Sifnos in Spring

I was in Sifnos back in April. Even now as the wings of summer have opened and danced rays of golden honey warmth across the longer days, to me now that feels a long time ago. A lifetime ago in which I had a persistent cold and snotty nose that wouldn’t budge and a penchant for wearing socks in bed. Both afflictions have thankfully been cured by summer’s eventual arrival. It took a while didn’t it? And No, Sorry I Can’t Keep Talking About The Rain In The UK – it is awful. I know. I know! Everyday I wake up to sun here I do a little sun salutation vinyassa and give Greece a mental and sometimes physical, high-five of thankfullness. It is indeed the small things that make a difference.

So Sifnos was a place we’d wanted to visit for ages. Some call it the perfect Greek Island, a timeless place of mystery and charm. Great for hiking, cultural events, pottery, rural valleys, charming towns, culinary delights – it did not disappoint at all. In fact going there in April before Easter was perhaps what made it really special, places just had a kind-of-shrugging-off-the-winter feel. Everywhere we went was coolly quiet and calm, some places were just opening up, laying out chairs and sweeping off the dead leaves, chasing out the ghosts of winter. As the ferry shunted into Kamares port, the flowers were in bloom and hills were green, the island was lush and inviting after all the rain.

The rolling hills between Kastro and Apollonia

We, of course, went there for the hiking which was top class. Well signposted, cleared trails of a wide variety of distances to beaches, churches and inland valleys. Particular mentions are deserved for the old path to Agios Sostis past the ancient bronze and gold mines, which now seems to be home to no-one else apart from colonies of goats. This beautiful view cascades down a steep path and out to a barren landscape where a church is just perched right on the rocky edge of land, lapped by the frothing sea. Naturally death defying for me to walk down and had to scrunch down a survival cheese pasty in the shade of the church before making it back up the steep hill. But the weather was cool and the rewards were empty trails and timeless Greek island scenery.


We loved exploring the Kastro after the walk to the waterfall which was in full flow. I imagine walks like these are much different in high summer, but at least then you get rewarded with swimming. The church of the seven martyrs was also spectacular as it perched out on rocky precipice with a winding path connecting it to the land. I imagine the streets of Kastro get a bit crowded in summer but in April some cafes and bars were open, but not all. Climbing back to Apollonia along a beautifully preserved stone trail – which passed by ancient olive groves and terraces dotted with falling down houses. This was my hiking heaven. I am now obsessed with pigeon houses and Dovecotes, I dream of renovating one into a tiny house.

Also – the food! Revithia (chick pea soup), Sardines, Horta – local cheese with figs – after all the exercise (and my snuffling ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ approach) it meant we tried a few of the foodie places too – despite very quiet evenings we ate early at Cayanne, a little pricey but amazing food. Well put together and as a treat, seemed worth it. Wild salad leaves with strawberries in a balsamic cream, caper dip and bifteki stuffed with cheese.

We ate one night at Kafenion Drakakis – a place that had been in the village since 1860 and as tradition dictates still serves meze and ouzo. The small room and courtyard had been recently redecorated but the ephemera of its history still adorned the walls. Black and white photos of men gathered around tables and images of the island scenery long before the holiday houses were built. Modern art and rembetiko music jostle for diners attention. Places like this are becoming popular -making new traditions out of old; one foot in the past, a nod to their history and one foot in the future; whitewashed chairs, locally sourced seasonal dishes and bottles of craft beer. The difference is simple in who they are serving it to. Those men who drank here are long gone, as is the small island rural economy that sustained them. In order to survive people and places have to adapt and it won’t ever be to everyone taste or price range. I get a bit sad to admit it, but no Greek Island can ever be timeless.

I really do like Sifnos. I can see why people love it and visit again, although it is starting to get a reputation as a place where the very chic international jet-set go, (that’s just not my interest or price-range) it still retains a unique charm which I found beautifully inspiring and atmospheric. It certainly wasn’t beach weather so all the renowned beaches like Platis Yialos stayed unexplored for us. So maybe we will have to return in summer! But this notion is the same for any Greek Island (in fact any destination). Anywhere you’d describe as idyllic and serene won’t necessarily be anywhere near that in August. But I really liked its rural feel and traditional life – farmers out herding goats and travelling by mule along the old paths.

