We woke with the rooster at 7am, which I still found charming, but Sean was finding less so as time wore on. Our rooster friend didn’t just crow once at dawn, he crowed constantly from about 6:30am to 10:30am, so I could sort of see Sean’s point. At any rate, I love roosters, so no big to me.
We hustled down to breakfast ala Spiros. Hustled? Why? We had a bus to catch! Say what? Yes! I said a bus! The day’s plan – to venture forth to the bustling metropolis of Appolonia, capital city of Sifnos! We virtually inhaled our breakfast, at least in Greek terms, since we only had an hour and a half to eat, bid goodbye to Spiros, who had started our morning with a wonderful new custom as he snapped to attention upon seeing us and gave us a huge salute. Ahoy!
The bus was right on time and was not at all the public transportation I’d expected, based on pub-trans in Chicago. These buses were more like nice tour buses, with working a/c and cushy seats. Neat! We thoroughly enjoyed the ride to Appolonia, which took about 20 minutes and wound up, up, up the island’s tallest mountain.
I suppose we’d become accustomed to our small, quiet town of Kameres, because when we arrived at Appolonia, it sure seemed big and bustling – never mind that its population was probably smaller than our three-block neighborhood back in Chicago. The bus let us off in the town’s main square. At a nearby cafe, we found water and a handy little Appolonia map, which we tucked into my daypack to be used nevermore.
“I spy, with my little eye, a path!” I said, pointing at a wide walk going up.
“I think we should take said path, which might just lead to yonder church!” Sean said, pointing way, way up at a beautiful church at the very top of the town.
And so we did. We walked and we walked and we saw maybe four people the whole way. At times, we stopped to rehydrate and gaze at the view, which really was spectacular. Although we weren’t sure we were on the right path, we seemed to be at least gaining on the church at the top of the hill, so were happy. As we rounded a bend, we heard a voice from above.
“Kaleemera!” said the voice.
We looked up and saw a very old man sitting on a veranda to our left and slightly above.
“Kaleemera!” we responded.
For the next twenty minutes, Sean and I leaned against the cool stone and chatted with the man. This would become one of our favorite moments in the trip. He actually spoke fairly descent english and what he couldn’t express, he enthusiastically pantomimed. As it turned out, he was in his late eighties and had come from a large fishing family who lived down the coast. He’d spent his early years fishing off the coast of the island, but left in his thirties to join the merchant marines, or something like that. Through that organization, he roamed the world and even came close to Chicago on one trip. He told us how the sea around Sifnos used to teem with life but due to over-fishing and pollution became barren. He explained that over the last ten years, particularly, the people of Sifnos had gone to great lengths to stop the pollution, and now the water was crystal clear and the fish were coming back. Finally, he asked us if we were going to the church and assured us that we were on the right path. He said we should find a tiny old woman (he held his hand about 2 feet off the ground to illustrate) tending the church and advised us to ask her about “the artifact”.
We bid him a fond farewell and resumed our journey upward, finally coming to the church at the top. After gawking at the outside, we did as instructed and walked inside, where we immediately spotted the tiny old woman (though, she wasn’t two feet tall, but more like four and a half feet or so). She had her back to us as she arranged fresh flowers on a packed alter, so we just stood in the doorway in silence.
Like the grocery in Kameres, this church, which looked as though it would be rather spacious from the outside, was packed so tightly with stuff, it would be difficult to fit 10 people standing shoulder to shoulder inside at once. Paintings, gilded artifacts, thrones, crowns, cups, incense burners, flower holders, urns and other assorted things packed the place from floor to ceiling. It was almost overwhelming.
After a time, the old woman turned and smiled warmly. Shuffling over to us, she grabbed my hands and greeted us both. We greeted her quietly, complimented the beauty of the church and asked about “the artifact”.
