Spring Shots on Symi

Spring is the prettiest time of the year on Symi. Every day brings new flowers, new scents and new colours to the landscape. Orange blossom, hawthorn, cyclamens, daisies of all sizes and colours. The sheep and goats are spoiled for choice. This spring has also brought the Covid-19 vaccination to the island, of which more later.

This weekend is normally a holiday weekend in Greece, with carnival celebrations followed by the traditional Clean Monday picnics and kite flying in the countryside. This year there is no carnival, as was also the case in 2020. The Clean Monday kite flying is permitted under SMS code 6 for exercise, with the proviso that people can only go to parks to fly kites if they go on foot or by bicycle and maintain the social distancing rules. Anyone who has been following the recent upheavals in Nea Smyrni, Athens, will be wondering how well this will go down. On Symi, which dances to its own tune, families will no doubt head up the mountain to their usual family places and do what they usually do. Athens seems a long way away.

The vaccination program has been underway on Symi for several weeks now. Our age group came up last week and we received a phone call from the clinic, telling us exactly what time to arrive for our appointment. After 3 weeks of dry weather of course vaccination day had to bring torrential rain and gale force winds. The clinic door was locked to control entry and exit with everyone only allowed in as their time slot came up. Effectively not more than 4 people were in the surgery at any one time, excluding the staff – the person currently receiving their shot, the next in line and the previous two waiting out the 15-30 minutes recovery time (30 minutes for those with a history of allergies). Everything was done in a very smooth and professional manner. A brief medical history was taken before hand and the right questions were asked. We received the Pfizer injection and are happy to report no side effects. We are to report back at the same time in 3 weeks to receive the second shot. By the way, other routine business such as the issuing of repeat prescriptions was being conducted through the open window of the waiting room. The KEP office at the town hall operates similarly.

According to various articles in the press, the general idea seems to be to try to get the island tourist economies up and running again as quickly as possible with a target date of 14 May. This will be dependent on getting enough people vaccinated for this to be deemed safe and, of course, for borders to open to international travel. As the situation changes on a daily basis everything is still very uncertain.

Simply Red?

An update on yesterday’s blog posting as the rules changed again after publication.

After Wednesday evening’s shock announcement that Symi, Tilos, Halki and Kastellorizon were going to be under the same Deep Red restrictions as Rhodes, by virture of being part of the same municipality, Symi parents received messages from the schools to say that their children had to revert to on line home learning with immediate effect. The Mayors of Tilos and Kastellorizon hit the phones to high places, pointing out that in the case of their particular islands their populations had already received their first vaccinations and various mixed messages were received by local authorities seeking clarification. By late morning on Thursday it was confirmed that while Rhodes is to go under the same Deep Red restrictions, Symi, Kastellorizon, Tilos and Halki were now exempt.

As I understand it, this means that our curfew remains at 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and the primary school children can go back to school. Other restrictions, however, remain in place as the amendments to movement regulations are countrywide, regardless of which shade of red one is on the map.

This could, of course, all be different by tomorrow…

Deep Red Sends Symiots Early to Bed

The latest lockdown news from Symi as new restrictions are implemented.

Greece has been in a country wide lockdown since 7 November 2020 in an effort to control the spread of the ubiquitous Covid-19 virus. Every time it looks as though the situation is under control it surges again, particularly in Attica where the UK strain of the virus is gaining hold and ICU beds are full. Meanwhile the number of cases in Rhodes has risen sharply in the last two weeks, also causing concern. Yesterday afternoon the government announced that the whole country was going into a more restricted lockdown but areas designated Deep Red would have even stricter measures. As Symi falls under Rhodes, even though we have yet to have any cases on the island, we too are now Deep Red.

