Sifnos Island. We’ve been here about three weeks. It’s a little before season starts, during what they call the shoulder season. It’s a time when there are fewer crowds, which is wonderful. But for the first week we were hit with a cold front and the winds that come with it. Then, like an Easter miracle, things changed quickly. By the weekend of Greek Easter (a week later than North American Easter) the weather turned fair and sunny – warm enough for T‑shirts but still cool enough for hiking. And then the ferries arrived, carrying loads of holiday revelers. The island woke up for the holiday. The buildings all got painted and the restaurants began to open. The island rises with the holiday.
But now the holiday has passed and the island is once again quiet.
My Time on Sifnos Island
I start my days with an early walk. Sometimes I wander the ancient marble trails. My only companions are the sheep and goats that roam as early as I do. I usually end up in the main square of Apollonia. I like to watch the locals, mostly men, getting ready to start the work day. There’s a lot of painting going on so many of the guys are wearing paint splattered work clothes. They all seem to know each other and mostly gather at one particular kafenio at the corner of the main square. There’s a boisterous rumble to their morning ritual. A kind of masculine familiarity that comes I suppose from growing up on a small island and knowing each other most of their lives.
Which leads to a surprising amount of activity at this early hour. There is much for this outsider to observe from the wall at the crossroads where I like to sit. I’ve gotten brave enough to say Kaliméra. Ti kaneis; (Good morning. What’s happening?) to a few of the familiar faces. My efforts at speaking this simple Greek phrase are almost always met with an enthusiastic kaliméra, kaliméra! Why they say it twice I’m not sure, but the cheerfulness is a wonderful way to start the day.
Sifnos island is a fairly small Island, just 15 miles long, and it’s anchored near the center at the square where I’ve been starting my days. The central core is actually a collection of different villages. Apollonia is the largest and it connects seemlessly to Artemonas, Pano Petali, Kato Petali, Katavati, and Exambala. So it’s hard to know where one starts and the next begins. In this strange way Apollonia is not unlike Los Angeles where the village of Hollywood runs into Los Feliz and somewhere invisible becomes Silver Lake.
But that where the similarities end.
Where Los Angeles looms with asphalt and concrete Sifnos swells with rocky hillsides. This time of year purple lupine, red poppies, and bright yellow buttercups carpet the ancient olive groves. As you look across wide vistas you’ll notice the archetypical blue-domed churches and whitewashed villages, each moments away from a turquoise cove with its own seaside taverna.
There are ten major hiking trails on Sifnos island covering more than 100 kilometers – we’ve already done seven of them. Most of the paths connect what were once important parts of the island. They’re from ancient times when the only way to get around was on foot. Now however, some of these paths are the only access to remote parts of the island.
On one such walk we set off early, heading up the valley on a well-marked cobbled trail. The cobbles soon lead to a wonderful old mule path ascending along deserted ruins. The faces of the hills are lined with stone-walled terraces, sometimes choked with spiky plants and occasionally interrupted by the speckles of white houses dotting the hillside. Unexpected tumbles of stones – often the remnants of an abandoned cottage – are common. Inside one, Gregg one of my hiking companions, turns over a timber and there’s the whole skeleton of a goat. Perhaps the last of this cottage’s inhabitants.
It’s easy to spin romantic yarns in an environment as strange and beautiful as Sifnos.
We’re staying in a house right on the pedestrian street known as the Steno. This is the main drag of Apollonia and we’ve been taking nightly strolls along its length. Hands down one of the best places to eat dinner on the Steno is Kafeneio Drakakis. We’ve eaten there four times already. Nestled in between jewelry stores and scarf shops sits this local, everyone knows your name, kind of spot. With it’s creative take on Greek cooking and lively collection of (mostly) Greek and French diners it’s really my kind of place.
But it’s not the only game in town. Sifnos has a rich tradition in food. Mention food on Sifnos, and you’ll soon hear about native son Nikolaos Tselementes who in the 1930’s became the country’s first celebrity chef. But the Sifnian culinary tradition is richer than just one man. There are also generations of fishermen to thank. The farmers too, who for centuries have cultivated the terraces lined with beehives, olive and almond trees. Then there are the famous clay pots designed for slow-cooking stews. You can even still see folks foraging in cracks and walls for wild capers and figs. It’s these long-held traditions that combine with a contemporary edge to create what is arguably the Cyclades’ hottest food scene
But I’m in Greece. Enough with the words and blog blather. You’re here for the photos and I’ll do the best I can to provide them. GREG