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.
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.
“It is like winter, only with better weather,” a recently-arrived friend observed to me a few days ago. The days are long and hot and there isn’t much happening. Anyone visiting Symi for the first time probably won’t notice much difference as Symi has reverted to the sleepy charm of the 1970s and 80s. The gulets and yachts that normally fill the harbour in the summer months are conspicuous by their absence and apart from a few Greek flagged sailing boats visiting from Rhodes and Kos, the anchorages are empty. Until the sea borders can safely open up with testing procedures in place at a greater number of ports, this is unlikely to change. The sea border between Greece and Turkey is still firmly closed so there are no ferry connections between the two countries either.
Most of the cafes and bars in the harbour are now open, as are the two pizzerias, the gyros and grill houses and several restaurants and tavernas. We were invited to dinner at Tholos in Harani on Saturday night. The number of tables has been reduced by about a third so that they are more widely spaced. The staff all wear masks. Sanitiser is brought to the table so you can clean your hands, particularly after handling the menu. As this was the only restaurant open in the Harani area they were full, mainly with Greek tourists. The food was excellent, as always, and they have not succumbed to the temptation to make up the shortfall in income by hiking prices.
Water taxis have resumed operation on a limited scale along the lines of one trip out in the morning and another back in the afternoon. The Poseidon goes out 4 times a week. The Maria is also advertising day trips. The ferry schedules are still a bit skimpy. Dodecanese Seaways is not operating the Panagia Skiadeni and their official on line schedule shows no service to Symi on Sundays. Sunday is actually marketed as a Facebook ‘event’ for a day excursion from Rhodes to Panormitis and once they know they have a good expression of interest, then it goes live. The Sea Dreams website is advertising the King Saron for a daily route to Symi, starting from tomorrow, 15 July, and they are selling one way tickets. Although this shows as running every day, this will be subject to demand but they have made their booking conditions very flexible. As only 80 of the 450 hotels on Rhodes are actually open at the moment, and they are by no means full, it will be a while before there are enough tourists to fill day boats on a regular basis. The Blue Star comes through 3 times a week. There is still no evening boat from Rhodes to Symi apart from the Blue Star on Wednesdays at 18.30 (Mondays and Fridays, the Blue Star currently leaves Rhodes at 16.00). The Stavros seems to be more reliable than initially anticipated.
Direct flights from the UK commence from tomorrow, 15 July. Direct flights from Sweden from 22 July and there is the possibility of direct flights being allowed from certain parts of the USA at the end of the month, depending on infection rates and so on. Everyone has to fill in a PLF on line 24 hours before travelling and they are then issued with a QR code on their smart phones which they must show in order to travel. This code determines whether one will have a mandatory Covid-19 check or a random one and the contact details provided are so that you can be notified of your test results and also, should anyone you have travelled with and been in close contact with, test positive, you can be informed. Stricter controls are now being implemented at the land borders due to a recent increase in the number of people arrived from the Balkans who have tested positive. You can find all the information you need about travelling to Greece on a new government website.
This is all as up-to-date as it can be, but it could all be totally different tomorrow!
Today’s photograph is of the thermal beach on Kos. If you dig a little pit in the sand it fills up with warm water from the thermal springs just below the surface. Put it on your wishlist for when things return to normal.
A lot has happened since I last wrote. Travel restrictions have been brought in to prevent passengers travelling on ferries to the islands unless they are actually permanent residents on the islands. This was brought in to stop Athenians and others from the mainland bringing the disease into the islands. So far most confirmed cases are in Athens and northern Greece. The only confirmed case in the Dodecanese, a health worker at a clinic in Karpathos, was traced back to a visitor from Athens. As the islands don’t have serious medical facilities – on Symi for example we currently don’t even have a qualified doctor, only interns – it is important to maintain a cordon sanitaire. When travelling you have to show your passport, your residence card and also your tax certificate as this shows your official place of domicile whereas the residence card simply shows that you are either a temporary or permanent resident of Greece and the EU.
Another big change is that with effect from 6 a.m. yesterday, 23 March, we cannot leave our homes without authorisation and that is for a very limited range of criteria. The rest of the time we are to stay home. If we do go out it is singly or in pairs with a distance of 2 metres between us. When travelling by car only one passenger is permitted in addition to the driver. People going to work have to complete Form A if self employed or get their employer to fill it in and stamp it if they are employees. This is a one off form to be carried at all times, along with ID or passport and residence permit. Other activities fall under Form B which can be either a printed form, an SMS or a hand written piece of paper if there is no technology available and this has to be done for every single time one leaves the house. More details on the official government website link.
