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About Syros island, Greece

Syros is an island situated at the center of the Cyclades complex; its extent is 84 square kilometers and the coastline some 90 kilometers. It is the most populated island of Cyclades and the capital Hermoupolis is the biggest town of the island, the seat of the Prefecture of Cyclades and the administrative, commercial and transport center.

Syros is a very original island and not a typical island of Cyclades. It is very scenic, noble and stylish, features that still preserves today. It has lovely beaches with nice sea and good tourist facilities, but the economic life is not based exclusively on tourism as it happens in most of the islands of Cyclades. The history of the island is long, going back to the early days of Cycladic Civilization, at the beginning of the 3rd millennium b.C.
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The finds of Chalandriani and Kastri, brought to light from excavations on the island as early as in 1862, evidence that Syros was inhabited at least from the beginning of the Early Cycladic period, in the 3rd millennium b.C. Numerous finds of these excavations are kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, in the Museum of Cycladic Art (or Goulandris Museum), also in Athens and in the nice Archaeological Museum of Syros at Hermoupolis. Apart from Chalandriani and Kastri, archaeological surveys, carried out in other parts of the island, as the sites of Talanda, San Michalis, Azolimnos, Gallissas, Mallia, Manna and other have brought to light traces of human settlements.

After the end of the Early Cycladic period the island passed successively to the domination of the Minoans, of the Phoenicians and the Mycenaeans. According to scholars, after the collapse of the Mycenaean world in the 11th century b.C., the island was populated by the Ionians. Homer in the Odyssey calls the island “Syrie”, a name of probably Phoenician origin. Later on, in the 6th century b.C., Syros passed to the domination of Samos which then was reaching the peak of its maritime and commercial growth. The great philosopher Ferekydes, who came from Syros was the teacher of Pythagoras, who lived in Samos in this period of time. In those times Syros had two flourishing cities on its territory: one was situated in the area of the actual Hermoupolis and the other, called Galessos, was found in the place of the actual village of Gallissas.
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During the period of the Persian Wars Syros was submitted to the Persians and, after the victory of the Greeks, became an ally of the Athenians and was incorporated to the Athenian Alliance, keeping a relative autonomy and paying a tribute to the Athenian state. Ever since, the island follows the destiny of entire Greece: it declines and passes successively to the Macedonians, to the Ptolemy’s dynasty, to the Romans and to the Byzantines; during all this period the island has but a short period of flourishing in the 2nd century b.C. During the times of the decline the island suffers several raids by the various invaders, but also by the pirates, the plague of the seas in the medieval and early modern times.

In 1204, when Constantinople is occupied by the Francs of the 4th Crusade, Syros is given to the Venetians. It is then that are formed the singular conditions in the life of the people. Most of the population but a small minority assembled around the parish of Aghios Nicolaos o Ftohos (St. Nicolas the Poor), adopt the Catholic rite, without, however, abandoning the Greek language. An original feudal system is established and operates on the island until the 16th century, when the island passes to the Ottomans.

The relatively pacific way in which most of the Cycladic islands passed in the hands of the Ottomans, along with the status of capitulations between France and the Ottoman Empire, had a quite positive impact to the growth of Syros, which developed trade and industry. Thus the island knew a period of prosperity for a long time, apart from a brief interval of misery in the 17th century which was due to the invasions of the Ottoman fleet and the destruction it caused to the island. The economic recovery continued and economic growth reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this period of time Syros became the maritime and commercial center of the southern Aegean. During the Greek Revolution of 1821 the population of Syros established a pretty peculiar status of neutrality which allowed a good number of Orthodox refugees coming from Chios, Psara, Crete, Kasos and Asia Minor to settle on the island where they would be safe. It is them who founded the town of Hermoupolis. The active and dynamic traders and seamen, who gave the name of the ancient Greek god of commerce (Hermes) to their new home town, stimulated a new period of growth for the island. Syros became now the commercial and maritime center not only of the Aegean but of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. In 1828, when Ioannis Kapodistrias became the governor of the newly founded Greek State, Hermoupolis counted some 14.000 residents, all of the Orthodox rite.

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Later on it is developed the commerce of textile, silk, leather and iron and it is established a strong and prosperous credit system. A characteristic fact is that the National Bank of Greece was founded in Syros exactly in this period (19th century). In 1860, Hermoupolis is the most important commercial port of Greece, with an impressive development of industry, constructions, services and public works. One of the facts showing this excessive development is that the ladies of the wealthy bourgeois families of Syros ordered their clothes in the famous fashion houses of Paris. But, as the sailing ships are being replaced by steamers and the port of Piraeus starts developing rapidly, the importance of Syros is being gradually reduced and the island declines.

By the end of the 19th century the development of cotton industry stimulates anew an economic growth which lasts until the World War II. During the war, the foreign occupation, the famine of the winter of 1941 and the bombings caused extensive destruction to Hermoupolis and the disintegration of the social and economic life of the island. It is only after 1980s’ that the island could partly recover thanks to the development of tourism, which led to a moderate economic growth.

