Suddenly It’s Christmas!

Well no, not really, but we were astonished when we were in Rhodes last week to see the Christmas decorations going up in My Way, a department store on the road to Faliraki that sells everything from power tools and solar water heaters to baby’s nappies and bread bins. Not even a token Halloween cobweb for old time’s sake.

Lidl, the German discount supermarket which has two branches on Rhodes is already selling chocolate Santas and frozen festive geese. What makes all this unusual and worthy of note is that it is most unGreek to be packing out the Christmas tat before the last summer charter flight has even left these shores. One of the joys of Greek holidays is their very lack of commercial pressure. There is no danger of being jingle-belled into submission by the first week of October in Greece. At least, that is how it used to be, so it was surprising to see the staff of My Way wrangling plastic trees on 13 October.

Perhaps last year’s lockdown Christmas has altered perspectives. Or perhaps the grid-locked container ships clogging ports around the world are forcing shop keepers to sell whatever is hanging about unsold from the lockdown days and it was a toss up between the Nutcracker and the Easter Bunny.

It has been a strange summer in a time of strange summers. Symi was exceptionally busy once the starting gates opened. Some businesses in the harbour even reported their best August in years. Certainly in terms of personal observation I got the impression that people were holidaying closer to home. Young people who might previously gone off to Thailand or Bali opted for parental summer homes on Greek islands and found it was more fun than they had expected. The fourth week of August, which is often a sort of no-mansland as the Athenians, French and Italians leave and the northern Europeans only arrive in the first week of September, was really busy as people extended their holidays and last minute AirBnB bookings filled gaps.

September also turned out to be a bumper month. Once it became (relatively) easier for British tourists to travel abroad there was no stopping Symi’s regular September visitors, plus many of those whose usual June plans had been scuppered by Uncle Boris’ traffic light system. There was a real celebratory hum around the island as happy reunions took place in favourite watering holes and those who were last here in 2019 revelled in the September sunshine.

This cheerful vibe has continued into October but it doesn’t look as though we will have many last lingering visitors into November as happened last year when those who were home-schooling and working on line decided they might as well do it on Symi as anywhere else and it was only the implementation of the sudden drastic second lockdown on 7 November that brought the island to a sudden grinding halt.

The winter rains have come early this year, with the first heavy rains reaching Symi on 12 October. This was the first named storm of the season, Storm Athena. This was followed by Storm Ballos a couple of days later which brought more heavy rain to Corfu, Cefalonia, fire-damaged Evia and, most noticably of all, Athens, where footage of children making bridges out of their desks to climb out of a flooded classroom and bus passengers forming a human chain to escape a flooded bus in an Athens underpass made the international news. Symi is turning green again after an incredibly long hot summer drought and temperatures have dropped into the low 20s.

The carpet sellers have arrived and the cats are enjoying last season’s throw outs in the skips of Chorio.

Smokey Skies over Symi

There can be few readers unaware of the catastrophic fires in Greece and Turkey this summer. In the space of a week thousands of acres of woodland, farms, homes and countryside have been destroyed by wild fires in Southern Turkey, Rhodes and parts of mainland Greece. The fires in Turkey claimed at least 10 human lives but the animal and bird fatalities and injuries are much higher throughout the region. Vets and volunteers in both countries are gathering in the disaster zones to render first aid to traumatised and injured pets, farm animals and wild animals. The ostrich farm and petting zoo on Rhodes was completely destroyed. Although many animals were successfully evacuated to safety, others were either killed or injured in the blaze. What was astonishing was the speed with which the fire, which started in Soroni, the area near the Salakos power station on the north-west coast of Rhodes, spread right across into the middle of the island and even threatened the village of Kallitheas, above the east coast resort of Kallithea.

The loss of natural habitats will be an on-going problem, particularly if, as is so often the case in the situations, developers move into the aftermath and what was once natural woodland is reclaimed for ‘development’.

There is plenty of information and countless footage of the fires on YouTube and in the online media.

