Sikinos opts for a different way to develop

Sikinos is no tiny, forgotten island, but one where tourism is being developed with an intelligent approach. Its few beaches are small, a factor that has served to protect it from summer hordes. Local residents are still hospitable, and the mania for large-scale development that has swept much of the country is nowhere to be seen. The new mayor, Yiannis Syrigos, and his associates are seeking hydroplane links with Athens and ways to boost local professions that will keep the islanders from leaving. Many former residents are returning to their vineyards, setting up beekeeping cooperatives, organizing the school library and holding cultural events. They are applying for funds from the Egnatia program for small islands and are operating recycling programs in the hope they will set an example for other islands. The town of Hora was formed by three older settlements, Vounio, Kastro and Horio. Greeks and foreigners who have bought homes on the island have respected the local architecture as if by informal agreement. Horio in particular is a model of aesthetic harmony. Among the new settlers is Costas Kyriazis, originally from Santorini but whose home was on Ios, an island he visits now only to see friends and relatives. «It costs twice as much to build a house here as it does in Athens, so anyone who comes here is not about to spoil things,» he said. In Hora, cars simply can’t fit in the narrow cobbled streets. Transport around the island is an interesting exercise. We met French hikers that were thrilled with the island paths. Donkeys carry locals to otherwise inaccessible areas where they have their beehives and other work. The veteran passenger ferry Romilda slowly plies the route to and from Piraeus throughout the year. There is a fast link via Ios on the High Speed 5 then the local Arsinoe, a journey that can take three hours to reach Ios and another 40 minutes to Sikinos at best. At worst, passengers from Sikinos arrive in Ios harbor on the Arsinoe only to watch the High Speed 5 leaving for Piraeus, the two ships whistling as they pass each other. Nevertheless, Sikinos’s harbor has been approved for seaplanes and so quite soon the island will be closer. The square in Kastro, the monastery of Pantanassa, the impressive northwestern side of the island with its endless dry stone walls, the archaeological areas of Aghia Marina and Episkopi, and the residents of Sikinos themselves are the island’s main attractions. «Agapoula» (Little Love), «Antartis» (Guerrilla) and «Garbis» (the hot, dry southwest wind) are just a few of the typical nicknames. Father Theodoros, a passionate violinist and beekeeper, remembers his wife’s initial refusal to give her approval (wives must sign their agreement) to his becoming a priest at the age of 31. We met him in Hora and followed him to Kastro’s church, Pantanassa, to talk in peace. He and Father Spyros talked about the island and its people, who rarely go to church. They showed us old icons and wonderful carved screens that they often try to restore themselves, rubbing them with a little wax. The residents of Sikinos might not be regular church-goers, but they never miss a saint’s day festival (panegyri) and keep up the custom of panegyrades who undertake to pay for the festival that includes buying 80 kilos of fish, and who take the saint’s icon into their home for a year. «The old priest registered me when I was 6 years old, and I got the icon when I was 42,» said Father Theodoros abut the Pantanassa icon and the long list of candidate panegyrades. He told us more stories about miracle-working icons and about magical waters, about the small olives that produce excellent oil but which are not harvested much anymore, about pirates and people exiled to the island. Many people from the island have spent time away from Sikinos. «I left when I was 17,» said Katerina Margeti, who was sitting crocheting in her courtyard. «I don’t regret it, as life was very hard then. After the occupation, around 1950, people started leaving.» This year the primary school had just four pupils and locals worry about the school’s fate until the latest batch of babies are old enough to attend. At the medical center, the dentist Costas Habipis, who is also a member of the municipal council, talked about the lack of incentives provided by the state. The lack of medical attention is perhaps the most serious problem faced on all islands. Their economy has been boosted, however, by tourism and European Union programs that encourage investment. In contrast to other small islands, Sikinos has benefited from opportunities. Giorgos Manalis opened his own wine bar with the help of subsidies. New vineyards are appearing on some terraced hillsides. The well-traveled Anna Venieri («Agapoula») returned to her childhood home bringing with her knowledge acquired in the city, along with funding, to set up a cooperative with 17 other beekeepers whose produce has boosted the island’s economy. In the six months since they took office, Syrigos and his associates have secured funding for various sectors. If all of the proposed projects are carried out and the population increases, then Sikinos will certainly have set an example for other islands. «We have turned our attention to primary production, that is livestock breeding, beekeeping, agriculture,» he said. «We hope that only the positive aspects of the drastic changes that have occurred over the past 20 years in the name of tourism development will find their way to our small community, where they will be welcome.» This article first appeared in the July 8 issue of Kathimerini’s color supplement K.

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