The good tourist facilities, the prompt participation of the island to various European programs for the economic reconstruction, along with the revival of the ship industry of the “Neorio Syrou”, the increase of the agricultural production and the successful promotion of the architectural and industrial heritage of Syros, along with the operation on the island of several public organizations have pushed forward the economic life, giving an end to the long period of decline. Today Syros is the administrative, economic, cultural and transport center of Cyclades.

Finally, the constraint that used to exist between the Catholics of Ano Syros and the inland and the Orthodox population of Hermoupolis has now reached its end. Today, Catholics and Orthodox live in harmony, which is evident also in the increasing number of mixed marriages. Another characteristic of the good and friendly atmosphere between the two rites is that in Syros, with the permission of the Pope, Easter is always celebrated on the same date by both Catholics and Orthodox, regardless the official date of celebration of this feast in the Catholic Church.
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Syros is connected with Piraeus, with most of the neighboring islands of Cyclades and, in summer, with several other islands of the Aegean, by conventional and high speed ferry boats. There is also air connection with Athens all year round; in summer there is also connection with other airports in Greece, as well as charter flights from several cities of Europe. An extended network of public buses connects Hermoupolis and the port with most of the villages and with the beaches of the island.

Shopping – Local Products

Syros is a small rocky island, but it has small patches of fertile land, from which come the excellent local products. Of course, the most famous local products of Syros are the two original sweets: the “loukoumi” (the “Turkish delight”) and the halvadopites (nougats).

Also Syros has very nice meat and dairy products, most of all various kinds of cheese: the gruyere, the piquant “kopanisti”, a soft very salted cheese of special taste, and above all the famous “San Michali”, a hard, yellow cheese of excellent taste, produced from cow’s milk. Among the meat products, the most famous are the sausages, the “skordoloukanika”and the dry-salted “louza”. Thanks to its dry climate and the rich flora, Syros produces gorgeous honey, sun dried tomatoes to accompany the ouzo or for cooking and savory capers which is used in salads and in local dishes.

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In what concerns the home made sweets and drinks, the island will not let you down. It is certainly worth tasting the “Granny’s Drink” made of sour cherry and brandy and “pastelaries” sun dried figs seasoned with sesame, almonds, cinnamon and bay leafs. Don’t miss to ask for “melitinia”, a sweet common all over Cyclades, made with soft cheese and honey and in Syros has the shape of a small oil lamp.

Once in the traditional taverns of Hermoupolis, of Ano Syros or of the inland, it is worth tasting some of the local dishes. Local meat roasted with potatoes, along with a capers’ salad and a piece of “marathopitta” (fennel pie) is a really unforgettable menu. If you like fish, try it in the local way, accompanied with capers; of course the octopus with vinegar and sun dried tomatoes is the best “meze” for ouzo and the tiny whitebait fried with onions is certainly something you don’t find everywhere! Last, but not least, try to find “karavoli”, snails cooked in a strong red sauce seasoned with fresh sage.

Finally, if you feel like buying souvenirs to accompany you back home, you will find hand woven clothes, embroidery, various kinds of handicrafts and, above all handmade shoes.

The “Loukoumi” of Syros (Syros delight)

The art of making the Syros delight has been brought to the island by the refugees from Chios, after the ravage of this island by the Ottomans during the Greek Revolution of 1821. As it is characteristically stated the first “loukoumi” made at Syros was produced in 1832 and the first stamp of such a company that we know is that of Stamatelakis, in 1837.

The word “loukoumi” is of Turkish origin and the first, but also the best, loukoumi – makers came from the island of Chios and had brought their art to Istanbul and it is there that this delight became famous. As a matter of fact all the raw materials used in the preparation of this sweet are found in Chios.

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According to the traditional recipe, the three basic materials of the loukoumi are boiled for a long time in a copper vessel within a fireplace with fire bricks. From the very beginning of the process the materials are continuously stirred until the moment that the maker estimates – only by experience – that the sweet is ready. When so, the jellied material is put in a shallow vessel of wood powdered with sugar in powder and is left to grow cold. After 24 hours it is cut in pieces and packed in paper boxes.

The delight of Syros, probably the most famous of Greece, has various flavors: mastic, bergamot, rose, mandarin, coconut, almond and pistachio are the most common of them.

The locals state that the loukoumi made by them is the best, thanks to the water of the island, which is few and a bit brackish. Others suggest that it is the climate that makes it that original. Whoever is right, it is true that Syros delight is the best advertiser of the island and its most famous product worldwide.

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Until 1970 numerous loukoumi companies operated in Syros; usually they were small family firms, some of them transferred from Smyrne after the ravage of the town in 1922.

This tiny sweet is not simply a mouthful delight. The locals served and ate it in any occasion: it was offered in feasts, in marriages, even in memorial services. And, during the years of the industrial growth, the workers would have it as breakfast. All the older passengers of the ships stopping at Syros still remember the loukoumi sellers who would embark to the ship just to sell their delights to the passengers continuing their travel. And nobody would refuse to buy this tiny mouthful, a sweet souvenir from Syros.

Equally famous to the delight is another local sweet: the so – called “halvadopita, the nougat made from tasty local honey and nicely baked almond.
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