The Wind that Shaped Mykonos

Behold the one and only Meltemi, the true emperor of the Aegean: a yearly, northern wind that can turn from a light breeze to a serious, sea traffic-stopping gale and has shaped the Cyclades.


According to literary lore, the Eskimos have 79 words for “snow,” but the residents of the Aegean islands could give them a run for their money when it comes to describing “wind.” On top of the scientific measurements pertaining to both direction and strength, there are countless local words for different kinds of wind, all of them so poetic-sounding and ethnically rich in origin as to qualify as linguistic candy. Every term is a useful tool if you are a local fisherman or skipper in these waters, but a basic understanding of “windology” in the Aegean, and particularly in Mykonos, is vital for the visitor, too. It can mean the difference between an idyllic vacation and an unsatisfactory stay.

Because, you see, there are many names and there are many winds. And then there is “The Wind.” The Meltemi is a mainly northern wind that often joins forces with its neighboring directions of the compass – mostly pairing with the east to create the Gregos, or slightly less often, with the western wind to produce the Maistros. The Meltemi itself is a child born of two extremes: Every summer, the low barometric pressure from the Balkans clashes with the higher, hot blasts from Africa. In this way the Meltemi is formed, fluctuating in force from playful to fierce, gaining strength as the sun rises and calming down as dusk falls. 

This natural “air-conditioner,” as the locals call it, tames the heat and lowers humidity. Deeply Greek in its essence, it has shaped the geography, architecture and civilization in this corner of the world for millennia. From classic antiquity, when the etesians (“yearly winds”) were thus named after being studied by the great Aristotle himself, to this very day, the Meltemi (from mal tempo, or “bad weather” in Italian) still affects the lifestyle of both locals and visitors. It will ultimately leave its mark on your own Mykonos holiday album.

May I share a secret? People, especially Greeks, who come to the Aegean in August and spend their precious time here whining about the wind irritate me even more than a bad case of sand-whipping, hair-destroying, all-day blowing Meltemi. I’m not Aristotle, but I do possess the basic intelligence to understand that the wind can be relentless in the Aegean, even if only for at least a few consecutive days during the summer. It is a given, as night follows day. All the first-class airplane tickets, all the hotel stars in the resort sky, all the expensive sets of designer luggage cannot and will not make the Meltemi stop when it decides to put on airs, pun very much intended.

“Every term is a useful tool if you are a local fisherman or skipper in these waters, but a basic understanding of “windology” in the Aegean, and particularly in Mykonos, is vital for the visitor, too”

Greece offer dozens of other destinations, equally beautiful, and completely Meltemi-free. If you don’t like the wind, you might consider visiting the inner Sporades; or Corfu; or any other Ionian island, for that matter. If you can’t stand the ever-present Meltemi, leave and return in October, when Aristotle’s etesians have all but died out. Whatever you decide, please stop complaining about the wind in Mykonos. It is beyond uncool.

That said, I must admit that the northern summer winds can drive someone a little bit cuckoo. I remember one morning when, after 40 days of waking up to the never-ending whistling sound of sea and whirling sand, with the pristine Aghios Sostis beach in front of me clouded in a foamy, salty mist, I had had enough. Much to the endless mirth of my roommates in the beach house, who continued their lives completely unaffected by the sandstorm (and in fact, loving the fact that in mid-August we had the beach all to ourselves), I got in the car and fled. I had breakfast alone in wind-protected Chora, the island’s main town, and sought the assistance of a dear, now sadly departed, friend: the legendary Phillipis, a retired naval officer. He was one of the most successful businessmen of his time, not to mention a true philosopher and a pillar of island wisdom.

“I want a break. I need to go somewhere and enjoy my day without being constantly sandblasted and forced to eat dirt. I want to have a swim without almost drowning in the waves, that’s what I want,” I ranted. “So tell me, where do I go?”

“Now, now, stop fretting. Come sit with me, have a “reposado,” he suggested, offering me tequila (always a solution during times of Mykonian distress). “Or, you could go to Psarou beach.”

“I want to have a swim without almost drowning in the waves, that’s what I want,” I ranted. “So tell me, where do I go?”

There are precious few “protected” beaches in Mykonos. In these sheltered spots, the wind, or rather the absence of it, has also shaped the lifestyle of the place, by providing a milder, less intense background that has allowed the celebrities, the international beauties of all sexes and the ultra-rich crowd to shine in all their immaculately groomed splendor. Psarou is such a beach, and its beach restaurant Nammos is a world-famous synonym for delicious Mykonian decadence.

That day, I took the tequila alternative and drove back to the beach house, at peace with the wind and myself. After all, the Meltemi will eventually fade away. Just like summer. This is common knowledge among the community of surfers who rejoice at the violent gusts of air from the north, and who prefer to frequent the choppy waters of Ftelia Beach. There, you can observe the opposite phenomenon: a general anxiety hangs in the air every time the Meltemi shows signs of laziness. Why should they feel upset, I wonder? After all, this is a Greek wind. You cannot expect it to be predictable or timely. The mere idea is absurd. If there is one thing the Meltemi teaches you – apart from the wisdom of securing your sarong with heavy pebbles when sunbathing – is to expect the unexpected.

I can even recall the rare occasions when the Meltemi did not arrive at all, leaving us melting in the heat, exhausted, stuck indoors hiding from the scorching sun all day and only heading to the beach at sunset to avoid being roasted. Those were also the gloriously calm days of early-morning boat outings to Delos and Rhenea, the afternoons of freshly caught fish and sea urchin served on impromptu barbecues, the windless evenings of purple swims in the becalmed, pink and mauve waters, just after the sun had set. And the nights of silver swims, of skinny-dipping under a canopy of stars (not that broad daylight was ever an obstacle to that). Those were – and still are – the unforgettable, full-moon parties when it was just too good to leave the beach at all. We’d gather around a fire and pass secrets around in soft voices; secrets and stories and memories spilled on the soft sand, waiting for the next morning’s reborn Meltemi to sweep them up and scatter them far and wide over the Aegean waves. What happens in Mykonos never stays in Mykonos – it simply gets blown away

“What happens in Mykonos never stays in Mykonos – it simply gets blown away. ”

It has been a few years now since I stopped spending summers on the island, abandoning my semi-permanent residency status. “You are in danger of becoming a permanent fixture, like the Pelican,” my Athenian friends used to joke, as I simply refused to get on a boat to Athens until the last possible minute, well into mid-September. I disliked the pelican analogy, much preferring to be compared to a Meltemi.

“Don’t you ever feel the need to leave, do something different and see something else?” they would ask. Eventually, I did leave. But it was not the urge to “see something else” that made me leave. If one needs to experience something different, every minute of the day, all they have to do is plant themselves firmly on a Mykonos beach. The world lands at their feet and is then swept by the wind, and another world follows, another season comes and goes. The barren rocks in the hills take the shape of the northern blasts, the branches of the sparse trees are bent and twisted to the will of the strongest wind and, for a second, all directions are open, all possibilities are equal.

You might stay forever, you might leave and come back or you might never set foot on the island again. But the sound of sea and waves, the continuous murmur of the ever-present Meltemi, will leave a distant echo locked in memory.

I have a name for this phantom wind, too. I call it “Windmills of your Mind,” after a melody composed by Michel Legrand, for the film The Thomas Crown Affair. I liked the title and stole it to name my very own ghost Meltemi, my Mykonian wind of nostalgia.

Because, of course, that is exactly what we needed: yet another name for the wind.

“But the sound of sea and waves, the continuous murmur of the ever-present Meltemi, will leave a distant echo locked in memory.”


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