As it turns out, the woman did not speak one word of english, but pulled us in and pointed at a glass case in the center of the mound of treasure. It held a painting and a cup. She then told us a long story, in Greek, while pantomiming, mostly to me. I smiled and did my best to interpret what she might be saying. It went something like this:
“A long time ago, there were guns or canons and those guns or canons shot into the … ocean. Or hillsides. No ocean. And the enemy came and they plundered the town. Or they might have sat down at a cafe to eat. But, I’m pretty sure they were plundering after they ate. At any rate, the people of this church feared that the enemy would steal the artifact, so they wrapped it in rags and carried it to the sea and then swam with it to a nearby island, or boat. The enemy left, or became part of the town, or died, or fell asleep on the beach. At any rate, the church people felt safe and they swam all the way back, hundreds, maybe thousands of miles — ok, probably tens — with the artifact. And God protected and blessed the swimmers and the church and the artifacts.”
She told us the name of the church in there too, I think, but we didn’t understand. So, to me, it is the Church of the Swimming Artifact. A beautiful church and a wonderful woman. Sean was kind enough, as we left, to compliment me on putting the story together. I admitted I might have gotten some things wrong. Obviously the woman was a master pantomimer, but I was barely apprentice-grade as a pantomime interpreter.
We took another path down the opposite side of the mountain which ended at a crossroad. There, we met a tall, sinister man holding a banjo and a fiddle. Just kidding. We did, however, manage to sound out the sign, which said “To Kastro”. On a hill, far in the distance, we saw a town. Even though it was noon and getting very hot, we decided to walk and I am so very glad we did.
It took us about an hour to make our way from Appolonia to Kastro. Maybe two cars passed us the whole time, oh, and one man on a donkey. On that quiet, magnificent trek, we stopped again and again. I found the terraces fascinating, some of which held groves of pomegranates (my favorite fruit as a child), others olives, grapes and tomatoes. It seemed like there was a tiny church around every single bend, probably only big enough for one family to use. At some point, we looked down the gully to our right and saw a monestary with a courtyard filled with sarcophagi. As we got to the edge of the town, we stopped to play with two darling kittens wrestling in the yard of a tall house and the picture I snapped of them is one of my favorites from the trip.
Our water bottles were completely empty, so we stopped to rest at a cafe, which had an amazing view of the valley below. I attracted the cafe cat which thumped the dickens out of my hands before curling up next to me for a nap.
Kastro was utterly gorgeous. We spent the entire afternoon winding our way through the town. The view of the sea stunned us both. The little paths through the streets had many ancient artifacts sitting out in the open, which shocked us both. At some point, we came upon a small archeology museum and marveled at the treasures it contained.
We found out that a bus came from Appolonia at 4pm, so we decided to take it back, rather than walk the distance. I am sorry, as I write this, that we didn’t spend more time in Kastro. What a delightful place.
But, back to Appolonia we went! The bus let us off in the town square and we found we had an hour before the bus to Kameres. Fortunately, there was a little folk museum right there, so we went in. We were the only ones there and although all the signs were in Greek, we managed to get the general gist. The owner was very nice and very enthusiastic, so he helped a great deal.
Our feet thanked us as we boarded our bus to Kameres and sank into the plush seats. When we arrived in Kameres, we realized we were too tired to sit at a restaurant for hours, so we stopped in at a local tavern called The Old Captain, which got a nice write-up in Barrett’s guide. In fact, if you look closely at the picture, you can see a sign that says, “As seen in Matt Barrett’s Guide!” Sean ordered a local ouzo and I ordered something called Metaxa. Metaxa turned out to be a brandy type of liquor which had a heavy floral taste. I fell in love.
After finishing our drinks, we ambled down to the “zweeee” grocer and bought a bottle of 5-star metaxa (there are 3, 5 and 7 star). Then, we stopped by a “fast food” counter and bought two absolutely delicious smelling souvlaki (gyros-type wraps with yogurt sauce), which I think contained lamb, and spicy chipies (greek fries). Heading for home, we passed Spiros’ counter and he flashed us a quick salute before waving us over and handing us two ice creams. He absolutely would not take money for them, but simply wanted to be hospitible and catch us up on town news – a ferry had come in, nothing much else to report.
We waved goodnight to Spiros and headed for Alkyonis, where we devoured our feast under the stars on our veranda. As a delightful surprise to the end of the night, a number of Turkish Geckos decided to dine with us, although they had bugs, not souvlaki.