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.

Now in November

I have been doing many things over the past 6 weeks, but one of them hasn’t been writing this blog. I have been distracted, open mouthed and furiously plotting. I picked up my old copy of Now in November by Josephine Johnson on Saturday as I sat down to write. Having not read it since university, I was overwhelmed as these lines really centered my thinking.

Now in November I can see our years as a whole. The autumn is both like an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with a blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now. It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.”

Johnson’s first person narrative tells the struggles of a poor white tenant farmer family battling with nature, religion and social class in the Great Depression. Although only 24 when it was written, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and fair to say coming 5 years before Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Johnson was ahead of her time.  It is an emotionally raw and illuminating read, written from the daughter’s perspective in the landscape of the dust bowl. It felt like a good opener to remind me of the power words can have. 

The 11th month of the year marks my birth month, so it also calls for beginnings as well as endings. I always think of November as a reflective brooding time, the shorter days slowly folding itself into Christmas and then a new year. There has been a lot of catching up and family time in the past few weeks, and generally aligning ourselves back into a rhythm that we had lost. I have relished being back in a fully operational kitchen, I even baked a Greek honey and almond cake. As well as trying to replicate the souzoukakia recipe from Stou Zaloni’s. They weren’t bad!

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Now in this November I found myself walking along Regent’s Park with a dear friend in the biting cold on a Sunday afternoon. We walked and talked. Catching up conversations about work and ambition, life, love and all the stuff that chatters around our brains in-between. I hadn’t felt that absorbed for a long time, as we crunched golden leaves beneath our feet and squinted in the sunlight. It was nice to be out in the fresh air, breathing it all in and bathing in daylight. After our taxing walk we found a cosy pub and shared more long conversations over pints and stodgy food. Proving that this is a time for reflection, we managed to put the world to right over kind words and ideas.  This is autumn loveliness at its finest.

I am lucky to have been able to walk through St James Park on the way to meetings. Dawdling a while to stare at the ducks around the lake, admire the tourists posing and see how the fig trees are getting on. One of which is reported to be the biggest specimen of Ficus carica (brown turkey) in Britain. I always wonder if the figs are tasty from that big old tree. One day I’ll check them out in season. 

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I didn’t really appreciate how glorious fig trees are before with their deciduous vast flat leaves. I always thought of the fruit first rather than the tree. How the overripe figs would fall and collect in sad splatted piles, smelling sickly sweet while they rotted. Often they were pillaged by giant ants marching in a line of military precision. I ate dried figs at my parent’s house a few weeks ago when they opened the box of Kini figs from Theresa. They had been sun-dried in the traditional way with sesame seeds with a bay leaf on each layer and wrapped in tissue paper.  Their sweet taste made me feel sad and happy all at once thinking of summer.

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I do miss the fig trees that leaned over our garden in Syros. By now their leaves will have also turned into shades of golden rust. I keep seeing pictures on social media of northern Greece where the forest leaves are aflame in all the radiant hues of autumn. A November walk in the Greek hills sounds about perfect right now.  In Greece the olive harvest is always traditionally done after the first rainfall. Spreading out the nets and raking through the tree branches to make the ripe olives fall, it’s back breaking work. I might sit in an office all day but that’s no comparison to the hard labour of the olive farmers.

I had got used to having a lot of freedom over how I spent my time, which manifests itself in getting frustrated over the constrained time squeezed into work.  I relish snatches of time being alone on the train and staring up at the sky whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I miss the sky , the big ol’ blue Hellenic sky – the sheer expanse of the horizon. You don’t get big horizons like that in London… even from the top of the Sky Garden it looked pretty grey. 

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I think it is the light and colour I miss the most. I leave in the dark gloom of dawn, a train ride through terraced streets with hues of brown and mud coloured buildings flashing by. If it’s cloudy all day before getting dark at 4pm, a whole day can go by in this strange wishy washy landscape without seeing anything bright and inspiring.

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Compare that London grey smudge with the palette of Ermoupoli in its candy coloured houses and pale blue domes, bright skies and sea of turquoise, dotted with terracotta, bright pops of pink and  emerald green. I have been cheering up the dark nights by sorting some of my pictures from walks around the town. These are just a few of my favourites.

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The weather certainly won’t be as nice there now as I remember it, but everyone will be starting to hibernate for winter as  the grey skies and stormy weather sets in. But I can look over these pictures to remember the light and hope it keeps me going through the dark days of November. 

Small island manners

It struck me on Sunday as I went on a little walk to Delfini beach how people are a little kinder and helpful on a small island.  It was a little walk – it takes less than 25 minutes from to spiti mas (our house) to the paralia (the beach). Yet in that short amount of time 2 cars stopped to offer me a lift. I know what you’re thinking “stranger danger” and accepting lifts is so unheard of these days. This isn’t just because we have lost trust in our fellow humans and been programmed that everyone out there is set to rob or murder us, its endemic of how we fear things we don’t know. I was a woman alone walking in the heat of the sun.  I mean the path is hilly, there’s a couple of steep climbs as you near to the bend before reaching the bay – but I like to think in my sporty trainers and hiking backpack, I totally looked like a typical thing for me to do. But I think it comes down to the fact that it isn’t common to see people walking to the beach here – so a nice thing to do would be to stop and offer them a lift as it’s a dirt road that ends at the beach, you know anyone going in this direction is heading to the same place. When the first car stopped, I said a simple “oxi, efharisto” and he waved and went on his way. But when the second car stopped merely a few minutes later on the ridge of the steepest hill, I started saying no and he waved and smiled, then his slightly worse for wear car started struggling to keep going and started to splutter and stall. I thought, now if I have to help him push the car up the hill that will be just brilliant timing! Man stops to give woman lift on midday sun – and she ends up pushing his slightly worn out car up a hill like a superwoman. His ego would probably never survive!

