SIFNOS, Greece — Sifnos in Greek means "the empty," and as we approached the fortress-like monastery looming above us at the summit of Mt. Profitias Ilias, the highest point on the island, the name seemed apt. My friend Sakura and I had not seen a soul during our two-hour climb up the mountainside.
Still, as the citadel's gates came into view, I think we half expected to be greeted by a kindly old abbot and a coterie of monks. But we received a different welcome. Not 10 yards away a herd of menacing-looking mountain goats sporting long, sharp horns stood immobile before us as if guarding the entrance.
So we wouldn't alarm them, we moved slowly away to a small knoll in front of the entryway. After what seemed like a long standoff, the staring sentinels suddenly bolted to the opposite side of the structure and, with a tinkling of bells that made them seem much less fearsome, climbed down the surrounding slopes.
The monastery, we quickly discovered, was abandoned. Constructed beginning in the 12th Century, it had once housed 60 monks. Now only the dimly lit chapel, in which our voices reverberated eerily, seemed to be maintained.
A guest book at its entrance indicated that only two other travelers had arrived before us on this early June day. Almost none of the entries in the preceding months were Americans.
Outside in the warm afternon sun, the expanse of the island lay at our feet, lined by a turquoise sea 2,300 feet below.
To the east, agglomerations of what looked like miniature sugar cubes formed the villages of Apollonia, Artemona and the coastal fortress-town of Kastro. To the south and west the land was dry, barren and sparsely populated.
For such a small and "empty" island, Sifnos has a remarkable amount to see and do, especially for those who don't mind straying off the beaten path. How small is small? Try 11 miles long, five miles wide.
We had landed at the port of Kamares a few days earlier on a boat from Piraeus, the main point of embarkation to the group of Cyclades Islands. The majority of our fellow arriving passengers appeared to have been Northern Europeans. We heard smatterings of French, German and Scandinavian tongues, but little English.
Unlike some of the Aegean Islands, there had been no crowd of islanders waiting to offer rooms when we arrived at Sifnos. A good sign, I thought, as we rode on a bus crowded with other travelers up the valley to Apollonia, the island's transportation and tourist center.
Apollonia, with a population of about 600, has the greatest number of hotels and restaurants on Sifnos, and is conveniently sited for visiting other parts of the island.
The bus ride to Apollonia took about a half hour. Arriving without reservations, we consulted our guidebook and soon found lodging at the Hotel Sifnos, which is on a narrow, car-less street a few minutes from the village square. We were given a pleasant room with a balcony overlooking the street below and the sea in the distance.
Exploring the second road, we found that it leads east out of Apollonia down a narrow valley to the Kastro, a citadel sitting on a promontory overlooking the sea.
Built in the 13th Century during the period of Venetian rule, the steep cliffs of the rock outcrop provided a natural defense from which to attack pirates who once roamed this part of the Aegean.
Inside the town walls, a jumble of sun-washed buildings piled on top of one another and honey-combed with narrow passageways form a three-dimensional maze that makes it as easy for modern travelers to get lost as it would have been for invading Saracens.
But the town is so small that eventually you will find your way. And you may come across a little terrace cafe where you can escape the sun and the intense glare of whitewash and cool your eyes by gazing over the mellow browns and greens of the countryside.
People still live in the Kastro, about 150 at the latest tally. It's a little disconcerting to see TV antennas sprouting from a medieval fortress, but better that, I thought, than a ghost town or a restored outdoor museum.
Walking back down Mt. Profitias Ilias in the deepening afternoon sun, the massive walls of the monastery towering above us, I imagined how it must have been in centuries past. Inhabited since before 1500 BC, Sifnos has had numerous rulers, including Romans, Venetians, Turks, Russians and Italians.
My reverie was broken as a solitary figure riding in the customary side-saddle manner on a donkey approached us from the opposite direction. It was an old man--the monastery caretaker, I guessed--who passed and offered greetings.
Sakura and I saw no one else until we got back to the outskirts of Apollonia at dusk. Goats were the only creatures about, and we would have scarcely noticed them except for their faint bells in the distance.
In ancient times, Sifnos was known for its gold mines, which made it very prosperous. The legend here is that every year the islanders sent a solid gold egg to Delphi as tribute to the Greek god Apollo.