Stormy Skies and Sleepy Cats

Half past six in the morning and dawn breaks behind St George’s church in Pedi.
The beach at Apostoli’s has been cleared to receive the first boats for haul out. In the background you can see shuttered houses, secured against the winter storms. Some property owners have special storm shutters made from sheets of painted plywood which they put in place to protect the traditional wooden shutters from the elements so that they don’t have to be repainted every year. Symi’s charming neo-classical architecture is very high maintenance.
Our cauliflower-eared ginger friend, checking out sandbox conditions.
Looking back from the path to St Nicholas beach yesterday morning, 26 October 2020. The squills have lost most of their flowers now and are mainly naked stalks.
A closer look reveals three kayaks, paddling out into the bay. Symi might not actively court adventure holidays or provide much in the way of amenities to facilitate such activities, but those who are happy to organise their own, arrive with kayaks, mountain bikes and such like. Symi’s dramatic landscape and spectacular bays and coves lend themselves to a lot more than sun-bathing.
A different ginger cat, this one with ears intact, snoozing under a rosemary bush outside the Pedi Beach hotel. The hotel is now closed, the front terrace deserted and the staff busy, packing things away, pruning tamarisk trees and securing the property for whatever the winter may toss at Symi.

Storm Circe is approaching and this is likely to be the last calm day for a while. The storm is expected to reach Symi tomorrow afternoon or evening, leading on to at least a week of unsettled weather. The clouds are already thickening and the sky is the pinkish grey that portends red rain.

Tomorrow, 28 October, is also Ochi Day, a public holiday and national day in Greece. Usually celebrated with parades around the country, this year the parades have been cancelled and the wreath-laying will be low-key. The last tavernas remaining open are expecting good lunch time trade tomorrow, if the weather holds, as families often eat out on this day. This year they will be skipping the parade and moving straight onto the lunch! Social distancing still applies, with an official limit of 6 to a table.

Dodecanese Seaways ferries have started laying on more routes to bring people from Rhodes and other islands to Panormitis monastery in the run-up to the Feast of St Michael on 8 November. Allowing groups to visit the monastery over a longer period of time makes sense in these days of social distancing, particularly as there is a limit on how many passengers ferries are allowed to carry at the moment.

Speaking of limits, the last bus out of Yialos is now 9 p.m. and on Saturday evening by 10 p.m. there was not a taxi to be found, even though there were quite a few people around. Understandable, really, as the last few times I have caught the bus at various times of the day or evening I have often been the only person or one of only a handful of passengers.

Symi Snapshots

Life on Symi in the middle of October 2020.

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Today is 15 October, the date traditionally regarded as the end of the tourist season on Symi. Seasonal businesses sign off the last of their staff, if they have not already done so. The water taxis are already out on the hard in Harani. Businesses that depend primarily on tourism for their purpose in life are wrapping up. Some may stay open for a few hours a day if there is an excursion boat from Rhodes but these are thinning out now, as Rhodes also empties.

This doesn’t mean that the whole island shuts down. With around 3000 permanent inhabitants, supermarkets, shoe shops, pharmacies, banks, the post office, the butchers and various other businesses stay open all year. Traditional cafes, bars, the gyros grills and other eateries that are supported by local residents stay open for as long as they have customers and tend to adapt their hours and their offerings from year to year, depending on demand.

Taverna Dafnes at Toli Bay has just announced on Facebook that they will be staying open until the end of November, weather permitting. This is popular with locals, particularly those who live in the garden village of Xisos, as it is accessible by road. The Panorama Cantina at Agia Marina is finishing this weekend but Constantinos View, the upper Cantina on the road to Panormitis, will stay open for as long as they can. Down in Pedi, although the sunbeds are disappearing fast, it is still possible to have a meal at either of the two tavernas.

The Poseidon excursion boat is doing a final round-the-island boat trip tomorrow, Friday 16 October. Apparently the caique ‘Maria’ will keep running until the end of October as long as there are sufficient people, weather permitting. They need a minimum of 8 people so if you are on Symi and hankering after a boat trip, why not round up a few friends?

