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!
After a hectic few weeks of a highly compressed tourist season I thought I would post a few ‘September Postcards from Symi’ to share with you. To my horror, WordPress have decided to ‘improve’ their product. I am still coming to grips with the enforced ‘improvements’ to the new Facebook which seems to involve more scrolling to access less information. I did not expect WordPress to also spring such enforced changes upon me without the option of reverting back to the familiar Classic without having to locate and download some sort of plug-in. While the new Block system may be wonderful, I do not have time this morning to indulge in several hours of learning curve to work out how to upload photographs in the new format.
The pictures are formated and ready to upload. Perhaps I will have time this afternoon. My intentions are good. Promise!
In theory Greece is almost back to ‘normal’ in terms of the businesses that are allowed to operate. The children are back in school and parents are back at work. The all-year-round hotels are open and the international/tourist/seasonal ones can reopen on 15 June. We can go to cafes, bars, restaurants and the beach. All of the above, of course, with various regulations and social distancing requirements.
In practice the picture on Symi and various other places where the economy is entirely tourism driven is quite different. When there are no tourists, there are no customers. The sunbeds and umbrellas may be at the decreed spacing and the taverna menus on display but without tourists they remain empty. Aside from people working in two banks, the post office and the power station, just about everyone else has been out of work since last October so there is no money to spend on outings and treats. The island’s core economy currently seems to be dependent on the resident expat pensioners whose income, at least so far, has remained stable, but there is a limit to even their capacity for drinks in the square and coffees in the cafes.
International tourism in Greece only starts officially on 15 June and then only from a list of countries with low levels of infection. All these flights have to come through Athens as direct international flights to the islands only start on 1 July. People can come from other places but they are then subject to quarantine which means that if you want to come to Greece on holiday you may spend the first 7 or 14 days, depending on whether you test negative or positive for Covid-19 on arrival, in quarantine. That could mean a week or two in a room in a quarantine hotel in Athens or unable to leave your accommodation elsewhere if you are allowed to continue your journey to your end destination. That doesn’t help tourism much but it is A Good Thing for people who need to get to Greece to take up contracts for work, are employed in seasonal work, have houses here and intend to spend months or years in Greece.
Unfortunately everyone’s fears about the wisdom of international travel were confirmed when a Qatar Air flight from Doha arrived in Athens on Monday and out of the 91 passengers on board, 12 of them tested positive for the virus. Three of these, two Australian Greeks and one Japanese Greek, were technically from countries that are on Greece’s approved flight list and if they had come into the country after 15 June may well have only had random spot testing rather than the full blown test-and-quarantine-everybody policy that is currently in place. Needless to say, Qatar flights from Doha have been suspended until 15 June while the powers that be decide how to hack this one.
As most UK airports are on the black list and in any case the British Foreign Office is still advising against non-essential travel, Symi’s usual British travellers are not allowed to travel. As they are the dominant groups in May, June, September and October, that is already a large chunk of the island’s income gone. The Australians are trapped by their own government for the foreseeable future so no diaspora Greeks coming to visit family this summer. The Danes are on the approved list but their government won’t allow them out until 31 August. The French, another nationality that plays a major part in Symi’s summer tourism, are also still waiting to be allowed out of France (by their government) and into Greece. Ditto the Italians, the Spaniards and so on.
Do you book in the hope that you may be allowed to travel or do you wait to see what happens? As airlines are also in a quandary, flights booked get cancelled or rescheduled as passengers are too few to cover costs so it all becomes self perpetuating. Then there are all those people who are still trying to get refunds, vouchers and what have you for flights and holidays over March, April, May and June that have been cancelled. Do they feel strong enough to go through it all again? Better wait until next year when everything has calmed down…
With so many uncertainties many of Symi’s regular visitors, including property owners, have had to cancel their plans, particularly if they have children and are tied to school holidays. If they have to take a ‘staycation’ within their home country’s borders, they need to book now before all the best places are gone.
The motto for this year seems to be ‘we shall see’.
Today’s the big day. The coffee shops, restaurants, gyros bars and tavernas are allowed to open for the first time since mid-March. Those businesses that have decided to reopen today have been a flurry of activity with tape measures to ensure that the correct spacing is maintained for the placement of tables and chairs. On the beaches, umbrellas are being dug in at the approved spacing which, on Symi, is actually not to different to previous years.