Whether the fires were started deliberately by those with criminal or malicious intent or thoughtless actions on the part of apiarists and farmers or by light reflecting off rubbish abandoned in the countryside and igniting tinder-dry vegetation in heatwave conditions or careless picknickers discarding cigarette butts and BBQ fires is for the experts to determine and will, no doubt, take a long time to unravel in both Greece and Turkey.

Here on Symi, with fires blazing all around us, the island has been wreathed in smoke for a week. Apocalyptic skies and drifting clouds of ash and soot settling on every surface have taken over from the usual sparkling blue summer skyscape. These photographs are just some random shots to give you an idea of what it is like here at the moment.

Sunset Thursday 29 July 2021, showing the smoke from the fires behind Marmaris.
Later the same evening, the view from the terrace of the Plesner House in Yialos.
The eerie pinkish light reflecting from the smoke has turned this lane in Chorio gold.
The controversial ‘amphitheatre’ in Yialos has turned into an informal football pitch for the harbour kids. No, those cats on the bins are not dead, they are merely doing what cats do in the summer when the temperature is in the 40s – napping!

This is the third major – and enduring – heatwave to hit the region this summer. We have not had rain since the first week of March. We have had temperatures in the 40s for long periods of time in June, July and now August. It is not surprising that our phones bleeped with a Civil Defence Fire Warning yesterday morning. There are also requests for people to be frugal with their electricity usage and not run air conditioners at unsustainably low temperatures or inefficiently, with doors and windows open. This is to avoid over-loading the grid which, in some areas, is already damaged by the fires and overburdened. Power outages affect essential services and can also limit water pressure essential for fire fighting.

The first two weeks of August are traditionally the busiest period in Greece and usually Symi is full to capacity at this time. In reality we know that the Best Western Plaza in Rhodes, usually packed now, had spare capacity to offer evacuees and firefighters on Monday night and there is still quite a lot of accommodation available on Symi. Some French and Italian regulars to the island, who would normally be here for the whole of July and August, left early to avoid the stifling heat and smoke. When it is too hot for the beach, the cafes, the tavernas, then what is the point in being here?

As you can see from the photograph, the famous ‘new amphitheatre’ in Yialos is not really an ‘amphitheatre’. In fact, for it to function as a performance venue a wooden stage and gantry will have to be constructed and as the seating area does not really fulfil that function either, the old plastic chairs will have to be resurrected, assuming that any events take place in the foreseeable future. Although technically speaking open air events are permitted, as long as social distancing laws are obeyed, in reality there has been no mention of the Symi Festival at all and no talk of any of the traditional August celebrations either. Instead, nature has taken over in the form of the harbour children who, deprived of their playground and their basket ball pitch (which is being turned into some sort of tennis court) are making use of the gleaming white marble space to play football and ride their bicycles in the evenings. The unused blue sunken steel refuse bins that were part of the last town hall election campaign also seem to have been repurposed as platforms for basking cats.

News from Pedi

The ‘new marina’ in Pedi is slowly taking shape after over a decade in limbo. New lights and utility points have been installed along the quay and a crane is at work today, placing the concrete mooring blocks which have been cast on the shore over the past few weeks. The office and ablution block has been painted and a small posi-hut has been added.

Pedi has also had a power upgrade in recent weeks.

Rather them than me – upgrading the power that leads over to the marina side of the bay.
Installing a new transformer in the grounds of the Pedi Beach Hotel just before they opened. That is the dome of Agios Andreas church.

The new cafe on the corner by the jetty is not yet open although work continues steadily.

The taverna is open at Apostoli’s boatyard and the beach has been laid out for the summer.

St Nicholas beach is advertising a beach bar and disco on Friday and Saturday nights.

Agia Marina beach is now open.

Rumour has it that the Pedi Beach hotel will be opening its restaurant to the public during high season with Stavros of Mythos-fame as the chef.

Symi Unmasked!

At last we can take our masks off! Well, when we are out of doors and in uncrowded places at any rate. This comes as a huge relief as Greece bakes under a long heatwave with daytime temperatures sizzling over 40 degrees centigrade. Masks are still to be worn in shops and other enclosed spaces as well as on public transport. The curfew has also been lifted and permitted numbers for restaurant tables have been raised from 6 to 10. If you click on the link above you will find all the latest concessions as well as here.

