George Mathioudakis  /  Mathioudakis Yachting
Enjoy a sail to the cove of Kleftiko.
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updated 4/3/2007 7:54:47 PM ET 2007-04-03T23:54:47

On the Greek Island of Milos, eat fish cooked in clay pots beneath volcanic sand, drink wine aged in caves, explore catacombs and a Roman amphitheater – and leave time to study its colorful rocks and visit its otherworldy beaches.

I knew I was going to gain weight in Greece. But it’s not feta pounds I’m grappling with this time. It’s a new addiction: My pants pockets are bulging with rocks. I am with my aunt at an abandoned iron mine on the island of Milos, where every rock on the ground fascinates me. This is a new discovery for me, who once thought a rock was a rock. Swirls of red in white rocks. Swirls of white in red rocks. Green rocks. Rocks with crystal interiors. Smooth, black obsidian rocks that made it possible for civilization to begin. I am a student of the rock now, foraging for them as I walk through an 1890s mining camp across soil so dark it looks like shaved chocolate. But my new rock fetish is not the reason I’m here. I’m hunting for beaches. There are about 77 on Milos, each and every one of them nearly a piece of art dramatically framed by oddly shaped rock walls -- beaches so otherworldly that even Salvador Dali couldn’t have imagined them.

After crawling around the abandoned outbuildings, we find the small shoreline we have been seeking. It is littered with egg-size pebbles, and sweeping ashore is the blue Aegean that knocks the rocks together, creating a throaty melody like coins being shaken in a bag. There is not another soul in sight. I carefully lie on the giant rocks and stare up at the blue sky. What a beach.

This whole rocky journey started with an e-mail several months ago. I wrote my mother’s sister, Karen, who has lived in Athens for the past 15 years: “I want to visit a new Greek island, something different, one that is undiscovered. I thought of Santorini or Cephalonia, but I dream of something less trodden. What’s undiscovered, but you can’t figure out why?”

Her answer was quick: “Milos.” Although the island is part of the very visited Cyclades group (Santorini and Mikonos are here) and where the famous Roman statue of the Venus de Milo was uncovered in 1820, it is virtually unheard-of by Americans.

Aunt Karen told me she went a year ago, but only for a couple days. She wrote how, during this past trip, she ate at a restaurant where the cook put redfish in clay pots and then placed the pots under the volcanic sand to steam. She told me about a beach called Sarakiniko that looked like mounds of frozen meringue. And, she wrote, there are many other beaches just as weird. Great, I thought. So off we went to Milos, my aunt and I, on the hunt for perfect beaches.

Apparently my aunt had recommended the right island, because the first thing Leonidas Fotinos told me over a coffee our first morning on island was “Milos is the island of 100 beaches.” We are in the lobby of the Hotel Portiani in the main port town of Adamas on the north side of the island. A gentle Aegean breeze blew in from the very large bay just outside the hotel’s large French doors.

“There are only 77 beaches. But ‘island of 77 beaches’ doesn’t sound right,” Leonidas said. In all likelihood, if the Census Bureau of Beaches, say, were to come here, it would probably locate 23 more beaches that haven’t yet been found.

Captain Petros Papageorgiou  /  Milos Yachting
Swim in a sea cave – there are many on the west coast.
Leonidas is a friend of a friend of mine who lives in Athens. My Athenian friend recommended that I get in touch with this longtime resident of Milos who could point Aunt Karen and me in the right direction. But Leonidas, being a typical Greek, did one better; he met us at the airport, he settled us into our hotel and he insisted on showing us his island. Leonidas’ wife and young child had gone back to Athens since peak season had ended on the island, and he had the time.

So while we drank coffee, he pulled out a map of a fairly large island that was nearly cut in half by a bay. The western, mostly uninhabited, half of the island is known as Chalakas, he said, making the “ch” sound more like a breathy “h.” He then started circling place names with a red pen: “We need to see this: Vani, where the iron mines are. Some people say it looks like the Grand Canyon. Then there is Triades. That means a bunch of three.” He added, in case I didn’t get it, “There are three beaches there separated by beautiful rocks. Then here,” he said, moving his pen slightly to the left, “is Ormos Triadon: Translated this means ‘three more beaches.’” The eastern half of the island, where most residents live, had just as many sands to choose from. He spit out names: Tsigrado, Firiplaka, Paleohori. Seeing that our days would be full, we sprang into action.

