19. Sikinos: The Isle of Cliffs

Arrival

RETURNING from Delphi to Ios, I telegraphed to the Island Secretary, as agreed, to engage a caique to take me to Sikinos. . . The caique, a brisk creature, painted pale green and black and with a new sail . . . the lapping of the waves against the hull made a small music in the stillness. . . The great mass of Naxos filled the sky between Ios and Sikinos, a familiar object, but how different when seen from over the low rim of a boat in the shadow of a swelling sail!

We drew near to Sikinos and its small harbour, whose snow-white houses were imaged in the water. The sun was shining on its clear vert-de-gris and a man was washing his upturned boat as a groom might wash a horse. Blue marble rocks, a convent upon a hill, figs and olive trees, completed a picture that was as austere as it was lovely, brooding under the weight of years.

Arriving at Sikinos' Alopronia harbour
Arriving at Sikinos’ Alopronia harbour

The town of Sikinos

Kastro with Chorio hgher up the hill
Kastro with Chorio hgher up the hill

The little town is in two parts; the old known as the Kastro is fortified, the backs of its houses forming the town wall; the new lies open.

The 'tunnel' under the houses forming one of the entrances to the fortified Kastro
The ‘tunnel’ under the houses forming one of the entrances to the fortified Kastro

The town of Sikinos is still split into two parts separated by just a few hundred metres – Kastro (the castle) and Chorio (the village). Kastro is no longer fortified although one can see how the houses formed the fortified area described by VC.

The Plateia inside the fortified Kastro
The Plateia inside the fortified Kastro

The Temple of Apollo

VC visited the site of the Temple of Apollo and the ancient city of Sikinos:

The Temple of Apollo and the Church of Ayia Anna
The Temple of Apollo and the Church of Ayia Anna

. . . the ancient City at the far end of the island towards Pholegandros, with its perfect little temple of Apollo. This, like so many other relics of a great age, stands upon a site of unusual beauty where the island descending in precipices, narrows to a ridge, from which the sea upon either hand is plainly seen.

The chapel of Ayia Anna and its murals
The chapel of Ayia Anna and its murals

VC would have had to get to the site of the temple by mule over rough tracks. Today, the road up to it from Kastro is tarmac’d and ends in a small car park, a short walk from the site. In the 7th century AD, the temple was converted into a Christian church and is now known as the Church of Episkopi. Next to the church is the small chapel of Ayia Anna which dates from the 13th century. Strangely, VC doesn’t mention Ayia Anna, despite its impressive murals, nor the nearby chapel of Agios Georgios, overlooking the sea, again with centuries-old murals.

Whitewashed marble
Whitewashed marble

The smooth marble of the temple has been overlaid with common whitewash, and to it there has been added in places the scabrous masonry of a lesser people and a lesser age.

 

The Byzantine cupola, the battlements and the loopholes
The Byzantine cupola, the battlements and the loopholes

The old roof has become a Byzantine cupola, and about it are the remains of battlements behind which the monks who inhabited it took refuge when attacked by pirates . . . Fifty years ago there were still men living who could point to their kitchens on the roofs and the loopholes from which they fired at their enemies.

Episkopi, in VC’s time was, and in the present day is, no longer an active monastery. The outbuildings forming the cells are still there and the entire complex is being restored. It’s one of the most impressive sites in the Cyclades and photographs cannot do justice to the sense of wonder which one feels on seeing it in the beauty of its isoated setting.

The layout of the Church of Episkopi, the former Temple of Apollo, the chapel of Ayia Anna and the monastery complex.
The layout of the Church of Episkopi, the former Temple of Apollo, the chapel of Ayia Anna and the monastery complex.

The Classic City

​Upon one side of [the Temple of Apollo] the island slopes gradually, golden at this season with cornfields which rustle in the wind, and drop from terrace to terrace till they reach the sea.

The Temple of Apollo and the countryside surrounding Episkopi
The Temple of Apollo and the countryside surrounding Episkopi
The site of the ancient city and the church of Ayia Marina atop the mountain
The site of the ancient city and the church of Ayia Marina atop the mountain

I climbed to the old city. The island rises there to a knife edge that overlooks the northern sea, falling to it in fearful precipices. On the south it slopes more gradually, and upon this inward slope, sheltered from the North wind, Sikinos of old was built . . . Upon the crest of the last high summit of the isle, there once stood the proud city, uplifted above danger, surveying the wide seas from which fortune or misfortune might come.

From the Temple of Apollo one can see the church of Ayia Marina perched high on the mountain at the very tip of Sikinos casting its eye upon Folegandros and the small islets between. From just beyond the temple, the ruins of the ancient city could be found.

Drinking trough at the site of the ancient city
Drinking trough at the site of the ancient city

. . . one may still discover the small cup-like hollows cut in the rock, the drinking-troughs of their domestic animals

Marble remains in the ancient city
Marble remains in the ancient city

Much of the important archaeology has long since been removed to museums and safe-keeping, however, some pieces can still be seen scattered around the site.