Symi is still very quiet. June without British tourists makes for an empty island. Some British property owners and regulars to the island have come, regardless of Greece’s on-going ‘amber’ status, as they are fortunate to be able to be flexible about return dates and have been fully vaccinated but British tourists as such are conspicuous by their absence. Even among the other nationalities it is rare to see new faces.

For current information about travel to Greece, go to www.travel.gov.gr which is the official government website. Testing requirements for different countries are still variable but you can be assured that the system on Symi I referred to in my previous blog is working well.

The ferry situation, on the other hand, has never been better. The Blue Star now serves Symi on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (times and boats vary considerably. The Sebeco is running every day. Dodecanese Seaways comes through 3 or 4 times a week (Sundays are still variable) and the Stavros also comes through 4 times a week, twice in each direction. Greek Travel Pages is a good starting point for finding out what is going where when. Just type in your departure and arrival ports and the date you want to travel and it will give you a list of the options for that day.

Most of the beaches on Symi are now up and running or will be in a few days. Most of the hotels are now open, albeit with few guests. Right now not only do we have an abundance of ferries serving Symi but also a serious over-supply of accommodation of all kinds and a shortage of tourists to enjoy them.

Today’s Featured Image shows part of the spectacular view from the Constantinos View kantina, situated on the roadside on the way to Xisos and Panormitis. Open from midday until late with live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Lockdown Lifts with Limitations

Today is the day Greece seriously starts to emerge from a lockdown that started on 7 November 2020, nearly 7 long months ago. From today we no longer have to send SMSes or carry permits every time we leave the house. We don’t have to make appointments to go shopping. We can even stay out until midnight! The curfew remains but it is now from half past midnight until 5 a.m.

There are still restrictions on movement however. In order to travel between regions, particularly between the mainland and the islands and within the islands, one must either have a vaccination certificate, a negative PCR test or a rapid test. The airlines and ferry companies have been charged with controlling this and this applies to Greek residents and foreign tourists alike. The reason for this is that up to now the islands have remained relatively unscathed – and the islands have minimal medical facilities, particularly in terms of Covid-19 ICU wards and respirators. Kalymnos is an example of what happens when the virus gets a grip on a small community.

Although many islanders have been vaccinated the government is playing it safe for the foreseeable future as it will take a while for full immunity. Many travellers will have some form of vaccination pass by the summer. For those who don’t, the testing requirements certainly complicate island-hopping holidays and it makes sense to spend holiday time on only one or two islands to minimise the number of tests required to move between destinations.

Masks are still mandatory, both indoors and outside, and social distancing is still a requirement. There are still limits to how many people at a taverna or cafe table (6 at time of writing) and only outdoor seating is permitted (no hardship now that temperatures are in the 30s). The ban on all music in venues of all kinds remains at least until the end of May.

Here on Symi, speaking to random business owners, there is no rush to get started. The summer season on Symi has started late in recent years, even before the pandemic, and places like beach tavernas normally only aim to start operation in June anyway. Most of the taxi boats are back in the water now but the operator I spoke to said he would only start operations at the end of the month. Basically, until Rhodes starts to fill up with tourists and the day excursion boats begin, there is little traffic in the harbour to warrant opening up tourist shops and lunch-time dining. Hotels likewise are looking at June to open their doors.

No one really knows what is happening in terms of tourist arrivals on Symi. Many of the island’s usual visitors at this time of the year come from the UK. Unfortunately Greece, and most of the EU, is on the Amber list on for British tourism.

While Greece is open to receive tourists from most countries, the countries of origin are making it complicated – and expensive in terms of mandatory testing – for their nationals to travel abroad for their holidays. This is stalling advance bookings and also makes international holidays prohibitive for many families and couples. Germany, one of Greece’s main markets, has only just lifted the requirement for returnees to go into quarantine. TUI is optimistic but it will take a while for this to translate into bodies on sunbeds in seaside resorts and, in the case of Symi, day-trippers from Rhodes.

We shall see what this evening’s further government announcements bring.