We stayed in Apollonia in a little studio complex where the lady brought us Greek coffee and homemade biscuits when we arrived. It was a great central place to just wander and explore with no real plan. Through Pano Petali, Kato Petali and Artemonas, the villages that just blend into one another as you wander. Small cafes on squares and churches on every corner. The locals often said hello and everyone seemed friendly, like the older ladies we saw painting the outlines of the narrow steps that cascade through the maze of streets. I wondered what it felt like for them to see and hear so many visitors walk past their houses, taking photos, admiring the views and scenes. We are just visitors in their timeless land of change. The architecture in Sifnos is typical – from small cubed Cycladic houses, both old and new renditions, to the crumbling grandeur of Venetian mansions, reminiscent of Ermoupolis on a much smaller scale. A little garden centre on the street corner was stocking up with plants and flowers ready to wow in window boxes.

It is an island with an interesting mix of traditional and modern; like the Lakis Kafenion which is on the main square opposite a few boutique and artisan craft shops, old and new seem to jostle along nicely. I’ll leave you with some photos, sometimes images say more than words ever can.

Dryopeda, Kythnos

It has certainly been a few months of interesting climate changing weather. Just when there was a burst of sunshine and the sea started to feel almost bearable for swimming, there it was… a dark cloud over the horizon and a northern wind sent to chill and soak. Like a reminder to not take anything for granted – even the change of season! We headed off on a mini-adventure the week before Greek Easter, tied in with UK Easter days off. By the time we reached Kythnos on the Artemis Ferry the wind seems to have whipped away the storm clouds and the sun appeared again. We are the only foot passengers to depart and other new passengers join the boat here and replace us in greater numbers, a crowd of school kids jostling in excitement and another orthodox priest (ever been on a ferry journey without a priest? nope). We have been given instructions by the lady who runs the place we are booked to stay, but she’s been called away with family emergency. We find a taxi, the only one waiting at the port, up up we go on sloping road, magnificently handled at each turn. Heading to the peak in the middle, a small traditional town called Dryopeda – population 400 and shrinking every year. We’ve been told a girl will wait the cafe, it’s the only one you can’t miss it. She isn’t there, but unalarmed we wait in the unhurried quiet and take in the view. Dyropeda is named after the first settlers, the Dryopes who were forced out of their lands and then settled on Kythnos. It is a traditional farming island with small settlements, evidence of this was everywhere – beautiful lush hillside, but very few trees, windmill remains on the ridges.  It does get a fair bit of tourism in the summer, especially at the beaches and seaside villages like Loutra, famed for its thermal baths.

A path away from Dyropedia

After a while the cafe man comes out and says ‘follow me’ and we do without asking. Trusting folk so we traipse behind him into the maze like streets and up to a house next to the tiny Evangelistria Chapel. They key is in the door of course. He lets us in to the little stone house, traditionally decorated, even with an old singer sewing table, a wrought iron bed tucked away in a recess in the sala room and a stone kitchen – modernised but with touches of its past on the antique furniture and white lace curtains. Like all traditional village houses the windows are small and walls are thick – the house stays cool in summer. But in winter an even now in April it’s cold but we are thankful of an electric heater and electric under blankets on the bed. He promised to come back with batteries for the air-con later. The view from the tiny square kitchen window is magnificent over to green hills – I swear I see a rabbit hopping on the hillside.

Beckoned by the sun we take a path that follows an old and uncleared trail up to the Church of Konstandinos and Eleni. It passed a lush valley with water still flowing in brooks from the recent rains. There was even frogspawn in the old springs.

I say it all the time but this year the spring flowers are exceptional – the blood red of the poppy standing out against a sea of bobbing yellows and white, the greenest green leaves and billowing tall grass. The fields here are full of goats, sheep and horses munching away on this bounty. The trails aren’t well marked and we are breaking through undergrowth to reach the church – a beautiful view greets us.

