More than a decade ago I took a holiday on Naxos. This Cycladic island is a paradise for walkers and those who find pleasure in old high-walled mule tracks that connect miniature Byzantine churches. A German guidebook led me from village to village through this blessed landscape. One day, to escape this comforting world, I climbed (and clambered) to the fortress of Apalirou. In my memory, I recall the long slog to the top and the cantilevered castle at the north end. All of northern Naxos lay before me. To the south, a wall of grey rounded mountains – all treeless – blocked the view to the islands of Koufonissi, Keros, and Amorgos.
A sense of pride at having conquered this hilltop stayed long in the back of my mind and was the reason I happily agreed to write a foreword to a new monograph about an audacious survey of this improbable place by the Norwegian Institute at Athens, working with Edinburgh, Newcastle, and Oslo universities. James Crow and David Hill, the editors, proposed that Apalirou was continuously occupied as the Naxian capital from the 6th or 7th centuries through to the arrival of the Venetians in about 1207. I was not entirely convinced, testing their patience. Cutting to the chase, for years I have proselytised that town life collapsed most everywhere in Dark Age Europe. Their scholarship, though, after breathtaking fieldwork, is of a high order and left a modicum of doubt in my mind. This doubt took root like a tick. So, when my little essay was published, I wondered who was really right. That’s why I elected to pay homage to Apalirou again.
Chora: capital of Naxos
The little aeroplane from Athens to Naxos weaved its way southwards over Paros and, in the gusty north-easterly wind, skimmed across Aegean rollers to land giddily on the airstrip on Naxos. The airport boasts a dignity from a lost black-and-white age when no one but the very richest took to the air. This is a Lilliput airport – no glass and steel and branded designer shops. Made for 20 travellers in comfort, today it holds 40 at a pinch. As for the baggage belt, it is a mere four metres long and jerkily rolls bag after bag until they topple outside. It is hilariously out of step with modern travellers and everyone secretly loves this. Perversely, of course, it is a reassuring entry point to this island.
Naxos has changed since I was last here. Tourism has blossomed notwithstanding austerity, and a new sector of the island capital, Chora, is wall-to-wall boutique hotels. Even in October, the polyglot voices betray visitors from all parts. Eventually, they all assemble beside the tall marble Archaic Greek door that, like some giant staple, stands aloft and proud above the ruins of the Temple of Apollo overlooking Chora’s harbour. Here on this islet, everyone – hundreds – gather not to discuss the minutiae of Greek architectural history but in the muted light to be registered in selfies as the sun dips and lingers as a vermillion smear over silhouetted Paros. Evidently the great temple door and the photographic setting it provides at sunset is on a bucket list for authentic Aegean travellers.
The temple once proudly overlooked a Classical port that has Neolithic origins and took shape behind a Mycenaean-Minoan fortification (now conserved in the municipal square). Within this footprint, later iterations of Greek then Roman town life formed. The wealth of this place is best judged by ambling along the narrow strand eastward of the Temple of Apollo. Mixed with pebbles, plastic straws, and bottle tops are sea-worn sherds of later Roman amphorae and tableware. At the back of the beach, in the shallow scarp, Roman walls protrude. Quite what happened to Chora after antiquity and before the arrival of the Venetians remains unclear. Like other Mediterranean ports, it seems to have withered and died.
A new chapter began in 1207 when the Venetian, Marco Sanudo, landed with eight warships near Potamiá. After successfully conquering Apalirou, he created the Duchy of the Archipelago. He was among the carpetbaggers who had left La Serenissima on the Fourth Crusade, but discovered easier pickings as they first sacked and pillaged Adriatic Sea towns like Byzantine Zadar, Butrint, and Corfu, and then, scenting a heinous opportunity, captured Constantinople, the imperial Byzantine capital. Quickly dividing the spoils – and ignoring their original purpose to retake Jerusalem – they descended on the Cycladic islands. Here they invested in new age thinking. The visible legacy of the conquest of Naxos is the substantial donjon built at Chora on the high ground above the port. Today, having been transformed into a water reservoir in the 20th century, only its powerful outer walls survive. Around it, within enclosing fortifications, the Venetian borgo was installed. Behind the narrow ingresses into the fortress, a tight web of passages and stepped streets was introduced. Under the Aegean sky, these formidable colonisers fashioned a miniature Venice.
Clambering up Apalirou
The hilltop eyrie of Apalirou seems to be the place that outlived the end of ancient Chora in the 7th century, serving as the island’s centre until the Venetian conquest. Legend has it that the Arabs stormed Apalirou in AD 850. Certainly, it was the principal objective of Marco Sanudo – later the Venetian Duke of the Archipelago – when he besieged it in AD 1207. The siege lasted five weeks before he wrested it from its Byzantine and Genoese defenders. That taken, all Naxos acquiesced to Sanudo, who re-established the island’s capital at Chora. Apalirou, it seems, had been an aberration. After millennia of urban life on the seashore at Chora, the hilltop was the Dark Age home to the Naxian administration for five centuries or so, until Chora was re-envisioned by the Venetians. Was this aberration a town? Well, that was the motive for my second visit.
Finding Apalirou again taxed me. I set out early, keen to get to the summit before it was too hot. With the wind still whipping off the sea, I need not have worried. I took the winding road to Chalki from Chora, and 4km this side of that village, on eyeing a sign to Kastro Apalirou, I veered right in the direction of Potamiá. A couple of kilometres onwards, I spotted my target, a sharply defined rhomboid in the early autumnal light, metallic grey unevenly veined with green scrub. But where to park and set sail into the landscape? I paused by a farm at the Temple of Demeter, and both the bearded farmer and his teenage son instantly pointed to Apalirou with eagerness and conviction. Pleased with my pronunciation, I soon spotted a sign to the castle.
On foot, I followed the rough track to my first field church of the day: the diminutive Ayios Ioannios Theologos Adissarou. Allegedly it possesses dark, iconoclastic Byzantine frescoes, but being locked – as, infuriatingly, they always are – I snapped it and sallied forth. My guidebook really was no use and so, to be perfectly honest, I targeted the hill and pursued a mule track to the west until it stopped, then vaulted two high drystone walls worthy of the Peak District to begin my assault on the lower flank of Apalirou. Madness, really – at least that was what a member of the 2nd Ephoria of the Cyclades later told me. A path is being planned now, thanks to the recent fieldwork, but, given its remoteness, this venture is not best tackled alone, however glorious the weather.