February Postcards from Symi
Some recent photographs of life on Symi in February 2021, during the second extended Covid-19 lockdown in Greece.
Living and writing on a remote Greek island.
Some recent photographs of life on Symi in February 2021, during the second extended Covid-19 lockdown in Greece.
Greece went into its second lockdown on 7 November 2020, initially until the 30th of that month. The figures continued to rise and the lockdown was extended – and extended – and extended again. Since that date no one has been allowed to travel to or from Symi unless they have very specific reasons to do so and can produce documentary evidence of that reason. Effectively we are living in a very efficient quarantine bubble with nary a winter cold or sniffle to be seen. What keeps coronavirus out also keeps colds, flu and other contagious diseases out too. This could be the island’s healthiest winter ever – even if also the most boring!
Retail restrictions were partially lifted in Greece a couple of weeks ago but on Symi that has made little difference – it is in Athens and Thessaloniki that shoppers starved of retail therapy have thronged Hermes Street and in Rhodes that people from outlying villages have queued to get into Jumbo and Zara.
Meanwhile, on Symi where retail excitements tend to focus rather on who currently has the freshest root ginger and whether the Chinese shop in Chorio has cheap fleeces in the right size, there is no sign of a shopping frenzy. Instead, as there is no limit on the number of times one can send SMS code 6 or how long one can stay out for personal exercise, as long as the regulations are obeyed, Symi people are rediscovering their island in a big way.
Remote mountain chapels, abandoned farmsteads, long forgotten archaeological sites and indigenous forests are seeing more activity than they have in decades as locals and expat residents alike go hiking every sunny day. A spin off of this is that Symi’s vast natural resources are finally getting the attention that they deserve and the rationale behind walking trails and attracting walkers back to the island is being understood. One can only hope that this does not precipitate another rush of hastily laid concrete paths but leads to a controlled project to restore the old kalderimis and to reinstate the access points that were destroyed when the road to Panormitis was tarred. Symi is not just a beach destination and there is more to the island than the neo-classical harbour.
As I write this we are once again waiting to find out if the lockdown regulations are changing. Will the high schools reopen on Monday as intended or will the increase in cases in Attica roll this back? Will the shops be closed again because people in Athens cannot be trusted to behave responsibly when given the opportunity to buy Marks and Spencers knickers in person rather than on line? Who knows. The only certainty is that every sunny winter’s day there will be people walking up and down Symi, from end to end, enjoying the views from mountain tops and counting how many islands they can spot on a clear day.
Here we are again, nearly four weeks into Greece’s second full lockdown. While Symi pottered along quietly into November with a few lingering tourists enjoying some late sunshine, things were escalating rapidly in northern Greece, particularly in Greece’s second city, Thessalonica, and Athens wasn’t looking too good either, so the government took the step virtually over night of shutting the country down. The announcement was made on the afternoon of Thursday 5 November that the lockdown would come into effect from 6 a.m. on Saturday 7 November.
Symi regulars will know that the weekend of 7-8 November was the Panormitis Festival and the Feast of St Michael. Pilgrims and hawkers had already started to arrive – in a socially distanced sort of way, of course. They were all instructed to return from whence they came. The Blue Star on Friday 6 November had a Dunkirk air about it as this was the last boat out before the lockdown. Tourists rescheduled flights, home owners had to make hasty decisions as to whether to dash for home now or take a chance that they might be stuck for an indefinite period of time, Symiots took advantage of the last opportunity to go to Rhodes to do shopping and essential business before everything closed down.
Dodecanese Seaways had cancelled all their scheduled routes for the Saturday and Sunday, which had been intended to shuttle people from Rhodes to Symi for the festival and ferry travel from the Monday onwards would be under the lockdown protocols, involving a lot more paperwork. Travel between prefectures and regions is also forbidden under the lockdown except for a very narrow range of reasons. Apart from medical appointments there is no passenger movement between the islands and Symi really is very isolated now. Dodecanese Seaways comes through twice a week to bring supplies and courier items, as does the Blue Star so there is no shortage of food or medicines. Normally this is a busy time on the boats with everyone going over to Rhodes to do Christmas shopping.
Once again a permit and SMS system has been imposed. Basically you can only be outside your home if you have Document A which is to prove that you are going to and from work or B, either a document or an SMS allowing you to be out for a very limited range of reasons. Anyone going out must have either the form or the reciprocal SMS, passport or ID and a mask. Here on Symi police checks have been fairly relaxed and random – but there, nevertheless. In the towns and cities, however, the rules are more stringently imposed and fines are steep.
Initially the lockdown was to be until 30 November 2020. Unfortunately with the continuing high death rate, high number of intubations and high number of new cases on the mainland the lockdown has officially been extended to 7 December and at time to writing we are awaiting an announcement if this will be extended further, to 14 or 21 December. Whichever way it goes, it is going to be a low key Christmas in Greece.
Speaking of Christmas, the municipal workers have been busy and the Symi Christmas lights started to go up earlier than usual this year, at the start of the lockdown. We have a curfew from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. but if we look out of our windows we have sparkly lights to cheer us up.
The weather on Symi remained mild and sunny well into November with rare rainy days and thunderstorms. That is now changing to more frequent wet weather and temperatures are now around 15 degrees in the day, dropping to about 10 at night. Northern parts of Greece and high lying areas have already had snow and frosts while we are still enjoying the Symi ‘second spring’.
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.
Life on Symi in the middle of October 2020.
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.
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.