Ascent into the sky
If it’s Easter at Sifnos then it’s time to get high
EASTER is nigh and that means egg hunts in the garden for the little ones and beer around the barbecue for the big ones.
One year I will get to Greece to celebrate Easter. Greeks do Easter so well. Ancient traditions, deeply rooted customs and church attendance culminate in a whopping big feast on Easter Sunday, usually a lamb or goat on a spit. The fun and feasting goes on throughout the afternoon and into the evening.
Several years ago on the Greek island of Sifnos during a visit shortly after Easter, our hotel manager told us how the locals celebrated Easter every year by walking up to a small white church on top of a stark mountain. There are small white churches on top of stark mountains all over Greece, and along with weathered old men sitting in tavernas, and blue-domed white-washed buildings, they epitomise everything you think of and love about Greece.
“The locals walk up to the church in a procession by a goat track every Easter,” our Sifnos hotel manager told us.
We were mightily impressed. The mountain was high and steep and the church just a white dot against the vivid blue sky.
We spent a couple of weeks on this serene Greek island, swimming in gin-clear water and eating roasted meats and Greek salads at toe-in-the-sand tavernas. Each day with over-full bellies, we looked up to the tiny church and rolled our eyes in admiration for the locals who make the climb each Easter.
One day, after a particularly excessive lunch of fried cheese and too much retsina, we decided to tackle the mountain ourselves.
We set off mid-morning the next day.
The first 200 metres rose gently. We plodded up, looking down on a patchwork landscape in the valleys. Small stone walls separated little farmed sections where rolls of hay lay side by side. Olive trees spread out in neat patterns. There was no sign of a car – just donkey droppings.
We crossed precarious stone bridges over dry trenches. The air became hotter with each metre. The little church never seemed to get any closer.
Wild herbs grew by the side of the track and little blue wooden boxes – bee hives – were scattered around the rocky terrain.
The road finally flattened, giving a little respite. We were panting, sweating and cursing our stupidity while at the same time marvelling at the tenacity of the locals to make it all this way up by a goat track.
Another half an hour later we were up very high and could look across the island to the town of Apollonia, a cluster of white buildings somnolent against the blue of the distant sea. We had never felt so alone.
Finally, life. An old man approached, sitting side-saddle on a donkey. He gestured to us that we were mad to be climbing the mountain in the heat of the day, posed for a photo, and then quietly clopped off down the mountain. Moments later we walked into a storm of yellow butterflies, thousands of them surrounding us, their fragile fluttery wings brushing and cooling our hot faces. The last 100 metres were very difficult, we had to leave the road and take a precipitous rocky path, obviously the end of the goat track.
Doubled over by the steepness of the track, we finally reached the church: white, blue, lonely.
We were so high, so vertical, we felt we could topple over and roll down the mountain if we weren’t careful. But the views: the sky, the sea, the distance. We were speechless.
There was no Easter feast to celebrate our trek, but a modest picnic of bread, cheese, tomato and retsina felt like a banquet.
The Church of the Seven Martyrs on Sifnos island in the Cyclades and, below, a man rides a donkey up the goat track.