15th August 2015
Sea Jets Line’s ferryboat ‘Champion One’ moves cautiously out of the port after leaving a small crowd of tourists to Kamares sunset. Here are the first white houses with coloured windows and doors: blue, dull azure, pastel, turquoise, petroleum blue, aquamarine, and seldom yellow, olive green, or forest green. Bare hills streaked with low dry-stone walls, rusty and ochre shrubs, rare greens clinging to brown rocks, mopeds feebly winding uphill bends, vivid azure domes, spotless crosses, and pairs of bells protected by pairs of arches in the monasteries built on the edges of lands that end in the Aegean sea. From the windows of the car that takes us to Apollonia, Sifnos appears to be a merciful and illogical place. Definitely more powerful, more intriguing, more spartan and genuine than we had ever hoped to find.
We do not know yet, but Sifnos is a man – one evening in a church courtyard in Artemonas – who breaks big loaves of sweet bread with his hands and invites tourists to join the candle-lit ceremony by handing them bulky soft squares that taste like anise. Sifnos is also two peasants riding a couple of tired mules uphill towards Kastro, their baskets full of freshly gathered vegetables; or a salty rain catching us on the red-earth descent that reminds us of Africa and takes us to the remote Vroulidia beach (one hour walk from the crossing where the bus to Cheronisos stops). Sifnos is a procession – guided by a violins duo, on the night of Assumption, along Artemonas’s alleys fragrant with biscuits – and we join it beside villagers in costume. Intense aromas enfold us whenever we pass the cascades of jasmines, figs, bougainvillaeas, or the aromatic shrubs along paths that always lead to the sea. We spend six, which then become seven, nights in an ancient “windmill”, pronounced with the hard-accent English of the islanders. A vaneless mill where Aristomenis Proveleggios was born and lived – a poet and writer, member of the Academy of Athens. His picture is on the fireplace, his books in the glass cabinet, and his bust in the garden of the adjacent school. To be remembered are the premature wakeup calls by insistent cocks, the donkeys’ braying, and the metallic yet melodic sound of goats’ bells that merges with the call of orthodox churches. To be remembered are the first morning looks, catching sky and sea over the motionless countryside dotted with white, blue, and the red of a pick-up truck always parked in the same place. Some cars, or a man crossing a field, give the only signs of motion. To be remembered are the breakfasts below the Judas tree, the pine, and the oleander, while turtledoves flap their wings and little sparrows chirp in a nest.
In August, those who did not book their transport in time move around Sifnos by bus. As if it wasn’t so good, during a holiday, to contemplate life on the island from the side of a road; to listen to the suggestions of someone looking for one more dive from a rock, just like you; to catch glimpses you would have missed even on the highest jeep, or to fall asleep on the notes of a quiet Greek litany after darkness swallowed up the last bell tower. Every day is an adventure, as we look for a rock to tame (which, in turn, will make us less tame) in front of water honestly showing its depth. As days go by, eyes practise seeking the less uncomfortable surface to lay towel, books, our Nikon FE2, and a small basket of peaches. The burnished Cheronissos rocks, on the left of the parking when looking north, remind us of an old elephant’s skin. Baths below Chrissopygi’s Holy Rock are heaven, and we share it with Valerie and Delphine, two French women waiting for our visit in Biarritz, and the speckled fish hidden in the salty pools among meltemi-smoothed rocks. You get there from Faros, passing Apokoftou, along a path we cover twice: by day, when we leave behind the noise of the beach, and by night, when we watch the bright shooting stars on Saint Lawrence’s night. From Kastro you reach the church of Panagia Poulati (built in 1871) and the rocks below, which look like Mexico where the Mediterranean bush becomes a jungle, along a path that words cannot describe: one must see it. On the last morning, we go back to Kastro and follow the longing melody coming from the church of the Seven Martyrs. We discover a cave where an aspiring opera singer sings Casta Diva while bathing and a group of French boys climbs up and dives repeatedly from heights too extreme for us, interrupting the song with shouts and loud splashes. We still wear our swimsuits, and there is salt on our skins, when we have dinner in restaurants on fishing villages’ piers, among tamarisks, or on the shoulder of a hamlet. The only worldly activity is the open-air cinema in Artemonas, which we reach after buying a stock of bread and biscuits in one of the many old bakeries in town. How could we have missed re-watching The Grand Budapest Hotel in original language, munching little orange-flavoured island doughnuts below the stars of an unforgettable Cycladic summer?
Words and pictures Laura Taccari. Translation Alessia Andriolo.
Special hanks to Roberta, Emanuele, Giulia, Jacopo, Nina and Alexis, without whose suggestions our Sifnos would not have been so beautiful, and to Virginia Archinto, a precious fellow traveller, who helped me find the path to our waves.