But because we know – and we are always warned – about snake season. Yet despite the hiking we do snakes have evaded us so far. Or we have evaded them. Not this time. G sees one in front of him – he shouts snake, I don’t see it. It scatters (or slithers?) he is strangely calm, I freeze, like a loon and scan, I want to see it too. Even though we don’t know if its a biter – we bolt, over the gate breathless and hearts beating loud, fear in our mouths. The first  Φίδι (fidi) and not even time to take a snap.

The village in the afternoon is quiet –  but the supermarket is a hive of activity doing a stocktake so I ask which tavernas are open. The boy who is sent to serve us looks at me and takes a deep breath like a gas fitter about to tell you the worst news about your boiler. ‘Well, there is one open. But only later tonight – after 9′. Thanks we say. This happens a lot over the next few days as children are sent to speak to us. ‘Ah a foreign tourist, send the child to practice his English!’ It’s nice in a way – family ran and kids pitching in to help out and learn.

Not even Easter yet and places look shut up – it’s fine, we’ll cope we talk between ourselves. Worst case scenario we’ll eat a sweet crepe and ice cream for dinner from our mate at the Cafe. After venture out half-believing sudden crowds would emerge from doorways and fill the cobbled agora street and huddle outside cafes with children playing in the streets at dusk. We are wrong. It is cold and damp, a wind scuttles through the streets and even the fiercest cats hide away. There are 4 men drinking coffee in the cafe, we order beers and our friend returns the remote control with new batteries. Eventually we brave it to the place the boy in the shop told us about. It’s a old style grill house and we enter with trepidation at first. It looks like a child’s birthday party is happening in one corner as a long table is inhabited by over excited almost teen kids with cans of pop and sticks of souvlaki being brandished like swords as they play music on their phones. A young boy gets sent over to take our order – dragged away from his friends at the table.  We try to speak Greek and he replies in his best school English.

A woman comes in hurried, holding a cake, smothered in white cream icing and chocolate sprinkles. She presents it to the table, kisses her boy and returns helping herself to plates in the back and a dozen forks.  His grandma enters – more kisses for the birthday boy on each cheek. More arrivals and another table hastily set just in time for singing. Someone hands the mother h a lighter. A Happy Birthday song in Greek, loud and overdrawn and then they try in English, a few unsure of the words, following along. All filmed on phones, snap-chatted to those not here – whatsapped to cousins in Athens, a brother in London. These kids, like everyone now, are always connected. This world draws them like invisible thread and will one day call them out from here to other places. Other futures.

The next night we locate another eatery which is open. Inside, the warmth greets us with food smells hovering in the air. Again a no menu place we are the only customers apart from a man who eats alone watching the news channel on a TV in the corner. The elderly owner lady hobbles over and tells us in half-greek, half english what she will serve us. “Meat, chips, horiatiki salad. Neh?’ – Krasi, neh? – it’s like ordering the best mystery dinner ever.  We wait and watch her in the kitchen chipping potatoes and loading them in the deep fat fryer – she loads up a tray with glasses and cutlery and brings it over with the wine and beer. She prepares a salad for us, goes back, slices bread, brings it over. Every time she hobbles back to our table I feel a pang of guilt about her ankle which is bandaged and her advancing age – it looks like her husband has passed away. Photos of them smiling, decades ago with clambering children on their laps adorn on the wall. A single photo of him close up stands next to a icon of Jesus.  I want to say, ‘you have a sit down tell me where everything is and I’ll fetch it.’ But you just can’t. She just carries on.

The man pays and leaves. We are served steaming plates of rabbit stifado (kuneli) served in the traditional fashion, complete with bones and bits of liver and heart with whole onions and cloves glistening in the rich red sauce. It is delicious and we are thankful for ‘real food’ and warmth. Crepes for dinner sounded like a good idea, but this is better. The lady sits down to rest a while at our table as we pay the bill – we share some conversation with her, where we are from she tells us proudly this is her place, she has lived in the village all her life. It is a good life. What more is there. With good wishes for the upcoming Easter we part and head off into the night.

