The first thing one sees after stepping off the ferry in Naxos is a massive square arch (forgive the contradiction in terms, it's so crude of me and yet if you could see this thing no other words can describe it) perhaps forty feet high, perhaps more. It stands proudly on a rocky islet to the side of the harbor, a towering Gate of marble with nothing else to suggest why or how or who. It sits there sphinxlike with a beckoning, come-hither air, not come-hither wink-wink so much as come-hither-or-else.
You approach by way of a narrow path of masonry flanked with hungry ocean and festooned with small, dark Greek children playing in the waves. Climbing up this lonely little spit of rock, one can turn and see the the busy mass of Naxos-town blossoming with the signature blues and whites and the lovely little domed Orthodox churches that Greece must have copywritten by now. Gradually your eyes adjust to the vast backdrop hues of browns and ochres and surprising greens, the warm tones of the Mediterranean that one cannot but associate with Desdemona and leaping Minoans and poisoned daggers and Byzantines. You will expect to have drawn a multitude of clues from this cacophonous panorama of the ancient town, from which you might immediately recognize the salient details and the appropriate anecdotal facts of this towering anonymity that rises over your shoulder like the anvil of a stormcloud.
But the Gate says nothing, and you recognize nothing, and meanwhile the sun wheels about overhead as indifferent to your labored climb as the Gate itself. It's a short climb, thank goodness, and you soon reach a small clearing littered with the skeletal outlines of conjectured chambers and so forth--the kind of mournful ruin that one stumbles over every few minutes in Greece. But this only compounds your growing sense of bewilderment; if everything else on this ancient little islet is all but entirely effaced by the salt winds and the inexorable tide of time, then the question re-emerges; why this Gate?
Looking closely, you see traces of wear here and there, enough to discount the possibility of some strange tourist-attracting scheme that the island's citizens cooked up to supplement the beaches and the gyros. Circling it you spot strange protrusions in the worn marble, suggestive of tongue-and-groove joints whose corresponding marbles you can find no trace of. There are the usual fragments of stone and pebble and sand underfoot--bits of red that might be pottery if you were one of those obsessive amateur archaelogists who spend their careers gluing together amphorae the size of dachshunds from fragments no larger than fingernails. But if all of these conjectures were stitched together with this massive enigmatical Gate, the entire islet would surely have been housed in marble, and why, again, is this completely shrouded in unknowns, even given the lamentable education any of us receives in the Classics these days?
You learn no answers on the waveswept islet: you take some pictures, just like all the other nice Germans and Danes who disembarked from the ferry with you. You sit for a spell with the ocean at your feet, and sky and arch and nothing else overhead, and you bask in the rippling sensations of the sea--breathing salt air, letting your eyes lose focus in the far blue distance, tasting the stickiness of your sun- and sea-drenched skin, luxoriating in the delectable sensation of sand between your toes. You soak yourself in this moment, it steeps you irreversibly, it adds cream to the coffee of your soul, in a way you can neither explain nor reverse, even if you wanted to. Eventually, you clamber back to Naxos already thinking of pistachio ice cream and the clear sea to swim in and the comfort of a soft bed soon to come. And the Gate says nothing, and if you dream of it you don't rightly remember. But neither do you entirely forget, the striking image simply strikes too powerfully.
They say that Naxos is one of the oldest inhabited islands known to the learned; they've traced bits and pieces in the town back ten thousand years. Only later on do you discover offhand details mentioned in passing in the modern guidebooks; that the Gate was to be the entrance to the largest temple in Greece before the Parthenon or the Olympeion were built, that it was the mad scheme of a doomed island tyrant that only funny old men in Oxford remember the name of. Perhaps it was to be consecrated to Apollo--on a clear day it is said you could see the lights of Delos from that Gate--but whether it was ever finished remains in dispute, and everyone seems to have overlooked it.
This trip overall has been all about Contrasts, and Naxos has been of the most juxtapositionally rabid of the entire lot. Quiet and riot, people and lonesomeness, poverty and opulence, sea and desert. Orthodox chapels and topless beaches. The foul fumes of the ferries, oily and coarse, and the limpid Aegean sea, clear as a child's blue eyes. Curving pretzel streets literally older than Methusaleh, and bright red mopeds that handle like leaping howler monkeys with twitching disorders. On this distant Greek island, Brenna and I dined twice at an Asian restaurant owned by Australians, with Indian, Chinese and Thai menu sections. Naxos is like the universe in that as time goes on, complexity arises from isolated simplicity and things just keep getting more and more interesting...
...TO BE CONTINUED...