Over the years, when I lived in Syros (the administrative capital of the Cyclades group of islands – Kyklades in Greek), I had heard how charming and unique the island of Sifnos was.
Not far away is Sifnos in the region that forms the western arc of the Cyclades and can be seen from the southern tip of Syros, about 24 nautical miles away. It was said to have a wonderful dreamlike quality.
So I boarded the charming Artemis, one of the smallest boats in the Hellenic Seaways fleet, for the four-hour trip to Sifnos.
The lovely port of Kamares on the west coast of the island does not disappoint. As you enter the deep bay, you are greeted by rocky hills that create a stunning amphitheater effect. At the top of the hills there are several small isolated white dots that are Greek Orthodox monasteries. Typical of the Cyclades, it has a dry rocky terrain that meets a beautiful white sandy beach and the royal blue Aegean Sea.
It is a tourist favorite, but I headed to Apollonia, the capital and core of a cluster of villages within a two kilometer radius (Artemonas, Kato Petali, Katavati, Exampelas, Ano Petali). The 20-minute bus ride up the steep and winding road to Apollonia showed what the island’s topography had to offer.
All the way to the center, the rugged rocky landscape is interspersed with green outcrops of the ubiquitous Skinos low plant, with blue and white cubical Cycladic houses scattered here and there.
The next day I started a three kilometer and one hour hike to the island’s biggest tourist attraction, the Kastro (castle) on the east side of the island. It offers stunning panoramic views of the Aegean Sea, with Paros and Ante Paros silhouetted in the hazy distance.
Kastro is a fortified medieval village on a rock that was once the capital of the island. It’s a magical place, a maze of winding alleys and whitewashed houses hanging off the eastern edge of the island. It remains the most important medieval settlement in the Cyclades and in all of Greece.
It is best to arrive at the village via the edge path that runs along the coast and enjoy breathtaking views of the majestic royal blue Aegean Sea before seeing the church below.
The iconic Church of the Seven Martyrs is located below Kastro on a promontory that protrudes about 50 meters into the sea. Although it is small, it is the most symbolic church of the island and one of the most photographed places in the Cyclades.
In Kastro, you can enjoy coffee or something stronger in the elegant Dolci Cafe restaurant on the west side of the village, with panoramic views of the inland valleys; I recommend that you dedicate a whole day to explore this fantastic locality with lunch in one of the few lovely tavernas.
It is worth taking a bus from Apollonia (regular hourly service in summer) to the charming seaside town of Faros, which is about four miles away in the south-east corner of the island.
A small mooring in a small harbor brings the village to life and there are two very pleasant beaches (with several tavernas and cafes) connected by a footpath over a small promontory of houses. Both have tamarisk trees that provide shade for swimmers in the horseshoe-shaped bay.
A sign pointed the way to Chrisopigi, another famous church on a strip of land that extends 100 meters to the sea. The hour-long walk along the man-made path that winds along the edge of the sea for about two kilometers to Chrisopigi is one of the most beautiful you can expect on these lofty islands. At about 8 pm, as the sun set in the west, this was a surreal experience.
The Monastery of Panagia Chrisopigi – the patron saint of the island, Saint Chrisopgi, is another famous attraction of Sifnos. The monastery is built on top of an older church and is located on top of a rock, literally by the sea. Worth of visit.
A hiker’s paradise
Sifnos has become a hiker’s paradise with 19 designated trails criss-crossing the island. Free detailed maps are available from information offices and advertise 100 kilometers of trails ranging from one kilometer (a 20-minute walk) to 15 kilometers (seven hours), very well signposted.
I chose Trial Five, which starts in the nearby village of Katavati. It heads south-west and ends on the other side of the island at Vath Bay, about nine kilometers away.
I left at 11am on a day expected to be hot, unprepared for the magnitude of the hike, especially in the heat of the day.
A friendly young Belgian couple descending the mountain guided me to the correct starting point. Incredibly I attempted the hike alone, they warned me of the need for both water and a hat, both of which I had. They had taken a separate path up the mountain to the monastery of Profit Ilias, which seemed to hang in the sky like a cloud on a distant mountain peak. “Good luck,” they offered.
The terrain gets rough as you leave town and the trail follows the edge of a long valley. While the trails are occasionally dotted with inviting red-and-white signs, it’s easy to get distracted by the scenery and wander off on the wrong trail.
After walking for an hour, I managed to get lost and stumbled upon an immaculate chapel known as Agios Efstathios (Agios means holy), in a place so remote I couldn’t figure out who would use, let alone preserve, the divine spaces. Spotless. Mode, I would see much more. The Greeks seem to be very religious people.
Through the valley along the path, the real Vuorimies came on his donkey, the others on his toe. This was the only carrying equipment available on such a rocky trail. The steep course began to take its toll and my water supply dwindled as fast as I did. I kept looking for reassuring signs, because now there was little margin of error for getting lost again.
These middle two hours of the six hour hike were the hardest, on a very rough and rocky trail. I finally reached the top of the mountain and saw the sea to the west for the first time.
An even greater relief was the cool breeze. Although I was only halfway there I was psychically recovered knowing that the rest of the walk would be downhill to the sea. In the distance I could see the fragile contours of the islands of Kimolos and Milos in the southwest.
I lost sight of the sea as the path turned inland along another valley. In this section I came across an amazing artificial olive grove with about 20 trees. Such an unusual place was completely isolated: a small, well-maintained white house with no one in it.
Perhaps the mountain man lived here with his two donkeys. It was such a peaceful environment that I rested for 15 minutes enjoying the tranquility of the landscape and every last drop of water left.
An hour later I caught my first glimpse of Vathi Bay, about two kilometers away in the distance, an inviting and beautiful sight.
So it was about 5pm when I walked off the trail to the beautiful beach on the north side of the bay (a beautiful almost landlocked bay with a narrow cove). There were many yachts docked and people enjoying the beach. I’ve never had such a good swim and an ice-cold Alpha beer in a seaside tavern never tasted so good.
Finally at 6pm I left the rest of Vath by bus to return to Apollonia.
Sifnos is medium in size by Greek standards, only 15 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide. The highest point is 680 meters (here is the monastery of Profit Ilias) and about 2,650 people live there.
It is known for its traditional pottery, the many small village workshops and the hiking trails. It has become the most popular destination in the Western Cyclades. In the summer, visitors flock to the island, drawn by the terraced landscape of charming villages, ancient towers, Venetian pigeons and long sandy beaches.