The village is just waking up and people are out the next day painting white outlines on the cobbled walkways and repairing doors. The Katafiki Cave is kind of open, as in the gates were open and you could see down to where the cave opens and the steps end. But a sign on the door says ‘Do not enter the caves without a helmet and a guide’ there’s no one around despite appearances. So we hover taking photos but not venturing right in – there’s no lights on  down there either so decide he’s probably just on a break. But we don’t go back to check.

I like to just wander villages like this – admiring the stillness, listening to everything breathe, the birds chirping in the trees, the sweep of the brush as a lady piles up rust coloured leaves. The stories in each street over hundreds of years are all hidden here somewhere.

A pause at each one in turn; every roof on a house a dream, a shelter, a nightmare, left to rot, a birthright, a millstone, brought back from disrepair – all on fragile foundations.  The cracking panes and stone walls crumble, photos mouldering in the frames. The salt on the door handle corroding until it no longer turns.


We leave and take the Adamantios Korias Ferry to Sifnos – a different world awaits.

More soon…

Sounds of Spring

This time, this time. And again we are repeating. No adventure on the way – small bags, travel light I insist, and then fail every time. We wandered the streets of Athens in bright sunshine, our eyes blinking to adjust to the light. Laughing at old jokes, making up commentary on the things before us. The red skins of sunburn on our fellow tourists on this hot March day when the sun finds its heat again. The locals fan themselves in the shade and order hot coffees – they will not be fooled by this temporary charade of summer.

At the little To Glyko, tucked away in the Plaka we gorged on plates of Bekri Meze and garlicy pazarasalata, dipping hunks of bread in juicy sauces we act half-starved and weary.  We have been here before, is it repeating or finding something familiar? I call it adjusting, blending distance and closeness, familiar and strange. In these the words to find comfort in,  I wonder about home and know it is just that simple:  an idea, a place that calls and its echo lays deep in your heart. You carry it everywhere.

The ferry was quiet and swished under the sunset arriving into Ermoupolis without fanfare or fuss.

In that silence of a damp night when an almost full moon was gathered at the edges of the spring equinox, we listened on the terrace to the sullied sound of water condensing on the cold metal roof and dripping. Suddenly we could hear the sea. It’s a way off, down the street, past the church and the shop, past the mermaid statue that marks the end of the road. Here the mermaid faces inland rather than out at sea. I think she’s longing to turn as they call her back. Back to the arms of the sea, back to her people. But in the stillness that sound of the sea reached right up to us. It was lapping like tongues licking waves at the shore. In a minute or less the sound was gone, the ferry had passed. But each wave brought a magic to that still night with pine in the air and spiders rebuilding webs, spun for shelter.

It has been a long wet and cold winter on the island, and even now in late March on the old river bed past Ano Syros a trickle of water runs. I ask and they say it has it been unusual, and others say , the coldest and wettest for a long time. I wonder what long means. It is good for the fields, good for the sternas, full of bounty. But people get sad when the pale arms of winter have held them too close for too long.

I hear the clocks. Ding, ding and the church bells are suddenly on time.  As long as I’d known them, they were always 5 minutes ahead of the hour. This spells disaster, surely this will mean that everyone in the village is now 5 minutes late.

For the first few days, time rushes as tasks need completing and we don’t worry about being early or late. The wind howls outside abstractly and untethered. Rattling doors and gates. Washing lines blowing in the 70km gusts. We sleep early in darkness before the clocks change. The night compels the body to sleep with near silence outside seeping into our brains, hushing them from constant hurry of the tick tock of life outside this room. Sometimes to only hear the drip drip of the bathroom tap and a cockerel out on the fields crowing is heaven. It must be nearly dawn. But I am awake with a still mind and restless body.

The earth comes alive again. Spring flowers are crawling into the light and I can almost hear it all growing under the red dust earth. A rare and beautiful time, only cars and wild beasts disturb us.

 

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All are just fragments

If you take a photograph just here. The place where the sand meets the dry stone wall, the cracks have now been filled with moss and a decaying limestone grout. A view like this will make the bay bow before you. The right angle where the sky meets the sea with the same lilac haze that blends both into being one. Glassy and glowing at the edges with short bursts of puffy white clouds, where moisture has swirled into the air.

