The Greek Island cliche of the tourist brochures is blue skies, calm seas, endless sunshine and idyllic beaches. That is only part of the picture. Greece, like all the other countries in the Europe, also has winter. While it seldom involves metre deep snow drifts – unless you live in northern Greece – but it does usually involve a lot of wet stuff and that, in turn, translates into a lot of green stuff. The Mediterranean climate has two defining characteristics – long hot dry summers and relatively mild wet winters with high rainfall. Spring and Autumn are such short seasons, only 2-3 weeks between Summer and Winter that they hardly register at all in Southern Greece. We would not survive those summer droughts without the winter rains and on naturally arid islands like Symi which have no springs or rivers, harvesting the winter rains in cisterns has been a way of life for thousands of years.
If you have only ever been to Greece in the popular summer months of July, August and September you may find it hard to imagine a landscape of wild cyclamens and silvery asphodels, bright green annual grasses and waist high corona daisies. The first rains usually fall sometime in October, around the same time that the squills start punching through the sunbaked earth to remind us that Persephone is on her way back to Hades. Within a day or so a delicate green bloom tinges the rocky landscape as dry scrubby herb bushes regreen and grass seeds germinate. The wild cyclamens poke small heart shaped leaves out of stony terrace walls and rocky hillsides. The delicately scented pale pink flowers follow later, in February and March. By April the country is a riot of flowers as nature pushes to complete complex life cycles before the first heatwaves of May and June bake the earth.
It is quite possible to see no rain at all between mid March and early November but most years the drought on Symi lasts from April to late October. A long time without water.
The next time you look at a photograph of gleaming white Cycladic houses against a brilliantly blue sky and sea, remember the other Greece. The wintry green one of rain and cyclamens.