The Cyclades, a string of paradise islands

Greece, its Parthenon, and its heritage. Its old stones and islands. All equally varied. The country comprises 6,000 islands and islets scattered in the Ionian and Aegean Seas, 227 of which are inhabited. The traveler, on the other hand, will be spoilt for choice: beach croissants that stretch for miles or cute little coves. Pebbles, sand, golden or black, in volcanic areas. Idleness or culture. Because these islands, like the mainland, remain the cradle of some of the oldest European civilizations (Cycladic, Mycenaean …) divided into six archipelagos of which the Cyclades remain the best known.

An archipelago with a rich history

According to geologists, these islands were formed as a result of numerous earthquakes and volcanic explosions, after the separation of Asia Minor and mainland Greece. Archaeological excavations have shown that they were inhabited as early as 6000 BC. J.-C., but it is around 3000 BC. J.-C. that they have developed a remarkable civilization.

The discoveries made on Milos, Naxos, Syros, and Keros prove that during the rise of the Cycladic civilization, the inhabitants lived in organized villages, engaged in trade, fishing, and agriculture, and made vases, obsidian tools, and a wide range of objects that facilitated their daily lives. The marble idols of Paros are today distributed in different museums. Their schematic form is reminiscent of contemporary works of abstract art.

From the second millennium BC. J.-C., the archipelago is influenced by the flourishing Minoan civilization (see the magnificent colorful frescoes). The explosion of the Volcano of Thira (about 1450 BC) marks the end of the Cycladic and Minoan civilizations.

After the first millennium BC. J.-C., the Ionians settled in the majority of the islands which were organized into city-states. But the Cyclades experienced a new golden age after the seventh century, with the development of trade, the establishment of art workshops that produced objects such as the amphorae of Milos, and the transformation of Delos into a great religious and political center. After 478, at the end of the Medieval Wars, the islands linked their destiny to that of Athens.

During the Byzantine period, the Cyclades suffered from pirate invasions and, after the fall of Constantinople (1204 AD), they were dominated by the Venetians. The islands will be distributed among the great families of Venice and placed under the authority of the Dukes of Naxos. During this occupation, a large number of inhabitants of Syros, Tinos, Mykonos, Naxos, and Santorini converted to Catholicism. In 1537, the famous privateer Barbarossa spread terror in the archipelago, and from 1617, one after the other, the Cyclades fell into the hands of the Turks.

During the Turkish occupation, the islands would have a special status that would give them the opportunity to build and arm ships to deal with pirates. The capitulations between Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent also granted France the protection of local Catholics. For a short time (1770-1774), the islands were subjugated to the Russians and, during the War of Independence, they welcomed refugees persecuted by the Turks.

Small paradises of tourism

Today, the Cyclades are undoubtedly the most touristic archipelago in Greece. There are 39 of them, surrounded by countless islets, but only 25 of them are inhabited. Their dry climate, refreshed by mealtimes, their superb architecture of whitewashed cubic houses, arcades, dovecotes, and windmills, as well as their diversity, attract more and more foreigners. They appreciate the dry and arid landscape of gray, green, or purple rocks, brightened by a few olive trees and framed by a sea subject to the moods of the wind. Their inhabitants, fishermen, farmers, seasonal workers from Athens, often enriched by tourism, love to party. And, often, they also make good wine.

For the choice of your island, know that Mykonos, Paros, Santorini, and Ios are the most touristic and cosmopolitan. Andros, Santorini, Delos, and Syros will please you if you do not want to sunbathe idiots. Sifnos, Tinos and Folegandros are the most natural. Andros, Naxos, and Syros are the greenest. Amorgos, Anafi and Folegandros, and the Little Cyclades are the most eccentric. Paros, Mykonos, Antiparos, Milos, Naxos, and the Little Eastern Cyclades have beautiful beaches. Kea, Anafi, Serifos, Kimolos, Sikinos and Folegandros offer a quiet holiday in the summer. And Sifnos, Andros, Naxos, Syros, and Tinos offer the best cuisine…

Culture, idleness, soaring parties, we are spoilt for choice

Nestled west of the Cyclades, this string of islands still escapes the “obligatory” circuits of the Aegean Sea. And yet. Why not poke your head in the spectacular turquoise cove of Papafragas on the north coast in Milos, which once unknowingly exhibited the famous Venus of the Louvre? Or isolate yourself on the small Kimolos, accessible in caicon by the northern tip of Milos, in Apollonia? Who knows the port of Chora, on the edge of the cliff, in Folegandros?

What about Kea, a kind of wild paradise barely known to foreigners, far from the soaring atmosphere of Mykonos? The Greeks, on the other hand, particularly like the island of Sifnos, which has managed to keep its authenticity.

The central Cyclades, from Saint-Jean to Antiparos, is the setting for the unmissable sites of the Cyclades. Their popularity earns them to be extremely well served and ideal for an à la carte holiday. Why deprive yourself of the sandy beaches of Paros and Naxos, the neo-classical architecture of the Cycladic capital, or a festive trip to Ios, in the middle of August? An à la carte holiday, believe us. They are not the most economical islands (in high season at least), but they are among the most popular, with the best infrastructure.

To the east, a walk and a sunset on the volcano, in Oia (Santorini), is not refused, like a swim on the red beach of Red Beach. Each island cultivates its difference. Culture lovers will walk the terrace of the Lions in Delos. Conversely (chronologically speaking), the Museum of Modern Art of Andros, founded by Basil and Elise Goulandris in 1979, brings together the work of great Greek artists such as Tsachouris, Gounaropoulos, Bouzianis, Galanis, and others. Lovers of beaches and landscapes will choose Amorgos, the cradle of Luc Besson’s Big Blue. In Mykonos, the festive, you will also get lost between the whitewashed cubic houses, the windmills, and the pelicans (and obviously the crowd, if you land in August …). To blend in with Greek holidaymakers, choose Tinos, the birthplace of writer Vassilis Alexakis. Its beaches and cross-country trails, absolutely not devoid of charm, are still preserved by foreign mass tourism and tour operators.

Finally, the small Cyclades of the East, located between Naxos and Amorgos, is a beautiful holiday alternative for all those who, wishing to flee places too touristy, dream of spending a few idyllic days between sky and sea. The sandy beaches are exceptional, the sea declines the full range of blues and transparency, and cars are almost non-existent! You can explore these islands at your leisure by renting a sailboat or from Naxos by small boat. But more and more tourists are docking in these islands for day trips, especially to Koufonissia. Make your program!

 Smart info

 When? The best times to visit the Cyclades are May, June, September, and early October. Before May and after the end of September, boats connect the islands to Piraeus less often and several hotels and restaurants are closed, local buses have different schedules. But it has its charm too…
 Get there. In general, we stop in Athens, before taking the ferry (or speedboat) or a domestic flight. Count between 200 and 450 € for the return ticket.

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