Here the sand looks golden, dark like syrup. Look. It is fringed not by palm but tamarisk trees with their wispy fronds and pollen. In Spring flowers will line the paths, leading you there. In high summer the beach lilies stand out with white delicate scented flowers. Nature has dictated its will here. You can capture it in one single shot. Filling your screen with the view you want to live with, live by and up against. This is what we dream of, isn’t it? Each day we fill the grey space, the blank page seeping into dry bones – to trade it and come home a view like this. Find a stillness that rises at dawn with the sound of the roosters crowing and ends settled in orange fire with the chirp of cicadas in the trees. The twinkle of moonlight reflected on the ripples of waves in the bay, the chuckle of glasses cheering. Isn’t this what you wanted? Just a glimpse.

I had a week of commuting along with my first world problems tucked in a backpack, wedged in the lines of my face,  silently seething along with the chunter and shunt of the train tracks late at night. There were slow wet tears just on the edge of sadness. Prompted by a small offering of injustice. The sobbing woman begging with her hands outstretched at Cardinal Place – these glass edged hallowed halls of consumerism like cathedrals of shame, making the city unrecognisable again. Starting over. Bone broth and flat whites, vegan donuts. My friend says we could be walking anywhere. Singapore, San Francisco, Dubai. We are in nowhere-land-London.

Homeless crowding in fewer and fewer doorways. The tent city sprawls at the back of Victoria station. My heart breaks in tiny fragments each day as the gap widens and plays on.  The protests in parliament square are seething with comical boredom before angry unrest. Divisions in the lobby. Divisions on the bus. Some days I don’t read the news. I need closed text, bright horizons and to keep looking at that photo.

I came back to the surface, tired and bleary eyed wanting nothing more than the kind of love you find on a Sunday afternoon snuggled on a couch. Warm against the cold outside, a blanket of kindness.  I realised I just wanted small things. To be safe, to be warm, to love. The human needs not everyone has in sight. Roll that in your palm, hold a feeling so momentary. Ephemeral.

On a train journey I watched a documentary about the Express Scopelitis. It’s a famous little ferry that connects the small Cyclades line and has been a family run operation on Amorgos since 1953. It’s a cold December when parts of it were filmed. The father is  80 and they show him playing the violin on his wife’s name day. The room full of love and food and song.  The boat circles its route in wild storms, barely picking up a passenger at each port. Along the barren line like a duty, delivering supplies and lives. The Captain Giannis tells of his bravery at sea, getting sick islanders to Naxos for medical appointments. The Orthodox priest blesses the boat on St Nikolas day as the boys dive into the sea for the cross under the sharp January sun when all the world looks in perfect focus. It’s one of my favourite boats, having taken it to Donoussa in a storm and Iralkia in a strike I know why the Express Scopelitis is a legend in these islands. It always sails no matter what. Packed with tourists in summer and crammed on at Naxos, Schinnoussa, Koufonisia, Amorgos, Iraklia and Donoussa.

Each island stop a tiny collection of changing lives and fragments of Greece on the edge of nowhere, Aegean. Watching it made me feel nostalgic and homesick. For things I didn’t know, little mysteries spun like webs in that lilac sunset.

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All those islands I’ve never been to seem to stack up like postcards on the carousel outside the shop. I’d like to get a chance to collect them – write each one down. Until then I’ll keep that still fragment in my mind.

 

Where we find ourselves

I sit watching a tiny spider, one we’d call a money-spider walk in circles around the base of the bedside lamp. Its repetitious moves intrigue me. I can see my breath in the air as I peer and look for meaning in its movements. Something to give it away.  Like a life in review with unknown pleasures knocking at the door, the spider moves in circles ignoring their call. I worry each time it makes a turn on what I think is the corner of the circle, but really a circle has no corner to turn. The spider continues round and round, feeling itself making distance. I have been the spider this year. Round and round, decisions and ideas have swirled. It’s been a year of fragments; joy, mistakes, rejection and practice. Lots of practice. All experiences to learn from.  I mean this is the best sense. I keep getting given these chances and I am not sure I’m making the most of them. Am I good enough, can I learn? Can I grow, be kinder, find comfort in my own skin? Can I stop worrying if I need to be comfortable at all? How much of the past leads us to where we find ourselves now?

