The luminous Greek Island of Milos has the best beaches in the Aegean, a fascinating history and superb seafood – and yet it is so often overlooked. All the better for the few who do go there, entirely alone in its turquoise bays
AMONG THE ISLANDS OF THE CYCLADES, even of the world, Milos stands luminously in the history of art. Not because a great artist came from here, or was inspired by it, but rather because of a chance discovery in its soil.
On 8 April 1820 an ensign in the French navy and amateur archaeologist named Olivier Voutier went ashore to dig in the vicinity of the island’s ancient theatre. He noticed a farmer a few paces away pause in his labours, peer through a gap in an old wall, register an expression of surprise, and then turn away. Voutier was curious. He went to the wall to have a look. In the recess within he saw a shape, the naked torso of a woman, carved in marble, lying on her side. He paid the farmer to help him dig it out. Torso was followed by draped legs, a wedge from the hip, plinth, foot and other fragments. Wedge and torso were stacked on the legs and in the afternoon light what would become known as the Venus de Milo stood before Ensign Voutier.
How the gouged, dusty, battered figure, arm-, foot- and noseless, became the entrancing star of the Louvre is a tale of disputatious and counterfeit scholarship, lies, cover-ups, vanity and restorations both inept and artful. Above all it is a tale of one-upmanship among imperial nations, for not long before the Venus arrived in Paris, the British government acquired sculptures taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, who had refused a higher bid from Napoleon, and installed them in the British Museum, making it the pre-eminent institution of its kind in the world. The directors of the Louvre were piqued. The Venus would be an eloquent riposte, but there was a problem. It would only be important enough if she was from the Classical Age and evidence suggested that she dated from the later, more prosaic Hellenistic period. Patriotic scholars were deployed. It was as if the empire depended upon it. The scholars delivered the verdict expected of them, the Germans were suspicious, war was waged in academic journals, evidence was destroyed, veils drawn and ambiguity allowed to prevail.
Once displayed, the multitudes thronged to see her, as they still do. Whatever her age, she paid back for the attention given her with her mystique, serenity, timelessness and ease with her own beauty. The life force in the Venus’s cocked leg, her gaze and slight twist of torso as the robe slips from her hip make her godliness proximate, earthy, even human. She’s been salt cellar, lamp, promoter of Mercedes-Benz cars and subject of a song by Chuck Berry. The artists Rodin, Dalí, Max Ernst and Jim Dine have all remade the Venus according to their own visions. When she travelled to Japan, 100,000 people went to the harbour to greet her.
Many of those involved in the struggle to get the Venus off the island and on her way to Paris were scornful of the place that had been her home. It was a barbaric outpost, a source of resentment. A Texan named Gregory Curtis who wrote a book about the Venus declared that when tourists leave Milos, it ‘returns to its unlovely self – dull, remote, harsh’. In the travel marketplace it tends to be overlooked in favour of its more glamorous neighbours: dramatic Santorini, gastronomical Sifnos, hedonistic Mykonos, the chic and diminutive Folegandros. I simply don’t get it. I first went to Milos in 2008 and it has remained the place in the Aegean to which I most want to return. It is an astonishing spectacle of colour and form. It has the most varied and impressive beaches I’ve seen. The house I’d rented back then had delighted me more than any other place I’d stayed in – whether villa, hunting lodge, five-star hotel, riverboat, treehouse, baronial hall or tent.
It was at the end of a precipitous dirt track among a crescent of half a dozen similar buildings pressed between cliff and the water of a small bay. This tiny and isolated assemblage is known as Skinopi. It has an even tinier cousin to the north, Little Skinopi, accessible only by sea. The house was not at inception a house, but rather a place known as a syrma, where a fisherman could park his boat in a water-level garage and have a meal and a nap upstairs before an early start. I had not seen such properties anywhere else in Greece, but in Milos they are in rock-backed villages around the cape on the eastern side of the immense harbour – at Klima, Areti, Fourkovouni, Firopotamos and Mandrakia. Mine had a bathroom the size of a dining table. There was no hot water. The furniture was made of plastic. Cartoons once meant to entertain the owner-fisherman’s children, or perhaps grandchildren, provided the decoration. Donald Duck featured, as I recall. There is no doubt that many would not wish to pass a night there. Even two women in nearby Tripiti, from whom I’d asked directions, threw up their hands and screeched ‘Skinopi!’ as if it were a madness in itself. I could have done with hot water, more pleasing furniture and no Donald Duck. But it had two balconies, one on top of the other, looking right over the Aegean. The sensation of water was thrillingly intense, the sound and aroma of it at night, the dance of light on it through the day. You were unencumbered. You could do whatever you wanted. There was no one else in Skinopi at all.
Milos’s colours and wealth and the shaping of its history derive from its having been flung out of the sea by volcanoes that blew around two million years ago, the principal crater forming one of the largest harbours in the Aegean at Adamas (‘diamond’ in Greek). Hot springs praised by Hippocrates still bubble up around the island. Obsidian was its first star mineral, the traders at Phylacopi selling it to the Minoans for weapons and razors. Pliny wrote of alum that rivalled Egypt’s and declared that it had the most abundant supply of sulphur in the known world. At Theorychia you can see the haunting remains of a sulphur mine clinging to a cliff striped in yellow, rusting wagons still on the tracks, the water crystal clear, the beach stones like a painter’s palette with the colours running together, an odour of rotten eggs in the air. An 11,000-year-old mining industry still thrives through the collection of kaolin, baryte, pozzolan and bentonite. All this geological munificence has produced crystals, solidified volcanic ash and streaks of oxidised metals that make you feel you are in a place that has been dreamed up rather than naturally evolved.
WHERE TO EAT ON MILOS
Citizens of Milos resent the gastronomical distinction granted their neighbour, Sifnos. I did not have a poor or mediocre meal while here. The waterside taverna MEDOUSA at Mandrakia (+30 2287 023670) was memorable as much for the setting as the food; NAVAGIO in Adamas (+30 2287 024124), where chef Konstantines Papaioannou conjured a succession of brilliant cold seafood dishes after his oven broke; and above all, ARMENAKI in Pollonia (+30 2287 041061), where it’s best to allow chef/owner/sommelier Adonis Mavroiannis choose for you. I would not otherwise have encountered the extraordinary roe of grey mullet, the sea urchin, and the cleansing properties of courgette carpaccio.