Apollonia, Good Morning

P1040389In the morning, any morning, Apollonia is abuzz. It feels as though everyone who lives on Sifnos is passing through here, the main town in the centre of the island. Shops in the square are already open, the spaces in front of each business swept clean, the windows shined and ready to face the day. Kids with their coloured backpacks are heading toward school. Traffic to the post office is steady, to the pharmacy and the bank as well. It certainly is to the periptero, the small kiosk that sells an astonishing array of cigarettes, snacks, drinks and everything else you might need.

The cafés, of course, are filled with people who’ve gathered there before they head off to work. Cars, motorcycles and vehicles of all sorts slow down for the curve, then slingshot around it, all the while checking out who’s in what café. If it’s someone they know, they stop and a quick conversation follows. Drive-by chinwags, I call these. Then the driver roars off wherever he or she is going. For a people-watcher like me, this is pure paradise. 

Up in To Steno, the narrow alley that was the town’s main street long before gasoline engines were ever invented, tiny trucks and various delivery vehicles are delivering goods to the businesses, this the time of day that they’re allowed to drive up there. Driving, though, hardly seems the right word. Squeezing themselves between these ancient whitewashed stone walls better describes it. If one of these vehicles comes along, I know well enough by now to shove myself into a doorway to let it pass by. And if two or three of them meet, well, there is a dance.

SONY DSCI always smell the bakery before I reach it and if I’m lucky, the chocolate croissants are ready when I arrive. The coffee always is and it’s at one of its outdoor tables that I settle in most mornings to watch the goings-on.

When I first started to come to this island, all of this was a blur. But bit-by-bit, faces began to pick themselves out of the crowd and have by now become familiar enough that even if I don’t know their names, I do know a surprising amount about them. I know which woman is sure to do the rounds every morning, poking her head into every business to say hello. Who’s likely to drive by and when. Who carries how many family members on their motorbike and how they’re arranged. And I learned early on to say good morning to everyone I meet, whether I know them or not. It’s what everyone here does. 

Kaliméra. Kaliméra. Good morning. Good morning. Kaliméra sas!

The day has begun.

Ancient Towers Come to Life


If you’re on the road from Kamares to Apollonia and you keep your eyes peeled, you might see a giant stone archway on the top of a hill. One of the lesser-known treasures on this island, it was built in the 6th century BC and is what remains of the Tower of Kambanario. At that point in antiquity, Sifnos had active mines producing gold, silver and iron, and was at the height of its wealth and prestige and vulnerable to pirate raids. So over the next three hundred years, Sifnians built stone towers, one every square kilometre or so. They built them near mines, atop hills and at least one at the edge of the sea, every one of these within in sight of another. Then with smoke and mirrors, they’d flash good news and bad around the island. The cell phones of old, you might say. If an attack was coming, people would rush to the tower and find shelter inside.

By this century, of course, time had taken its toll on these structures, communication methods had changed and, in fact, local knowledge of many of the towers had been lost. Then in 2003, a sailing race was scheduled to reach Sifnos and an idea was hatched. Volunteers were gathered and they lit fires in a few of the towers that were known then to welcome the boats. 

Through archeological work that dates back at least 30 years now, a total of 78 ancient towers have been found and interest in this aspect of Sifnian history has grown. Some of these towers, like the one at Agios Giorgios near Cheronissos, are mere scattered piles of stones that are barely distinguishable from the rest of that rocky hill. Others are much better preserved, some with wells, presses and millstones. Some are readily accessible, others at the end of a long walk through difficult terrain. Visitors can easily reach at least two ancient towers, Mavros Pyrgos, the Black Tower on the edge of Exambela and Aspros Pyrgos, the White Tower, a short walk from the road into Platys Gialos. Enough of both remains that with a bit of creative thinking, you can imagine what they once were.

Since then, sailing race or not, the lighting of the towers has become an annual event held on the 50th day after Greek Easter, the Sunday at the Pentecost. Every year more and more volunteers come and last year they lit 78 ancient towers, 4 acropolises and 3 ancient sanctums, some reachable only after a good two hour trek. In 2018 the event falls on May 27 with at least 81 spots planned for thus far. At 7 o’clock as always, the tower chosen to be the first one will send its smoke signal high into the air. Those towers that see this will respond, setting off a chain reaction that over the next minutes will light up towers all across the island. Just as in times of old.

