WHY SIFNOS? There are over 300 islands in the Greek archipelago – all so varied and unique. So what do you do when you are going for the first time and trying to decide a travel plan? Do what I did – take advice from someone you trust. In our case, it was my parents.
They had travelled a lot through Greece in the 80’s and 90’s – mainly to the islands for holidays, and we shared lots of common interests – swimming, eating, history, relaxing, walking – and adventure. So, when my father gave me a map of GREECE with a star rating for all the islands they had been to and Sifnos was the only one that had three stars – his top score, we took their advice and headed there too. We were not disappointed – that was in 2006 and we have been back five times since.
As well as travelling around the mainland, we have now been to over thirty islands and have loved many of them – but Sifnos is my happy place – so let’s start there.
WHERE? Sifnos is a picturesque island , with a lacelike coastline, that is part of the CYCLADES is the western Aegean Sea and about 3.5 hours by ferry from the Athenian port of PIRAEUS – which makes it one the easier islands to get to by sea – and I have fallen in love with the relaxed, colourful and gentle way of travelling by Greek ferry. Jetcat is faster, but ferry is better! SIFNOS does not have an airport.
If you have the image of a typically Greek Island , you are probably thinking of somewhere in the CYCLADES – somewhere like SIFNOS – with their blue domed white churches (Sifnos has 365 of them), herb scented hillsides, twisted olive trees, quaint villages and azure sea. Oh!, and I forgot about the food – Sifnos is famous for producing more international chefs than anywhere else in Greece and the food on the island is very good – but more of that later otherwise we will never get any walking done.
We have been to some of the other islands in the CYCLADES – close to Sifnos – and I would recommend FOLEGANDROS, MILOS, IOS, and SIROS but we still have lots more on our list to explore. We tend to avoid the more touristy islands, after trying them once – like Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes, Crete, and here I am going to give you my top tip if you want to explore the real Greece and get away from it all, remembering that Greece is a top destination for package holidaying Europeans who just want to find a beach, some sunshine and bake themselves to a crisp, preferably whilst getting drunk!
TOP TIP: Avoid islands that have an airport and/or a deep-water port (cruise ships!!) – The Ionian island of CORFU excepted (you can read about our adventures of walking the CORFU TRAIL by clicking here)
WHAT: About 74 square kilometres , SIFNOS is relatively small in size – with a great network of marked walking trails where the only things you are likely to meet are other walkers, the donkey man and herds of goats with tinkling bells – the sight and sound of which all instantly make me relax. These ancient and cobbled pathways are bordered by stone walls, swaying grasses, distant views of other islands across a sparkling blue sea, hilltop monasteries, white windmills and numerous potteries that SIFNOS is famous for. These pathways lead you to places of immense beauty and, “it doesn’t matter how many photos you take, you can never capture just how beautiful it is” – that’s a direct quote from me travelling mate.
WALK 1: APOLLONIA to ARTEMONIS 1.5km What you will need on these walks: hat, shirt, water, map, cossie.
This is a lovely walk that with help you to get orientated with the island for you will be strolling between the two main inland villages APOLLINIA and ARTEMONIS – think Apollo and Artemis – the twin children of the king of the gods in Greek Mythology, Zeus – and the pieces of the puzzle and gaps in your knowledge begin to fall into place – one of the many joys of travel! Depending on how many stops you make on the way, it should only take just over an hour one way – quicker coming back because it’s mostly downhill.
When we first rocked up to Sifnos we hadn’t booked anywhere to stay, but just had a list of places we thought might suit and hopped in a taxi at the port.. The first hotel George took us to (all males seem to be called GEORGE on SIFNOS!) was HOTEL PETALI – halfway between APOLLONIA and ARTEMONIS. As we walked in to this hotel, that is centered around a group of of old village houses and draped in scarlet bougainvillea, a guest popped her head over a white balcony and said “Welcome to paradise”. We discovered that she was right and stayed for ten days!
START THE WALK IN THE MAIN SQUARE OF APOLLONIA. You can’t miss it because this is the focal point of the island. APOLLONIA is the largest village on SIFNOS and where you arrive when you drive up from the port of KAMARES – it’s also where the local buses turn around, which is a very good way to get around the island. The village square houses the Folklore Museum, Bank, Pharmacy, Bookstore and the fountain of all knowledge , as far as travel agents go – AEGEAN THESAURUS – if you want to do any forward booking or find out information about Greece – speak to George (not the taxi driver or the potter)!
