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A week in Picturesque Paros

A week in Picturesque Paros
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Most Indian tourists prefer to visit Athens, the capital city of Greece and time permitting, they engage in some island hopping. Having visited Athens once, we decided to try out the bewitching island of Paros, which is the third largest island in the Cyclades, after Syros and Naxos. Paros rests nonchalantly in the shadows of the limelight. Long tagged as primarily a ferry hub, its stylish capital, fashionable resort towns and sweet rural villages are all the more charming for their (relative) lack of crowds or tourist kudos. For holidaymakers looking for Mykonos without the hype and the price tag, this might just be the spot. And word is spreading.

We traveled as part of the Tea Board of India delegation. Let me tell you, Indian tea is very popular in Greece. India and Greece share a rich bilateral relationship and there is considerable demand for Indian tea. We undertook this trip to gauge the level of awareness about Indian Tea and to do some promotions in the marvelous island of Paros. Paros isn't all that big. A 120 kms long coastline though offers absolutely breathtaking vistas and it is considered to be one of the most beautiful islands of the Cyclades.

Natural grandeur aside, every street in Paros is living history. Be it the ancient community settlement of Saliango and Parikia, the stunning Acropolis of Naoussa, the temple of Asclepius and the temple of Athena, they all enhance the historical legacy of Paros.

Ancient Cemetery of Paroikia:
After lazing in the exquisite beaches of Paros, we ventured to discover Paros' historical facades and started off with a tour of the ancient cemetery of Parokia. This ancient cemetery is well spread out over a large area. Archaeologists and scholars are of the opinion that the cemetery was functional from the 8th century BC all the way to the 2nd century AD which itself is staggering and justifiably reveals its importance down the ages.

Officially planned excavations started in the year 1983 which coincided with the building of the edifice of the Municipal Cultural Centre of Paros located in close proximity to the Paros harbor. Excavation works went on till the year 1985 and it is during one such excavation session that archaeologists came across the ancient cemeteries and were unanimous in their opinion that this was indeed one of the most significant cemeteries in the entire Cyclades.

Excavating the area was not an easy job and tested the skills of the archaeologists who had to encounter a marshy area with deep rooted plantations which acted as a kind of protection from above the ground sea level. The archaeologists had to literally drain out the water by using high velocity water-pumps. As of today, the monuments with their customary sarcophagi have been comprehensively renovated, thus enhancing the appeal of the cemetery manifold.

The principal excavation site has been converted into a splendid archaeological park and the best part about the park is that it is eminently noticeable from all sides. For an up-to-date illustration of the cemetery, there is an exclusive interpretation zone which rather scientifically depicts the many facets of the cemetery by way of high resolution photography.

Frankish Castle:
Our next stop was the splendid Frankish Castle, which is one of the most enduring monuments in the island of Paros. It was built way back in the 1200s by the then Venetion Sanoudos. Scholars believe that the castle was built from the vestiges of an assortment of ancient sanctuaries that were scattered in and around the island of Paros. The Frankish Castle stands out for its splendid architecture which is unmatched by any other monuments of Paros. Needless to say, a visit to Paros is incomplete without a visit to this magnificent castle which stands as a mute testimony to Paros' rich virile past.

Although the castle is in ruins, it still attracts hordes of tourists who never seem to have enough of this beautiful and elegant castle. The castle is conspicuous by its intricate stonework and the hundred-footer Hekatompedon that is fabricated into its walls are simply awesome. The elongated tower integrates all the elements of a 4th century globular edifice, which was built during the Frankish era. A part of the circular edifice is used as apse of the castle's in-house chapel.

The Frankish Castle is symbolic of Paros' historical greatness. In fact, it is more than a castle. We were told that the then Venetian Duke who built this magnificent castle also built numerous other edifices that dot the landscape, which in all likelihood served as a kind of fortress for the Duke.

Valley of the Butterflies:
Our guide Antonio who has been in this trade for two decades wisely recommended a visit to the "Valley of Butterflies", which is located a mere 8 kms south of Parika. This one-of-its-kind Valley is popularly referred to as Petaloudes in local parlance. We were lucky to be visiting Paros in the month of May and found the valley verdant with the resident Jersey Tiger Moths wrapping the entire valley, thereby creating a truly breathtaking natural phenomenon. The graceful trees of the valley gave out a sweet fragrance that in turn drew the butterflies like magnets.

The Valley itself is positioned on an immense meadow and the resident butterfly species of the Valley are the trademark Brown-and-White-Striped Butterflies. Conducted tours are available for those visitors who are curious to know more about the fascinating and colorful world of the butterflies. A typical tour of the Valley of Butterflies costs approximately 250 Greek Drachmas and worth every penny you spend. Of course, there are many visitors who prefer strolling around of their own free will rather than embarking on a guided tour. The Butterfly Valley is nicely tucked away at the foot of a hill just beneath a natural well. The Valley is clearly demarcated from the main road that happens to pass above it. The best way to reach the Butterfly Valley is by hopping on to a cab or if one is driven by adventure, a bike can be hired as well.

