On each of our last two days in Naxos, we jumped on a bus to the mountainous interior, to walk along the network of way-marked paths connecting local villages, detouring to secluded churches, or climbing some peaks.
On these walks in the hills, we saw thousands of olive trees, sometimes whole sides of a mountain terraced and planted with them. Many seemed as old as the hills themselves, with trunks as thick as oak trees. Amazed by how old they looked, we did some research and were surprised to learn olive trees can live for 1,500 years, with an average lifespan of half a millenium! A good proportion of those we saw must be centuries old, and what with the timeworn paths, and the churches from the byzantine era, we felt very young in comparison.
Speaking of feeling young, we were surrounded by ancients on the bus, with 80 a conservative guess at the average age. These are residents of the villages in the hills, who, judging by the bags of shopping they clutched, use the bus to buy groceries in town. It took minutes for them to climb or descend the steps on the bus, all the while being shouted at by the driver to get a move on.
Not that there was anything feeble about their demeanour; they were hollering full throttle back at the driver, and yelling from the back of the bus when they wanted an unscheduled stop. The driver for his part, bellowed as he approached each village asking if anyone wanted to get off, and answers were relayed up and down the bus by fellow passengers. All at full volume. The bus was also used to ferry cargo inland: it would stop randomly in front of a business, someone would run out and put packages, or boxes, or pipes in the luggage hold, and at another stop further inland, they were offloaded by someone. It all seemed to be arranged over the phone; the driver was constantly making and receiving calls.
While on one of the trails, Daniel stopped to take a picture and wandered off the path into a nearby field for a better view. Suddenly he called me, pointing to a tiny lamb, standing motionless, with his head stuck in the fence. We worried he was dead, so quiet and still was he, but as Daniel touched him he sprang into action, and with Daniel pushing his head and trying to widen the fence, he got free and ran off to join the rest of his flock. Daniel is now claiming that his taking photos has saved at least one life.
Further up the trail, the smell of goats’ cheese was suddenly overpowering, and, walking on, we came across the culprits. To prevent them charging, those with horns had their front and back legs loosely tied together, which gave them an amusing gait as they ambled over to us.
Like the other islands we have visited, there are many small farms of sheep and goats, responsible for producing the delicious Naxos yogurt (and cheese) we have already mentioned. We also saw bee hives, as well as nut trees, and orchards of oranges and lemons. Our trails also took us along fields of vines – I hesitate to call them vineyards, more a rag-tag collection of vines of all ages – further supporting our growing view that Naxos may indeed be the most blessed of all Greek islands.
We didn’t meet anyone else out walking on the trails, either locals or tourists. But we did meet a young man and his father in one of the villages, whom we stopped to ask about the bus times. The young man asked where we were from, and on hearing Daniel was from Canada, he beamed and announced “Montreal in Quebec”! We were struck dumb with surprise at his being right, picking that city out of the whole of Canada, but he told us that is where most of the Greek community in Canada live, and hence what he knows best.
On our second day inland we climbed Mt Zeus. At 1004m, it is the highest point in Naxos, and the whole of the Cyclades islands. Disembarking from the bus high in the hills, about half the work was done for us, and it was only a brisk hour or so to the top. It was a cold day but we were warmed by the exertion and the sunshine.
It was a lovely trail, climbing gently around the back of the mountain (and so sheltered from the wind), contouring through shrubbery and past stone walls, before reaching the ridge and pushing up through a jagged rocky landscape, bearing the full brunt of the wind.
Thanks to the clear day, there were far reaching views from the top. We could see most of the island, with just the northern coast hidden by other peaks. Nearby islands of Paros, Ios and further off, Santorini, were visible, as was Naxos town in the distance.
Most striking of all were the endless terraces of olive trees, and the white dots of churches perched on what seemed like every hill top. How were they built all those centuries ago? And why? And who maintains them today, all in splendid condition and wearing fresh coats of paint?
We walked down to the village of Filoti to catch our bus back to town. It is a lovely sleepy spot, with a fabulous view up to Mt Zeus, and down to the coast, as well as out to the fertile valleys around.
On reaching town, in homage to the day we had, we stocked up on Naxos wine, cheese, olives and yogurt. All the more appreciated after our time wandering amongst their source.