Traveling Classroom Foundation
Monday March 27th 2023

Towers of Naxos, Part 1

Arriving in the port of Naxos, the first thing that you notice about the town is a large cluster of houses around and upon a substantial castle built upon a hill. This is a reminder of how dangerous it was to live in this part of the world – almost since the first human settlements were built.

The large Venetian castle looms over Naxos Town

There has seldom been a time in history when Greece was not being attacked, either by other Greeks or foreign invaders. Periods of relative peace generally lasted not more than a few centuries – and then only under the rule of conquerors. Because of this, it was prudent to erect some protection against invaders. On this island alone are more than thirty defensive towers, not counting various castles and fortresses – nor the ancient fortified cities that now lie buried under our feet.

As we leave the ferry and walk towards the kastro (castle), we are met by Dimitri, who has a small bus that will take us to our studio apartment near Ayios Giorgios beach at the south end of town. After several renters are on the bus, Dimitri drives through a confusing maze of one-way streets and delivers us to his sister, Anna, who shows us to our apartment. It has a bedroom, bath and a separate kitchen with dining table. Even better, there is a little balcony overlooking the neighborhood, with a table and chairs for outdoor dining. This is especially nice in the evening, when a cool breeze is blowing. We spend the rest of the afternoon doing what we always do on the first day: finding the local bakery, grocery store, butcher and produce market. Happily, all these are within a hundred meters of our door.

In the morning we walk back to the waterfront, determined to explore the castle. There are many different routes into the castle, because the town has grown up around the foot of the hill and climbed up the steep rock walls that once served to discourage attacking armies. Some houses actually cling to the walls of the citadel. As we climb endless steps through narrow passages and tunnels, winding around homes and tiny shops, we often think we have lost the way. Then we see another small sign pointing the way to the top.

Narrow lane in the castle neighborhood

At the top of the castle, the first thing we see is the Catholic Cathedral built in the Middle Ages. This is noteworthy in a country that is almost entirely of the Greek Orthodox religion. The reason is simple: hundreds of years of domination by Venice – a Catholic country. Not far from the cathedral is the place we came to see, the last of five towers on the Venetian fortress. Crispi Tower was named for the last Venetian dukes who used it as a home. Several of the rooms are open to the public, and these provide a fascinating insight into the lives of the rich and powerful during the 13th century.

Crispi Tower in Naxos castle

The floors are stone, which was probably covered with rich carpeting, and the plastered walls were once richly painted, as were the beamed ceilings high above our heads. The kitchen is a marvel of modern conveniences, with a well that allows one to pull up buckets of water, and a marble sink built into the wall.

Modern 13th century kitchen sink

An indoor well provides fresh water for the kitchen

Outside the back door, in a corner of a large terrace overlooking the town and harbor, is the outdoor toilet (in the stone flooring is a hole that connects with the sewer). There is no evidence that users had any privacy – other than being above the view of the town folk on the streets below.

Some might say the Venetians enjoyed a better lifestyle than the conquered Naxians. They may have felt safe behind castle walls, protected by armed soldiers – but were they really? What was the fate of the great fortresses and the many rulers of Naxos? We decide to investigate at different towers scattered around the island, so we arrange to rent a car from our landlady’s cousin.

The oldest tower on Naxos is far older than the fortifications of any conquering army. It is the tower of Heimarros built during Hellenistic times above Kalantos Bay in the southernmost part of the island. We start early in the day, to avoid the heat, but this does not help. We go eastward from the capital, with the rising sun in our eyes as we drive into the foothills. Continuing to climb on twisting roads – occasionally slowing to a crawl in tiny hillside villages – we finally stop for a rest at Filoti, on the lower slopes of Mt. Zas (Zeus), the highest mountain on the island.

According to legend, Zeus was born in Crete but grew up on the island of Naxos, from where he set out to gain his Olympian throne. One of his names is Zeus Eubouleus, protector of the Naxians. The cave of Zas, high on the mountain, was long a place of worship. Now there is an Orthodox church on the top of the mountain.

Under a platanos (plane) tree in the middle of town, we sip coffee frappes and enjoy a cool mountain breeze before continuing our journey. There is a Venetian fortification in Filoti, the Borotsis Tower, but we pass it by on our way to older history.

Open air tavernas on the main street of Filoti

The road south from Filoti climbs along the mountain range that runs the length of Naxos. There are no other villages, only an occasional farm and sometimes a flock of goats grazing at the edge of the road. When we slow to watch, they quickly jump up onto the rocky cliffs and gaze at us from above. Farther and deeper into the mountains, we begin to wonder if we will find the ancient tower … and then we run out of pavement as the road narrows and turns to gravel. Still we continue.

Not much farther along the gravel road we come to the Heimarros tower on a hillside. It is an impressive white tower built entirely of marble and surrounded by a walled enclosure. The scaffolding around it indicates repair work is being done – perhaps to replace some of the marble blocks missing at the top.

The White Tower of Heimarros

Several ancient buildings have been excavated at the site; these appear to be living quarters – perhaps barracks for soldiers. Nearby is a Byzantine tiny church, so small that it looks as if no more than a few people could fit inside. Stacked everywhere are carefully numbered building stones from ruined structures, waiting to be reassembled like a big jigsaw puzzle.

Ruins of soldiers’ barracks near the watch tower

Tiny Byzantine church at Heimarros

The tower was originally built to provide an early warning system for the people of the island. It looks down on Kalantos Bay and out to the sea. From this position, watchmen assigned to the tower could see pirates or the ships of invaders approaching the island. When this occurred, a beacon fire was lighted on the top of the tower. Another team of soldiers, stationed high up in the mountains, would see the signal and immediately light another beacon fire, which would be seen by the next watch station. Within minutes of sighting danger from the Heimarros tower, the entire military of Naxos could be alerted and then mobilized to defend the island. If you have seen the film “Return of the King” in the Lord of the Ring trilogy, you know how beacon fires were used.

The white tower was erected to protect the towns and people of Naxos, but that was long ago – before the arrival of the Crusaders. Most of the Venetian towers of Naxos were built to protect foreign rulers from the Naxian people and any outsiders who might want to drive them away. These towers were built to as homes for ruling families, as well as defensive fortresses. Several are still used as homes.

We will visit those towers, but not today. It is a long drive back to Filoti, and still farther to Naxos Town. Tomorrow is another day.

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