Life on Symi in Self-Isolation

Here we are on our little island, waist deep in daisies, chamomile fragrant under foot and the hillsides pungent with sage blossom.  When I first came here in the mid-90s March was already a fairly busy time, with walking groups, photographers and artists revelling in the spring spectacle.  This slowly faded away as the tourist season contracted and in recent years Symi has been quiet well into May.  In that sense things don’t feel too different to last year or the year before.  In others, however, the change is dramatic.  No more shopping trips to Rhodes.  No more sociable coffees in cafes.  The old boys can no longer hang out at the cafeneions.  They hang out in their vegetable gardens instead and if the tourist season fails totally a lot of people will be dependent on the family orchard and vegetable plot.  The hairdressers, hardware stores, builders’ merchants and other stores are all closed.  Only supermarkets, bakeries, pharmacies, the bank and the agricultural suppliers are allowed to remain open.

I was going to post yesterday but kept delaying as we were all waiting to find out if the speculation in the press that the international flights would be stopping with effect from Sunday would be confirmed. So far, however, this has not been made official.

What has been made official is that ALL hotels, not just the seasonal ones for tourists, have to close on Monday until at least the end of April. This was announced at the same time as a fiscal package to help the country get through the difficult times ahead.  Something else that is official is that anyone arriving into the country now has to go into enforced 14 day quarantine.  They have to fill in a form on arrival, detailing among other things where they will be staying and their phone number. Random checks and phone calls will then be made to ensure that they abide by the quarantine regulations.  If they are found to be out and about when they should be at home, the fine is 5000 euros.

Meanwhile more and more islands are requesting that ferry connections be limited to the transport of goods only, in an effort to prevent the import of the virus from the mainland and beyond. Many Athenians are fleeing the big city to head to their country homes in rural areas and in the islands, bringing the virus with them.  This appeal may be too late for the Dodecanese Island of Karpathos which reported its first case last night, a health worker at a clinic on the island.  It is not clear how she became infected as this is one of the most remote islands and the closest diagnosed case so far is in Crete.  Even Mount Athos, which is effectively a state within a state, is closing the gates to pilgrims.

The government is taking the self-isolation, quarantine and business closures very seriously and the police are arresting anyone violating the edicts.

Finally, some good news to come out of all this…  While the requirement for dinky little individual soaps for hotels has dropped, Papoutsanis, Greece’s oldest soap maker, has had to increase production to cope with demand.

Symi Spring in the time of Covid-19 continued

blog 17 March 2020 amphitheatre
Work on building an amphitheatre in the square in Yialos.
blog 17 March 2020 duck
Looking for a mate.
blog 17 March 2020 kids 1
Nanny goats and kids, ewes and lambs are everywhere at the moment, glorying in the spring abundance.
Blog 17 March 2020 Kos lift inside
The sign inside the lift of the hotel we stayed in in Kos.
blog 17 March 2020 Kos lift outside
The sign on the outside door of the same lift. There was just enough room for me and one suitcase. Nicholas took the stairs!

blog 17 March 2020 poppyCyclamen March 2020

It is the wise sailor who makes sure he is in port around the equinox.  Northerly gales up to Beaufort Force 9 are hammering Greece at the moment, disrupting ferry schedules and depositing fresh snow in the mountainous regions.  It is only 10 degrees centigrade on Symi today.  Pedi bay does not look anything like the photograph above which I took a few days ago.  Rolling white caps march past the entrance to the bay today and waves are breaking along the shore line.  The weather is not expected to improve until Thursday.

The newest directives coming through are that anyone coming into Greece from abroad must now go into quarantine for 14 days to limit any new infections arriving in the country.  You will note that the article makes specific mention of people coming in from the UK where little is being done to prevent the spread of contagion.  More shops and businesses are to be closed with effect from tomorrow. At the same time supermarket trading hours have been extended by two hours in the evening and supermarkets are allowed to trade on Sundays for the next 4 weekends. The idea behind this is to reduce crowding and make it easier for shops to enforce the spacing regulations.

More help is also being arranged for the elderly, including reallocating civil servants to helping the needy rather than working directly with the general public.  In the meantime the government has also succeeded in persuading the all-powerful Greek Orthodox Holy Synod to co-operate and reduce church services.

Reports are coming back that the on line tuition system is popular with the children and seems to be working. Early days yet but at least they got things rolling fairly quickly.

More tomorrow.  In journalistic speak, ‘as events unfold’.

Keep well and safe everybody.

Symi Spring in a time of Covid-19

Symi in particular and Greece in general has changed a lot in the last week or so.  On Tuesday afternoon I was at an elegant tea party in Chorio, nibbling crustless smoked salmon sandwiches and eyeing the dishes of whipped cream and strawberries when suddenly various phones around the table went ‘ping’.  All the mothers of school-age children discovered that the schools were closing down for a fortnight with immediate effect. That was the start.

The next day, when the WHO declared the pandemic, the messages on phones and in social media gained momentum.  Schools and universities closed, as well as clubs, indoor play grounds, kindergartens, art galleries, museums, archaeological sites, cafes, bars, restaurants, tavernas, department stores, shopping malls and, eventually also tourist hotels (shut until 30 April) and finally, last night, the borders with Albania and North Macedonia and the sea border with Italy.  Cruise ships, which had been using Rhodes as a kind of bolt hole after being turned away from Limassol in Cyprus and Haifa in Israel are now barred from stopping in Greece. The directive also includes sailing yachts so anyone who over winters their boat in the cheap marinas of nearby Turkey may have a problem if their paperwork expires before the ban is lifted.