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But that’s just a more chivalrous way of life here. I’m not saying I like it – it is just different and something you notice in the older generation more often. I was in the post office last week when an older man ahead of me offered to swap tickets. It has the same system as back home where draw a ticket from the machine and ait to be called. He probably made a judgement at my blonde hair and flip flops, realising my need at the counter would likely be a swift transaction to buy stamps, rather than his complicated pension forms or some other administrative red-tape that would take time to get stamped and approved. It was very kind of him and I thanked him in my best formal Greek.

Not that this happens everywhere, but it does happen more when I am without G, evidencing the lone female theory, but I certainly don’t have a free pass to universal  kindness! But I’ll certainly try to reciprocate it. On ferries, busses and ticket counters I have been shoved, pushed in front of and tutted at for being too orderly and well, darn-British for following a sense of THE QUEUING SYSTEM. The hallowed order doesn’t work here, it has no currency.

Anyway there is a sense of neighbourly kindness and community in Greece – I won’t make a sweeping statement and say it just so much better here, but it is different from what I have been accustomed to. At home having an elbow shoved into the ribs and overhearing the swearing pent up anger of fellow commuters was a good day in London.  Here it’s old ladies pushing to the front of transport and traffic jams caused by runaway mules. But I can forgive all of this – when I’m 70+ I want to be first on the bus too. It’s just mellower and friendly, it seems customary to speak to strangers, offer words of kindness or give welcoming gifts.

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Our landlord stops by with fresh eggs, an assortment of veg from his plot. He brought beetroot over and I made a delicious panzarasalata (beetroot salad with garlic and yogurt) I met the lovely Jacky and Flora who run the Syros Cat charity last week and somehow left with a box full of ripe strawberries. Well, at least fruit requires less responsibility than a cat! Our neighbours have left us bags of lemons which G made into Lemon Curd. I’m starting to worry that I need to return the favour but haven’t got anything to give! (well let’s hope the garden gets productive soon – the pressure is on!)

We are on the wonderful island Tinos at the moment. G has been here all week volunteering with Paths of Greece. He is walking an average of 20k+ a day to map out the paths. He’s having a great time. I arrived yesterday and have been taking it easy. Guiltily of course.

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I spent a while wandering the picturesque streets of Pyrgos in the north of the island while they were off hiking a trail. This is one of the well preserved and pristine examples of a traditional village whose main industry is marble. It has a great museum of marble crafts, which was sadly closed. But I managed to peek in to one of the workshops the students from the college were sculpting marble in.

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The main square is entirely made from marble slabs and has statues, hand carved adornments above windows and doorways everywhere and even the bus stop is made of marble.

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It is quite honestly the most picturesque little place to while away the hours – hardly any tourists around at all.

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After lunch I was pointed in the direction of a nice easy trail from Vlakos through the ancient boulders to Koumaros and back to the rural village we are staying in, Skalados.

After admiring the old abandoned houses in Vlakos, which have hand written memorials, poems and stories about their inhabitants, I set off along the road to the boulders.

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All of a sudden I heard an old lady calling me, from the churchyard I’d just passed. She was waving a broom at me and I was scared! What had I done, offended someone on a holy afternoon? After a few minutes of shouting Greek words at me, none of which I could fathom, all I could say was ‘then katalaveno – signomi’ (sorry I don’t understand). She then took the broom in her left hand and made a waving movement with her right arm and said in a French accent (most Greeks here seem to also have a grasp of French too as plenty of tourists visit from there) “Serpent, l ‘attenzione, serpent!” Now the penny dropped, she was warning me about snakes, that hand movement was a snake not a ‘rollin’ with the homies dance‘ which had thrown me! I replied, “Nai, Nai! Efharosto para poli” (yes, thank you very much) and I mimed back a gesture of keeping my eyes on the path. Phew! The lady was just being kind to me and letting me know there are snakes around. Yes, snakes. Another thing to add to my fears; heights, rabid dogs, spiders.

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Well at least I was warned, now I could be fully prepared. Well I’m pleased to say I enjoyed the walk and wasn’t victim of a snakebite (only very few are poisonous and they are the patterned vipers). I made it through Kamouros, admiring the sweet little honesty café they have there where people can help themselves to drinks and leave the correct change.

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That’s a nice neighbourly thing to do – creating a little place people can drop in and have a space for the community of 20 or so houses of the village.

These reminders of the kindness of strangers and trust are all things I am finding different here but certainly are welcome views of Greek life.