The number of customers permitted in supermarkets has been further restricted to one every 15 square metres. This doesn’t apply so much to Symi where the shops are small and people few but in Rhodes the big supermarkets have implemented a system using numbered cards. Based on the square meterage of the shop they have calculated how many customers they may have in the store at any given time. There is a staff member, suitably gloved and masked, at the door who hands out a card to each shopper until all the cards are gone. As each shopper leaves again they hand back the card which is duly sanitised and handed to the next person in line. Simple but effective and nothing fancy required to set up. Countries like the UK could implement this to reduce the locust-line stripping of supermarket shelves as well as reducing the progress of contagion. Street markets which are a common shopping venue in Greece are limited to only sell foodstuffs and the stalls have to be 5 metres apart.
Apart from ferries, there have also been major changes to flights with drastic reductions in the number of domestic flights and even bigger ones between Greece and EU/International destinations. Apart from repatriation flights and freight, there is little movement at the country’s airports.
On the home front, Symi is quieter even than it is in the depths of winter. The lambs and kids continue to frolic in the daisies. Solitary people walk their dogs as this is one of the approved activities. Parents endeavour to home-school their children and various on line classes are streamed. The churches are closed. Tomorrow is Greek Independence Day as well as the Annunciation. Normally this is marked by blazing braziers all round the harbour and leading up to Evangelismos church in Harani. This year locals will mark the event by putting lanterns on their balconies in the harbour and hanging out flags as all parades are cancelled.
The sunny mild spring weather is expected to break on Wednesday evening as the cold front currently over the Ionian, the mainland and the northern Aegean heads our way. We could be in for as much as four days of rain. Psychologically it is much easier to be indoors when it is wet and miserable outside so as long as this is not accompanied by floods this rainy spell is welcomed. Meanwhile we are all spending far too much time thinking about food. That is probably a universal thing as boredom drives us to the fridge. Fortunately I have always been a keen reader and thanks to Kobo and Kindle these days one need never run out of books. Apparently Netflix has reduced the resolution on its streaming service so that the European bandwidth does not collapse under the weight of so many subscribers.
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.
Symi has turned into a garden this year. Those long soaking rains for months on end during the winter gave us a spectacular spring and the mountain herbs are putting on a show for far longer this year. Even people who usually come in June are commenting on how bright the thyme flowers are this year. While other countries may be worrying about their bee populations, Symi’s bees are absolutely wallowing in thyme pollen at the moment and the hills are humming.
Recycling has been a big topic for all parties involved in the recent elections. In reality, the bins have obviously been in the pipeline for a while regardless. Rhodes has had them for some time and this is not the first time we have seen bins for collecting aluminium cans on Symi – we covered the same story in the days of the Symi Visitor newspaper, more than a decade ago. The crucial thing is not so much encouraging the locals and tourists to use them but that the contents are then actually taken away and recycled in a sustainable way. Greece has very few recycling facilities and they are all on the mainland, a 17 hour ferry journey away. Rubbish, whatever it is, tends to be high volume, so a cost effective way of transporting paper, bottles, cans, plastic and so on has to be provided to form the next link in the chain. Otherwise we will see yet another recycling initiative fall by the wayside as the contents wind up in a landfill somewhere. In the long term the real solution lies with the packaging industry finding better alternatives that are still effective for their purpose but without the negative environmental implications.
As many of you probably know, I look after holiday homes for various people and provide the services they need to keep them running smoothly. Recently I received a consignment of all the sheets and towels necessary for one particular house. Three sets of everything. They were ordered from an on line source by the owner of the property and arrived in big boxes by courier. Every single individual item, whether it be a sheet or a pillow case or a towel, was folded around a piece of cardboard to give it a neat shape. It was then encased in a printed paper sleeve, giving details of the item. Each of these was then in a separate resealable plastic envelope. That means that for each item of bedding or towels there were 3 items of packaging. What kind of madness is this? Even if those separate pieces of packaging are recyclable, in a place where those particular materials can be recycled, bearing in mind that facilities are not universally available, is it really necessary to fold a pillowcase round a piece of cardboard, wrap it in a piece of printed paper and then put it in a plastic bag? Many of us are old enough to remember when someone would have counted out the appropriate number of items. Laid them on a sheet of brown paper, wrapped it up into a parcel with tape or string and that would have been that.
The Symi summer season starts later than it used to as fewer tourists come to Symi for Easter and spring break. With little pressure, businesses now unfurl from the winter hibernation at a more leisurely pace and most set their targets for the end of May rather than the beginning.