Start your walk by taking the stair-path in the top corner, to the right of ‘Cafe Lakis’ – one of the oldest kafenion on the island. You’ll know if it’s the right place because it will have all the locals sitting outside flicking their worry beads, sipping coffee and doing what the Greeks do best – just hanging out. Can I tell you now – the best thing about Greece is the Greeks!
START CLIMBING THE PAVED STAIRS. You will be walking past traditional village houses – a few of which have now turned into boutiques and touristy shops – with doorways and terraces opening out onto the pathway – all village life is here – smells, sounds, sights. When we first came to Sifnos we met Adele and Nick – and elderly American couple of Greek extraction who were doing their last hurrah – a visit back to their parents’ homeland. Although born in America, Nick spoke fluent Greek and they were both Greek Orthodox – regular church goers. They were in heaven on Sifnos – his parent’s homeland (with 365 churches!). Adele was the one who had greeted us to Hotel Petali with her “Welcome to Paradise”.
We walked this path with them and had an experience that we would not have otherwise had if we had not had a Greek speaker with us. With a ‘Yasas’ (hello), ‘Tikanes’ (how are you going) and the occasional ‘Kalimera’ (good morning) we were very quickly invited into a Sifnotiot home for coffee and cake. These tiny houses only had windows facing out onto the pathway and are dugout into the hillside – like a cave. Our host was an elderly gentleman with an insatiable curiousity about us – who our mother/father was, how many children we had, if we knew his cousin Yanis/Spiro/Costa who went to America/Australia etc etc. We could only catch snatches of it all, but we got the drift and had to drag ourselves away to continue our walk fortified by a thimble-full of very strong coffee and homemade almond biscuits (kourabiedes).
There are many churches and chapels along the way – this is one of the most imposing – Agios Yannis or church of Saint John at Ano Petali. It has a large paved courtyard with beautiful views of Sifnos and Antiparos. Sifnos is famous for its church architecture, which includes the domed aisleless churches and the flat-roofed one -or- two aisled basilica with their beautiful bell-towers – you will be taking lots of photos!
Keep walking up the paved steps, and then down and across the road and little stream (that becomes a torrent in the winter time) and climb up the pathway towards ARTEMONIS – the second largest village after APOLLONIA. It is literally the top-end of town with its picturesque white houses – and brightly painted shutters and doors – and some lovely old neo-classical mansions and, what were once, beautiful old gardens – now sadly neglected (hopefully, the families that own them will stop squabbling soon over inheritance rights and bring them back to their former glory?)
A LITTLE STORY Many of the problems faced with getting Greece back into gear lie in its inheritance conundrums. Somebody dies and the estate is left to children/cousins/nieces/nephews/grandchildren many of whom have dropped off the radar when they moved abroad. Getting in touch with them can prove difficult, if nigh on impossible – so places are left to crumble and legal battles are hard to resolve – which you can see all over Greece – and they can’t move forward. I have been asked, several times, if I could try and track down relatives whose last known address was somewhere in Australia!
ARTEMEMONIS is the heartland of the traditional families of Sifnos that stretch back for centuries. Many of them run the beachside tourist hotels and tavernas and have their family homes in ARTEMONIS, that they happily retreat to when the season is over – the grandparents looking after the houses in the summer months (and the grandchildren!).
You will soon reach the village square of ARTEMONIS – to the right of the path – where you can stop for a breather in the ouzeria “Margerita” on the corner or, if you are hungry, have lunch at one of the two excellent tavernas in the square. Taverna “Liotribi” was one of the most famous on Sifnos and in the same family for over three generations which was our place of choice to eat when we were starting out on our journey through wonderful Greek cuisine back in 2006. (We did not realise that there were dozens of restaurants in APOLLONIA, so carefully were they hidden around a narrow back lane off the main square – which we only discovered on our second trip to Sifnos – more later!)
The historic eighteenth century church of Agios Constantinos sits at the end of the square or ARTEMONIS and, if you are lucky enough, you can catch your very own ‘Big Fat Greek Wedding‘ which we did once when we were sitting at Liotrobi – where the father of the bride actually turned up with a bottle of Windex on the ledge in the back window of the bridal car and beautiful bride appeared in big white gown and even bigger hair! As we sat enjoying our whitebait, Greek salad, good bread and carafe of wine we felt like we were on the set of the movie.