I was born in Winter but even after all these years I struggle to have an affinity to its low level daylight and gloom. What is winter but a cold season that flanks the end of the year, signalling closures, celebrations and offering up new beginnings?  All of these musing seem to find a natural home in the in-between days after Christmas and before a new year.

A Greek island in winter is a strange place, kind of charming and oppressive at the same time. Syros in no way is a small island – its resident population doesn’t fluctuate as summer turns to winter. Most of the shops, businesses and trade are open all year. So it isn’t ‘empty’ in any sense of the word. But it is audibly quieter; less traffic, a lower hum of living. Even the church bells sound louder against billowing wind and sheer nothingness. A hazed sunlight hits the water and the hills glisten with emerald green clove – the island’s soft beauty stands out against the grey. Even the sheep bells seem close.

In the rain people huddle in a couple of the harbour cafés instead of the dozens to choose from in high season. The stores are open, selling everything you’d anticipate with a Christmas anywhere in the world. Santa hats, tinsel, the universal offering of Wham’s last Christmas boomed out from speakers. (I have also heard a Greek language version of this – pretty special). None of this surprised me as the commercialism of Christmas has no geographical boundaries. But what was nice to see is that most places only put up all the Christmas lights and trees a week before the 25th. Most families will exchange gifts as tradition dictates on New Year’s Eve when Agios Vassilis  (St Basil) takes on the gift bearing role akin to Santa Claus – therefore the shops don’t go into a horrid boxing day sale scenario on the 26th, as if to mockingly declare the worthlessness of all your hard-earned presents. Things seem to take on a gentler pace here. The children go round singing carols, Kalanda and playing the triangle. I’m not sure if you give them money to say thanks or to get them to scarper! But I do love the traditional winter holiday biscuits like Melomakarona – honey and nut Christmas cookies, we were given a batch from our neighbours which were yum.  The bakeries are full of Kourabies, icing sugar laden biscuit treats. I have baked a few cakes and cookies; almond and orange cookies, chocolate and ginger ones too. G has been baking bread. The things you do to keep yourself entertained and fed!

Random things about winter in Greece I have learnt in a couple of weeks: it’s pretty cold, nowhere near as cold as the UK.  Even when the temperatures seem warm, a high 14 or 15, the nights will be cold, but the stars are amazing. So I’m completely forsaking any kind of style over warmth at all times. Jumpers and fleece leggings are a daily uniform. Going for long walks seems to help you feel warmer despite being outside. Showers are swift and functional, no lolling in a cold bathroom. My woolly hat is a godsend and the hot water bottle has taken on a holy status in a tiny house without central heating. So I’ve learnt inventive ways to stay warm –the silent disco dance-a-thon is a winner – my current fave is Spotify playlist of 90s dance music and the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack. I don’t think G actually ever dances (he’s a punk!) but I have witnessed him mopping the floor energetically with headphones on. I like to think he’s rocking out to “I want to break free!”

The fact that the only gift we gave each other for Christmas were fleecelined bedsocks says a lot!  Talk about romantic. But why give presents when we have everything we need right now. Also, we had a stash of Terry’s chocolate oranges – what more do you need? Actually, a few things, wine…roast potatoes, cheese and the homemade fig chutney I made back in July – a perfect festive accompaniment.

It’s just got dark here on New Year’s Eve and the hours circle in, closing one year into a slow reflection. There’s plenty news this year I am sure we’d all like to confine to the pages of history, start afresh kinder and positive. The traditions of a pomegranate smashed on the doorway and the slice of new year Vasilopita with its coin can offer luck– but is luck enough?

Time flashes by in the stillness of night. It is a thief. Life is in fragments, fractured slivers – but what makes us human is that there is joy to be found in the darkest of places. Whether by luck or fate or hard work, or all three, do what makes you happy in 2019 and shine some light out into the world.

Stay warm.

xxx