Aspros Pirgos_7249aaFBWell … except that the smoke these days is orange and comes from a canister. And the local radio station broadcasts the event live, on the internet too, with volunteers calling into the studio to describe their group, their tower and how many signs they see from their spot. 

Afterward everyone will gather in the island’s centre for a huge outdoor party with a music concert, treats for one and all and photos and videos from each tower to watch. This being Sifnos and this being the way they’ve so long done things here, everyone from near and far will be welcomed to the party, no matter how long-standing or recent their attachment to this island. 

Except for pirates, of course.

You can learn much more about the ancient towers of Sifnos at https://www.sifnos-towers.gr/en.html.

Many thanks to Lambros Galanis for the use of his photograph above. Those below are courtesy of the Sifnos Tourist Information office.

Advice to a Traveller

P1040333WEL-COME TO SI-FNOS, a phrase once tossed my way by a giggling schoolboy, always rings in my ears those last minutes before the ferry touches the dock. And once landed, the island finds so many ways to welcome me back. Happy smiles everywhere. Hugs from people who know me only by face. A box of cookies the car rental guy picked up from the bakery for me. I can hardly wait to see what it will be the next time. We’re glad you’ve come back is the message I always hear and I know that other visitors are told the same thing.

Over this past winter, a woman I know via Facebook asked my advice for her first trip there. In which town she ought to stay. Where she’d be likely to see goats wandering past. Where there is a good view. That kind of thing. During our ongoing back-and-forth, I had occasion to say that it’s important for visitors to Sifnos to treat people honourably, even from afar as they are planning their trip, that this basic rule of human interaction has always proved even more important when I’m on this island than anywhere else I’ve ever been. “I can’t say how,” I said,  “but do that and I promise you will be rewarded somehow.” She took my words to heart.

“I leave tomorrow!” her message finally came. I was almost as excited as she, and she’d been packing her suitcase for weeks. “Who knew Piraeus had so many interesting things to do?” came some hours later. Then a photograph. “This is the boat I’ll be sailing on!”

I could practically smell the sea air. “Be sure to buy a koulouri or two from the guy at the dock to take with you,” I thought to say. Sending her off to Sifnos without one of those sesame-covered and slightly sweet rings of bread just wouldn’t feel right.

She was about halfway into her voyage when a message of a different sort arrived. “Do you know, is there a dentist on Sifnos? My temporary crown just fell out.”

Oh, dear. I didn’t know. I just hoped she wouldn’t need to return to Athens for that. But her travel agent in Sifnos, the one who’d made her arrangements and would be there to meet her at the port, I said, surely would. 

“Yes,” I heard back mere moments later. She’d sent a message to the agent and had heard back already that there are two dentists, both within walking distance of where she’d be staying.

Good to know. And these modern communications, I marvelled again, are a magical thing.

Practically before I could turn around, she popped into my inbox again. An appointment had been booked for her. The dentist would be waiting, one hour after she was to arrive.

The magic of Sifnos had struck again. As I knew that it would. I just hadn’t expected it  before she’d even set foot on the island.

Sifnos in Springtime

P1000913March 20 has come and gone, the first day of spring, but a Canadian like me knows that we’re better off not to expect too much in these northern climes just yet. “The first day of spring,” says one of our weathermen, “is one thing, but that first spring day is another.”

He’s right. We Canadians live for that first day when the skies are bright, the air is soft and warm, and birds sing wherever you go. A collective euphoria takes hold and normally sober people throw off coats and scarves, practically dance through the streets, and smile at strangers they meet everywhere. As I write this, though, we’re pretty much waiting still.

In the meantime, I’m making do with experiencing spring from afar on my beloved island of Sifnos. Such as I can, through the the photographs that the online world brings me. I’m not sure the reason, but the season there this year looks even more beautiful and exuberant than most.

I remember well the first time I saw Sifnos at this time of year. It was lush, it was green and wildflowers were bursting out everywhere. I could barely believe my eyes. Until then I’d only known the island in September, when the summer’s sun has turned plants crispy and brown, and Sifnos’s reputation as the Green Island of the Cyclades made little sense. Now it did. It could just as easily, I thought then, be named the Emerald Isle.

