The best overview of the Cyclades is from the summit of Mount Kynthos on the island of Delos, a cultural highlight of our small ship cruise through these Greek islands. A veritable constellation of humpy grey-brown islands rising from the azure water of the Aegean, they form a great ring or circle (in Greek: kyklos) with Delos at the hub, an eastern arc running north from Santorini to Andros and the more self-contained western Cyclades, including Folegandros and Sifnos, sharing a distinctive culture of their own. There are 56 islands altogether in the Cyclades, fewer than half of them inhabited. They share a common history of layered conquest and acquisition by outside adventurers: Cretans, Mycenaeans, Athenians, Macedonians and Romans in classical times; Byzantines, Venetians and Ottoman Turks more recently. Yet the Cyclades have maintained their distinctive culture. Isolation in a harsh landscape under an unforgiving expanse of sunlit sky and exposure to the elements of wind and sea in a treeless landscape have shaped the rugged character of these islands. The timeless allure of the Cyclades to the discerning traveller surely derives from the endurance of the islands and their people. As we sail from island to island, a common character becomes apparent. Huddled harbours with narrow streets designed to afford protection from the unwelcome attention of wind and pirates alike. Inland administrative centres, known as Choras in Greek, perch on the hillsides with their domed churches and those dazzling white-cubed houses that inspired twentieth-century architects like Le Corbusier, brightly adorned with climbing hibiscus and bougainvillaea. A few of the once ubiquitous white-sailed windmills are still to be seen, the beaches are superlative and the food as simple as it is fresh and healthy. The best description of the old way of life on the islands is to be found in Theodore Bent’s The Cyclades (1884), a wonderful evocation of a world we have almost lost. The best way to experience the Cyclades today, without doubt, is by sea in a small sailing ship such asPanorama.
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