On Symi the main impacts are that the schools have closed again with effect for today and the curfew now starts at 19.00 instead of 21.00 and continues until 05.00. Shops are closed apart from food and essentials and this has to be done locally, with a time limit of 2 hours from getting the permission code. We are no longer allowed to drive to places to start our daily exercise but must do it entirely on foot or bicycle. No drives into the countryside to then walk to mountain monasteries. SMS code 4, to render assistance to the elderly and vulnerable, is to be more closely monitored and the police may actually accompany you to make sure that you are indeed taking essentials to someone in need and not using this as a cover for attending an illegal birthday party or other furtive social event. No doubt more information will emerge in the media in due course.

On the vaccination front, Symi town hall has just put out an announcement asking everyone over 60 to register for the vaccination. The over 80s and over 75s have been done, as have the front line medical workers. Apparently many of the locals are reluctant to be vaccinated, on the grounds that only tourists who have been vaccinated are likely to be allowed onto the island anyway so why should they? The expat community, on the other hand, remember how polio vaccinations – and others – changed lives and are not so flippant. When I went down to the town hall yesterday, the only people I saw registering were all British residents. Hopefully attitudes will change as results are seen in the rate of hospitalisations as otherwise it is going to be another very long year.

Sunday is 7 March, Dodecanese Day, the day when the Dodecanese Islands became part of the modern state of Greece in 1947. For the second year running there will be no parades or festivities. The 25 March should be an even bigger holiday in Greece this year, celebrating the bicentennary of the Greek War of Independence from the Ottomans but that too is being toned down.

The only thing running to plan at the moment is spring. The days are getting longer and warmer. The lambs are gambolling, the birds twittering, the flowers opening before our eyes. The air is scented with hawthorn, citrus blossom and wild cyclamens. The trees are humming with bees. We have not had any rain since 21 February and there is none showing up on the long range forecast.

A strong earthquake hit central Greece yesterday, causing widespread damage to buildings. You can read more about this here.

Dodecanese Seaways have launched a new service in conjunction with a supermarket chain on Rhodes, enabling people in Symi, Halki, Tilos and Nissyros to order their groceries on line and have them delivered to the boat. The boats are well equipped with freezer and fridge storage as they already bring perishable supplies to supermarkets and other businesses along their routes. Apparently on Symi the goods will then be delivered to home addresses. For the other three islands, customers will have to come down to the boat to fetch their shopping. It will be interesting to see how this works in practice and how many people will take it up. Looking at the website, there did not seem to be anything in particular listed that would be significantly cheaper than on Symi or not normally available here in some form or another but I know from visiting the other three islands, which have tiny populations, that they have very limited grocery shopping facilities. We shall see.

The Symi Bubble

Greece went into its second lockdown on 7 November 2020, initially until the 30th of that month. The figures continued to rise and the lockdown was extended – and extended – and extended again. Since that date no one has been allowed to travel to or from Symi unless they have very specific reasons to do so and can produce documentary evidence of that reason. Effectively we are living in a very efficient quarantine bubble with nary a winter cold or sniffle to be seen. What keeps coronavirus out also keeps colds, flu and other contagious diseases out too. This could be the island’s healthiest winter ever – even if also the most boring!

Retail restrictions were partially lifted in Greece a couple of weeks ago but on Symi that has made little difference – it is in Athens and Thessaloniki that shoppers starved of retail therapy have thronged Hermes Street and in Rhodes that people from outlying villages have queued to get into Jumbo and Zara.

Meanwhile, on Symi where retail excitements tend to focus rather on who currently has the freshest root ginger and whether the Chinese shop in Chorio has cheap fleeces in the right size, there is no sign of a shopping frenzy. Instead, as there is no limit on the number of times one can send SMS code 6 or how long one can stay out for personal exercise, as long as the regulations are obeyed, Symi people are rediscovering their island in a big way.

Remote mountain chapels, abandoned farmsteads, long forgotten archaeological sites and indigenous forests are seeing more activity than they have in decades as locals and expat residents alike go hiking every sunny day. A spin off of this is that Symi’s vast natural resources are finally getting the attention that they deserve and the rationale behind walking trails and attracting walkers back to the island is being understood. One can only hope that this does not precipitate another rush of hastily laid concrete paths but leads to a controlled project to restore the old kalderimis and to reinstate the access points that were destroyed when the road to Panormitis was tarred. Symi is not just a beach destination and there is more to the island than the neo-classical harbour.