I have my own photographs from that time and for me they bring forth the optimism this time of year always does, the joy, the myriad possibilities it presents. Permit me to share some of them with you.

And permit me as well to send my wishes that your springtime, whenever it comes, brings warmth to your heart, sunshine to your soul, and flowers of every hue. May it mark the beginning of a wonderful year.



A Goat and a Motorbike

P1010550 - croppedIt was in Faros one night that I watched a man about to drive away on a motorcycle with a goat on top. At least that was his plan. But the goat had other ideas and no one was going anywhere soon. The harder the man fought to keep the animal where he meant it to be, across the seat in front of him, on its back with its feet in the air, the harder the goat struggled to break free. How the situation resolved itself, I didn’t see. I thought it rude of me to stand right there and stare, so I went on my way.

You could spend days watching the kinds of things Sifnians pile onto motorbikes. I know. I have. There must surely be regulations about how much you’re allowed to put atop two wheels, but regulations or not, the rule of thumb here seems to be if you can somehow make it fit, it goes. I’ve seen whole families crammed up there. Farmers almost hidden in a pile of hay with tools of all sorts sticking out. A pair of wooden dining chairs once. Lengths of plastic pipe on another occasion, longer than the motorbike itself. A dog behind the driver, erect on all fours, its ears aflap in the breeze. Lambs innocent of the fact that they’re about to feature in a meal somewhere. And of course, those painted boxes bolted on the back, the ones that carry take-out food for delivery. I once saw a man barely slow down while handing over a plastic bag to two people already seated, ready and waiting to dine at a table in front of their house.

The zone in front of the driver is a particularly well-used one. It’s where that goat was meant to be. Where little children, as soon as they can sit up, are kept safe. Where I once saw a small tot, dressed up for a party, jammed in there between an enormous gift-wrapped box and her mother.

On a Greek isle like this where the distances are short and the weather is mild, motorcycles are practical vehicles for so many purposes. I doubt that anyone who lives here gives this kind of thing a second look. But to visitors like me from more northern climes, places where the weather for so much of the year forces us to close ourselves in, scenes like this are novelties. They tickle whatever sense of humour we’ve brought along. I’d love to photograph them, I’ve often thought, but this proves almost impossible because as soon as you see them – Whoosh! – they’ve roared off.

Once though, in To Steno, Apollonia’s main alley, we encountered a motorcycle that was not yet quite ready to take off. Its driver, a middle-aged man, was already in place. What goods he had on his half of the bike, I’ve forgotten, but he was well occupied with keeping them aboard. His wife, seated behind him, was holding a large potted plant in one hand. On the other was balanced a restaurant-sized pan, the kind you’d use to prepare moussaka or pastitsio, enough for a crowd. There remained a tall electric fan on the flagstones beside them, the kind that sits atop a base and then a long pole, one meant to cool a whole room, and they clearly meant to take it along. Do you need help, my husband asked. Well yes, efharistó, and soon the appliance was teetering on that skinny pole across the seat between the two of them. Good enough, and off they went.

My camera that day, sadly, I’d forgotten to bring along.

Confessions of a Travel Blogger

Marina Vernikou - cropped

Well, I got that wrong.

In “The Statues of Sifnos,” my previous blog post, I wrote about a quest I undertook when I was on the island last fall. In public spaces wherever I went, I kept my eyes open for statues, those bronze or marble busts of renowned citizens of the past, determined to find every one and to discover what I could about the people they had been. There were six that I found and what I learned when I started to read about them told me a lot about the island itself. This is a place that chooses to honour not men of power and military might, but its poets and writers, teachers, politicians, and doctors, leaders who persuade others through knowledge and the written and spoken word. How refreshing, I thought, to find a place that so values logic, the articulate voice, and the ability to influence minds toward the greater good.

All that, I had pretty much right. But in the past two weeks I’ve learned that there were at least four statues I’d missed. And that, despite my lament in that blog post, there is one woman among them. I am grateful to Sofia Katzilieri of the Sifnos Information Centre in Kamares port for straightening me out – she always does that so well – and for these photographs that she sent to my inbox over the next days. I thank her too for allowing me to use them here.