Suddenly it is Summer

Greek Easter and the May Day holiday combined into one great celebration this year and as there are also strikes on 4 and 6 May to make up for May Day falling on Easter Saturday and all the George’s celebrating their name day today as St George’s Day fell during Lent this year there isn’t much work being done. Unless, of course, you own a cafe, taverna or restaurant, in which case it is a mad scramble to the starting gate.

The government announced last week that cafes, tavernas and restaurants are allowed to open from today, albeit within certain constraints involving social distancing, permits, self-testing and the like. There has been a flurry of activity as those who can deploy quickly are trying to catch some of the Rhodians who have come over to visit their families on Symi for the Easter holidays. Although travel between regions still remains prohibited, travel between municipalities within the same prefecture was permitted for the Easter holidays and we saw a veritable cavalcade of Rhodians come off the Blue Star on Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Technically the lockdown continues until 15 May, the date put forward for the official opening of international tourism in Greece. For the moment we still have to send SMSes or have paper permits to be out of our homes. (Tavernas, cafes and restaurants are code 6 – the same as for exercise.) Masks are still mandatory. Social distancing likewise. There is still a curfew in place, from 11 p.m to 5 a.m. It is not clear when clubs and other potentially more congested places will be allowed to open and there is also a ban on all kinds of music, both live and recorded, so that people are not shouting to be heard above the sound of it or leaning close to each other to speak and hear.

The weather has turned very hot and dry. Looking back through my diary, the last time we had any significant rain was 11 March, nearly 2 months ago. Temperatures are in the high twenties and low thirties. The flowers in the valley are fading fast and it is only toughest, most drought-hardy plants that are still putting on a show.

A big new supermarket has opened near the clock tower and police station in the harbour, where the Hellenic Duty Free and Amara Supermarket used to be. It is part of a small chain from Karpathos.

That’s all for now but you may be sure that there will be more changes to rules and regulations as we approach 15 May and I shall do my best to keep you up-dated.

Lockdown Rhodes 19 April 2021

I thought long and hard about writing this post as there are bound to be those who will accuse me of being ‘negative’ or ‘not looking on the bright’ side and variations on the theme. This post is an account of our personal experience in Rhodes on Monday 19 April 2021 and is what we observed on the ground. As the lockdown situation in Greece changes on a daily basis your own experience may well be different. The photos are not the usually scenes of beauty and inspiration but reflect the Zeitgeist in the part of Rhodes I saw.

As anyone who read an earlier posting will be aware, I went to Rhodes on 22 March 2021 for the first appointment involved in applying for my new biometric residence permit. As I had not yet had my second Pfizer jab then and everything was firmly closed at that point, I spent that day holed up at the Plaza apart from the period of my appointment and did not see very much. This time, when I went for my fingerprint appointment, the situation was very different. I also had an appointment with an opthamologist whose rooms are near the Casino, an area usually buzzing at this time of the year as it has always been popular with Scandinavian tourists who normally start to arrive at the end of March when the charter flights commence.

I won’t bore you with the various permits and bits of paper that are required to go from Symi to Rhodes and back on the Blue Star ferry these days, even though both are within the same regional administrative area. Suffice to say they are numerous and even so the officious policeman who grilled us for 10 minutes when we were waiting to board the Blue Star to return still wanted random items I had not thought to bring, like a copy of my marriage certificate (why?!) Interestingly I have heard that people travelling to Symi through Kolonna on Dodecanese Seaways the same week were not subject to the same police checks on boarding.

As we arrived in Rhodes at half past six in the morning, long before anywhere we needed to be was open, we drove down to the sea to eat the breakfast I had packed. The hotels along the road towards Kallithea and Faliraki did not look as though they were likely to be opening anytime soon and several looked as though they had not opened last year either.