As I write this we are once again waiting to find out if the lockdown regulations are changing. Will the high schools reopen on Monday as intended or will the increase in cases in Attica roll this back? Will the shops be closed again because people in Athens cannot be trusted to behave responsibly when given the opportunity to buy Marks and Spencers knickers in person rather than on line? Who knows. The only certainty is that every sunny winter’s day there will be people walking up and down Symi, from end to end, enjoying the views from mountain tops and counting how many islands they can spot on a clear day.

Symi’s Second Lockdown

Here we are again, nearly four weeks into Greece’s second full lockdown. While Symi pottered along quietly into November with a few lingering tourists enjoying some late sunshine, things were escalating rapidly in northern Greece, particularly in Greece’s second city, Thessalonica, and Athens wasn’t looking too good either, so the government took the step virtually over night of shutting the country down. The announcement was made on the afternoon of Thursday 5 November that the lockdown would come into effect from 6 a.m. on Saturday 7 November.

Symi regulars will know that the weekend of 7-8 November was the Panormitis Festival and the Feast of St Michael. Pilgrims and hawkers had already started to arrive – in a socially distanced sort of way, of course. They were all instructed to return from whence they came. The Blue Star on Friday 6 November had a Dunkirk air about it as this was the last boat out before the lockdown. Tourists rescheduled flights, home owners had to make hasty decisions as to whether to dash for home now or take a chance that they might be stuck for an indefinite period of time, Symiots took advantage of the last opportunity to go to Rhodes to do shopping and essential business before everything closed down.

Dodecanese Seaways had cancelled all their scheduled routes for the Saturday and Sunday, which had been intended to shuttle people from Rhodes to Symi for the festival and ferry travel from the Monday onwards would be under the lockdown protocols, involving a lot more paperwork. Travel between prefectures and regions is also forbidden under the lockdown except for a very narrow range of reasons. Apart from medical appointments there is no passenger movement between the islands and Symi really is very isolated now. Dodecanese Seaways comes through twice a week to bring supplies and courier items, as does the Blue Star so there is no shortage of food or medicines. Normally this is a busy time on the boats with everyone going over to Rhodes to do Christmas shopping.

Once again a permit and SMS system has been imposed. Basically you can only be outside your home if you have Document A which is to prove that you are going to and from work or B, either a document or an SMS allowing you to be out for a very limited range of reasons. Anyone going out must have either the form or the reciprocal SMS, passport or ID and a mask. Here on Symi police checks have been fairly relaxed and random – but there, nevertheless. In the towns and cities, however, the rules are more stringently imposed and fines are steep.

Initially the lockdown was to be until 30 November 2020. Unfortunately with the continuing high death rate, high number of intubations and high number of new cases on the mainland the lockdown has officially been extended to 7 December and at time to writing we are awaiting an announcement if this will be extended further, to 14 or 21 December. Whichever way it goes, it is going to be a low key Christmas in Greece.

Speaking of Christmas, the municipal workers have been busy and the Symi Christmas lights started to go up earlier than usual this year, at the start of the lockdown. We have a curfew from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. but if we look out of our windows we have sparkly lights to cheer us up.

The weather on Symi remained mild and sunny well into November with rare rainy days and thunderstorms. That is now changing to more frequent wet weather and temperatures are now around 15 degrees in the day, dropping to about 10 at night. Northern parts of Greece and high lying areas have already had snow and frosts while we are still enjoying the Symi ‘second spring’.

Summer 2020 is Over

Today is 30 September but on Symi it feels a lot like 31 October. The speed with which seasonal activities are shutting down on the island this year is startling, but understandable in the Year of the Virus. With so few tourists around and a cloud of uncertainty it does not make sense for small businesses to struggle on into October, looking for the money to pay staff, insurance and buy perishable stock that will not be sold or eaten.

