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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
“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!
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?
Symi is very quiet. A few Greek tourists. A handful of foreigners from ‘safe’ low risk destinations. Bored local teenagers whizzing up and down the road, sound systems blaring. Pensioners watering their vegetable plots and grandmothers taking an early morning swim. The temperature continues to rise and every afternoon there is a gentle migration to the sea to cool off. Locals play at being tourists as they have little or no work and nothing much to do. Very few places are open, and those that are, are generally empty. The cicadas chirp on regardless.
The harbour is devoid of day-trippers. There are no water taxis bustling in and out of Yialos. All dressed up and no where to go.
The Greek domestic airports opened to direct flights from other EU destinations and 13 third-party ones yesterday. This comes with all sorts of provisos and restrictions which you can find here. As you probably know, direct flights from the UK, the USA and Sweden are still forbidden due to the very high levels of infection in those countries. They may be major contributors to Greece’s usual annual tourist income, but the risks outweigh any possible benefit, particularly as a number of recent cases have been linked to people coming in from the USA and UK via various roundabout routes.
What seems to be more of a problem is that would be travellers from countries that ARE on the approved list are being messed about by various airlines. For instance, Danes booking with Spies for holidays in September, which is two months away, are having their flights cancelled on the grounds that there is insufficient demand. Well, if they still have two months in which to sell tickets and people are only just starting to make plans, why cancel flights now? That only creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fear of making plans and then having them cancelled, often at short notice (vis a vis those who were booked on flights from London for 1 July who were only informed on 30 June that they were cancelled) and fighting to redeem vouchers and refunds from flights cancelled earlier in the year are certainly putting people off travelling, even if they have already had – and recovered from – the dreaded virus.
The Greek government has put all sorts of measures in place to make travel as safe as possible. Everyone travelling to Greece has to complete an on line Passenger Locator Form 48 hours before travelling, answering a lot of questions regarding where they have been for the past fortnight and who they have met as well as providing accurate details of where they will be staying on arrival in Greece. Based on this information they are issued with a QR code to present on landing. This determines whether they will be tested or not. Other passengers will be subject to random testing. There is more information about this on the links above. By the way, the penalties for providing incorrect information are hefty and if you haven’t completed the form and received the QR code, you aren’t allowed to fly anyway.
Quarantine hotels have been established in various towns around the country so anyone, whether Greek or foreign tourist, can be isolated if not sufficiently ill to require hospitalisation. On Symi the Chorio clinic is designated an isolation unit and anyone who falls ill with the virus will be helicoptered to Rhodes. (Apologies for the Facebook link, unfortunately this video was not uploaded onto the more widely accessible YouTube.)
Unfortunately the dearth of tourists on Symi has severe implications for the Symiots themselves. Apart from pensioners and those in the merchant navy or working for the banks, power station and so on, everyone else is dependent on tourist revenues of one sort or another to pay the bills and put food on the table. Whether it is foreign property owners or tourists staying in hotels and short stay accommodation, it is the money coming in from outside that keeps the island’s economy moving. Greece does not have a well-developed welfare state to help people over the hard times – historically the solution has been mass migration rather than state intervention – and the Covid-19 crisis has lasted far longer than the government had initially anticipated. If you are able to travel to Symi this year, even if it is for a few weeks much later in the year, please do. It is going to be a long wait for those who have had no income since October 2019 if they have to wait until the spring of 2021 before they start earning again and by that time many of your favourite haunts may well have shut down permanently.
With much fanfare and a Santorini sunset TV op, Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared the 2020 tourist season open. As is the norm this year, confusion prevails regarding who can travel and what is happening regarding Covid-19 testing and quarantine. With regulations changing daily and the difficulties the media are having in keeping up to date with the ever-changing landscape, the most reliable source of information on who can travel and what should be happening on arrival is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. This, of course, does not mean that the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health might not have other ideas but it is a good starting point.
The current measures and lists only really apply to the situation from now to 30 June. 1 July is supposed to see a major opening up to broader international travel but this is highly dependent on how things go in Greece in the next two weeks and also what happens in countries like the USA and the UK where the disease figures are still high. Greece is treading a fine line between the tourist revenue it desperately needs and destroying brand Greece’s reputation as a safe destination if the virus starts to arrive in significant numbers from abroad.
Tourists themselves are also faced with an ethical dilemma – do I travel because I want to have my holiday and I put my own pleasure first or do I wait until next year in order to protect the health of my hosts? Many of Symi’s regular visitors, as well as property owners, are discussing this at some length on social media and the general feeling is to stay away until it really is safe to travel, not just because some bureaucrat says so.
Seasonal resort hotels, museums and brothels opened their doors from yesterday. Gyms have also been allowed to reopen. Once again, all sorts of new rules, regulations and protocols apply. The Pedi Beach Hotel has all its umbrellas set up at the new spacings. They had a few Greek guests over the weekend but I didn’t see anyone on my walk this morning, just a lone painter on an extension ladder.
Once again ‘wait and see’ is the motto of the day.
And in other news, temperatures on Symi are now around 30 degrees at midday, dropping to about 20 at night. After a few exceptionally clear days the heat haze is building up and Saharan sand is drifting up over Crete and the mainland, bringing high temperatures with it.
Keep safe everyone.
Well, here we are. Keeping track of the passage of time is easier by looking at the changing vegetation in the valley than by any variations in the day’s routines. The clocks have changed and the days grow longer. Trees unfurl their spring greenery and the goats and sheep gorge themselves on a banquet of corona daisies (yes, that really is their name) and purple-blue lupins. The air smells faintly of sun-warmed chamomile blossom and wild sage.
I don’t know what it is like in the harbour or Chorio as I have not been to either for a fortnight but down in Pedi we have random police patrols to check that everyone is behaving. The old boys still tend their fields and flocks – farmers, smallholders and apiarists are part of the essential workers and if this year’s tourist season is a total write-off they may be crucial to putting food on the table for many families. Permits have been devised to allow them to continue to function. There is also a special permit that allows legitimate animal welfare organisations throughout Greece to continue with animal feeding schemes.
Preventing people from wandering off to do their own thing is, however, proving to be more of a challenge. As the weather warms up a new prohibition has been brought in, preventing swimming, spear fishing, kayaking and various other water sports. This is not because the government is a bunch of spoilsports. It is because it is difficult enough to police the streets to restrict unnecessary journeys as it is without having to try to keep an eye on what people are up to along Greece’s incredibly convoluted shoreline and most of these activities are non-essential and tend to attract the company of others. Only commercial fishing boats are allowed to operate.
A third case of Covid-19 has been diagnosed in Rhodes – a young woman returning to her home on the island from the UK. Fortunately she was maintaining the required 14 days quarantine when she became ill.
The government is hinting at further movement restrictions and expanding on the SMS system so that it shows the time one returns, not just the time one sets off, for any one of the approved reasons for movement and limiting the number of times any one person may leave home in a day. This is likely to replace the Document B which those who don’t have Greek mobile phones tend to use. The SMS system does not work with foreign sim cards, as many expats who have not bothered to buy Greek sims are finding out.
Several villages around Kozani on the mainland have been put under severe quarantine restrictions due to an abnormally high level of contagion in the area and the local power station there has been closed down temporarily to protect the health of workers.
Keep safe, keep indoors – and keep out of the cookie jar!