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.

Symi Summer Update

This post is more local news than photos. Once again I have dithered over writing because the situation keeps changing and it is difficult to stay up to date. This blog post is not definitive. By the time you read it things may have changed again.

First of all, PCR tests. I keep being asked about these. At the moment it is not possible to have them done on Symi. This is not because the authorities do not realise the need for this service, as some may think. The authorities on all the small islands are struggling with the same issue. The minimalist nature of medical services in the islands and sheer lack of funding is the problem. Normally tourists are unaware of the fact that the small islands have inadequate medical facilities. This is something we all have to live with all year round and is a constant source of frustration for residents. The list of helpful websites to contact to book testing appointments is here. The facilities have been extending their hours and so far the appointment system seems to be working.

Someone did recently manage to return to the UK with a prepaid antigen test which they brought with them from a UK vendor and self-administered under supervision via a smart device. Whether this is viable by the time you travel or acceptable for the country you return to is unknowable. A very useful link to check is this one on Aegean Air’s website. It is lists all the countries to which they fly and the entry requirements as well as the requirements for internal flights and they update as the information changes. Even if you are not flying with Aegean it is a good starting point for information. Just remember that they too cannot prophecise what the situation will be in a fortnight/month/September.

Secondly, ferries. We have lots of these this year. Symi has never had so many connections. The ANES passenger vessel Sebeco is running at least twice daily through the summer. The layout of the schedule is a bit confusing so read it carefully to make sure you are in the right part of the year and that you are looking at the time it is leaving rather than arriving. Blue Star ferries have just announced a fourth Symi route for the summer. This will be using the Blue Star 2 and comes through on Tuesday at wonderful times for Symiots – We hope it continues to leave Symi at 8 and leave Rhodes at 5 as those times are too good to be true!

The SAOS car ferry Stavros continues to come through Symi going north on Mondays and Thursdays and south on Tuesdays and Fridays. This connects us with Kos, Halki, Tilos and Nissyros. Heavily subsidised by the state, they are running special free passenger travel between certain islands during the shoulder periods so this is a very good deal. Dodecanese Seaways is also operating. Their days are a bit ad hoc and the weekend schedules change weekly at the moment so keep checking. As they are not subsidised, they can only afford to run routes that are profitable and they take charters, particularly on Sundays, which is why their weekend schedules tend to be erratic.

Another bit of ferry news worth noting is that Seajets have announced a new route three times a week connecting Rhodes with Crete via Halki and Karpathos. This will leave Rhodes at midday so you can leave Symi on the early Blue Star or Sebeco and arrive in Rhodes with enough time to make the Seajet Paros to Crete and be in Sitia, Crete by half past six in the evening. At the moment this route is not showing on their official website but their ticket office has already been set up inside the coffee shop in Akandia and this schedule below is circulating on social media.

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The news that the EU is still out of bounds for British travellers is a serious blow for Greek tourism. June is traditionally a ‘British month’ for Greece. Here on Symi there have been a lot of cancellations and the only British travellers around are those who are flexible about their return dates or are not likely to be affected by the need to self-isolate for 10 days on their return, whenever that may be.

At time of writing only 25 of the 650 seasonal hotels on Rhodes have actually opened since Greece officially opened to international tourism on 14 May. Many who were intending to open in the course of June are now delaying until July which means more seasonal workers still don’t know if they have jobs or not. Those that are open are running on skeleton staff because they don’t have enough guests to cover their costs. Something to remember is that many holiday companies only pay the hotels long after the season has ended, which causes serious cash flow problems at the best of times.

A limited number of Russians are allowed to travel to Greece each week, as long as they have the correct vaccination information or a negative PCR test. The Greek media are full of the story of a Russian tourist who arrived with a negative PCR test and wound up on a respirator in ICU in northern Greece within a day of arrival. It would seem that his test paper was fraudulent as his family back home in Russia were all ill with Covid-19 so the chances of his test result being accurate are small.

Israelis have been able to travel freely to Greece since April, as long as they are vaccinated, but the current unrest in the region is discouraging people from travelling. There have been strong tourism links between Rhodes and Israel in recent years, particularly package holidays connected with the casino which is now feeling the pinch.

And so it goes on.

The hotels on Symi are slowly opening but once again until they are sure that they have guests there is no rush. There are some hopes of a surge in domestic tourism as the weekend of 20 June is the Greek Orthodox Pentecost long weekend. More restaurants and cafes are opening up gradually. We are seeing a few day-trippers from Rhodes now, coming in on either the Sebeco or the Zeus. 50-100 people tops so not really enough to warrant opening up all the waterfront shops in the hope that they will stop to buy something and they are mostly part of guided groups.

Once again it is a ‘wait and see’ sort of summer.

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.

May Postcards from Symi

Symi is emerging from hibernation now that the lockdown is starting to ease. Here are some photographs I took while out and about in the harbour early yesterday morning. As you can see, it is not exactly bustling but preparations are underway for a tentative start to the summer season which, in theory at least, starts on 15 May 2021. There is a lot that still needs to be clarified in terms of who is allowed to do what and there have been some very unpopular statements by politicians on Greek daytime TV suggesting, among other things, that while tourists will literally have the freedom of the country, the local residents will be sending SMSes for permits in perpetuity and that inter-regional travel will only be permitted with vaccination certificates or negative Covid-19 test results. This is fighting talk and governments have been hung out to dry for less so we shall see what the next few days bring.

In the meantime, here are some pictures to whet your appetite.

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.

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.

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.