A solitary fisherman in Pedi bay.
Early morning in Pedi. I took this while waiting to take the 8.30 bus into Yialos.

As we slip into October the ferry schedules are tailing off into winter mode. Dodecanese Seaways has significantly cut back on the service to Symi and, as was the case earlier in the season, some days will be filled in on an ad hoc basis with little advance warning. Blue Star ferries still comes through three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Monday and Wednesday are incredibly early, entailing being down on the dock before 5 in the morning and arriving in Rhodes shortly after 6, long before anything is open. Friday is considerably more civilised, with the boat leaving Symi just after 8, making this the most popular day for trips to Rhodes for the locals. The SAOS Stavros plods on regardless with only slight changes to times for October.

I never know what I am going to see what I look out of the window. This rather sweet little boat hasn’t seen the sea for a very long time and is, no doubt, unlikely to see it again if it is up the mountain, in the landfill.

There is a lot of speculation and chatter regarding what is likely to happen – or not happen – about the Panormitis Festival this year. Will the usual week-long fair be allowed to take place? Will pilgrims be allowed to come to the monastery from all over the islands and sleep in dormitories and on the verandahs? Is it even worth wondering about it when we still have October to get through and a week is a long time in 2020? Watch this space – if I hear anything, I will let you know!

Empty August

 

Well, here we are, drifting through the quietest August in living memory.  Some property owners, mostly French and Italian, have travelled to Symi as they usually do at this time of the year and there are a few unfamiliar faces around, but by and large this feels more like a very hot April than the busiest fortnight in the year.

Greece appears to be heading towards the dreaded ‘second wave‘, caused not so much by large quantities of infected tourists descending upon the country in their droves but through community spread.  Big weddings and crowded social gatherings seem to be the main sources of infection as the uninhibited behaviour that accompanies such events spreads the virus faster than you can say ‘Yamas!’.  The government has brought in ever more regulations to try to restrain reckless behaviour but to visit Symi on any given name day in July you would never believe that religious festivals are banned.  In theory the big annual shindig at the Alethini on the Pedi road should not be taking place this weekend but unless the police turn up and fine the entire populace, chances are good that it will take place as usual.  It has taken a while for the wearing of masks in taxis, on the bus, in the shops and so on to catch on and there is the difficulty of enforcing mask wearing in supermarkets.  People in a position of authority, like the post office staff, have a greater chance of enforcing the regulations and don’t allow a foot over the threshold without mask and appropriate social distancing, but regular shops don’t have the weight of the state behind them when it comes to persuading aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and the like to follow the rules.

We are told about record breaking numbers of new infections every day, particularly in Attica and Thessaloniki, but when it comes to revealing what is happening in the islands, figures are very generalised – knowing, for example, that there are 4 more cases in the Dodecanese today or whenever does not say very much.  Gossip and speculation abound.  Is it true that two tourists with high fevers were removed from Symi last week?  It might be a hot topic of discussion at the hardware store or petrol station but there are no specifics.  Some still say that the whole country will shut down after Panagia because someone on daytime TV speculated about this at some point.  In real time, curfews have been imposed in some popular tourist destinations, including Rhodes and Mykonos, and the whole island of Poros is up in arms because party-time is over and the blame-game has begun.

Regulations for travellers have been extended and anyone coming from Spain, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands or the Czech Republic is now required to have a negative coronavirus test 72 hours before travelling.  There are also further restrictions on entrance through the land borders.

Meanwhile, in other news, the cat and mouse game between Turkey and Greece continues but we will save that for another day.

 

Open for Lunch

 

As you can see from today’s photographs, more shops and tavernas are opening up now that there are a few tourists coming over from Rhodes. The bus service has extended its schedule so the last bus is now at 9 p.m. from the harbour, 9.30 p.m. from Pedi.  Not quite conducive to a night on the tiles but until there are enough people around to justify running later that’s it.  If you are on Symi this summer, think local for your evenings out or reckon on a stroll home under the stars.  If you are travelling on the bus, a mask should be worn and every alternate seat left empty.

