Greece #07 – Syros & Aegina
Greece #7 –Islands of Syros and Aegina
This is part 7 of a trip we took in April of 2019 to Greece. Except for some days on our own in Athens and surrounding areas, the bulk of the trip was an organized Road Scholar cruise through several Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea.
This installment contains the islands of Syros and Aegina.
Full Trip Map
Islands & locations visited during the cruise portion of this trip. This episode is for Syros, a swing by Cape Sounion, and Aegina
In this episode I’ll be covering the islands of Syros and Aegina as we close out our tip. After seeing Athens, the northeastern section of the Peloponnese peninsula, sunset on Cape Sounion, and the islands of Poros, Folegandros, Santorini, Paros, Delos and Mykonos we were quite interested in seeing if these last two islands would be more of the same or something different. Well, to be honest, although Syros was quite charming and interesting in its own right, it was – after all – another Greek Island -- and in many regards similar to others we had seen. Aegina on the other hand, while also similar to many of the other islands was a bit less interesting with less to see. But we’ll start with Syros.
Our travel path on Syros
Syros is a 32 square mile Greek island in the Cyclades, in the Aegean Sea with a population of roughly 21,507 (2011). The largest towns are Ermoupoli, Ano Syros, and Vari. Ermoupoli is the capital of the island and of the Cyclades. Our ship docked in Ermoupoli but we ventured up the hill to Ano Syros for some sightseeing.
The city of Ermoupoli is built in a natural amphitheater flowing down to the harbor. The architecture is mostly neo-classical buildings, old mansions, and white house’s ascending up the hillside from the harbor. It was built during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s.
The history of settlement on Syros goes back at least 5,000 years, to the Early Bronze Age of the Cycladic civilization. This is when the hill-top settlement of Kastri began. Kastri, dated by archaeologists to 2800-2300 BC, was one of the earliest settlements in Greece that was protected by stone walls with rounded bastions. Like the rest of the area, Syros was occupied and controlled by a succession of empires that we’ve seen before including the Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans and several others, however it did not play an important role during antiquity nor the early Christian years. It was not even a diocese at a time when even the smallest islands possessed their own bishop.
Let’s see what other trivia I can dig up on Syros. Ah, here’s one. In the Middle Ages, following an agreement between France and the Holy See with the Ottoman authorities, the Catholics of the island came under the protection of France and Rome and so Syros sometimes was called "the Pope's island". Okay, not all that interesting, but it was all I could find.
So, who might you know that counted Syros as home? Well again, not a long list here. The only one I found mentioned is the philosopher Pherecydes who was the teacher of Pythagoras of triangle fame. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a popular place, just no one famous called it home.
Later on and due to its position in the Aegean sea, Syros became known as a maritime way-point. Moreover, the special social, religious and institutional conditions prevailing on the island, led residents to be considered neutral at the beginning of the Greek Revolution in 1821. As a result, Syros became a secure shelter during the Revolution, attracting many Greek refugees from Asia Minor, Chios, Spetses, Psara, Aivali, Smyrna, Kydonia, Kassos and other places. These refugees built the city of Ermoupoli, down by the bay below Ano Syros.
As we all should know by know if you’ve been following along, Greece won its independence and shortly thereafter, in 1827, Syros became part of the newly founded First Hellenic Republic and later (1834) the Greek Kingdom. And, here it sits today.
After docking in the town of Ermoupoli in the middle of the night as was the typical routine, we spent the entire next day touring Ermoupoli and Ano Syros (a hill top town that was once a separate village but has now blended together with Ermoupoli). Ermoupoli was founded during the Greek Revolution in the 1820s, as an extension to the existing Ano Syros township, by refugees from other Greek islands because of the War. It soon became the leading commercial and industrial center of Greece, as well as its main port. Eventually Ermoupoli was eclipsed by Piraeus in the late 19th century. In the following decades the city declined. Recently, its economy has greatly improved, based on the service industry.
When you look at Ermoupoli from the bay, you notice that it descends from two prominent hills, each with a large structure on top. As it turns out both of these buildings are in Ano Syros
Ermoupoli and Ano Syros from bay. Left hill topped with St. George’s Cathedral and right hill topped with the Church of Resurrection
This is a somewhat quiet (tourist wise) town with laid back streets, idyllic views and a turquoise bay. Many home are built right on the edge of the bay making a plunge into the Aegean sea on those hot summer days a backyard affair.