At this stage only a handful of businesses on Symi have opted to re-open now. It costs a lot to stock and staff a taverna or restaurant and once you are open for business, the meter starts running on a lot of overheads. Some business owners are still stuck in other countries or parts of Greece as a result of the various travel restrictions and need to make their way back to Greece. Likewise staff may also be in the wrong places and still need to get their health papers sorted out before they can start work. As the country does not open to international tourism of any kind for another 3 weeks, there really isn’t any need to rush.
Today is also the day when people can start travelling on the ferries again. Both of these sound quite straightforward but in reality there is quite a lot of bureaucracy involved including filling in a health form before being able to buy ferry tickets, social distancing on the boats so they are only travelling with half capacity and masks to be worn. Only one person per cabin unless they are members of the same family.
There are also still a lot of restrictions in place regarding vehicle transport. Meanwhile hoteliers, camp site owners and all the others involved in tourism in any shape or form are wading their way through 20 pages of instructions from the Ministry of Tourism concerning cleaning protocols, social distancing requirements, swimming pool hygiene, transfers of tourists from A to B and so on. We may be sure that this summer there will be inspectors for everything – there usually are!
Meanwhile it is still unknown where the tourists will come from to use these facilities. Aside from the fact that many people are wary of travelling at the moment, even if they can, there are still travel restrictions of one sort or another in place, either at the Greek border or out-going/in-coming for other countries. The Greek government has said that they will be issuing a list at the end of this month of the first wave of nationalities that will be welcome to visit Greece, based on epidemiological criteria. We shall have to wait and see.
I am sure that we all agree that 2020 has been a strange year thus far and that there are likely to be far-reaching changes ahead for how we do things. Greece has been fortunate in that the New Democracy government under Mitsotakis responded rapidly to the outbreak of the novel corona virus known as Covid-19 with the result that Greece is now able to tentatively reopen to international tourism on 1 July. The Byzantine rules and regulations that will be accompanying that are still being hammered out, including from which countries people will be allowed to travel, so that is the subject for a later post.
On a small island like Symi tourism in its various forms is the main revenue stream and local entrepreneurs have had to look at different ways of doing business in these days of travel restrictions, complex bureaucracy and job losses. Turning to on-line marketing is one way. Today’s post is the first of a number I shall be doing to promote locals who have reinvented themselves through on-line marketing in these challenging times.
Anyone who has visited Symi in the last 30 years will most likely have bought at least one sponge from Panormitis’ Symi Sponges, either from his original shop on the waterfront in Yialos or his new one, further back off the square. In keeping with changing times you can now buy quality sponges, pumice stones, loofahs and body butter on line through their new website.
Prices are quoted in euros but you can order from anywhere internationally or in the EU and prices include shipping. Payment is through PayPal or bank transfer. You can also order gift packs to surprise a special someone in your life. As an early bird promotion, if you order now you will receive a free facial sponge with every order of body butter.
Even if you are missing your usual annual pilgrimage to Symi you can still buy your favourite souvenir and help support a traditional Symi family business. You can find Symi Sponges here and on Facebook.
It is hard to believe that a mere fortnight ago Nicholas and I were exploring the near-by volcanic island of Nisyros and waiting for a storm to blow out so we could take the ferry back to Kos and then Symi.
It was the Clean Monday long weekend, traditionally a time for Sunday carnival processions and Monday kite-flying and picnics to mark the start of Lent. The government had already announced that municipal carnival processions were banned throughout the whole of Greece as the first cases of Corvid-19 had been diagnosed on the mainland. The main story dominating the Greek news, however, was Erdogan’s decision to open Turkey’s border with Greece and Bulgaria, triggering a wave of mass migration to Greek land and sea borders. It’s amazing how fast things can change.
Our trip to Nisyros was to celebrate our wedding anniversary and, looking at the calendar, appeared to be our last opportunity to get away before the spring maintenance schedule kicked in with a flurry of activity to prepare houses for Easter arrivals. Now we cannot travel for very different reasons and the likelihood of any Easter arrivals of any description diminishes by the day.
We caught the Wednesday evening Blue Star from Symi at the very civilised hour of 8 in the evening. It was the Blue Star Chios, a smaller vessel acquired from Hellenic Seaways, so no a la carte dining room but the self-service restaurant was a welcome surprise. After an excellent and leisurely meal followed by a celebratory glass of wine in the lounge we docked in Kos around 10 p.m. and headed for the Hotel Catherine. The one way streets were a bit confusing, as was the on-going work to rebuild the dock after the earthquake a few years back, but we found our destination in the end and were welcomed by the owners. A fairly modern hotel with acres of marble in the public areas, we enjoyed our overnight there and also stayed there for a night on our way back. By the way, although breakfast was not included as at that time of the year it was not worth their while opening the dining room there is a positively dangerous bakery just over the round where Nicholas bought coffee and pastries for us to eat on our balcony.