On the subject of masks, it is now once again mandatory to wear masks in supermarkets.  As these are the businesses most often frequented by everyone, we spend the most time in them and they are air conditioned which seems to be conducive to the spread of the virus, it makes sense.

Before I forget, in my previous blog I said the information therein was valid at time of writing but came with no guarantees that it would remain unchanged.  Well, forget about King Saron as a means of getting to Symi.  Evidently a ferry license is not forthcoming and they are sticking to day excursions.  While there is nothing to stop you buying a day excursion ticket to Symi and then not using the return leg, the problem is that they are not allowed to take luggage and are subject to police inspections so turning up with your wheelie bag for a day trip to Symi is just not going to work.  Spare underwear and a toothbrush in your handbag is about as far as it goes.  Meanwhile Dodecanese Seaways continues to adjust its schedules on a weekly basis and a cloud of uncertainty continues regarding Sunday travel.  Compromise is the name of the game this summer and anyone travelling this year is going to have to take it as it comes.  Someone said, don’t sweat the small stuff…

Direct flights have started from the UK and will soon be starting from Sweden.  After a few hiccoughs the PLF and QR system seems to be functioning fairly smoothly.  Airlines are now responsible for making sure that passengers actually fill in the PLF form 24 hours before travelling and get their QR codes so they are more motivated to get this done.  The bottle necks are at their check in desks rather than in the arrivals hall as the airlines have to foot the bill for anyone who travels without one.

According to an article in one of the Greek papers yesterday, one of the difficulties with the Covid-19 testing process in the island airports is that the swabs have to be sent to Athens to be processed which obviously takes longer as they are sent in a batch once or twice a day, whenever there is a flight back to Athens and then have to be processed.  As it says on the government website, you will be notified if your test results are positive and you are asked to self-isolate and practice social distancing for the 24 hours or so it takes for your test to be processed.  Another difficulty that the authorities are experiencing that is totally within the control of travellers, however, is people giving bogus addresses and fake phone numbers on their forms or ignoring the phone calls from the authorities.  As people are only contacted if their test results are POSITIVE this means selfish individuals who think they have outwitted the system, for reasons known only to themselves, could be blithely spreading the virus as they disport themselves in bars and beaches.  For anyone reading this considering such irresponsible behaviour, just remember, they still have your passport number and there is probably a special place in Interpol hell for super-spreaders!

And on that cheerful note I shall leave you to mull over the madness that is the summer of 2020.

 

 

Summer, but not as we know it.

“It is like winter, only with better weather,”  a recently-arrived friend observed to me a few days ago.  The days are long and hot and there isn’t much happening.  Anyone visiting Symi for the first time probably won’t notice much difference as Symi has reverted to the sleepy charm of the 1970s and 80s.  The gulets and yachts that normally fill the harbour in the summer months are conspicuous by their absence and apart from a few Greek flagged sailing boats visiting from Rhodes and Kos, the anchorages are empty.   Until the sea borders can safely open up with testing procedures in place at a greater number of ports, this is unlikely to change.  The sea border between Greece and Turkey is still firmly closed so there are no ferry connections between the two countries either.

Most of the cafes and bars in the harbour are now open, as are the two pizzerias, the gyros and grill houses and several restaurants and tavernas.  We were invited to dinner at Tholos in Harani on Saturday night.  The number of tables has been reduced by about a third so that they are more widely spaced. The staff all wear masks.  Sanitiser is brought to the table so you can clean your hands, particularly after handling the menu.  As this was the only restaurant open in the Harani area they were full, mainly with Greek tourists.  The food was excellent, as always, and they have not succumbed to the temptation to make up the shortfall in income by hiking prices.