Houses built right on the bay make it easy to take a swim on a hot summer day
With our guide we first did a walking tour of Ermoupoli. Our first stop was at the Monument of Resistance. Most of us are aware of the French Resistance during WWII, but Greece also had a robust underground army, with some branches being armed and others not, but all defying and making life difficult for the Germans. Throughout Greece there are many monuments to the resistance including one in Ermoupoli.
Ermoupoli monument to the resistance
Ermoupoli has a great number of architectural marvels. Exquisite specimens of Neoclassical architecture, old mansions and whitewashed houses ascending the hill and near the harbor are marvelous churches, known as the jewels of Syros architecture. Now, when touring Europe one can quickly acquire an aversion to ABC (Another Bloody Cathedral) and Greece certainly has its share of churches and cathedrals. But every now and again one area stands out from the others in some aspect of their churches. It is not exactly clear why this is. Perhaps at one time there was a tit for tat where each congregation had to one up the congregation down the street in an continuous escalation of one-upmanship. Ermoupoli seems to be such an area. Of course we didn’t go into every church in town, and I’m sure our guide led us to the most spectacular ones, but I was impressed.
One such church is the Dormition of the Virgin Mary which was built in 1828-1829. It is a three-aisled basilica without a dome. Inside the church is the icon of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary which is the work of Dominikos Theotokopoulos (aka El Greco). One of the first works of El Greco, it dates back to 1562-64. But what I liked in this church was the blend of colors which was greatly enhanced by light coming through large glass windows along the top of the side walls and the mix of opulence (gold pulpit) and simplicity (straight back wooden chairs instead of pews). The ceilings in the side galleries are painted a light blue with star like gold designs and the ceiling in the central gallery contains an iridescent – almost electric like – blue when the light hits it right. The columns are made of a green veined stone which offset the gold pulpit and throne and rich brown tones of wooden railings and chairs. Really quite impressive
Church of Dormition of the Virgin Mary
Central and side gallery ceilings
Bishop’s Gold throne
Another elaborate church just a couple of blocks away is St. Nicholas. This one is a Byzantine Church that was built between 1848 and 1870. Saint Nicholas, who happens to be the patron saint of Ermoupoli, stands out for its lavish interiors and impressive architectural structure. Some features include the icon of St. Nicholas that was silver-plated in Moscow, the despotic marble throne, the pulpit and the marble iconostasis designed by George Vitali. Like the church described above this one also has a rich palate of color and many of the design features are the same as the other one. For example, the blue ceiling with gold objects is quite similar as are the chairs in place of Pews among other things. Like the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Church, St. Nicholas has large clear windows, including a large circular skylight but it also has some stained glass windows as well. When we were there that stained glass cast gorgeous colored light into the interior. It lit up a silver chandelier in blazing gold and a 2nd floor alcove behind it in crimson red. It also cast rainbow like light patterns in several patches of the floor adding to the color palette and making for a very beautiful sight.
Interior of St. Nicholas is in many ways similar to Dormition of the Virgin Mary Church
St. Nicholas Church silver chandelier tuned gold by light through a stained glass window. 2nd floor alcove in background turned red by light from a different stained glass window.
St. Nicholas ceiling motif similar to that of Dormition of the Virgin Mary Church
We were visiting these churches the week before holy week which includes Good Friday and the subsequent Easter holiday. Due to this, as evidenced by a cleaning bucket on a chair in the photo below, pretty much every church we visited was in the midst of being cleaned and spruced up by parishioners to make it ready for the ceremonies of the upcoming week. According to Greek City Times, “Holy Friday is the most sacred day of Holy Week and is a day of mourning. It is the day that commemorates the Passion of Christ, with his funeral. In the evening there is a procession and the Epitaphio (tomb of Christ) is carried around the church and surrounding streets, accompanied by parishioners holding candles.” That must be a wonderful site to see but, alas it would be the following week.
Colored light from stained glass windows play on the chairs and floor
Another charming church (well cathedral) is St. George which sits at the top of one of the hills overlooking Ermoupoli in the town of Ano Syros. While you can drive to Ano Syros, the streets and alleys of the hill tops are way too narrow for vehicles so it is foot traffic only. Our bus let us off at a high point where we visited St. George’s Cathedral and then wandered our way down through charming narrow passage ways to a lower part of the town where our bus picked us up.