Go back the way you came out of the square and head right back onto the path through traditional village life. I once saw an elderly man, three days in a row, walking towards us with a bunch of garden flowers in his hand – where was he going, who were they for? Every bit of soil, that gets water, grows something on Sifnos because, if they don’t, it has to be imported.
You will go past a cake and pastry shop that has been running for over 100 years and eventually make it to the top of the hill where there is a renowned potter who makes stoneware that is exported all over the world – beautiful casserole and baking dishes. Right at the top is an old windmill – once used to grind cereal crops. Enjoy the views and then slowly make your way back down to APOLLONIA.
WALK 2: KATO PETALI to KASTRO and POULATI 8kms. 4-5 hours
This lovely walk leads through a varied agricultural landscape on the eastern side of the island, heading first along the quiet CYCLADIC TRAIL* to KASTRO, the former capital of the island, and then back through superb walled terraces and herb-scented hillsides. *There is a good walking map available at the bookshop in APOLLONIA and the Trail is marked with red arrows.
The path takes you to the secluded cove of POULATI, with a beautiful monastery, BUT FIRST to KASTRO. –
START THE WALK at KATO PETALI a little way up the paved stone steps that lead from APOLLONIA (as described in the first walk). Take the right path just past the large church of Agia Yannis down some steps and through a small car park and along a concrete path through some houses and out into the countryside, past a small white chapel and terraced fields with gnarled olive trees. You will soon pass an old dovecote that has been converted into a house.
DOVECOTES are a characteristic feature of the landscape of the CYCLADES with many scattered all over the fields of SIFNOS – being a fantastic example of a building design that combines functional and aesthetic needs – for me a living example of back to a sustainable future!
THEY were first introduced to the islands by the VENETIANS in the 15th century to raise and shelter doves and pigeons – for food (meat and eggs) and the fertilizer they produced – how clever is that? When the VENETIANS left the island (defeated by the OTTOMANS in 1617) the locals took over the practice of raising pigeons and the number of dovecotes increased. These days they are mostly converted into charming, if quirky, houses.
ON WITH OUR WALK You will soon come to two forks a short distance from each other: bear left at the first and right at the second! The xirolithies– dry stone walls – are now more than a metre high on both sides of the path. These were built for two main purposes; to retain the soil, when they are constructed along contours and hillside terraces; and as protection around buildings from the marauding pirates that roamed these islands for centuries. Now they just have to worry about rampaging tourists and marauding wedding parties from Athens!
THE PATH NOW COMES OUT ONTO THE ROAD which you will have to take for the last part of the journey into KASTRO – about 200 metres. Wandering around KASTRO happily keeps me occupied for a few hours. This STUNNING ancient fortress village of Sifnos overlooking the sea, with the story of its history incorporated into the construction of its buildings – from Classical Greek columns, holding up a balcony, to medieval Venetian coats of arms embedded in the walls – KASTRO just transports the visitor to another time and place – it’s quite magical. There are many fine tavernas with balconies taking in the spectacular views; a new Archeological Museum and vast ruins of an ancient acropolis.
TAKE YOUR TIME to explore the heritage listed village of KASTRO and let yourself be carried along through time and the labyrinth of alleyways.
These intriguing medieval houses (archontiko) are built to create a fortress on the exterior, curving around the centre with their only openings into the middle, which provided protection from invasion – and SIFNOS, through its long history, has certainly experienced its fair share of unwelcome guests: Cretans, Ionians (who originally built Kastro in 1130 BC), Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Spanish, Venetians, Turkish, Russians and last , but not least, the Germans in the last World War.
A MUST IS a walk out to the Church of the Seven Martyrs – probably one of the most photographed spots on SIFNOS but not to be done in the heat of the day.
ON TO POULATI Head back down the hill out of KASTRO to an old windmill next to a very good taverna. Here you will see a path to your right which is marked with the CYCLADIC TRAIL red arrows and takes you on a seaside path to PANAGIA POULATI – an impressive tiny monastery nestled above the most picturesque cove imaginable. These hillsides are a profusion of wildflowers, herbs, grasses, lizards, butterflies and the odd tortoise hiding in the shade of a stone wall. Every step of the way brings up the scent of wild thyme and oregano with fennel and wild garlic waving in the breeze.
