Greek island hopping is what we intended, however arriving on the Cycladic isle of Sifnos, we were loathe to leave and rented a Greek farmhouse, an oikos with a threshing floor and terraces of fig trees, olives, vines and lemon trees, ablaze with bougainvillea, hibiscus, geraniums and plumbago.
At night we were serenaded by lute players from a neighbouring terrace and as the rosy fingered dawn spread across the wine dark sea, we awoke to a singing landscape of goats bells and the richer timbre of the peel of church bells ringing from every hillside, valley and mountain top, for there are 36o churches and shrines and monasteries, one for every day of the year on this small holy island.
Halcyon days; we breakfasted on goats yoghurt, brought up by the goat herder in tin pails and figs plucked from the trees and made for the donkey tracks down the mountain, if there was a breeze (or the bus when sweltering,) to tamarisk fringed beaches and gin clear sapphire sea.
We lunched on grilled sardines at a taverna where the waves lapped at its table legs. The boys learnt to swim and snorkel within days, while I lapped up the delicious sensation of floating in the sea while smelling offshore, the scents of herbs, sage, basil, marjoram, rosemary and even a whiff of tumeric baking on the parched cliffs.
When the wind blew, we walked up and down ancient flagged paths to Venetian citadels and monasteries clinging to the cliffs like eagles nests, and if the wind dropped we were seized with panic as water ran low; the definition of panic is being caught on a Greek mountainside in the midday sun without water, when you hear the pitter patter of cloven hooves and Pan starts to appear like a mirage. Or you take a well worn leaf out of Paddy Leigh Fermor's book, when out walking, simply attach a cucumber to your forehead, which gently deliquesces keeping you cool.
Instead of the usual week-old moussaka caked with conjealed cheese and offerings of squid and octopus, that look like the contents of a bucket under an operating table at a field hospital, Sifniot food is baked in their own hand thrown pots. All Constantinople's cooks came from Sifnos.
In ancient times there were gold mines on the island and the Siphnian Parian marble treasury at Delphi was a testimony to their wealth; yet the islanders pushed their luck when they tried to get away with gold leafing a goblet as an offering, instead of a solid gold one, thus incurring the wrath of the gods and the mines were flooded.
When I was 17 I sailed to Sifnos with a Norwegian, who plainly thought he was Odysseus, and he seldom wore a stitch of clothing, unless he was on terra firma. Little has changed since, albeit a larger marina and airconditoned pastry and cake shops of every imaginable confection such as pistachio flavoured marzipan topped with almonds and pine nuts; moreover the island is mercifully free of fellow sun burnt/drunken/rowdy countrymen, internet cafes, big hideous hotels and discos. The only raves are at the churches . One night we found ourselves Greek dancing to 'Never on a Sunday' after a sermon and a communal supper of wagon wheel size holy cakes and goat stew at a panaghia (holy festival).
The island's vernacular architecture remains intact, (think blue domes, white washed walls and pale green and grey woodwork) , the pavements are made from Parian marble, the mortar is picked out in fresh whitewash weekly, 19th century mansions hidden down avenues of whorled salt cedars and pine trees and Mycenean necropolae on wind blasted headlands are accorded equal respect, and there is not a breeze block in sight. The towns and villages are surrounded by orchards, while ancient terracing plunges down the mountainsides, each plot of land has its own theminos, a small two tiered tower with triangular dovecotes on top. Stephen and fantasised about having one of these and living here all year round, although I fear I fare better on dance floors than on threshing ones, and I don't think I would be that good with goats.
As a child, my summers started not long after Easter, my mother had no qualms about taking us out of school for extended stays inTuscany, hence my education is lacking. On the other hand, I was bilingual, (no one could fault my Tuscan dialect,)and fairly feral, living outdoors; harvesting grapes and olives or gathering pine kernals from the forest floor, and I was inveigled into sightseeing with eminent art historians like Sir Ernst Gombrich, who was an old family friend. And by why way of contrast my salacious nympho nanny regaled me with the facts of life amid gales of laughter .
Now parents are penalised for taking their children out of school for even one day, this is so shortsighted. Julian and Tarquin could well have benefitted from another month off or on 'leave' abroad. In Greece, they watched telly thus learning some Greek, so that they then could go out shopping for groceries and return with the right food, acted out scenes from The Persians and Oresteia , (the bloodier the better,) became strong swimmers in less than a week; the equivalent of probably a years worth of chlorinated public pool lessons. They were reluctantly marched round the Cycladic, Byzantine and War museums one day in Athens, more museums than they would visit in a term, and Tarquin devoured books in one sitting while Julian covered reams of paper designing blue prints for cars and modules for houses.
Travelling light I had just three items in my sponge bag, to protect my face from the ravages of the sun, FOM rose oil, an all round LAVERA almond cream and LAVERA sun milk, although this latte solare was so deathly white, I looked the part of the chorus in Euripides' Medea .
There is a lingering bitter sweet melancholy as the splendour and torpor of summer slowly, slowly departs. The shadows lengthen, that herald dusk, tinged with a rosy hue, as mists rise, swallows gather in the sky, and luscious clusters of fruit are ready to harvest, we are deceived into thinking the warm days will never end.
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