Winter in Paradise – Life on Siphnos after the Tourists Go Home

The dazzling white houses of the town of Kastro that seem to rise sheer out of the Aegean are crowned with sun-lit clouds in Autumn and Winter. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)

KASTRO, SIPHNOS – On some days – but not too many, the sky is overcast as the New Year arrives in the land of sea and sun, the glorious Greek islands. On Siphnos in winter, there is less of that divine Light but more human warmth even though few people remain, a welcome solitude for some, compared with summer and a close-knit social life. Unexpectedly, winter for some islanders is also when they resume their communion with nature – Earth, sky and sea.

It is hard for outsiders to imagine what it is like there beyond the tourists, but life goes on, as it has for thousands of years in the Cyclades. The shift from cosmopolitan to traditional mode that happens after October brings the hard work of shutting down the tourist venues, a shift towards agriculture, and somber moments, too  – but Christmas has its charm and joys when kourabiedes, diples, and melomakarona – called finikia there – grace every table and fellowship fills the air.

Restaurateur Maria Lembesis told The National Herald, “Christmas is beautiful. The island is one big family. All the houses are open. Friends and family gather for coffee and discussion.”

She is referring to the famous βεγγέρα, people gathering in one another’s homes at night. On Siphnos, “vengerizane” is a verb.

Father Efstratios Syrigos, who knew a more intense life in the popular music world as a fine violinist and laouto player, described a peaceful life that is now rare across the country that out of pride and necessity throws open its doors to the whole world.

“Life in Siphnos in winter is all that you do not see in the summer, but it’s mainly a time for people to rest and recover after the pressure of the tourism season that affects them all,” he said.

The historic town of Kastro, with houses later built into the medieval walls, offers some of the more dramatic winter scenes on the island of Siphnos. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)

“In winter, you see the real Siphnos, the festivals, the homes and relationships. You have to experience that in winter, like in the old days.”

The people of Siphnos, like the rest of Greece, thank God for the tourists – there are 365 churches on the island where they can do that – but the months without tourists bring relief, though with the pleasantries there are struggles.

The heaviest months, meteorologically and psychologically, are January and February – it’s colder and people circulate less, nevertheless, around October, as the temperature cools, society warms up. Father Syrigos said, “People become calmer, warmer.”

But one man’s warm close-knit society is another’s dearth of privacy. “Everyone knows everyone else’s business,” one islander said, “and you can’t choose who you have around you and you cannot flee whom you do not like – the definition of insularity.”

For some, especially young people, winter brings feelings of confinement, especially when transportation is reduced to one ship, three days per week.

“But January and February passes…and then comes the spring,” Fr. Syrigos said. Youth blossoms along with the Earth. Gone are the wind, chill, humidity, rain – and the rare snow storms.

Activity resumes with the softening of the weather. “The “Martaprillo” is beautiful, he said, “with green, yellow, and red proliferating” – green trees and shrubs, yellow daisies, daffodils, the native xinohorto, dazzling red poppies and bougainvillea of all colors – engendering joy and signaling the time to prepare for the tourists.

Nikos Podotas, left, in front of the restaurant established by his father in 1958 in the port town of Kamares. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)

The striking hilltop town of Kastro, with most of its gleaming white homes built into the 700-year old medieval walls that once protected from sudden pirate raids and invaders with longer-term plans, offers the most dramatic winter scenery.

There are about 10 families left in Kastro by January. The Astro restaurant offers good food with a pleasant vista down two valleys and warm breezes every day in the warmer half of the year, but between November and Pascha, it is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday only. Eleni and her late husband Konstantinos Lembesis opened the establishment in 1969, just as tourists began to discover an island previously known only to a handful of artists charmed by its vistas and fueled by its glorious sunlight.

Their daughter Eleni, who now runs the restaurant with her husband Vassilis, explained, “We don’t have as much time to ourselves as people imagine because after the work of shutting down the shops and restaurants, putting things in storage, and activities like gathering olives there are just a few months because by March we have to prepare for the tourist season – whitewashing, painting, repairs, improvements.”

Popi Georgouli and her husband Simos Foskolos, owners a delightful kafeteria, To Konaki, know well the cycles of nature, family, and commerce. They are open until mid-October, then her attention turns to her home and children of 14 and 19. One month before Pascha, cleaning, painting, and basic maintenance begins – and changes in décor as the inspiration comes to her.

Popi has wintered on Siphnos all her life, loving the peacefulness. “The solitude where you finally have a chance to think for yourself, and you can come closer to nature in winter. You can go on walks you cannot take during summer. Even in winter you can observe nature coming to life after a rainstorm – I love the land, the way new life emerges from it.”

In summer, diners at the Astro restaurant enjoy warm breezes and views of hilltop villages that guard two valleys. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)

Another surprise: fishing becomes an important activity. “In winter, this is very relaxing… you have a different relationship to the sea, simpler, not concerned about tans and bathing suits… With the tourists gone, it’s just you and the sea, and you sense it is your place, God’s gift to you personally. And many people miss this entirely, these very simple and subtle but grand things.”

The port of Kamares has more year-round activity, like the taverna “O Simos.” Nikos Podotas’ late father opened it in 1958 and now he and his son run it. When the tourists leave, agriculture predominates. “Eighty percent of the meats and vegetables we serve are from our lands,” he said with pride.

In recent years, the tourist season was extended as a result of the cooperation and imagination of the inhabitants – the hiking trails they created are popular with visitors from Canada to Australia through October – when people still swim.

Theodosia nee Koulouris Rafeletou came straight from high school graduation in Jersey City to Siphnos. “It was like a paradise to me after Jersey City” though, she had to do without some things she enjoyed in the States – “just stuff, like color TV.”

After she raised her children, she took classes and earned her degree online with Michigan State and loves teaching English.

“I like everything about Kastro all year round,” she said, also communing with nature the most in winter. “Nature, rain. The wind. You can experience nature and I love it.”

Siphnos’ port of Kamares also has a fine beach, were people swim into October. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)

The Island of Siphnos, an increasingly popular destination – it is one of the greener of the Cyclades and is known for its cooking and its pottery – has enjoyed its share of attention from the outside world and prosperity, but its hardworking and humble inhabitants do not live a winter of luxurious vacations complementing the glamorous summers of renowned destinations like Mykonos and Santorini.

Most Siphnians are involved with tourism, but a typical business person’s income on the island is modest. “We have not gone abroad in six years,” said one, “and remember, the income we earn in summer must sustain us the reset of the year when there is no income… but there are taxes, which rise constantly, and electricity bills.”

There is a high school and all the elementary and middle schools years ago became consolidated in the central village of Apollonia, and free school buses come to every village.

There are dentists, but only one physician. The clinic is not properly equipped, supplied, or staffed. There are no specialists, just a nurse and a pathologist. A young pathologist comes annually to complete training, and they all do their best for the inhabitants.

The island provides families with the basic necessities, but deficiencies in healthcare and transportation existing before the crisis that balance the delights of summer with anxiety during winter must be addressed.

Left to right: Fr. Ioannis Koumakis, Maria Syrigou, Eleni Lembesi in the general store attached to the Astro restaurant. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)