Ancient Pottery Workshop in Tholos:
After a refreshing outing at the Butterfly Valley, we visited the fascinating Pottery Workshop at Tholos. The ancient pottery workshop in Tholos is believed to belong to the 3rd century BC It is conspicuous by two cisterns, a number of supplementary rooms, two large kilns with a diameter of 2 meters and four comparatively minor kilns.

Also on the site are a Geometric grave and the fortification of a huge Archaic edifice. Planned excavation work at the site commenced from the year 1986 in an exclusive private land and the area covered by the excavation was later extended to the street in the year 1990.
Marathi Marble Quarries:
An interior road from Lefkes and Marpissa that passes by the side of a mountain ultimately leads to the renowned marble quarries of Marathi. This is the place where one of the finest varieties of marble, the Parian marble, can be found. I recall the Panagia Ekatontapyliani church, which dates from AD 326, is one of the finest churches in the Cyclades. The building is three distinct churches: Agios Nikolaos, the largest, with superb columns of Parian marble and a carved iconostasis in the east of the compound; the ornate Church of Our Lady; and the ancient Baptistery. The Parian marble was much preferred by the renowned Greek sculptors largely due to its transparency and fine consistency. Behind the Panagia Ekatontapyliani, its museum is a cool escape into the island's past. It harbours some marvellous sculptures, including a 5th century BC Nike on the point of alighting and a 6th century BC Gorgon also barely in touch with the earth.

Geologically speaking, Paros has long been a Greek star; white marble drawn from the island's interior made the island prosperous from the Early Cycladic period onwards. Most famously, the Venus de Milo was carved from Parian marble, as was Napoleon's tomb. A distance of 150 feet to the left hand side of the marbled pathway lies the world famous quarries. They have reliefs of Greek gods, innovatively protected by a cage enclosure.

Archaeologists are of the opinion that during the height of Roman empire, this particular quarry employed approximately 150,000 slaves who worked as miners here. Adventurous ones walk their way deep into the caves, but do take an expert guide.

Pirates and Paros
Everyone is aware of the Pirates of the Caribbean, but how many have even heard of the "Pirates of the Aegean"? Well, head to the picturesque island of Paros at the time of the colorful Barbarossa Pirate Festival, which is held every year on the 23rd of August. This unique festival is a classic case of re-acting of the entire episode of an infamous pirate attack on the island of Paros, which is rather skillfully represented by the enthusiastic locals. One can be assured of hilarious and chilling scenes during this unique Pirate Festival.

Unbelievably, the quaint fishing vessels who play a pivotal role in the Festival, act in the guise of pirate ships and energetic locals, particularly the youths of Paros, undertake the roles of pirates, protectors and believe it or not - dancing damsels in anguish. A lot of times, the casualty of Greek pirates surprisingly used to be a Greek island itself, which may sound odd, but is very true. The island of Paros, in particular, was witness to wave after wave of pirate attacks.

As a ploy to rebuff the pirates, the people of Paros built impregnable "Skiathos" which were nothing but traditional Greek fortresses principally meant to ward off pirate attacks. But even these unconquerable "Skiathos" weren't able to withstand the fierce attacks of the heavily-armed pirates. The islands of Greece in general and Paros in particular has a long history of pirate attacks. According to a popular Greek legend, heavily armed pirates once kidnapped a beautiful Pelekas bride right on the day of her marriage. This act of cruelty so shocked the bride's mother that she cursed the pirates and they all were turned into stone, including her daughter who was taken into captivity.

Another example of the island's pirate attacks is in the mainland in the vicinity of Thessaloniki, where the village of Pefkohori seems to have recuperated adequately from being devastated by pirates in 1805. Also check out the outer walls of the Frankish Kastro fortress, built by the Venetian Duke Marco Sanudo of Naxos in AD 1260. Built with the stones from ancient buildings that once stood on this site, you can find remnants from the archaic temples of Athena and an Ionic temple from the 5th century BC.

NightLife:
Paros is renowned for its pulsating night life. A vine-covered courtyard and simple, whitewashed interior with splashes of modern art create a polished setting for some of the Cyclades' finest contemporary Greek cuisine in Levantis restaurant. The menu makes for hungry reading – choose from inspired flavour combinations like chicken and pistachio dolmades, slow-braised honey-spiced lamb, and nut tart with aniseed ice cream.

Or sit in the beachfront, lantern-filled garden, then dig into a dish of Greek or Anatolian cuisine from Ephessus' wood-fired oven, and you'll understand why this restaurant is so popular, year-round. Setting, service and food is tops. Try the manti (Anatolian ravioli), peinirli (traditional pizzas) or kebabs. The hub of activity is Parika where some of the most outstanding bars are positioned. We spent one night at the sea-side Del Mar Bar, which is ideally situated on the shores of the bustling harbor of Naoussa with music that ranged from the 90's to hip-hop. Apart from Del Mar, other popular bars are Flaming Greek, Shark Bar and the Dubliner. The best part of is that most bars and clubs are positioned on the ethereal backdrop of "Paros Rock".

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