Information about the Panormitis Festival is still vague – in theory large gatherings involving thousands of people are not permitted – but Dodecanese Seaways has just announced their ferry schedule to bring pilgrims to the monstery from 30 October to 9 November so we shall see.

The chicken seller is back, hawking Rhode Island Red pullets and young turkeys from the back of his lorry (see photograph). We have already seen the first carpet seller, hawking his wares up at Kampos in Chorio.

Anyone visiting Symi from now on won’t be having a tourist experience. They will be living like a local – and that was always Symi’s unique selling point.

October Postcards from Symi

Carefully tethered with a bit of fishing line, this toy boat shelters among its big brothers in the ‘marina’ in Pedi.
Invisible cat. This old bruiser with his battered cauliflower ears has sired countless ginger kittens and has a territory that extends far up the Pedi valley. He appeared in this blog some months ago, snoozing on a plastic chair in a garden of prickly pears below the Alethini.
Everyone else’s smartphone moonrise photos look like moonrise photos. I never seem to get more than a dot in the night sky but you get the general idea. This was the last full moon, rising over St George’s church in Pedi. Yes, that yellow blur is the Symi bus and no, it wasn’t breaking speed records. This was a slow exposure supposedly better for photographing moons.
The tamarisk trees are flowering and the bees are loving it.
St Nicholas beach on Wednesday this week. They are systematically packing away umbrellas and sunbeds. This photograph was taken at 5 in the afternoon and much of the beach was already in shadow. Many of Symi’s beaches are east-facing and surrounded by high hills and cliffs. Even if there are still tourists around, they still close up in October as they are too shady to attract sun-loving tourists. Locals, on the other hand, appreciate the fact that the sea stays warm until Christmas and enjoy a dip after a long walk.
George’s water taxi heading back to the jetty in Pedi.
The fuel ship for the power station coming into Pedi this morning. There was an inconveniently anchored yacht in the bay so much tooting while the anxious yachtsman hastened to move his yacht out of the way.
Someone is enjoying a late break.
Others are firmly closed. Those storm shutters are unlikely to shift before May 2021.

The winter growing season has begun.

Feels Like Autumn

It is the first of October and the edge has gone off the heat. Overnight temperatures have dropped to the pleasant low twenties and the breeze is refreshingly cool rather than akin to the blast from an open oven door. The air has cleared and visibility is infinite. Walking to St Nicholas, some of the thyme bushes have started to flower again and the sage bushes are greening over. The stones on the quay are wet in the morning, slick with the mist that settles on them overnight. The second spring is on its way.

In the fields the new agricultural year has begun. Potatoes, cauliflowers and lettuces are being planted in anticipation of the first rains. The pomegranates are ripening and the first quinces have already appeared in the shops – an ephemeral and delicious fruit if you know what to do with it.

There are a few cruising yachts swinging to anchor in Pedi – all with EU flags as the border with Turkey is still closed to yachtsmen. German, French, Dutch and British flags are the dominant ones at the moment, driven eastwards by the storms over the Ionian and in the Cyclades in recent weeks. The Dodecanese is the turning point, the end of the line unless one is over-wintering in Cyprus. Wintering in cheap marinas in Turkey is not an option these days so decisions are no doubt being made as to whether to head north to Kos or south to Rhodes.

It is very dark in the mornings now. This was the scene at 5 a.m. yesterday morning, 30 September, as people waited to board the Blue Star to Rhodes.

By now you may have heard of the appeal to raise funds for Symi’s music school which is struggling to survive in the present economic climate. If you haven’t, I could not put it better than James Collins does in his Symi Dream blog. Just because children live on a small Greek island on the edge of Europe does not mean that they should be deprived of the opportunities to develop their talents. A team of dedicated music teachers comes over from Rhodes every Saturday to teach guitar, piano, violin and other instruments as this is not provided for in the school system but this needs funding. Usually parents are able to contribute to support this but with many of them out of work or struggling due to the virus and limited tourist season this year, these lessons are in jeopardy. Please go to the two links above to find out more about this worthwhile project and how you can help.

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?