We are all supposed to be self-isolating as much as possible, something which the state has been having difficulty in implementing, hence the increasingly draconian shut downs.  For example, Saturday was an unseasonably sunny spring day so all the bored Athenians who could not while away the time in their usual fashion, in cafes, galleries and the like, headed for the beach.  Understandable but when several thousand people head for the beach they are not exactly following the principles of isolation that were intended by the closures.  Hasty legislation followed, shutting down organised beaches as well as ski resorts.

The police are actively going round, ensuring that businesses that should be closed are doing so.  Only supermarkets, pharmacies, bakeries, take aways and banks are allowed to be open at the moment and that is within certain parameters.  The number of people inside at any one time is limited and safe spacing must be maintained.  This morning legislation kicks in, limiting the number of people in supermarkets at any one time to 1 per every 10 square metres and they should maintain a distance of at least 2 meters apart in the check out queue.

Symi is very quiet.  The cafes and bars in Chorio and Yialos that are normally open all year round are sealed up with their chairs stacked on their tables.  Scena in Chorio and the International Taverna in Yialos which had been open through the winter are offering take away food and I have noticed on the Rhodian newsfeeds that many Rhodian restaurants are also announcing that they will be keeping their kitchens open for take aways and deliveries.  With the law coming through at such short notice they have perishable stock that needs using up and there is no knowing how long these closures will last. The fact that late Saturday night it was announced that tourist hotels and holiday accommodation were to remain closed until at least 30 April means that there won’t be much trade apart from locals.

I must get on now with sorting tins and bottles and making a shopping list in case we have to stay at home completely.  More tomorrow!

 

February postcards from Nisyros

 

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!

 

 

February Postcards from Symi

 

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.

A Winter Weekend in Patmos (Part 6)

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.

A Winter Weekend in Patmos (Part 5)

After visiting the Christodoulou monastery in Chora we hit the road in our hire car, heading north this time.  We had heard that there was a traditional wooden boat yard at the top of the island and boat yards are like catnip to us so off we went.  When we eventually reached the site of supposed boatyard it actually turned out to have been turned into a shooting range and all that was left was a large winch. For some reason, going back through our cameras, it seems that neither of us thought the place sufficiently photogenic to be worthy of immortalisation, unlike the goats who had taken over that end of the island.  They seemed to be fairly feral and we saw no signs of ear-tagging or other forms of flock marking.

Patmos has a lot of arable land in comparison to Symi, with generously sized terraced fields, threshing floors, wells and meadows.  Although there is quite a lot of tourist development it seems to be mainly low-rise and unintrusive, unlike the hotel complexes fringing Rhodes and Kos.  The island has a large reservoir, out of bounds to tourists, as well as two large – and functioning – wind turbines.

The third village on Patmos after the port of Skala and the old town, Chora, is called Kampos.  We stopped there for lunch on our way back.  The only taverna open was a real time capsule. The walls were lined with old black and white family photographs, venerable patriarchs and matrons and, somewhat surprisingly, a black and white cat, all looking straight ahead in the formal poses of the day.  The radiators were welcome against the chill.  We would have sat outside at a table in the sun but that was the smoking zone and already occupied by a young Greek couple, wreathed in clouds of roll-up tobacco.  The proprietor was busy loading massive skewers of whole chickens onto rotisseries over a bed of coals in the back kitchen for an event in the evening but he was happy to have a couple of lunch guests if we didn’t mind having something already prepared.  We had braised lamb shanks cooked with roasted red peppers and apricots and a stifado.  Both were delicious and we felt no need for a substantial meal in the evening.

By the time we got back to the hotel Skala was waking up from the brief winter siesta and we went for a stroll around the shops.  As the museum shop at the monastery was closed we went to see what the town had to offer by way of mementos.  One extremely dusty book shop yielded a copy of Cavafy to add to our collection but the souvenirs on offer were a bizarre mix of oriental bric a brac, discontinued Staffordshire pottery in a design that goes with nothing we already own, last year’s unsold Easter eggs and some very expensive icons.  We moved on to investigate the other two bookshops we had noticed the previous evening as well as the bio food shop and the newspaper shop.  In the newspaper shop we ran into the Croatian woman who was earnestly helping the young South Korean to select the best out of a bad collection of Patmos fridge magnets having resisted her exhortations to add an ungainly coffee mug to his suitcase.  The woman behind the counter was familiar – she had served us in Jumbo the previous evening (we bought a deliciously chintzy kitschy kitchen clock for a friend on Symi).  Even Patmos has job-sharing, it seems.

Supper that evening was a picnic in our room of hummous, pita and other bits and pieces from the AB supermarket down the road from the hotel while perusing the glossy picture books of Patmian icons and museum artefacts that the hotel keeps for the use of guests.

Sunday morning, before our departure, was set aside for a trip to the Church of the Apocalypse, the cave where St John the Divine had his famous revelations.  Of which more tomorrow.

shop 1
Hanging about hopefully outside one of several fishmongers
shop 2
Traditional supermarket. The window display is accessed by opening the windows from the street.
shop 3
Municipal buildings at the port.
shop 4
The Alpha Bank