Saturday, September 29, 2018

An Unexpected Holiday on the Island of Syros


On Monday, Barbara and I went to Syros, the capital island of the Cyclades, about an hour west of Mykonos by boat. For one brief moment in the 1800s Syros’ capital city of Ermoupoli (and the actual capital of the Cyclades) also served as the capital of Greece.

Phoenicians were the first known inhabitants of Syros, naming the island from their word for “wealth,” and later occupiers, pirates, and Syriots seeking precisely that same prize brought boom and bust times to the millennia that followed.  Syros’ last great aristocratic run, as Greece's Nineteenth Century shipbuilding and repair center (the first shipyards in Greece were established there), ended at the close of that century with the opening of the Corinth Canal and the harbor and shipyards at Athens’ port city of Piraeus.

Syros still has its stunning neoclassical buildings, streets paved with marble, treasured opera house––some say the first in Greece–– and a decided Bohemian-artsy presence, but there’s no question the glory has faded. The number of the island's twenty thousand residents still working in its shipyards measures in the hundreds, though there is talk of a revival under hoped for new ownership.  Though it has tourism and agriculture, the island’s main role now is as the political center of the Cyclades.

We went there not for romance or tourism, but for the mundane tasks of getting my car inspected and renewing my residency permit. There is no vehicle inspection station on Mykonos despite having perhaps the heaviest populated summertime vehicular presence in the Cyclades.  Instead, Mykonos vehicles that miss the brief (and barely publicized) springtime visit to Mykonos of a mobile inspection station, must travel to Syros for inspection, a virtually impossible task to complete without an overnight stay.

But that’s to be expected.

What wasn’t expected were typhoon-level winds that kept boats tied up in the Syros harbor for days, until a brief window on Friday dropped the winds to below gale force, giving a few boats—including our ferry—the opportunity of scrambling to make it to a different port.

Rather than railing at the gods, we decided to make the best of it. After all, we had a great room in a wonderful little hotel on the harbor (the Diogenes) with a staff that graciously extended our stay for as long as we needed.

In past years, I generally spent a day or so each summer on Syros, but I never paid much attention to what the island had to offer.  Sure, I’d walk around the town enjoying its wonderful open market streets filled with fresh produce, fish, farm raised meats, candies, and I’d admire its mesmerizing architecture and winding marble streets. How could you not?  Parts of Syros are as if you’re in old Rome. 

But I’d never left Ermoupoli.  This time we had a car, so we covered the island. And were we ever pleasantly surprised.  I’ll let the photos I’m posting (the best taken by Barbara) speak to the beauty of the place, and let the smile on my face attest to how inexpensive life is on Syros compared to NYC or MYK.

I’ve come away from those five days with a new appreciation of Syros, and a very warm one at that. I sense a community committed to remaining rooted to its history.  In part I attribute that impression to the traditional Greek Rebetiko music that permeates so much of the island, but more so to what I saw as the Syriot’s take on the essential question confronting us all: prioritizing what matters most in the brief time we share on this earth— earning or living.

For example, during tourist season shops on Syros follow the traditional hours of operation: closed for the day at 3PM on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; closed at 2:30 PM and reopened between 6-9 PM on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; and closed all day Sundays. 

On Mykonos, shops run closer to a 24/7 schedule.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. 

It all depends on what you’re looking for.  May these photos help you decide what matters most to you. 

Now on to a trip to a small bit of the Syros countryside.



  1. Thank you for the report and lovely photos

  2. And I bet in those unexpected additional days you might have stumbled upon a crime scene or two that will call for the talents of a certain law enforcement officer to solve in an upcoming book perhaps? ;-)

    1. As a matter of fact Syros has a cameo in the one I just finished, as it's the home island of Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis' mentor, Tassos Stamatos. But I may have to give it greater placement after this visit. :)

  3. In very many of the photos you've posted of the Greek islands over the years, they seem very arid. Is that because there's no "snow pack" to provide water in the summer? Or does the rain just primarily fall elsewhere? Or is the rainy season just 3-4 months and dry the rest of the year? Looks beautiful, none the less, although a bit windy, too. :-)

    1. I assume by snow you mean the stuff that falls from high, not grows from below. Generally, the Cyclades do have an arid look, especially in the summer months, because rain (when it falls) generally comes in winter. Recent winters, though, have not been generous with rain, and even the traditional green parts of the land are showing brown. In fact, honey production was down markedly this year because bees lacked plants to visit.

      But when the rain does come, Spring brings a greenish cast to much of the land, offering yellow, red, and purplish wildflowers to bring us on into Summer.

  4. AH! At last a Greek island that suits my tastes. Next time you go there, Bro, I want to come.

    EvKa, I don't know about the other "Greek" islands, but you described the weather of Sicily. It rains in winter, hardly at all in summer. And NO icy roads. Ever.

    1. Sicily and at least some of the Cycladic islands are a good comparison, Sis. We'll be here waiting for you!

      The beauty of the Greek isles is that if you don't like the one you're on, just jump on a boat and visit another until you find one you truly like, because most are very different from each another.

  5. Unexpected trips to beautiful places are often the most unforgettable.

    1. True, though lousy experiences generally make for better stories. :)

  6. Replies
    1. Sounds like that I know where to find you in your office!

  7. Omigod, if I went to Syros, I would never leave. I'd find a good cafe to sit in with a book and view of people and beautiful bodies of water, as well as tasty Greek food and I would not leave.
    Is there anywhere on a Greek island or on the shores that isn't beautiful? Those skies, the water, so blue.
    And on hot, sunny days, I'd stay in the cafe or take a book and cold drinks and sit in an alley or park out of the sun but enjoying the views.