Like most of the Cyclades - what hits you first is the light, bouncing off burnished rocks. Pockets of sage and oregano cling to wind-chiselled valleys, and a craggy interior is threaded with terraced walls and stone paths laid by farmers and shepherds. For centuries, the entire island was planted with chickpeas and other crops, fields nowadays waymarked by more than 100 kilometres of walking trails. Hiking enthusiasts from all over the world find their way to Sifnos for its wild crumbling dovecotes, monasteries in the clouds and glistening coves. An island that baths deep in, there are 366 churches on Sifnos, more than one for each day of the year.
We’ve dropped anchor in the bustling port of Kamares – where the islands pulse can be felt by the arrival and departure of the next ferry due. Our last stop was the tiny fishing hamlet of Cheronissos seemingly in exile on the island's barren northern tip. While we enjoyed our second swim of the day, a few early birds reward themselves with grilled seafood no doubt snapped up straight off a boat just hours earlier. Kamares is unhurried, a handful of all-day cafes line a gently shoaling beach in a deeply cut cove surrounded by dramatic near vertical cliffs on each side. Ordering your second frappe is hardly an argument while we watch holiday makers wading through thigh deep water that wouldn’t be out of place in a South Pacific postcard.
It’s achingly difficult to peel ourselves of the loungers provided at Popi’s on the beach, but there’s exploring to be done. We pile onto a local coach for a 40-minute traverse of the island’s main spine, swapping the east coast for the west. The village of Kastro – occupies an isolated coastal knoll inhabited since prehistoric times and formerly the island’s capital. A 2500-year-old ancient citadel crowns the village, with narrow alleys and white houses forming a defensive circle beneath creating a classic medieval-castle city. A lazy stroll of the whole promontory takes us a little more than an hour. A popular side excursion is the short walk across a natural causeway leading to the Church of the Seven Martyrs, standing alone on a protruding rock, gazing into the impossibly blue sea beyond. A solid 60 minutes of activity deserves a reward, and there is no better place to watch the lengthening shadows than over an exquisite New York inspired cocktail at ‘Dolci’ on Kastro’s western flank. Through our sunset view over historic terraced stone farm houses, we slowly pick out dovecotes, family chapels and donkey trails interlacing the valley walls into the distance.
Winding your way up the main street in Apollonia at dusk is a treat, giggling children race through the tangle of alleys while the owners of small boutiques gossip on steps lined with geraniums. This unique ‘strip’ is lined with tiny artisan stores bursting with colour as local designers showcase their own jewellery, fine ceramics and boutiques. The sunset hues make way for a sliver of moon, and the domes of far-off churches begin to glow like beacons in the darkness. Dinner in the broad courtyard at Cayenned has obviously been blessed by the church wall half our group uses as a backrest. Stuffed with locally inspired fusion food and more than agreeable house wine, we negotiate the now bursting strip one last time before taking the last bus to Kamares and our watery home.
Sifniots take food very seriously. The local baker serves nougat wafers, bergamot sugar paste and amygdalota (addictive almond cookies shaped like Roman noses) still cooked in copper pots over a wood fire. Chickpeas are a staple, especially for Sunday lunch, which is traditionally cooked overnight. A local favourite is skepastaria - pot-bellied casseroles full of soft chickpeas, onions and olive oil making a smooth creamy broth. Beachside at the southern cove of Vathi, on a terrace shaded by tamarisk trees, they’re serving mastello - lamb soaked in red wine then slow-roasted on a bed of vine branches - and revithokeftedes - chickpea fritters spiked with marjoram and mint. All the ingredients come from the owner's kitchen-garden, local fishermen and neighbouring farms.
Traditional Sifniot cooking is baked in the same terracotta casserole dishes that have been produced on the island for centuries. Dozens of potteries once lined the coastline; the ceramics were stacked onto fishing boats and exported all over the Mediterranean. The clay is dug from Sifnos’ own hills, the wheels are mostly powered by foot and the kilns still fuelled with wood.
Even after just a short sojourn on Sifnos, it’s hard to sail off thinking we’ve left unfinished business behind. I guess those trails and impossibly positioned churches have been waiting for centuries, so a little longer won’t hurt! We’ll be back someday, so onward we must and an easy hop from Vathi to the magical island of Milos, where our next adventure awaits.