THE BLOG

In Defense of Paradise

"Where are they going then -- the bathrooms? " The affable owner of the sanitary ware store in London's Gloucester Road cheerfully inquired. I hesitated.

"What's the address is what I am asking," he insisted. "Well, you send them to Eugenia Chandris, Super Paradise, Mykonos, Greece," I replied reluctantly foretelling his disbelief. "You're having me on", he remonstrated, meaning I was playing a joke on him.

"No, actually I wasn't. There are no addresses in Mykonos, just places, magical places like Paradise and Super Paradise -- Kalamopodi and Plindri in the local vernacular but who can be bothered with the proper names when such celestial onomatology is accepted by all?

The absence of addresses is in keeping with the chaotic topography of the island. It is a place of geological wonder formed from massive sepia-colored rock formations, sculpted forms which squat across the landscape like giant rotund artworks in a gallery of wind-blasted fields where stubby stone walls can hardly stand. People say that the frenetic energy which infects everyone on Mykonos exudes from these very rocks. The road network, labyrinthine and haphazardly indicated and heavily punctuated with potholes butts its way through these hefty boulders disintegrating into curves that are dangerously close to the outlines of abode-like houses. These roads lead to the island's two main destinations. These are Chora, which sounds phonetically absurd but is actually hora in Greek, meaning 'town' on 95 percent of Greek islands, and Ano Mera which means upper place and refers to the only Mykonian village, an unremarkable clump of buildings highlighted by a 16th-century monastery and a wide square which experiences trample-prone crowds at Orthodox Easter.

So there are no addresses and signage is scare. Tourists wavering between delight and confusion frequently lose their way and in a variety of languages beg directions as I jog and huff up the hills on my daily run. Houses where celebrations are held tie balloons, ribbons, or tulle stripes to electricity poles to indicate where the party is and hosts send their guests texts of Proustian length to direct them to the right house.

One instruction you cannot use as reference is a tree. The arboreal conditions on Mykonos are pitiful. I once pointed out that the ideal civil service job would be in the Cycladic Forestry Commission as most of these islands are practically bald. There are a few stately but solitary palms in Mykonos, a number of Mediterranean pines but otherwise scrappy vegetation and oceans of quivering bamboo and acacias beat to an almost supine angle by the wind. What wind!!! It blows, whistles, moans and howls over the rocks without cessation. It sucks up leaves, dust and plastic bags which float into your house, whips the sea into an aquamarine froth which often prevents ships from sailing and makes landing at the airport a vertiginous experience. I accelerate up hills when it is behind me and use it as a resistance running tool when it is against me, gusting into my face, threatening to rip my skin with more wrinkles.

Mykonos always seems to invoke seismic reactions which can be categorized either as a shot of admiration spiked with jealousy or as bristling indignation. The envy is usually from Northern European friends who are enduring another soaking summer and who have seen Mykonos ranked yet again as the most popular island destination. The rolling of the eyes and indignation usually comes from my compatriots.

Initially they snort with disgust and pompously suggest alternative islands... "Oh Antiparos is so much more exclusive now". They then point out the island's defects with lightning speed, their words tipped with venom. They strike one defect after the other off their critique list: beaches overcrowded with writhing, oiled bodies gyrating to deafening music, suicidal driving techniques, unbearable traffic and elusive parking spots, bars and restaurants that are astronomically priced and an attitude of reckless superiority which affects everyone from the drunken tourist to the sullen and disgruntled waiter who is sadly in danger of becoming a Greek archetype.

So why am I defending an arid cluster of rocks. My fanaticism begins with the physical.

Mykonos combines a boisterous blue sea crested with foam, clusters of white washed houses with uneven plaster walls, beaches of soft sand licked by turquoise water, inland meadows with the full bucolic scenario of horses, cows and baby lambs with grass and poppies as a bonus in spring. Added to this is the pace, energy and demanding entitlement of a mini Manhattan. Whether you desire Ouzo (the local drink) or Cristal champagne, a meat skewer of souvlaki on pita bread or salmon sushi, leather sandals or a Louis Vuitton bag, you can get it.

