, Cyclades, Greece
holidays on Sikinos island, Cyclades, Greece

The Cyclades are a complex of small, beautiful islands that are located in the Aegean Sea. These islands form a circle around the sacred island of Delos. The Cyclades islands are said to be the pearl of the Greek islands, visitors from all over the world travel long distances to feel the peaceful, idyllic landscapes of the islands. We can assure you that after your first visit to the Cyclades, you will be back!

While travelling to various islands of the Cyclades, you are sure to notice many windmills (some still operate – others are just ruins), many water mills, small, beautiful chapels and large, rich churches. Small ruined farmhouses are sure to catch your eye, also the details of the architectural decoration of the dovecotes on the islands of Andros and Tinos.

The special characteristics of the Cycladic architecture are the low buildings; it is very rare to find a 3 floor building on any of the islands of the Cyclades. Houses, shops and all buildings are usually painted white, while the wooden doors and windows are painted dark blue, the color of the ocean.  This characteristic shade of dark blue has also been used on the domes of the many churches, which you will find scattered throughout the Cyclades islands, such composing images as can be seen nowhere else in the whole world.

In most of the Cycladic islands, the houses, churches and buildings were painted white, in order to reflect the harsh summer sun. So, this tradition started for “bioclimatic” or “ecological” reasons, to make the houses a little bit more heat resistant, with the little knowledge that the people had at the time. All Cycladic island houses were quite well insulated, although with primitive means — walls were built with stone (enduring heat and cold very well) while roofs (vaulted or not) were insulated too, with a combination of wood, mud, hay, and pozolanic (volcanic ash) cement. One thing to note is that walls were not painted with white paint, since white paint was fabricated and mass-produced all around the world, only after 1905 – 1915. Instead, asbestos was used to produce an almost white color. It was also used as a cheap material for many other purposes, like painting tree trunks to kill pests, making the edges of pavements more visible, ornamenting small roads, etc. This was NOT the case in Santorini but in most other Cycladic islands.

Kimolos island, Cyclades Greece
Kimolos island, Cyclades Greece

You might notice and ask why on most of the Cyclades Islands and generally in Greece, the locals paint the lower tree barks also in white! This is said to get rid of the many insects, but it is also because the color white is clean, so by painting the tree barks white, they look clean!

Since the year 1974, all new houses have had to be painted white. The owners are obligated by the municipality of the island to paint their houses at least once a year; this is usually done in the spring time. This was a common obligation, by law, but sometimes light ochre, pink, and some other light colors have been allowed. Last year, there was a big debate re-opened between the Ministry of Culture and other various authorities about re-allowing the use of other vivid colors, as in Santorini.  This conversation is still in progress, but most of the islanders are proud of their tradition and they maintain the white and the blue colors.

Each and every island has its own unique characteristics, which have been determined by the history of the island, the topography and the geology, however all of the islands seem to be bound together by their architecture. The Cycladic architecture is famous for its uniqueness and charm, providing the islands with minimal aesthetics but with a daring style that captures the heart of the visitor.

Food and drink in the Cyclades

Cyclades islands, food and drink
Cyclades islands, food and drink

The cuisine of the Cyclades is primordial and reflects its deep cultural history. With its distinctive character, heady aromas, and fruit and vegetables ripened in bright sun, it is a separate chapter of the Greek gastronomic tradition and indeed of world culinary history.
The famous Aegean ‘makarounes’ (hand-made fresh pasta with caramelized onions), Kassian pilaf, ‘sgardoumia’ (offal soup) from Santorini, Karpathos ‘vyzanti’ (stuffed lamb or goat with bulghur wheat cooked in a wood-burning oven), Serifos ‘marathotiganites’ (fennel rissoles), ‘dolmadakia’ made with vine leaves and herbs, ‘melitera’ (sweet cheese pies with vanilla) from Anafi, and Sifnos’s ‘melopita’ (honey pie), are some of the thousands of dishes that can be sampled by the traveler in the warm embrace of the Aegean.
The beauty of the Cyclades islands has become a tourist attraction not only for travelers but also for people involved creatively in the culinary arts, who come here to expand their knowledge and show their love of Greek cuisine. The restaurants of the Cyclades islands occupy a prominent place in international rankings and are highly respected by devotees of haute cuisine and authentic eating experiences.