Sotiris Triantafyllos

This got me to thinking about the nature of travel itself. Lately when deciding where to go next, more and more I find myself drawn to revisiting favourite places I’ve already been. How lazy of me, I often think then with a small stab of guilt, how unadventurous I’m becoming. Surely there’s somewhere new on this earth that deserves to be seen.

But maybe this has nothing to do with any lack of adventure at all. Maybe it’s that more and more, I want my travels to be deep and meaningful ones. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned as I’ve travelled, especially as a foreigner far from home, that no matter how much you think you know about a place and its people, there always remains so much you do not.

And so this year, my husband and travelling companion, Jim, will return to Sifnos, our tenth time there. There I will be found, I know, scouring around more of the public squares on the island, perhaps with Sofia in tow.

The internet and the books I have at home have precious little information about these four distinguished Sifnians of old whose statues she told me about. Apostolos Makrakis, Sotiris Triantafyllos, Marina Vernikou and Aristomenis Provelegios, I believe are their names. I’ve learned only one fact, an intriguing one, that one of these men, who was educated at the University of Athens and did graduate work in Munich and Leipzig, once turned down the offer of a professorship so that he could dedicate himself to writing poetry and prose. How Sifnian of him.

So, I have a favour to ask. Among my readers, I know, there are many who are infinitely more knowledgeable about Sifnos than I. I’d be grateful to hear what information you have about the people in these statues – or for that matter about anything I write. Even, make that especially, when I get something wrong. You may comment here on this blog post, or you can reach me by Facebook Messenger or in an email.

And so onward. There is still so much I must discover.



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The Statues of Sifnos

P1090321I set off on a quest when I was in Sifnos last September to find every statue I could of the distinguished citizens of its past, those bronze or marble busts in squares all over the island. My favourite of the six that I found was a bespectacled school teacher with a book in his hand, perhaps because I was once one of those myself. And then back at home, my curiosity piqued, I set to reading about these men.

They were a learned lot, I soon found, hardly surprising for an island where education has so long been revered, and their influence went far beyond these shores. There was among them more than one poet. A chief physician, Member of Parliament and benefactor of the island – all the same man. A philosopher-theologist. A minister of education and senator. One, a “great teacher of the nation,” as he is described, who awakened the population, made them dream of liberty, and believe that it was near. Another, one of the most renowned satiric poets of his day, who wrote blistering articles in his Athens newspaper that deplored the evils and corruption of his era, stories that he said were “so bold … that they served as an entry ticket to the country’s prisons.” I’ll lift a glass of ouzo to his fiery spirit the next time I go back. How refreshing, I thought, to find a place where it’s not those who wield power and military might that they choose to celebrate, but masters of the spoken and written word.

Sifnos is an island that in the middle of the 1600s established the first school in Greece to offer free higher education, one that over the next centuries attracted students and renowned teachers from all over the nation. One that’s just built a magnificent new one to educate all of its young. One that has and continues to count an inordinate-seeming number of poets and scholars among its population. An island that has a long tradition of kalanta, carols sung in the local dialect on specific occasions, in which singers make up new words according to events local and beyond. Where book readings, art exhibitions and music and other performances take place all the time. One that in 2007, the Swiss Tourism Organization in Lugano named The Island of Poets and Civilization. 

And it’s an island whose people have so graciously welcomed a book by an outsider like me about the times I’ve spent in their midst, who were so flattered that someone would choose to write stories about them, and who have showered me with myriad kindnesses because I did.

There is plenty of room on this island, of course, for more statues of those of their citizens who so distinguished themselves by making their world a better place. I’m expecting in due course that there’ll be one to honour Nikolaos Tselementes, the author of a cookbook that so influenced Greek kitchens that the word tselementes in this country has come to mean simply “cookbook,” a man who fed Sifnian children to keep them alive through the privations of the Second World War, one whose legacy is celebrated already in his birthplace with an annual festival of Cycladic cooking that grows seemingly larger every year. Perhaps someday, too, one of Antonis Troullos, an elegant man I once had the privilege to meet, a former teacher himself and a scholar who was honoured by the Academy of Athens for his many writings chronicling the history and folklore of his beloved home. And surely statues of women as well. Of that, I’m pretty much certain. Those that I’ve met in my time on this island are a magnificent lot.