The next morning we visited the Archaeological Museum and the Casa Romana. Well, this is what classics graduates do. If we were beach people, we would probably have stayed in Durban! A big advantage of travelling out of season is that you can see everything in detail and take your time over looking at stuff.
In the afternoon we boarded the Panagia Spiliani, a small car ferry similar to the old Symi I, which plies the route between Kos and Nisyros. Panagia Spiliani is also the name of the main monastery on Nisyros and means Our Lady of the Cave. You can see a photograph of the monastery, perched above the jagged cave, in the photos above. It was a wet and bumpy ride and after a thorough soaking we gave up on sitting on the upper deck to watch the scenery go by.
Our hotel in Nisyros, the Hotel Haritos, was a small family-run hotel on the waterfront about 2 minutes from Mandraki, the main port on the island. The patriarch seemed to be running the show single-handed. We had a triple room with a balcony overlooking the sea and what, in the summer, is the main thermal swimming pool on the island. Our host was happy to boil us fresh eggs every morning which with a small loaf of fresh bread each, butter, honey, jam, fruit juice and good coffee set us up for the day.
As you can see from the photographs we had our car with us. This enabled us to explore every nook and cranny on the island, from the bottom of the steaming caldera to the precariously perched villages on the edge of the crater. Spring was in full bloom and the island was aglow with vivid yellow euphorbia. The last lingering almond blossom lit up hillside terraces. Once upon a time almonds were a major export crop for Nisyros and they still make a traditional almond cordial called Soumada.
Nisyros is not a beach island. Its attractions lie in the volcano and spectacular landscape. The island’s prosperity, however, lies in the off-shore island of Yiali which has been mined since ancient times for various minerals and rocks ranging from shiny black obsidian to gleaming white porcelano. Tourism is limited and tends to be fairly niche market. The abandoned mountain village of Emporio is getting a new lease of life from foreigners and Athenians restoring properties with spectacular 360 degree views. The hardship of the recent decade of austerity has largely passed the island by and the atmosphere is one of quiet prosperity.
There was one taverna open, O Vegos, and we ate there every evening. Our visit coincided with a convention of about 40 doctors who were staying at two other small hotels in Mandraki. As the doctors had to eat somewhere the taverna was open and had a more varied menu than one would usually expect in such a small place at that time of the year.
Our original plan had been to take the Panagia back to Kos on the Saturday morning and then the Dodecanese Seaways catamaran back to Symi on the Sunday afternoon. What actually happened was gale force winds on the Friday night and Saturday kept all boats in port so we had an extra day on Nisyros. We were only able to get off the island on the Sunday afternoon. This time was well-spent as the curator of the local archaeological museum opened up for us. In the 1980s, when the excavations were done to build the local sports field outside the town, a massive grave site was unearthed, covering several centuries of well-preserved Pre-Hellenic, Hellenic and early Christian burials and this forms the core of the museum’s collection. This tied in well with what we had seen in Kos and as each grave had been photographed and then the artefacts displayed within the context of the accompanying photo, it was a fascinating and exceptionally well documented display, giving a glimpse of how people lived – and died – thousands of years ago. Somewhere on Symi there is, or was, no doubt a similar site as Symi too has been in continuous habitation for millenia but Symi’s secrets are probably underneath the Chorio car park or children’s playground.
The ban on the official Carnival events meant that Kos was very quiet when we got there on the Sunday evening. We eventually found a place open to eat – a lively corner venue specialising in different kinds of mezzedhes. The staff were all dressed in drag and the place was cheerily decorated. The food was excellent and, as usual, we ate far more than we had intended.
The next day, as we had time to kill, we drove from one end of Kos to the other, going down the coastal strip to Kefalo at the south western tip and then back up via the mountain villages. It was just as well we had bought a large slab of lagana, the traditional Greek sesame flatbread that is only baked once a year, for Clean Monday, as there was no where open to eat in any of the places we drove through.
As we waited for our boat back to Symi we watched the Turkish and Greek Coastguard patrols face off between Kos and Bodrum. That, too, escalated in the week that followed.
On that happy note I will leave you as I am going for a walk. Might as well enjoy the glorious spring sunshine while we are still allowed to leave our homes!
