Forty years later, Siphnos has gone from pristine paradise to popular tourist spot

A GLORIOUS GREEK ISLAND

November 01, 1992|By Gwinn Owens | Gwinn Owens,Contributing Writer

In the eerie darkness the inter-island ship throttles down its engine and rests nearly motionless at Kamares, the main harbor of the Cycladic island of Siphnos. From the deck we see only one pinpoint of light on the shore. Then, in the glow of the ship's lights, we make out a small dory being rowed alongside. Through a hatch in the ship's hull, we step awkwardly into the boat and, in a few minutes, have reached the single oil lamp hanging from a post on the quay. The boatman takes the lamp off its post and lights our way to a tiny taverna where the same lamp is hung over the table. A proprietor materializes with cups of hot, soothing Greek coffee.

After a long, dozing wait, we hear the approaching killop-up killup-up of donkeys. The donkey handler loads us and our baggage onto the willing beasts, and we are off on a four-mile, two-hour trek along a mountain trail to our destination, the village Artemon. There is not a single car, bus or truck on the island, and we, alone, are Siphnos' tourists for that day.

That was in 1952, a visit that I described then on the pages of The Sun. In 1992 my wife and I returned to the Greek island of Siphnos, retracing our steps exactly, to learn what changes had been wrought to this island paradise in 40 years.

The difference is staggering. We emerged from the gaping ramp of a huge island ferry, along with cars, tractor-trailers and another wave of tourists. The once dark and silent waterfront of Kamares is now ablaze with lights, music, tavernas, souvenir shops, travel bureaus, hotels, a car rental agency and, of course, hundreds of people. This time our conveyance to Artemon is a shiny Mercedes taxi; it gets us there in 15 minutes.

Our Siphnos host, however, is the same. She is Frangiski Psacharopoulou, of a Siphnian family, who had lured us to her island when she was a 25-year-old student. She's now a grandmother, surnamed Karori, and the cultural duenna of Siphnos. The Psacharopoulos house, owned in 1952 by her parents, is now owned by her daughter, Julietta Karori. Frangiski Karori's knowledge of Siphnos is encyclopedic.

Forty years later . . .

What has happened to Siphnos in 40 years is, of course, an index to the changes in all the famous Greek islands. Yes, their exquisite solitude of 40 years ago has been tramped away by the feet of a multitude of tourists, but the conventional wisdom that the islands have been "ruined" is not altogether the case. Not even a cascade of Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch and Japanese in quest of the soothing Greek sunshine can spoil the islands' essential photogenic glory. A Romanian journalist we met put it well: "I have seen a lot of the world, but there is still nothing like a Greek island."

As seasoned island visitors we would agree, and add that there is nothing like Siphnos. Its little villages nestle like jewels in the setting of the mountains; the houses' stark whiteness contrasts with the deep blue of their shutters and the pastels of the church domes. Other ancient churches crown many of the mountain peaks. All these human projects are set off by the dark brown earth, the azure sky and the indigo sea, which becomes a brilliant turquoise near the rocks.

A visual extravaganza

Such a visual extravaganza must, inevitably, attract people. If Siphnos has been "discovered," it has evolved into the age of tourism with relative grace. Whereas it is fun to tell one's grandchildren about travels on a donkey, one can see more lovely Byzantine churches, swim at more beaches and generally engulf more scenery when there is a convenient bus system.

Our 1952 visit included an all-day trek (by donkey, of course) to Panagia Vouno, a lovely little church and convent that clings to the mountainside near the southern end of the island. Two ancient nuns, who knew Frangiski Karori, greated us warmly, fed us a lunch of bread and cheese, then even provided us each with a cell and a clean bed with pastel sheets for an afternoon siesta. From the window of my cell, I looked down on a pristine and deserted cove. "I slept well in this, the most unworldly bed I had ever known," I wrote in 1952.

In 1992 we returned to Panagia Vouno -- 15 minutes by bus. The nuns, alas, are long dead, but the little church and the convent buildings are in a better state of repair than in 1952. The view from my "unworldly" bed now looks down upon the worldly scene of Plati Yalo, Siphnos' most popular beach, lined with waterfront tavernas (restaurants) and small hotels. From Panagia Vouno, it was an easy transition to swimming, snorkeling in transparent water and a good lunch with Siphnian wine.

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