I hadn’t traveled with my aunt alone ever, so it was on that first drive to our first Milos beach that her peculiar traits started to emerge. For example, my aunt has an uncanny ability to notice (and identify) plants while speeding by them in a moving car. She adeptly pointed out crocuses, heather and wild onions; she knows weird botany facts: “See that mandrake plant?” she asked as we whizzed along the road. “Some people believe it’s part human. It has a head, arms and a penis. If you pull it from the ground, it screams.” She claimed that the juniper trees on Milos are prized, one of the largest variety of juniper, only she called them something like Juniperus excelsa polycarpos. And my aunt, I soon discovered, loves rocks. “Look at those,” she said admiringly as she pointed at a large, uninspiring (in my opinion) rock wall. I remember thinking that day, “Is that what I have to look forward to when I reach her age in 20 years? Liking rocks? Isn’t that only one step removed from liking dirt?

About 20 minutes outside Adamas, we turned off by a sign on the side of the road that said Sarakiniko. The car was soon buckling over a blindingly white washboard surface of what I mistakenly took to be sand. My aunt and I climbed out of the car, and I bent down to sift through it. But it was as hard as if Medusa herself had stared at it and turned the beach to stone. It is actually diatomite, Leonidas told me. He pointed to patterns within the stone: fossils of sea creatures.

We parked and walked toward Sarakiniko’s turquoise sea where over the water, bridges are formed from white rock, Swiss-cheesed with large holes. “Old mining caves,” Karen said as we walked into them, getting lost in hallways upon hallways. While the unusual beaches of Milos have remained a secret, the minerals that formed these beaches have not. A mining industry that began in the 1860s still exists on the island, employing some 300 people; since the early days of this industry, many sites have been abandoned, although perlite, bentonite and kaolin are still mined here.

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We took off our sandals and put our feet in the October-chilled clear water. Two men swam underneath the Dali-esque bridges of rock and into the Aegean. I sat quietly, fascinated by the formations, wondering how far they continued below the water’s surface.

A rock isn’t just a good backdrop for beaches, I learned later that day at the site of Filakopi, a short drive from Sarakiniko. If it weren’t for obsidian, perhaps Milos wouldn’t have been inhabited in 10,000 B.C. Obsidian is a glassy volcanic rock, hard enough to be used for sharp tools, that was largely mined on Milos. (It would later be replaced, in part, by bronze and iron:hence the Stone, Bronze and then Iron ages.)  We stood in the middle of unturned earth while Leonidas twirled a small piece of obsidian in his hand. I reached over and felt its smoothness.

“This was the start of Western civilization,” he proclaimed while holding it up to the sunlight. “And this,” he said, waving his hand at all the dirt and rocks, “is where Milos started, the first settlement on the island.”

Over here, he said, stepping near a roped-off area where three dirt-stained archaeologists were on their hands and knees, is where the Lady of Filakopi, a terra cotta idol, was found in the West Shrine. “She is now in the archaeological museum here in Plaka,” Leonidas said.

Upon hearing the news, my aunt wanted to go see the Lady. But I reminded her of our priority: beaches. So on the way to Milos’ main town of Plaka we stopped in a fishing settlement called Firopotomas that also happened to have a beach. The village is nestled into a rocky cove with the bright blue sea serving as its front yard. We drove down a hill into the cove that contained Firopotomas. It is a two-level village: Half of it, including the domed church, sits atop rock, and the other half is at sea level. I got out to explore both, taking stairs down to the sea where before me was a unique type of Milos architecture, syrmata, dwellings carved into the rock walls. Melians, as residents of Milos are called, use the syrmata to store their boats away from the harsh north winds in the off season. In the summer, local fishermen live in these caves by the sea.