St. George’s is quite nice it its own right but is done in more pastel colors than the other two we’ve talked about. It is also a bit more formal. For example it has regular pews rather than just chairs and it is not as cluttered, nor ornate as the others.
St. George’s Cathedral in Ano Syros
As we wandered down the streets of Ano Syros enjoying the quiet charm of an area not overrun with tourists, we encountered several locals at their homes. Of course they spoke no English and we spoke no Greek, but with a few common words we told them where we were from and we wished each other well.
Streets of Ano Syros
Now that’s a lot of dog
Watching the world go by in front of his home
Ermoupoli waterfront at night
Ermoupoli with Ano Syros above at night
During the course of our trip, I had been showing folks some of the images I had taken at the Temple of Poseidon when we were on our own. You already saw these images in part 3 of this Greece series of travel logs and there’s one at the end of this edition. I think that may have caused several of our group to ask if we could sail by Cape Sounion which was only a small detour in our route between Syros and Aegina. So, Athena, our tour guide, prevailed on the captain to leave Syros I bit earlier (but still in the middle of the night) and to swing by the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion just after sunrise.
Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion from the ship
But, our next – and last – port of call before returning to Athens for our flight home was the island of Aegina where we docked in the town of Ag Marina.
Our walking route in Ag marina on Aegina
During ancient times Aegina was a rival of Athens, the great sea power of the era. It is roughly a triangular shaped island, with an area of 33 sq mi and has a population (2011, including some smaller islets nearby) of under 6,000. So, it’s not one of the more populated islands.
Two-thirds of the island is an extinct volcano. The northern and western sides consist of stony but fertile plains, which produce luxuriant crops of grain, with some cotton, vines, almonds, olives and figs, but the most characteristic crop of Aegina today is pistachio. Another economically important industry is sponge fishing.
But, to be honest it’s not all that an impressive island. Maybe we’d just seen too many gorgeous islands already and were just burned out on Greek Islands, but there really just wasn’t all that much of interest to see here. I think the only reason our ship stopped here is that it is quite close to Athens for our departure the next day and they needed to find a place to kill some time between Syros and Athens.
But, here we were for around 4 hours before heading back to Athens or our departure the following day. Like I said, really not much to see here. There is a wharf area with a flock of pleasure boats and a fair number of fishing boats (some of which were interesting), and a cute church at the end of a dock. There is a street that goes right along the water and a couple of other shopping streets of little interest or character. A few side streets were a bit charming but several leagues less so than what we’d seen on other islands. In other words, a very nondescript town. Of course that didn’t stop us from roaming around a bit to see what we could see. Mostly we saw other members of our group roaming around as well.
Pistachios are Aegina’s claim to fame
I presume these are sponge fishing boats
Holy Chapel of Agios Nikolaos of Thalassinos Greek Orthodox Church at the end of a dock
An almost charming street
Off the commercial street. A sort of home furnishings store
I think the horse agrees that this is not an exciting town
I hope you enjoyed joining us through this 7 part travel log series of our trip to Athens and several Greek islands and will come back for future travels. Don’t forget you can also see prior travel series on my website at www.danhartfordphoto.com/ under the “blogs” menu.
And, I’ll close with my favorite shot from the trip
Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion
I hope you enjoyed reading about our time in Delos and Mykonos and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/greece-trip-2019-favs (subset of images)
Check out my travel blogs for other trips under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .
Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)
Keywords: Aegina, Aegina Island, Ano Syros, blog, Church of Dormition of the Virgin Mary, cycladic islands, cycladies, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelbloggreece, Ermoupoli, Ermoupoli Syros Greece, greece, greek islands, greek orthodox church, St. George's Cathedral, Ano Syros, Greece, St. Nicholas, Syros, Greece, Syros, Syros Island
Thoroughly enjoying your wonderful tour of Athens and the Greek Islands. There is so much variety in your photographs -- churches, temples, street scenes, countryside, etc. And I love the way you research everything so we can understand the history and context of your photos.
Hi Dan, thanks for the tour and lovely photos! There were still some interesting photos, but as you say, sort of Greek island burnout. Those two ornate churches were a knockout - wow.
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