Great Greek Islands

People say, “I’m going to the Greek Islands,” as if that statement established a specific locale. In fact, it only clouds the issue. There are more than 1,400 islands in Greece, about one-fifth of the country’s land area, although “only” 169 of them are officially inhabited.

Are “The Greek Islands” better described as vacation hot spots (Ios, Thira, Kos) or remote mountain wildernesses (on Lesvos); rural outposts (DonGssa) or urbane centers (Corfu); are the white Cycladic buildings of Mikonos Town more “typical” than the ochre neoclassical facades of Simi, the chilly Macedonian winters on Thasos less “in character” than the meltemi winds that scour the Cyclades in summer or the balmy climate of Rhodos, where the sun shines 300 days a year? All – and none of the above. When John Donne wrote of “an island, entire of itself,” he might have been talking about the distinct, individual worlds that comprise the Greek Islands.

Mainland Greece is a mountainous country, and the mountains run into the sea to form the Greek Islands, most of which are formed by sedimentary rock deposits. Nisiros, Thira (Santorin) and Milos are volcanic, and eruptions and earthquakes have continued into this century. The Ionian Islands were rocked by an earthquake in 1953, and Thira in 1956.

The islands are divided into six main groups, more for administrative convenience than anything else. Along its western flank Greece abuts onto the Ionian Sea, named for the nymph lo (whom the goddess Hera turned into a cow as punishment for having attracted Zeus), and not to be confused with Ionia in Asia Minor, now Turkey.

Of the Ionian Islands, Kerkira, or Corfu, is the largest and bestknown; it represents many tourists’ first introduction to Greece, as it’s the first stop on the ferry route from Italy to Patras. Other important Ionian islands are Kefalonia and lovely Zakinthos.

Athens is perched on the southeastern coast of the Greek mainland, just above the Peloponnese, on the Saronic Gulf. Nearest to Athens and therefore popular day-trip destinations, the Saronic Gulf Islands bear resounding names from Greek history: Salamina, where the Athenian navy beat the Persians in 480 B.C., today a rather plain suburb, or Idra and Spetses, whose ships formed the core of the Greek navy in the 1821 War of Independence. The latter two aren’t really in the Saronic Gulf at all; they’re tucked up against the Peloponnesian coast.

An hour north of Athens sprawls Evia, known to classicists as Euboeia, so big and so close to the mainland that people forget it’s an island at all. Above it is a group of islands called the “Scattered Ones,” or Sporades: popular Skiathos and Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skiros.

In the northern reaches of the Aegean, Thasos and Samothr5ki are individualists with no taste for joining a group. Limnos, however, is administratively allied with the Northeast Aegean Islands, large islands which have in common forested interiors, rocky shores, and a definite independence and character: these are Mitilini (better known to many as Lesvos), Hios, Samos and Ikaria.

South of these, the Dodecanese, or “Twelve Islands,” do have a common political and historical identity. There are in fact around 16 of them, from Patmos in the north to Kasos in the south. Close to Turkey, these islands (also called the Southern Sporades) remained technically Turkish until the Italians arrived in 1914; the Dodecanese didn’t become Greek until 1945.

At the center of all of these, the Cyclades are the best-known and mostvisited of the Greek Islands. Most famous of this group are Naxos and Paros, Thira (Santorin) and fos; here, too, are beautiful Serifos, cool Andros, Tinos, “the Lourdes of Greece,” and Amorgds. All of these “encircle” the sacred island of Dilos, supposedly the reason the “Cyclades” (deriving from the word for “circle”) were so named.

Then there’s the largest of the islands, Crete. Traditionally, islanders lived from shipping, fishing and cultivating what crops they could on the islands’ sparse, generally poor soil. The latter has prevented the development of large-scale agriculture; the average Greek farmer has only about one hectare of land. Main island products are olives, grapes and other fruits, wine, herbs and the ubiquitous Greek honey.

The earth has been slightly more forthcoming with mineral resources, exploitation of which began on the islands when Neolithic explorers traveled to Milos for obsidian in the sixth millennium B.C. Other island minerals include marble (Naxos, Paros, Tinos), gold and silver (Sifnos), iron and copper (Serifos), and such volcanic by-products as pumice (Nisiros) and bauxite. There’s also oil exploration and drilling; the Prinos Oil Field, off Thasos, has been producing since 1981.

Although foreigners represent a large percentage of holiday-makers, plenty of Greeks take their vacations on the islands, too. Greece is one of the countries with the largest number of stay-at-home vacationers in Europe. As one Athens resident put it: “People come from all over the world to vacation in my country, and there are so many parts of it I haven’t seen; why should I go somewhere else?

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