Limited retail has been allowed to open in Greece since my previous trip a month ago, working mostly on a Click Inside or Click Away basis. Different stores have different ways of implementing these. Praktiker and Public both have an online appointment booking system and one books ones half hour shopping slot in advance, receiving a confirmation SMS on ones phone which one shows at the door. At Praktiker the security officer at the door just looked at the SMS and let us in. At Public the appointment code on the SMS was actually logged on a computer at the entrance before we were allowed in. Marks and Spencer, on the other hand, work on a telephone appointment basis. Smaller shops have signs on their doors saying how many shoppers are allowed inside at any time, based on their floor space. People were queuing outside the larger supermarkets, butchers, bakeries and greengrocers, being counted out and in by security staff – scenes reminiscent of photos of food queues in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Only takeaway food and drink is available. As far as I could see, only a few places in Rhodes town were open and offering this service and apart from the Greek chain Gregoris they tended to be the smaller places that could be run cheaply by only one person. There were chalkboard deals offering a take away Greek coffee or frappe, small bottle of water and a pastry of some sort or basic toasted sandwich for 2.50 to 3 euros. Cheap offers attractive to people who have not had work for months.

The number of boarded up shops, premises to let, derelict hotels and abandoned bars was depressing. The pandemic came straight after a decade of austerity and financial hardship in Greece and walking around Rhodes New Town this really shows as you can see from the gallery above. We can only hope for better days ahead but for many businesses it is too late.

In the last couple of days there have been press reports regarding a ‘roadmap’ for opening Greece up to tourism after Greek Easter. As soon as meaningful information becomes available in the next couple of days I will put up another post with links to any useful sites.

Spring Break on Symi?

Spring is in the air and people are starting to make travel plans, regardless of whether their government thinks they should or not. The Greek Minister of Tourism is wooing international tourism and various announcements are being made in the overseas media that create the impression that Greece is already open. The reality on the ground is actually very different. Infection rates in Athens and other regions are higher than ever and Greece is still in a heavy lockdown. Although there is a vaccination program underway it will be many weeks before it is completed.

The following is a summary of where we are at the moment. This may change at any stage but right now this is what is required to travel to Greece and what you can expect should you get here.

At the moment there is a restriction on non-essential travel (tourism) to Greece.  The government website travel.gov.gr gives the full information in detail.  The salient points are:

  1. The traveler must have a negative Covid-19 test not more than 72 hours before travelling. The results must be from an approved testing facility, in English and including the traveler’s passport number or ID.
  2. The traveler must complete a PLF form (available from the link above) 24 hours before traveling and receive the QR code which they must have to be allowed to board the flight. This is the same as last year.
  3. To travel between municipalities and prefectures once in Greece the traveler must have proof of a valid reason to reach their end destination.  A Greek tax certificate (E1) that shows ones tax residence is Symi is accepted proof of the necessity to travel to Symi.  (Non-essential internal travel in Greece is still illegal.)
  4. The traveler must self-isolate for 7 days from arrival at their destination, for example Symi.  This means no shopping, walks etcetera for a week. The person must stay at home. For example, if you decide to come to Symi to open up your house for the spring, you must make arrangements before you arrive to have your food supplies delivered so that you don’t have to leave the house or have contact with other people for the 7 days’ isolation. The police can make random checks to make sure that you are at home and they may also call you at random times on your landline telephone to ensure that you are where you ought to be. The fines for violations are serious.

The situation in Greece.  Greece is still in hard lockdown. This countrywide lockdown started on 7 November 2020 and has not been lifted.  Details of the lockdown and the permit system are given on forma.gov.gr  including the format for the SMS system. The salient points are:

  1. A Greek SIM is required to access the SMS permit system.  The reasons for being allowed to leave the house are as follows:
    1. SMS 1 – medical
    2. SMS 2 – to shop for food
    3. SMS 3 – to go to the bank or post office
    4. SMS 4 – to render assistance to the elderly/vulnerable and to transport spouses/children.  Note.  It is illegal to give lifts to non family members.
    5. SMS 5 – to attend a funeral
    6. SMS 6 – to exercise on foot or by bicycle. Not more than 3 people together.
  2. The curfew is from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
  3. Limited retail may be available from next week, using a Click and Collect system by appointment and using a different coding system. This will have a time limit of 3 hours per day.  This is unlikely to affect anything on Symi.
  4. Cafes can only offer take aways.  Bars, tavernas, restaurants etcetera are all closed.
  5. Masks are to be worn at all times, including outside and social distancing regulations apply.
  6. Police can stop you at any time to check that you have your SMS permit, your passport or ID and are wearing a mask.
  7. There is no mixing of households.