There is one unique characteristic that is beyond touristic beauty or commercial allure and that is the light. I have never seen it elsewhere -- piercing, crystalline, revelatory.

The cerulean canopy of sky and the luminous energy it radiates have to do with an uninhabited rocky outcrop crouching low in the churning seas, a few kilometers away. The sacred island of Delos is as vital to Greek mythology as the oracle at Delphi and the Cycladic group of islands which includes Mykonos derives its very name from it -- the island's form a cyclos (circle) around Delos.

Historically and archaeologically Mykonos was and is entirely eclipsed by Delos whose focal point is the sacred lake where the nymph Leto gave birth to the twin gods Apollo and Artemis and which is still guarded by the world famous row of snarling marble lions.

At one time, it was a place of sprawling market places, colonnaded walkways, theaters and shops where maze-like streets were dominated by porticoed villas whose vividly hued mosaics evoke the suddenly extinguished glory of Pompeii. Whereas that city was obliterated in hours, Delos' decline was more gradual but no less dramatic. No one was permitted to die on the island as not to sully the pristine light which characterized Apollo. Death was dark anathema to the Apollonian culture and as the risk of death in childbirth was high, births were not permitted there either. So Delos had no native citizens and thus itself died out. Deaths and births were exiled to the neighboring island of Rhenia. Throughout a very contrary history, Mykonos was an inhospitable exile for disgraced Roman aristocracy and was occupied by the Venetians, then the Turks, was burned in World War II and was always poor.

Yet Mykonos survives, even in this time of national economic crisis. The island celebrates itself with reckless enthusiasm, around the clock. Visitors are usually in one of two states: hungover or inebriated. Revelries cease around 8 a.m. when the few eager runners or yoga devotees are saluting the sun. Stores in town operate with similar alacrity and are open in summertime until 1 a.m. unlike many other islands whose operating hours are sluggish at best. The range of available wares is impressive. Cuban cigars are squeezed between newspapers and chewing gum in the pavement kiosks and supermarkets sell gourmet products from premium UK food stores.

Instead of road rage there is road relaxation. A variety of motley vehicles are deployed on the streets -- quad bikes mostly but also bicycles, tractors, a few antique cars including my own, even a donkey on the quieted tracks. Tricycles sometimes carry goats, pigs and hay and snuggle next to preposterous Hummers and Range Rovers on the way to town.

Admittedly with its fame came over-development, high prices and an urban bustle reminiscent of a small city. Yet you can get away -- jogging along gritty dirt tracks where you can smell fresh thyme bushes, sliding down rocks to private coves where you can let the sun drench your skin and swim in a sea which is numbing or invigorating depending on your interpretation of cold. There really is a pelican guarding the port and the original Peter was brought to Mykonos from Germany in 1986. He is now joined by Georgia and they are fed by the local fishermen who have a white marble stand where they sell their catch. The port looks like it did in photographs from the sixties and is always lively even in December when it can be dusted with snow. You can have a great daiquiri, watching the sunset in the Venice neighborhood and/but you can also pick blackberries in October on the dirt road to Fokos beach.

In town, sophisticated stores are interspersed by solemn churches whose interiors emit a rosy glow of candles and silence in the din. The town houses sit with their doors open, the inhabitants sitting quietly at their table the women usually in black, unfazed by the craziness on their doorstep. I still get a nod or a hug from the people I have known over the 43 years I've been visiting the island and I value that. Every St. Eugenia's day and on Christmas Day which follows it, wherever I am in the world, I will get phone calls from the people I co-operate with there. My special favorite is Mr. Aris from OTE (phone company) and that's how he announces himself.

The best way to see Mykonos is at sunset with its characteristic wind mills jutting out darkly against the crimson sky and it's also best to see it in humorous perspective... One day a long traffic jam occurred at the main intersection. Locals were cursing and tourists fretting angrily as the blocked road led to the port one way and to the airport the other. Both were blocked by a stray herd of voluminous and lazy cows sauntering along the tarmac as if at pasture.

Their bovine innocence brought traffic to a halt and the island to its true senses.

Mykonos -- untamed and uncontainable was literally stopped in its tracks.