A drinking trough
A drinking trough
Artifacts scattered around the site of the ancient city
Artifacts scattered around the site of the ancient city
Ayia Marina looking toward the islets and Folegandros
Ayia Marina looking toward the islets and Folegandros

Westwards the last summits of the island rose to a torn and shattered edge, grey now in the morning light, but rose at sunset; and beyond its descending curves lay the sea once more, of a darker blue and of a more tranquil surface, intermingled with the isles that once connected Sikinos with Pholegandros.

The Convent of the Life-Giving Stream

On a steep hill above Chora sits the Convent of the Live-Giving Stream – Zoodochos Pigi. The Convent was founded in 1690, originally just a cluster of buildings, but was fortified by Saint Athemios in 1775 as protection against continual attacks by pirates.

When VC visited in 1928, the convent had been in a state of abandonment for almost 100 years since the introduction of King Otto’s policy to suppress the monasteries; any monastery or convent with less than 10 monks or nuns was disolved with the monks and nuns being expected to join other establishments. In 1835, Zoodochos Pigi had only 8 nuns and was forced to close. The nuns were taken in by families in Sikinos with the hope that the policy would soon be reversed and they could return to the Convent. In the event, it never happened and, one by one, the nuns died leaving no nucleus from which the Convent could ever be regenerated.

The Convent of the Life-giving Stream stands in a situation of scarcely less beauty, with an outlook over three-quarters of the horizon, but nearer the haunts of living men.

360° vista from the Monastery
360° vista from the Monastery showing the islands of Folegandros, Poliaigos, Kimolos, Milos, Sifnos, Strongilo, Despotiko, Antiparos, Paros and Naxos to the left and Irakleia, Ios, Santorini and Anafi to the right
Kastro and Chorio
The two parts of the town – Kastro and Chorio, hgher on the hill, viewed from the Monastery

The white houses and the circling windmills of the city are to be seen from there . . .

The Monastery on the cliff edge
The Monastery on the cliff edge

. . . but upon its western edge there is nothing but the wild beauty of the naked rock, falling steeply to the sea.

Formidable cliffs
Formidable cliffs

Formidable cliffs fall steeply behind the Convent with one narrow ledge 300 feet below the summit, upon which a hardy mule can travel, till it ends and becomes a perilous track for sheep and goats and men returning from their fields.

Terraces to the very edge of the waves
Terraces to the very edge of the waves

Where its slope is eased the invincible toil of an ancient peasantry has hewn out terraces, and planted small fields and patches of corn that descend in amazing succession to the very edge of the waves.

The Convent is slowly falling into ruin. The neglected church with its loopholed walls survives, but the Nuns’ chambers are a shambles and no living person now inhabits this sanctuary, though upon feast days the people still go there to light a taper or to say a prayer.

In 1977, restoration work began and the Convent was re-opened in 1979, just under 150 years after its forced closure. However, it would be another 36 years before the Convent finally ‘came alive’ again with the arrival of the first nun, Sister Mirofora, in August 2015. Sister Mirafora is currently the only resident and is toiling to regenerate the Convent so that it will attract further nuns to re-establish a viable religious community in this unique and beautiful location.

The 'loopholed' walls from which the nuns would pour hot oil and water on the invading pirates
The ‘loopholed’ walls from which the nuns would pour hot oil and water on the invading pirates
Inside the front wall with the stairs to the battlements and the 'loopholes'
Inside the front wall with the stairs to the battlements and the ‘loopholes’
The courtyard, the well and the wall overlooking the sea
The courtyard, the well and the wall overlooking the sea
The church in the courtyard
The church in the courtyard
The church
The church
Inside the church with its original screen containing old icons
Inside the church with its original icon screen
The icon of the Panagia of the Life-Giving Stream
The icon of the Panagia of the Life-Giving Stream

VC’s travels in Sikinos

Join the adventure

Join the adventure – become a contributor to this website and help us track down further information and photographs related to VC’s travels in the Cyclades. You can create a blog post describing your findings, your adventure, relevant people you met etc. You can upload photographs attached to your blog post. Your blog post will available for all visitors to the site to view and comment on. If your post contains key information, we’ll include it in this main page, and include an accreditation to you. You don’t have to stick to the items below, anything relevant to VC, the book and his journeys, and Greece, its history, its people and its customs, will all be welcome.

Research and contribute to this websiteThe Doctor’s house

VC stayed at the house of the local doctor, Demetrios Plates.

I rode up to the house of Doctor Demetrios Plates . . . The Doctor’s house at the gate of the Kastro, maintains a neutral position between the two [Kastro and Chorio]. A flight of stairs climbs up to it from the street, to a door which on opening reveals a balcony under the trellis of a vine a century old . . . Raised above the road, and concealed from observation by a low wall, it yet offered many glimpses of the passing world. It looks towards the morning sun and over the hills of Sikinos to the wide blue spaces of the sea, and Santorin upon the horizon. Inside it there are beds of flowers, and jars of classic shape that were full of scarlet and pink geraniums, lilies, carnations, stocks, and the other scented flowers that Southern people love. The geraniums fall over into the street, greeting many a tired passer-by. There was a wooden platform along one wall to sit or sleep on . . . The dining-room is the living-room of all, opening at one end into a Pharmacy, at the other into a kitchen entered from the street.