What would it be like, I wondered, to live in a rock with no electricity on this dramatic beach? Quiet, a little scary, but wonderful because of the possibilities that silence holds.

We continued our drive toward Plaka with my aunt doing what she does best: spotting the tiniest of botanic samples at 40 miles per hour. “There is artemisia,” she said, pointing to a blur of green out in a field. “It’s what is used to make absinthe.”

OK, now, I knew something botanical: “Wormwood,” I declared confidently, “is used to make absinthe.”

“Right, that’s it’s other name.” I scribbled a note to myself to look that one up when I got home (she was right).

As we wound our way up to Plaka, passing its sugar-cube houses, I could see Castro above us (a village last populated in the Middle Ages when pirates were a worry) and Adamas and the wide bay below us. We parked near two elderly ladies whom I dubbed the Pied Pipers of Plaka: they wore simple floral dresses and handed out scraps of fish to a clowder of cats. The museum was across the street.

Inside the neoclassic-style museum an approximately 6-foot-tall faux Venus de Milo stands guard, her arms missing, her body made of plaster rather than the marble of the real statue (which is in the Louvre in Paris). In a room to the left is the Lady of Filakopi, decidedly less of a presence at about 17 inches high. Her features remind me of Russian nesting dolls, but she is thought to have been an idol to the prehistoric culture of the island, a divine being representing a wish, such as fertility. I stared at her terracotta body, literally thousands of years old, understanding that there is much more to Milos than the beaches I had sought.

There are no beaches to mention in the village of Tripiti -- only windmills -- and I was now OK with that. The northern hillside town, not far from Plaka, was the starting point of another period in Milos’ history: After the city of Filakopi disappeared (possibly due to an earthquake in Santorini), a new settlement was established around 1100 B.C. in the area that stretched from present-day Tripiti to the seaside village of Klima, about 550 feet below it. Between is believed to be a necropolis that has yet to be fully explored. So we parked on a cliff overlooking this steep hillside. Beneath the ground where we stood, Leonidas told us, was an intricate system of catacombs, the largest such system in Greece. We walked down several stairs to the entrance.

“These catacombs prove that Christianity had an early hold on Milos,” Leonidas explained as we stepped into humid Catacomb B. The people worshipped here out of sight of the pagans. Three chambers have been excavated, but only this one is open to the public. There are believed to be about 600 feet of hallways carved from a soft rock called tufa. Artificial lighting exposes the graves carved into the walls, some of which have ancient markings on them.

After exiting the catacombs, we headed down a steep hillside. Goat bells clanged nearby. We turned a sharp corner and into view across the bay came Chalakas, the western half of the island. The Aegean sparkled below and, looking out onto this gorgeous vista, we saw the ruins of the Roman amphitheater with its 2,000-plus-year-old marble seats still intact. The theater is set within a beautiful meadow of olive and cypress trees, and we noticed shards of pottery (just waiting to be catalogued by archaeologists) sticking out of the soil. I couldn’t sit in one of the amphitheater’s seats because they were roped off while excavation continued, but I could feel the history here. It seemed apropos that in Greece I sought beaches but ventured instead into a land of rocks and ruins, into the very foundations of civilization itself.

That evening we drove to Paleohori on the southeastern coast to witness the sea burbling up from the hot earth. Our plan was to have redfish cooked in pots under the sand, which reaches a temperature of 199 degress F, but the taverna Pelagos was closed that Sunday night. Instead we sat on the deck of another waterfront restaurant, Loukis, while the sun began to set, turning the rock face that was in my view brilliant reds, greens and yellows. After dinner, Karen and I walked down to the beach and I picked up a stone fallen from the cliff face. As a serious student of the rock now, I balanced it in my hand and wondered how old it was. I wondered if it had a bigger purpose yet to be realized, or if it was a chunk of something past. Within this rock were so many different possibilities. Even in the present it had a purpose: It added to the beauty of this beach. I dropped it and, as I walked on, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a wild onion. “Greeks gather them for the new year for good luck,” Karen said, following my gaze. I wondered, if I were to travel with my aunt again, how much more interesting and wondrous the world would become. First rocks. Next plants.

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