Biometrics, Barbers and the Blue Star

Traveling in a pandemic is strange at the best of times and usually to be avoided. Sometimes, however, it is necessary. Like many millions of British people who have made their lives in the EU, I have had to apply for a special biometric residence permit as my old ‘blue card’ as a citizen of the EU is no longer valid (thank you, Brexit). When I phoned up in January to make my appointment at the Immigration Office in Rhodes none of us thought we would still be firmly in lockdown on 22 March. Residents of Symi were given Monday or Wednesday appointments as those are Blue Star ferry days and the time slots are tightly controlled. Miss it at your own risk as the next slot available is now September!

Apart from gathering a vast amount of paperwork, plus a few extra bits just in case, I also had to get a piece of paper from the KEP, Symi’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau at the town hall, in order to justify being allowed off the island. No ferry tickets for jolly outings.

The Monday Blue Star comes through Symi at 5 in the morning, arriving in Rhodes shortly after 6. My appointment with the authorities was for 12.30 midday. With the lockdown there is nowhere to go in Rhodes and the only way to be allowed into the usual Symi ‘killing time zone’ at the Plaza is by booking a room for the day. By walking from Akandia to the hotel, remaining in my room apart from my appointment nearby and then walking back to Akandia for the ferry back to Symi I think I was pretty well protected from picking up any unwanted souvenirs. Although I have had my first Pfizer shot, as we all know that is not a cast iron defence against the current plague.

Rhodes was moved from the Dark Red category to ordinary Red over the weekend, with effect from yesterday. The only effective benefit of this recategorisation as far as I could see was that barbers, hairdressers and manicurists are allowed to reopen, by appointment only. On my walk from the hotel to the port the only businesses that I saw that were conspicuously open were three hipster barber’s shops where trendy young men in their thirties were having their man-buns coiffed, moustaches waxed and beards groomed. The male peacock resplendent.

The rest of Rhodes town was looking very forlorn. Some places aren’t just closed due to the lockdown but definitely gone for good – windows boarded up, piles of bills stuck in the doors and for sale stickers on the walls kind of closed.

Click Away and Click and Collect type systems are supposed to be in place for the limited retail outlets currently allowed to trade but I saw little evidence of this in action. Central Rhodes town shops are mostly fancy shoe shops and designer clothing outlets – the sort of places where people want to browse and try things on before making decisions, not pop in quickly to pick up a known item. There were signs in doorways giving phone numbers for people to call to make appointments to be allowed in, along with signs advising 1 customer per 25 square metres of shopfloor, but most places were firmly closed. Masks to be worn everywhere, indoors and out, countrywide.

The lack of cafes, bars, tavernas and other eateries has also stripped central Rhodes town of people. Usually in the winter there is a thriving coffee culture, particularly around Mandraki but yesterday even the big gyros place by the bus station was closed. Take away food is permitted but if there are no people out and about there is no demand so no point in opening.

Back at the port, I was stopped by police who wanted proof that I live on Symi before allowing me to board for the return voyage. I suppose I was obviously foreign and may have looked like some kind of geriatric hippie back-packer as they didn’t seem to be checking anyone else. There were very few other passengers on the boat and most seemed to be obvious medical cases – old ladies with zimmer frames, young men on crutches or arms in plaster. Lots of soldiers, this year’s fresh conscripts heading for the excitements of a posting on Symi. No Jumbo bags or conspicuous shopping. The ferry companies are dependent on shifting freight and goods from island to island for their survival these days. The Flocafe had a meager display of buns and filled rolls that did not change perceptibly between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The other piece of news is that Symi has its first confirmed cases of Covid-19. A policewoman and her daughter who had come from Ioannina on the mainland. They are now in 14 days quarantine and others with whom they had come into contact are being tested. According to the report in Sky Rodos is that it was the child who was noticably ill whereas the mother is asymptomatic. The news broke on Sunday morning and after a certain amount of pressure, Symi town hall issued a statement to confirm the rumours. There was also an announcement in one of the Rhodian news sites. The irony of the disease being brought to the island by one of the police is not lost on the islanders. The atmosphere is subdued.

On that happy note I shall leave you.