Is the Doctor’s house still there? Details and, hopefully, photographs can be uploaded to a blog post.

Research and contribute to this websiteDoctor Demetrios Plates

VC writes warmly and extensively of his host, Doctor Demetrios Plates. We are told that there are still members of the Plates family living in Chorio. VC describes many personal and household items of the Doctor. Are these family heirlooms which might have been passed down to current family members? Photographs or photocopies emailed or uploaded to a blog post would be a fantastic addition to the story. The current family may also be interested in VC’s writings about the Doctor, his support for King Constantine, his bad treament from other members of the community and his trip to Athens to address and meet with the King after he was restored to the throne.

There was one [portrait] of the Doctor’s mother, a gentle and stately old lady; a portrait of his father remarkably well painted, displaying a character of unusual sensibility; one saw the son in his father.

Is this portrait still in the family possession?

There was [photgraph of] a group of medical students taken when he was at the University and young.

Is this photgraph still in the family possession?

The Doctor himself had a fine gold ring with a classic cameo in it of unusual beauty, which had belonged to his father.

Has the ring been handed down again? Is it in the possession of a current family member? How fantastic to have a photograph of it!

The Doctor himself comes of an old stock. His great-grandfather was Voivode of the island; his grandfather a Consul at Tenos; his father a Judge; and he preserves in little glass cases, pictures and photographs of these old folk, dressed in the modes of their day. His sporting dogs, the old fowling-pieces and guns, sabres and matchlocks on his walls, relate the same tale.

Maybe the current family members still have these photographs. They would really bring VC’s account to life.

The household bread of pure wheat flour from corn grown in his own fields is ground in his own windmill. His wine and oil come from his trees, his preserves are made from his own fruit.

Are there any local people who know where Dr Plates’ mill stood and whether it’s one of those still surviving in the village today?

. . . a fine-looking old man, cautiously produces from out of his coat a two-handled cup of which he proceeds to tell the tale. “I was digging,” says he, “in my fields down there by the sea, when I came upon a large jar of earthenware, and removing it carefully, for I thought that it might contain something precious, I found within it — what do you think? —” he paused to look about him, “the skeleton of a man, seated upright with his hands clasped about his knees and this cup laid against his breast! I placed it upon my mule, and started to ride up to our town, when alas! the jar broke, the bones fell to pieces, and all that remained was this cup.”

Did this cup find its way to a museum possibly?

Research and contribute to this websiteThe Church of Ayia Marina

On his visit to the Temple of Apollo and the ancient city of Sikinos, VC climbed to the top of the mountain where the church of Ayia Marina overlooks the strait between Sikinos and Folegandros.

Upon the last edge of the rock where it drops vertiginously to a depth of 700 feet there is built the small chapel of the Virgin of the Sea

Have you climbed up there and taken photographs of the church and the views? Maybe you can upload photographs to a blog post.

Research and contribute to this websiteThe school-mistress

. . . there came in a man of some consequence, approaching seventy, and as nearly the complete Oriental but for his European garments, as any Turk; slow and lethargic, with heavy pouches under his eyes; and with him a trim little woman of twenty-one, the schoolmistress of the island, whom he introduced to me as his betrothed. I was told a sad little tale to explain this unequal alliance. She had, it seems, made a false step and no one else would marry her. She had no dowry. She was little more than a child herself, with her fresh happy air, and I saw her later managing a school of some thirty boys and girls with grace and efficiency.

This is a very human story and the school-mistress would have been known by everybody in Sikinos. Some of her pupils might still be alive today. Any details to a blog post please.

Research and contribute to this websiteNick Durambys

Another house I came to know was occupied by a young fellow named Nick Durambys, who from the moment of my arrival had placed himself at my service. He had returned from the United States to get him a wife, and had made a very happy choice. She had waited a little, she was twenty-eight, and Nicky had come back rather battered after a divorce from his American wife . . . Nicky is returning to the U.S.A. “Will you come with me, Katina?” he says. “I will go with you,” she replies, “wherever your life is, and whenever you bid me come”; and meanwhile she will remain on in the little house in which she and her mother were born.

Nicky, who spoke with the accent they pick up in the States, was a man of ideas. He looks forward when he has made a little more money to buying the adjoining house, and, says he, “when we lose the good Doctor, I would like to take his place as the friend of all strangers like yourself who come to my island.”

Did Nick and his wife Katina go to the U.S.A. or did they stay and take over the role of ‘the good Doctor’? Is there still a Durambys name in Sikinos? It doesn’t sound very Greek so maybe VC misspelled it. Do you know of a name that is similar? Details can be uploaded to a blog post.