Every day brings more changes, particularly in the harbour where the day boats from Rhodes provide more of an incentive for shops and cafes to open up but here in Pedi things are still very quiet. The first Saga Holidays people have arrived at the Pedi Beach Hotel and the last bus is now at 9.30 p.m. from Pedi. We had supper with friends at the newly re-opened Katsaras Taverna in Pedi and we were the only diners.
The weather is still unsettled, with random red rain showers, occasional blustery days and temperatures ranging from 16 degrees to 25 degrees. Even on the hazy days of Saharan dust it can be very bright and the sun cream days are definitely with us. Over the weekend there were countrywide ferry and flight disruptions due to strong winds.
Tomorrow is VE Day and a local holiday. German General Wagener surrendered the Dodecanese to the Allies at the building on the waterfront in Yialos that now houses LOS club (previously Katerinettes pension and taverna). There is still a big parade here on Symi every year. When I first came to Symi, nearly 30 years ago, veterans and their families would make a point of coming to Symi to attend the parade. Now they are long gone and very few of the people taking part or watching have any real first hand connection with the event. It is still, however, an important part of Symi’s recent history and a reminder that tiny islands are not immune to the ripples of world events.
On the ferry front, ANES released a schedule for the Sebeco that covered the Easter and May Day holidays and runs out tomorrow, 8 May, so we still don’t know which evenings, if any, there may be boats from Rhodes to Symi or which mornings there will be boats from Symi to Rhodes. The promised extra Blue Star Sunday routes also don’t appear on any schedule. The Blue Star 2 made a diversion through Symi this Sunday past in order to pick up morning passengers from the Sebeco who would otherwise have been stranded as the wind was too strong for the Sebeco to run. Generally speaking, if you are making plans, it is probably best to stick with what is on the Dodecanese Seaways and Blue Star websites and regard anything else as a bonus!
January was wet and windy and so far February has not been much better. They didn’t give a name to the storm that pounded Greece on Tuesday night and Wednesday but it delivered a lot of damage, particularly in Rhodes where large boulders were thrown about by the sea and many small seaside villages and beaches took a hammering. Once again there were shipping bans and flight disruptions as winds topped Force 9, gusting Force 10. There are another 6-8 weeks of winter still to come so it isn’t over yet. Heavy hail storms on high ground took their toll of the new lambs in the mountain pastures on Symi and the local shepherds all have stories to tell.
In the quieter corners the almond blossoms are opening and the countryside is very green. When the sun comes through it can be as much as 20 degrees centigrade, out of the wind. Most of the time, though, midday temperatures are around 14 degrees and last night the thermometer on our car was reading 7 degrees centigrade. The wind makes it seem chilly, particularly as the water has found its way into everything indoors and out. Most Symi houses, regardless of age, have damp problems in the winter. Either condensation turns surfaces black with mould or water seeps through walls, turning green with algae if there is any sunlight. Apparently tea tree oil helps with the mould spores, if one can get hold of it. Everyone else is constantly swabbing down with bleach solution. It is not for nothing that spring painting is an annual necessity.
The bus is back, still running on a reduced winter schedule but much better than wading against the flow in the rain.
We have a few breezy partly cloudy days ahead and then the showers and next rainy spell is forecast to arrive on Monday night or Tuesday morning. As the Blue Star came in from Rhodes last night there should be fresh stuff in the shops this morning. Time to go foraging!
The cover photograph shows some of the sand and gravel that Tuesday night’s storm threw up along the waterfront road in Pedi. The small terracotta fragments are potsherds, fragments of ancient amphora and pithoi that have been smashed and polished by the sea over centuries.
Winter in the Mediterranean may conjure up visions of mild temperatures, sunny days and pavement cafes. This can happen, if you are lucky, but most of the time, particularly in January and February, it can be very wet, extremely windy and, on occasion, even snowy.
This year the snow even crept to sea level in places like Corfu, Skopelos and Thessalonica. Rhodes had heavy snowfalls on the mountain tops and the Evzones found themselves strutting their stuff outside Syntagma, Athens, surrounded by the white stuff.
We have had ferry disruptions of one sort or another every week since December and the Best Western Plaza hotel in Rhodes is offering special rates for Symiots hanging about, waiting for boats and doctor’s appointments.
On a personal note, I have been out of circulation for many weeks, due to severe back problems. A strict regime of bed rest, exercises and medication under the supervision of an orthopaedic specialist in Rhodes seems to be working but I have to be very careful about how much time I spend sitting at the computer and have only recently been able to go for short walks, with the help of a stick. It is unfortunate that the Symi bus is out of circulation so I cannot venture further afield. At the moment my perambulations are strictly local but I can at least provide you with some photographs to give you an idea of what Pedi looks like in January.