As Greece struggles at the frontline of the refugee/migrant crisis, life goes on across the Mediterranean, not least in the tourist islands beyond the sea routes from Turkey. (Life goes on… is one of the most anodyne yet irrefutable clichés ever). The contrasts are startling,  the ironies of history likewise. Many Greek islands were abandoned throughout the centuries because of conditions during the Tourkokratia, the centuries of Ottoman rule, and because of pirate attacks and famine. Migrants from the northern landmass, driven in their turn by wars and persecution, soon  repopulated many of these abandoned islands. Today, tourism, that most manipulative and manufactured expression of ‘advanced’ western societies, dominates yet sustains local life on these islands. In 2015, at the height of the migrant sea crossings from Turkey to Lesbos, Chios, Leros and Kos, the tourist season in many other Greek holiday islands was one of the busiest of recent times. 


The last few frames of The Bourne Identity are worth waiting for – a wide-eyed aerial shot of champagne waves breaking on a rocky foreshore. A line of old windmills, their blades intact but sail-less, stand on the heights above. This is where Matt Damon as Bourne, and Franka Potente as Marie Kreutz, are reunited on Mykonos, the Catwalk Queen of the Aegean. It always makes me smile. They should never have gone to Goa.                                    

Mykonos makes me smile anyway. It makes me smile with a degree of wary cynicism, but with affection. This is the great glamour island of the Aegean, happily flaunting its louche reputation with style. Mykonos is catwalk culture writ large. Beneath the gloss and glitter, however, is a hugely entertaining place where the colourful and sometimes frantic mix of holidaymakers, cruise ship crowds, fashionistas, and celebrities is outshone by the blindingly white cubist charms of Hora, the old town and port of Mykonos.

Hora is a traditional Cycladic maze whose traffic-free alleyways are reduced to single-file squeezes between racks of tat interspersed with chic fashion salons, galleries, jewellers, cafés, restaurants and music bars. In the heart of the Little Venice area, on the western seafront, tiny flower-bedecked churches jostle with trendy boutiques and buffed-up tavernas and there’s a deluge of bougainvillea round every corner. Without question, you soon pass the same junction twice. It is entertaining at first, but becomes irritating as throngs of equally lost people, fast moving locals, and disdainful Mykonos veterans add to the stress.


From well-placed bars such as Aroma and Aigli, you can watch the midday flow of red-cheeked, red-kneed tourists and cruise shippers swivel-heading their way along the main streets of Matogianni and Mitropoleos, already hopelessly lost in the Mykonian maze.

By early evening there’s a shift to the volta, the endless parade of the heedless, draped in slightly off-key prêt-àporter and designer threads from the Athens’ fashion houses by way of New York. To the jaundiced eye, much of the posturing is forlorn, but not to the aficionadas. And not to the gilt-edged tax conjurers from the gin palaces moored like mammoth soap dishes alongside the northern arm of  Mykonos’ old harbour. Most of them fly the UK tax-dodgem flags of Georgetown and Kingstown. Makes you proud to be…etc

Gin palace
Cayman aboard..!

Mykonos’ other great assets are its south coast beaches. There are family beaches on the west coast but many of the southern beaches are havens of naked indulgence – in both senses – while the peripheries of some are open-air playpens of uninhibited gay sexuality that may shock mainstream proprieties. On the most popular beaches of Paradise and Elia, you can hardly get into the water by midday for the excursion boats and the Tupperware speedsters anchored along the waterline. Most of these beaches are backed by wall-to-wall 24-hour party bars where the dance begins at dawn beyond the all-night warm-up of Hora’s myriad bars and clubs.

Little Venice

What saves Mykonos from all that uber campness and excessive tourism is a resilient local identity. Mykonions are a class apart. They have had over sixty years to get a grip on the conspicuous tourism- and the concupiscence – that has engulfed their hard bitten, sun-blasted landscape. They are street smart and sharply attuned to business, but they wear it all lightly over a deep-seated Greekness that traces back to the days when, like all of the Aegean islands, Mykonos was a hard place in which to survive rather than a cradle of tourism and cash; a place where the free-range pig was an essential survival staple and there were fish enough in the Aegean to just about sustain life.