Water taxis have resumed operation on a limited scale along the lines of one trip out in the morning and another back in the afternoon.  The Poseidon goes out 4 times a week. The Maria is also advertising day trips.  The ferry schedules are still a bit skimpy.  Dodecanese Seaways is not operating the Panagia Skiadeni and their official on line schedule shows no service to Symi on Sundays.  Sunday is actually marketed as a Facebook ‘event’ for a day excursion from Rhodes to Panormitis and once they know they have a good expression of interest, then it goes live.  The Sea Dreams website is advertising the King Saron for a daily route to Symi, starting from tomorrow, 15 July, and they are selling one way tickets.  Although this shows as running every day, this will be subject to demand but they have made their booking conditions very flexible.  As only 80 of the 450 hotels on Rhodes are actually open at the moment, and they are by no means full, it will be a while before there are enough tourists to fill day boats on a regular basis.  The Blue Star comes through 3 times a week.  There is still no evening boat from Rhodes to Symi apart from the Blue Star on Wednesdays at 18.30 (Mondays and Fridays, the Blue Star currently leaves Rhodes at 16.00). The Stavros seems to be more reliable than initially anticipated.

Direct flights from the UK commence from tomorrow, 15 July.  Direct flights from Sweden from 22 July and there is the possibility of direct flights being allowed from certain parts of the USA at the end of the month, depending on infection rates and so on.  Everyone has to fill in a PLF on line 24 hours before travelling and they are then issued with a QR code on their smart phones which they must show in order to travel.  This code determines whether one will have a mandatory Covid-19 check or a random one and the contact details provided are so that you can be notified of your test results and also, should anyone you have travelled with and been in close contact with, test positive, you can be informed.  Stricter controls are now being implemented at the land borders due to a recent increase in the number of people arrived from the Balkans who have tested positive.  You can find all the information you need about travelling to Greece on a new government website.

This is all as up-to-date as it can be, but it could all be totally different tomorrow!

 

Symi Summertime Blues

Well, here we are in July. The days are long, the sun is hot, the sea is warm. Normally this is high season and the bay is full of yachts swinging at anchor and Yialos full of gulets and gleaming megayachts. This year both are empty.  There are still restrictions in place regarding yachting movements, many cruising yachtsmen are in the vulnerable over 70s demographic so reluctant to travel, flights have to be booked, anti-fouling applied, boats launched – it will take a while for the summer time parade of visiting yachts and gulets to appear, if it ever does this year.  At the moment, due to Covid-19 testing protocols, Symi is not a port of entry for non-Greek yachts so even if sailing between Greece and Turkey were to resume, it would have to be through Rhodes.

Katsaras in Pedi has been open for a while, as you will have gathered from previous blog posts, and the sunbeds are also out at St Nicholas, even though the water taxi is not running as yet.  Apostoli’s is now making the transition from boatyard to waterfront taverna.  The last of the caiques is in the water and the bobcat is landscaping the beach.  The chairs and tables are getting a lick of paint and the sunbeds are ready to roll.

The Pedi Beach hotel is still pretty much deserted although I saw a pink bathing costume hanging out to dry from one of the umbrellas (sorry, no photo, my batteries were flat).

The general trend at the moment is that the old people head for the sea early – 7 a.m. or thereabouts – and time their walk back up the hill before the heat nails them to the tarmac.  From about 4 p.m. on wards the younger locals make for the water – parents with small children, groups of teenagers, local teachers and so on.  In the middle of the day it is just far too hot at the moment for anyone to move.  Temperatures are in the 40s and only the cicadas are busy.

There is some anxiety on the island at the moment.  In the usual state of Covid-induced paranoia, the news that two Greek-Americans who managed to get to Karpathos in June became ill with Covid-19 after their arrival, infected several relatives before they themselves were isolated in hospital in Crete and resulted in an entire village being put into lockdown has not gone down well.  This was followed a few days later by the news that of the 9 new cases of Covid-19 announced yesterday, 7 of them were tourist arrivals from abroad, and the land border with Serbia has been closed due to an increase of cases there.

Meanwhile, as I write this, my laptop has just pinged a notification that will bring joy to the hearts of any readers from the UK who have flights booked for this month.

Good luck!  Who knows what tomorrow will bring?