Some claim that the days of finding authentic Greek island experiences without the crowds and cruise boats are over. Certainly the fabled Aegean islands of Santorini and Mykonos would be Exhibits A and B in support of that argument. However, the Cyclades still have some relatively undiscovered gems. Just a 30 minute ferry from Serifos or 2 ½ hour fast boat ride from Piraeus, Sifnos is definitely one boasting chic hotels, postcard-worthy villages and a sizzling food scene.
No Itinerary Required….
Which path do we take? Should we clamber up the hillside’s sandy path or follow the terraced donkey track that threads around the cliff face and hike down to the sea? Directions from our hotel perched between the twin villages of Artemonas and Apollonia are sketchy at best and open to interpretation. The unknown adventure of a bridle track tracing the glorious sweep of Aegean sea gets the vote. Our destination is Kastro, the island’s original capital inhabited since pre-historic times. Perched on a bluff 5kms distant, gleaming flat-roofed houses tumble tantalisingly, a hillside flaked with snowy down.
Along the way, agricultural terraces framed by low dry stone walls are filled with flowers and hay, olive trees, vegetable gardens, goats, donkeys and the occasional vineyard. We step up and over nature’s ridge lines the way locals have traveled this island for centuries following narrow rock and granite passageways. We pass meticulously whitewashed homes and churches whose indigo domes nestle within a canvas of cerulean sky and azure Aegean as we take steps – short and long, steep and narrow – towards Kastro.
While Sifnos is a true odyssey into inertia, it’s also an island of churches – more than 366 dot its landscape. Almost floating in the Aegean Sea, the Church of the Seven Martyrs appears to be attached to Kastro by an umbilical cord and makes spectacular photos. Kastro’s modest archaeological museum has artifacts dating back 2,500 years however, walking the town’s silent, narrow streets, history is embedded in its bones. Houses rest on ancient stonework, sarcophagi is incorporated in a recent wall and heritage artifacts are re-fashioned into new lintels.
A settlement of small streets, openings and angles transport us on a journey through archways, up white stairs and into narrow passageways where ancient walls, loggias, churches and an organic flow of houses seem to spring from the ancient rock itself. Worn marble carvings integrate into new walls, a Roman-era animal trough sits in front of a small house. The entire settlement is a heady natural masterpiece with trailing hibiscus, succulent jasmine, wild thyme and sage scenting the air.
Another delight in exploring Kastro is discovering Dolci, a café/restaurant/cocktail bar overlooking the terraced hillsides. Its décor is straight from the Kastro playbook with dry stonework, white concrete, granite paving and Aegean blue soft seating. Coupled with slick service and fine food, it’s a great spot to lounge and watch the Cycladic sky transit from afternoon indigo to twilight eggshell before being nudged into a gentle sunset washed in delicate pink-y mauve.
Thanks to rich clay deposits, Sifnos is an island of potters whose distinctive cooking pots are used to cook revithada,a traditional chickpea stew served on Sundays. Sifnos’ potters also produce clay flaro, ceramic vessels with openings used to cap chimneys. Most homes have at least one, often decorated with traditional motifs, and many villages have ceramic workshops where potters are happy to throw the local clay for visitors. However, if you hear the word flaro used in another context, it also describes someone whose wife is cheating on him!
A tangle of alleyways characterises Apollonia and Artemonas the island’s two main towns. Apollonia buzzes at night, its restaurants drawing young Athenians and tourists into its charming alleyways where boutiques, jewelers and restaurants vie for currency. In Artemonas, things are quieter as locals and visitors wander through at twilight stopping for a glass of ouzo before dinner. However, both towns boast an impressive range of cafes serving morning pastries and coffee before taking to the cobbled streets.
Sifnos has a couple of rocky coves particularly Chrisopigi where you can launch yourself into the crystal water off smooth slabs of rock around the monastery. Kamares near the entry port is popular with the ubiquitous beach chairs regimentally lined up but the water is extremely shallow. Platis Gialos is quieter, a ribbon of golden sand that’s easily accessible from both rented room or roadway. It’s lively so don’t go if you want quiet or your aim is a romantic sunset but Nero & Alati on the waterfront is the placeto try revithada and other Sifnian dishes so go for dinner at least. Vathi is a large closed bay and natural harbour where seacraft moor off-shore. It can be both busy and cosmopolitan with tavernas and cafes on the water.
Waiting for our sleek blue and white Superjet ferry at Kamares port, a shimmering veil of early morning light brushes across the bay and our delicious ‘happy breakfast’ at Stavros – freshly squeezed juice, espresso, fruit and pastries – is complemented by locals taking their first dip of the day. It’s exhilarating being in a place that feels organically formed, a place of simplicity and light. You don’t need an itinerary on Sifnos, just delight in getting lost while making new discoveries.
Sifnos is a large-ish island so hire a car or bike to explore.
Choose your time carefully. June/early July are excellent falling before the European summer school holidays. Similarly September is a transitional time with cooler nights the days filled with intense energy and streets baked from summer’s heat.
Before arrival, book a transfer taxi to your accommodation online. There’s only a handful of taxis on the island and they’re always pre-booked when the ferry docks at Kamares.
Tags: Aegean islands, Apollonia.Kastro, cyclades, greek delights, Greek holidays, Greek islands, Kamares, Mykonos, romantic getaways, romantic greek escapes, Santorini.Artemonas, Sifnos, tavernas, tour greece