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Mykonos and Delos

The secular and the sacred

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temple delos isis columns statue

Temple of Isis on the island of Delos.

deTraci Regula, courtesy ACFP
Mykonos and Delos could not be more different - sacred, desolate Delos, madcap, crowded Mykonos - and yet, taken together, they encompass Greece and Greek history itself.

Mykonos is best known as a jet-set playground, ultimate tourist and party island, gay set refuge, and rock star hangout. What is sometimes neglected is the fact that there are good reasons why Mykonos has become so popular, and it's not just the trademark windmills. It is a beautiful island, centrally located, with a charming capital "city" of narrow lanes, trendy shops, family chapels, and bakeries. Good beaches abound, including many only reachable by boat. The harbor shelters cruise ships as well as yachts and small craft who make the island a regular stop.

Mykonos, like some island version of the Demeter-Persephone myth, only comes truly alive in spring and summer. By late fall, the winds and rough waters send most of the merchants back home to mainland Greece, leaving the island to the locals. While some visitors still make the journey, Mykonos becomes more of an island for those in search of solitude, not the hot nightlife.

Delos does not share this cycle. Millennia ago, it was declared illegal for anyone to be born or die on the island, said to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. (Their mother, Leto, gave birth while clinging to a palm tree, a symbol of now-nearly-treeless Delos.) Except for archeologists, most of whom leave the island in winter, it remains a quiet refuge. Even the masses of tourists in the summer are swallowed up by the immensity of the site.

In its glory, the Archeological Island of Delos was the banking center of the Aegean, crammed with merchants alongside the abundant temples. It was the heart of the Delian Confederation, and is the hub island around which the circling Cyclades are named.

Make sure to stop at the excellent on-site museum, where some beautiful finds are displayed.

Often neglected on the tours is the charming Temple of Isis, a personal favorite. This Doric temple overlooks the harbor and is often the first structure noticed by arriving tourists. Make the trip to see this small sacred space, still occupied by an unfortunately headless statue of Isis. In front of the temple, take note of the unusual Babylonian-style horned incense altar, where once fragrances rose up to delight the goddess.

The winds on Delos are strong, and the island lacks much in the way of tourist snacks except at the snack bar adjacent to the museum. It's a good idea to bring your own water. The gift shop offers some unique Delos-themed items which this souvenir junkie discovered really aren't available anywhere else in Greece.

There are no accommodations on Delos - it is strictly a day visit from Mykonos, and while the island is "technically" open in the early morning, there is no official way of getting to it until later, when the first boats arrive. A large variety of boats leave from the small harbor at Venezia, the on-the-water section of Mykonos filled with pleasant tavernas. Bigger ones will tend to be a smoother ride, but be prepared for the thought of rough water. Be sure to visit the small chapel dedicated to the safety of those who travel at sea, which doubles as an evening resting spot for the local fishermen.

Once back on Mykonos, pay a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Mykonos, which boasts an excellent collection of early Greek pottery, as well as remains from the transplanted tombs of the island of Rhenia, where the gravesites from Delos were moved in antiquity, to "cleanse" the island of the taint of death. You will also want to visit the Agricultural Museum housed in one of the windmills.

Travel on Mykonos is by moped and bus, or by car in the less-developed areas of the island. The buses are easy to use and run until at least midnight. T-shirt collectors will probably want to visit the Mykonos version of the Hard Rock Cafe; Planet Hollywood Mykonos closed a while back.

Mykonos has a small airport, is visited regularly by the cruise ships, and enjoys hydrofoil and other by-sea connections. A slightly out-of-town alternative to the capital is Ornos Beach, a few miles from the capital, with easy bus service into town during summer.

More on Mykonos

Searching for more information? Mykonos is sometimes spelled "Miconos" or "Mikonos" and Delos may be spelled "Dilos".

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