PANAGIA POULATI cove is the perfect spot for a swim, diving off the rocks into the crystal clear water or for a snorkel. We used to have the place to ourselves but it now gets pretty busy – no more skinny dipping so you better pack your bathers!
WHEN YOU HAVE RESTED in the shade for a while at POULATI you can head back up the hill to PETALI on a path that leads directly up from the church. This lovely old stair-path has recently been cut through, in several places, by a new road to cater for the increased traffic – quad-bikes (or burger-buggies as me mate calls them – somewhat aptly) and motor scooters and villas that are sprouting up along the coast. It’s not that hard to find your way and you can use the windmills of ARTEMONIS as a bearing. This cobbled path zig-zags up the hill with a straight stretch at the end that leads you to the car-park of ARTEMONIS. You can get back to where you started by heading down the paved stairway that takes you to PETALI and eventually APOLLONIA.
WALK 3: FAROS to CHRYSSOPIGI 1KM – 30 MINUTE STROLL
A WALK ALONG A COASTAL PATH that starts in the small fishing village of FAROS and skirts around the cliffs to the tamarisk tree lined bay of APOKOFTO to our destination – the monastery of CHRYSSOPIGI – one of the most beautiful spots on the whole island (world?).
FAROS is a good spot for swimming and relaxing too – we have stayed here a couple of times in studio apartments above the little beach. We discovered it because the local bus stops here – which means you can come on the morning bus, walk around to CHRYSSOPIGI; take some lunch at the great fish taverna on the beach just before the monastery; have a swim off the steps of the monastery, and then return in time to catch the afternoon bus. All in all, a perfect day.
WALK ACROSS THE BEACH and onto a path between some houses and a taverna – in the photo above. Walk past a couple of villas in a field on your right and up onto the paved pedestrian path. This is a fantastic walkway – that was just being finished when we first went there in 2006. They had foresight enough to put in lighting too so you can walk around in the evening, catching the beautiful sunsets.
GO AROUND THE HEADLAND and down onto APOKOFTO beach that has two very good tavernas – though we always hang out at the last one. It’s the kind of place where, when you ask what is on the menu and what wine they have, they invite you into the kitchen to have a sample.
MAYBE YOU SHOULD WALK AROUND TO CHRYSSOPIGI FIRST otherwise you might not make it. It is telling that when you do an internet search of SIFNOS, many of the sites that come up are in Greek – for this is traditionally an island where Greeks come for their holidays and to get married at one of the most romantic spots in the world – CHRYSSOPIGI – arriving in their hordes on the last Friday ferry from ATHENS and leaving on the first ferry on Monday morning.
THERE ARE MANY LEGENDS AND TRADITIONS associated with CHRYSSOPIGI – a small monastery with a beautiful little church attached (built in 1650) – the church of the fishermen, with the font out on the rocks for their babies to be christened. The church contains the most precious relic on the island – an icon of the Virgin Mary (said to perform miracles) that was saved from the sea by a passing fisherman and a most beautiful golden Venetian metal ship that hangs from the ceiling in front of the altar which comes to life when it is lit with candles on special occasions. The church actually sits on a little island and another legend, from when the monastery was occupied by nuns, is that they were being attacked by pirates and many of the nuns were slaughtered. One nun retreated to the church and suddenly a miracle occurred which saved her – the land on which the church sits suddenly split in two and broke away from the mainland, stranding the pirates and saving the nun.
FANCY A SWIM? Did I say that swimming from the steps of CHRYSSOPIGI across the bay is also a miracle? If you look closely enough at the top photo, at the start of this walk, you will spot a swimmer with a red bathing cap in the foreground – guess who? The last time we were there we had a divine twilight swim when the sea took on a breathless stillness and a perfect pearly glow. Just when we were out in the middle of the bay, and thinking we would not rather be anywhere else in the world, we spotted a fishing boat heading back to Faros with the chap at the helm singing at the top of his voice – I know how he felt.
WALK 4: APOLLONIA to the MYCENAEAN CITADEL at Agios Andreas, the highest point of the island PROFITAS ELIAS and down to the coast to VATHY. 4-5 hours. 9km. (check the bus timetable back from Vathy before you start – or you can always get George and his taxi to pick you up).
