Last weekend, on Saturday 15 October, Symi had the first rains that triggered the start of the island’s ‘second spring’. Heavy rain was forecast but fortunately missed us. Symi received about 15 mm over a 24 hour period, not a lot but enough to get things growing. Parts of Crete, on the other hand, received heavy down pours that triggered flash flooding with cars washed into the sea, significant damage to property and tragically the loss of two lives.
The combination of rain and sunshine has brought up the first flush of green. Seeds are germinating. The locals are digging over their vegetable gardens, ready for the first plantings of the new growing season.
Even the ants are busy, preparing for the winter ahead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.