History took a new turn on the Greek island of Naxos 800 years ago, hardly an anniversary that called for a celebration, though. A Venetian diplomat, Marco Sanudo, captured in 1207 Naxos, along with other Cycladic islands, and turned them into a Duchy, a Venetian rule that was to last for over three centuries.
That was in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, which had deviated from its route and invaded the Byzantine Empire, the participants then distributed its possessions among themselves. The sea power Venice, after assisting in troop transports, took an interest in the Aegean islands and coastal regions. As a nephew of the Doge of Venice, the 53-year old Marco Sanudo was undoubtedly rewarded with his very favorite island.
His official title was Duke of the Aegean, or Archipelago, but Sanudo is better known as Duke of Naxos, the first in a series of 22, divided between his own and the Crispo dynasties. If Sanudo had come back today, he would surely walk around Naxos Town and its castle to explore the physical remains and the attitude of the Naxiotes toward the Venetian heritage. You could imagine him doing that by letting your own eyes imitate his.
Naxos Town is a delight to the eye, like a picture book, with an harmoniously curved harbor on the front cover and a gigantic marble portal, Portara, on the back. The portal inevitably creates mental images of Apollo, in honor of whom it was raised 2500 years ago. Perched on a little islet, Portara is via a causeway linked to Naxos Town, also called Hora, a white beauty crowned with Sanudo’s beige-colored castle.
In a nostalgic pharmacy at the end of the promenade, they kept the original interior, probably due to the pharmacist’s passion for local history. He’s an elderly gentleman descending from the Venetian Della Rocca family. Taki’s Shop nearby promotes local wine and colorful liqueurs, while the owner’s true passion is to collect mussel shells and polish them into jewelry: one type has a closing mechanism the size of a small coin, on the white inside depicting the spiral of an ear, the outside red with an unmistakable eye pattern. It’s the famous Naxos Eye.
The ascent to the Castle takes you step by step through whitewashed narrowness, under balconies weighed down with age, nearly bumping into you. Bridges are actually houses built across the street. Marble door frames are quite common. Zinc buckets and plastic jars flourish with geraniums and hibiscus, roses and vines. The idyll belongs to the Greek part of town, Bourgos, soon succeeded by tall Venetian castle walls, the Kastro, an image of power and strength.
Certain sections have been renovated, while in other places, the walls crumble. Windows, for safety reasons few and difficult to reach, reveal that these walls are composed of the exteriors of private residences. The Castle housed some 400 people of Venetian origin, whose descendents live here still, although wealthy Greeks and foreigners have acquired their portion. This is the main entrance, the northern Trani Porta, boasting a wooden door too lopsided to be closed, proof that pirates and enemy soldiers are no longer an immediate danger.
The restored tower on the left, Crispi Tower, today a Byzantine Museum, belonged to the second dynasty, the Crispo family. Marco Sanudo himself was in 1227 succeeded by his son Angelo, progeny of a Greek mother, and his civil rights therefore supposed to be limited. Greeks were not at all equal in a truly feudal society, administered by Lords in safe towers spread around the island. The Sanudos stayed in power until 1383, when Francesco Crispo assassinated the reigning Duke; the beginning of a dynasty that continued up to 1566, then was overthrown by the Ottoman Sultan.
Just inside the arch of Trani Porta, Nikolaos invites you to his family’s old home, Domus Della Rocca-Barozzi, a Venetian Museum. Whether small or large, the rooms exude a former grandeur under lofty ceilings, the windows offer a splendid view of the harbor and the Portara portal. Family members had widely different interests: from embroidery and literature to piano and photography. Classical music fills the rooms, an appetizer for the concerts that Nikolaos arranges in a tiny garden right outside Trani Porta.
Stately houses cling to each other, most often in good repair, a few in poorer condition. They tell their own story through marble inscriptions and coats of arms. All alleyways seem to lead to the Catholic Cathedral with a facade and tower in marble, otherwise freshly painted yellow, suggesting religion is a division line still kept up. A white poodle outside means Ms Catherine is there, a French lady who grew up on Naxos. Her bunch of keys opens up various art collections and the colorful interior of religious institutions.
Center of Power
This elegant quarter radiates power. The Duke’s Palace is located here, nowadays seat of the Archbishop of Naxos and Tinos, both holding considerable Roman Catholic communities. The priests also served as teachers. For Greek people, though, education was non-existent, even their Orthodox priests were more or less illiterate. Toward the end of the Venetian era, religious orders established convents and schools, like the Jesuits running a school of commerce, while Ursuline nuns educated young Venetian ladies.
A rebuilt stone wall cannot hide that the Sanudo Tower is in ruins. It’s surrounded by shining white buildings, like the Archeological Museum in the former Jesuit school, where four visiting Swiss ladies treat vases and vessels as were they their own kitchen ware. Cycladic marble figurines, the epitome of silence, make no impression on them, they go on shouting. Zeus, transformed to a bull on a floor mosaic, ought to remove those ladies instead of kidnapping the young Princess Europa.
The Zeus mosaic covers a terrace facing a green landscape of hills, just one variation of Naxos. There is no end to the island’s delights: sandy beaches, fertile plains, villages in the hillsides, serpentine roads climbing the mountains, the highest named after Zeus himself. Each Cycladic island has its special quality whereas Naxos, the largest, combines them all and reminds you of mainland Greece as well. When choosing Naxos, Marco Sanudo got himself a mini continent.
Near the southern gate, Paraporti, costly marble art is for sale at Antico Veneziano, the Venetian Shop. Postcards are cheaper, original photos from the files of Iannis Della Rocca, the pharmacist. On one photo, three cheerful local beauties pose in the year 1930 on Hora’s waterfront, dressed in smart little hats, high heels and light coats lifted up by a teasing wind, their carefree attitude showing that centuries had passed since the women of Naxos were the property of Venetian Lords.
Outside Paraporti, people enjoy a quiet dinner at the Kastro Tavern, perhaps philosophizing over Marco Sanudo’s 800th anniversary. A diplomat and opportunist, some say, but considering the durability of his Duchy, also a dynamic organizer. One product of his ingenuity is Naxos Town, a two-sided jewel made up of Kastro and Bourgos. This gem of a town gives the beholder twofold enjoyment, precisely like the Naxos Eye.