THIS WALK TAKES YOU TO THE HIGHEST POINT ON THE ISLAND – to the feet of the prophet with spectacular views over the whole island and out to sea. We usually do this walk in springtime because it gets pretty hot in summer – if you go in early in the year it also means you will catch the lovely display of wildflowers that cover these hillsides – poppies, wild fennel, flowering thyme, meadow orchids, with cyclamen, crocus and anemones in late winter.
STARTING IN APOLLONIA you will walk along the ‘STENO‘, the narrow main street of of the village which hides its entrance between a small supermarket and barber. It is considered to be the cosmopolitan spot of SIFNOS, full of shops, cafes and tavernas – most of them with spectacular rooftop terraces. This is the bustling and colourful heart of the island that we only discovered on our third trip because it is so well hidden!
TAKE IN THE INTERESTING ARCHITECTURE and CHURCHES along the way and the trail will eventually lead you to KATAVATI where you will pass the church Agios Angeloktisti “built by angels”. At the end of the village the trail crosses the main road and a sign marks the way onward.
GO THROUGH THE HIDDEN VALLEY OF SKAFI with its ruined monastery. There are a few signs and a junction along the way marking other trails – keep going and keep climbing until you exit the valley with a small cave on your right. A few more metres to walk, and suddenly a glorious view of the sea, towards the islands of MILOS, KIMOLOS and POLYAIGOS. CONTINUE ON THE TRAIL until you reach the beautiful church of PANAGIA TOU NILIOU and with its amazing views is called the “Aegean Balcony”.
HERE YOU HAVE A CHOICE – carry on the path or take a side path up to the highest point of the island PROFITAS ELIAS – it’s a zig-zagging climb, but it’s worth it for the views and the path is a little rocky but well marked by stone cairns for the pilgrims that walk up here on important religious festivals. It’s a two hour round trip.
IF YOU DON’T TAKE THE SIDE PATH TO PROFITAS ELIAS – KEEP GOING THROUGH some ruined huts and a few small houses until you reach the sign to AGIOS ANDREAS and the MYCENAEAN CITADEL and museum. Built in 12th century B.C, the ruins of this vast ancient village have only just been restored – with the help of EU money which was also used to build an interesting museum that houses the most treasured relics from the site – pottery, weapons, jewellry. It’s hard to wrap your head around just how old these ruins are and the rich cultural life that once lived and breathed here. It’s well worth a visit. Check for opening times – it’s closed on Thursdays and holidays. I can tell you now – on SIFNOS you never know what you are going to find.
WALK BACK DOWN ONTO THE TRAIL – you are now on the home stretch to VATHY before the bus ride back to APOLLONIA. On the way you are likely to meet some locals tending their fields – as they have been doing for centuries – growing the staple crops of chickpeas and fava beans. These are eaten every which way on SIFNOS, from dips, fritters and the famous chickpea casserole “revithia” . This is cooked overnight in a large local claypot “skepastaria” in a wood-fired oven and traditionally eaten on Sundays after church. It is really very simple with the only added ingredients of rainwater and olive oil which is served with a wedge of lemon.
Closer to the road you are likely to find an old Sifniot, scurrying up the hillside, collecting wild herbs to dry or fresh wild greens “horta” (it’s where the word horticulture comes from – more pieces of the puzzle!) that are a prized side dish to grilled fish. These “mountain weeds” – wild spinach, fennel leaves, chicory, nettle, purslane, dandelions, amaranth, samphire – and many many more – are an important part of the Mediterranean diet and are often not listed on the menu in restaurants – they are considered a very local dish and not one to tourist tastes. Cooked until wilted in boiling water they are then tossed in olive oil and lemon juice with a little salt and pepper. Do yourself a healthy favour, and try some – THEY ARE DELICIOUS!
YOU EXIT THE TRAIL BETWEEN TWO CRAGS and hit the last descent to VATHY with fantastic views of this pretty sandy cove. Walk down the laneway to the beach and you will be back where we started with the first painting at the top of this post – the one of octopus drying by the water. The two tavernas here are famous for their seafood and will be crowded with locals at the weekend.
PULL UP A CHAIR IN THE SHADE OF THE TAMARISK TREES and take in this very pretty picture with the white-domed monastery Taxiarch jutting out into the water. I think it’s time for a well-earned swim and some lunch. This is the end of the line for the bus which turns around up a lane at the back of the beach. It returns back to APOLLONIA.