Like all Greek islands, Mykonos also maintains its religious and cultural traditions. You may well hear the music of fiddle, sandouri, dulcimer and tsambouna bagpipes, especially on the still revered Saints’ days. There are hundreds of churches and chapels scattered throughout the island. One of the most ancient is the Panagia Paraportiani at the western end of the port where five small chapels merge into what seems at times a single mass of knuckled rock. At an everyday level, there are cafés, bars and tavernas in Hora, where locals congregate and the food and talk is Greek.


What first put Mykonos on the tourist map is the nearby island of Delos, mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and one time ancient Cycladic equivalent of Fort Knox. Delos was also a religious showcase crammed with temples erected by the wealthy in order to give lip service to their favourite Gods.

Delos, with Mt Kythnos in the background

The island lies about 4 kilometres to the southwest of Mykonos town. It is 5km long and barely one kilometre wide. A small but distinctive hill, Mt Kythnos (112m) dominates the uncultivated maquis of the island and the scattered ruins below. Delos is the notional hub of the Cycladic islands, which almost encircle it, a fanciful set piece that gives the archipelago its name, from ο κύκλος, ‘the circle’. Ancient religion settled on Delos like dew and during the prehistoric period, the island became an important centre of worship for the entire Greek world. Soon, Athens took a more monetarist interest and made the island the centre of its first confederacy. By the closing centuries BC, the Romans took hold of Delos and turned it into a major commercial centre through which gold and silver were traded as well as thousands of slaves.


‘Antiquities could be taken without trouble or prohibition…’

Decline began post AD and soon the island became a hangout for Aegean pirates and a target for looters. Foremost in the vandalising and robbing of antiquities were the British and the French. Sir Thomas Row, ambassador to Constantinople in the early 17th century described Delos as ‘a small, despised, uninhabited’ island from which, he informed his masters, the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Arundel that any number of antiquities could be ‘taken without trouble or prohibition’. Huge quantities of marble were wrecked and the extracted plunder shipped back to England. The Elgin Marbles we know of, the Arundel Marbles are no less an outrage.


The greatest of vandals was Sir Kenelm Digby. The Duke of Buckingham paid Digby to scour the Mediterranean as nothing more than a privateer preying on richly laden Venetian vessels. Buckingham demanded antiquities also and during 1627 Digby, with hundreds of men, pillaged Delos. He described how ‘one stone, the greatest and fairest of all containing four statues’ proved difficult to ‘dismantle’.  Nothing daunted, Digby, using the masts of vessels for leverage, was pleased to announce that he ‘brought down’ this piece of ancient art ‘with much ease and speed.’ Nothing changes is yet another anodyne yet irrefutable cliché…

DELOS ruins
‘Brought down with much ease and speed…’

Such wrecking of ancient ‘idols’ was certainly not new. During the post-Reformation period and again during the Parliamentarian era of the mid-17th century, defacement and destruction of images throughout Europe was often official policy. While Henry VIII trod softly, post-Reformation, the mantra during the reign of his son Edward VI was ‘to utterly extinct and destroy’ images. The robbers of Delos harboured scant respect for the deeper value of ancient artefacts other than as ‘collectors’ items’. (Let us teach more British History, Mr Gove…).

While the French were every bit as voracious in the stealing of artefacts, it was French archaeologists who began to excavate Delos in 1873, with scholarly intent rather than pillage in mind. Though the island has lost far too many of its outstanding artefacts, the context of the Delian era survives.

The Headless rather than the Heedless…Dioskourides and Cleopatra (but not the Queenly one), wealthy Delos residents of c167BC

Tour boats head to Delos from Mykonos every morning and return in late afternoon. Their crews reflect bored tolerance. Officious guides shepherd bemused tour groups in the searing summer heat. Many artefacts are secured within the rather grim-faced island museum but their in situ replacements maintain the all-important context in the open air. Visiting Delos does feel constrained, given the rather soulless processing of vast numbers of tourists, but to wander independently through identifiably ancient landscape is still a compelling experience.

Meanwhile, back on Mykonos, the modern epicures and slaves of fashion, the slightly bewildered tourists and the battle-hardened Mykonians throng the streets of Hora gathering up the modern artefacts of acquisitiveness rather than antiquity.

IMG_1725 (1)
Backcountry Mykonos Town



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