Symi is still deep in its winter sleep. Down in Pedi random goats and sheep browse the verges and cats seek out the warm places. The weather is variable and forecasts frequently wrong. Mild winds turn out to be gales and black clouds roll out from behind the Vigla on days that are supposed to be dry. Airers laden with damp jeans and wet socks will be cluttering our homes for a while longer. Temperatures can be anything from 6 to 16 degrees centigrade, depending on which way the wind is blowing. Today’s Blue Star Chios ran on time but Dodecanese Seaways has cancelled due to strong north winds and a deteriorating forecast.
Behind closed doors some businesses are preparing for the season. The Pedi Beach Hotel is revamping all its rooms. To Spitiko taverna in the harbour is also in the throes of a massive overhaul. The new road which will connect the bend in the road above the harbour with the new commercial port is making progress. This has been on the cards for some time and will facilitate the movement of heavy goods vehicles coming off the Blue Star up to the main road without going through Petalo.
The lease on the Nireus Hotel, which belongs to the Symi town hall, came up for auction at the beginning of the month as the original 25 year lease was up for review. The Rhodian company that manages the Pedi Beach Hotel won. So far there is a lot of gossip circulating as apparently this came as a surprise to the original lessees who had, it is said, assumed that this was merely a formality and that they would be rolled over for another 25. The Rhodian company offered the town council a far higher rental, 200 000 euros per annum according to the local press, and is undertaking to raise the hotel to 4 star standard. We are all waiting to see what happens this year as in theory the hotel should be opening for the season in April which is only weeks away.
Another piece of news that may have implications for Symi this summer is that the Dodecanese Seaways car ferry, the Panagia Skiadeni, has been sold. Will the new owners be operating the existing Rhodes Symi route or will the boat be going elsewhere and if so, who will fill the gap? As the Sebeco does not take vehicles or goods this leaves a big hole in the island’s summer supply line.
Carnival is in the air. Yesterday was Tsiknopempti – Smokey Thursday. The scheduled municipal BBQ event has been postponed to Sunday due to the wet and windy weather yesterday (surprise!). If you are on Symi this weekend, the BBQ in the Chorio square is scheduled to start at 15.00, weather permitting of course!
So, as you can see, although it all seems very quiet on Symi at the moment, there’s really quite a lot going on.
Early on Sunday morning Nicholas set off for another run, this time in the fields along the north side of the island that we had driven past the previous day. The pictures above tell their own story.
After breakfast at the hotel we set off to visit the Church of the Apocalypse, the place where St John wrote his Divine Revelations around 95 AD. He lived in a cave which was turned into a church around 1000 years later and a monastery sprang up around it. We weren’t allowed to take photographs inside unfortunately. The church was quite small and about a third of the space was actually the rock formation of the ‘cave’. It must be merry hell in summer with the coach parties as I doubt there is space for more than 20 people at any given time, assuming that they are all standing up and facing the same way. Considering all the talk about climate change and the end of the world etcetera, I am surprised that the place isn’t heaving all year round but perhaps people have forgotten that everything to do with the concept of the Apocalypse started in a small cave on a remote Greek island nearly 2 000 years ago.
This time we were accompanied by the janitor who was busy vacuuming, polishing and mopping which rather detracted from the spirituality of the place. Not so much the odour of sanctity as the floral abundance of Fabuloso. He asked us where we were from. We told him we were from Symi and commented on the different way in which windows and shutters are handled between the two islands – on Symi shutters are outside and windows open inwards so the shutters have to be kept closed in the rain as otherwise they leak. (Shums notice stuff like that.) In Patmos it is the other way round. It turns out that the buildings in Patmos are so old that glass windows were added later – you only had shutters to keep out potential invaders or open spaces – which is why glass windows were added later, usually on the outside of the shutters which opened inwards, as in the photograph below. When we mentioned the limitations of the archaeologia, the state body that controls what people do to buildings in places like Symi, Patmos and Rhodes Old Town, he rolled his eyes and said, “We also have UNESCO!”
After our chat with the janitor, who was careful to lock up after us so no sneaking back inside to take unauthorised pictures, we headed back up the hill to Chora for a final walk around. Once again, we saw more companions with four legs than two. This time we were taking on a guided walk by a small, friendly but independent-minded dog (no excessive demonstrations of affection, thank you).
We are not quite finished yet. There are still some more good photos left to share with you so watch out for the next instalment.