Traditions in the Cyclades

In most of the Cycladic islands, the houses, churches and buildings were painted white, in order to reflect the harsh summer sun. So, this tradition started for “bioclimatic” or “ecological” reasons, to make the houses a little bit more heat resistant, with the little knowledge that the people had at the time. All Cycladic island houses were quite well insulated, although with primitive means — walls were built with stone (enduring heat and cold very well) while roofs (vaulted or not) were insulated too, with a combination of wood, mud, hay, and pozolanic (volcanic ash) cement. One thing to note is that walls were not painted with white paint, since white paint was fabricated and mass-produced all around the world, only after 1905 – 1915. Instead, asbestos was used to produce an almost white color. It was also used as a cheap material for many other purposes, like painting tree trunks to kill pests, making the edges of pavements more visible, ornamenting small roads, etc. This was NOT the case in Santorini but in most other Cycladic islands.

Koufonisi island sightseeing Greece
Koufonisi island sightseeing Greece

You might notice and ask why on most of the Cyclades Islands and generally in Greece, the locals paint the lower tree barks also in white! This is said to get rid of the many insects, but it is also because the color white is clean, so by painting the tree barks white, they look clean!

 

 

 

The history of the Cyclades islands

The Cyclades, due to their central location to trade in the eastern Mediterranean, have a rich and long history. They are a part of the vast number of islands that constitute the Greek archipelago in the Aegean Sea. The name was originally used to indicate islands that formed a rough circle around the sacred island of Delos.

Chora on Serifos, Cyclades, Greece
Chora on Serifos, Cyclades, Greece

The Cyclades are comprised of around 220 islands, with the major ones being Amorgos, Anafi, Ándros, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kéa, Kimolos, Kynthos, Mílos, Mykonos, Náxos, Páros, Folegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Síros, Tínos, and Santorini (Thíra).

While ancient maritime trade made the region important strategically and geographically, a reliable agricultural base made life on the Cyclades archipelago possible. The Cyclades may have been one of the earliest sites of the worship of the Mother Goddess cult, which became widespread throughout the eastern and western Mediterranean.

All Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures including ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and later on, Greece, would feature prominent goddesses. When the Minoan culture flourished in the islands from about 3000 to 1450 b.c.e., frescoes on the walls of the palace, excavated by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, featured a bare-breasted goddess with snakes.

Snakes figured in many of the Mother Goddess cults in antiquity and had its parallel in the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Settlement of the Cyclades was sporadic. The Phoenicians were most likely the first settlers, while around 1000 b.c.e. the island was inhabited by the Ionians. In the case of Síros, ancient ruins, statuettes, and skeletons indicate the island had been settled by the Bronze Age.

The very dispersion of the islands made seafaring a necessary part of survival, as islanders learned that they could gain by trading with—or raiding—other islands in the archipelago.

Santorini beauty Greece
Santorini beauty Greece

It is in these early boats that one can find the beginnings of the oared galleys that would be a feature of Mediterranean warfare until the 18th century at least, when the Knights of Malta used huge galleys in their wars against the Barbary pirates. Cycladic ships were the prototypes with which ancient Greece would plant its colonies, beginning around the sixth century b.c.e., and with which Rome would become the mistress of the Mediterranean.

The Cycladic culture peaked during the Minoan period, which was brought to life by the work of Arthur Evans with his reconstruction of the royal palace at Knossos. The story of European civilization begins on the island of Crete with a civilization that probably thought of itself as Asian (in fact, Crete is closer to Asia than it is to Europe).

Thus, the Cyclades and Cretan Minoan civilization provided the first known fusion of Western and Asiatic culture. With the rise of Alexander the Great around 320 b.c.e., this would become the great Hellenistic civilization, which Alexander’s armies would carry to the very frontiers of India.

The mythology of the Cyclades islands

Delos island, Cyclades, Greece
Delos island, Cyclades, Greece

The deep ancestry of the Cyclades was remembered through myths and legends, and most of the islands feature in ancient Greek and Roman mythology. The reality behind the myths can be explored through important archaeological remains, particularly in Delos, Santorini and Naxos. These date from Bronze Age, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman times, and they yield fascinating connections to the wider ancient world.

Each island has it’s own history and its own mythology, which is very interesting and if you study the sites on the islands, having a general knowledge of the mythology and history will help you tremendously.