Open for Lunch

 

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.

 

 

A Waiting Game

Symi is very quiet.  A few Greek tourists.  A handful of foreigners from ‘safe’ low risk destinations.  Bored local teenagers whizzing up and down the road, sound systems blaring.  Pensioners watering their vegetable plots and grandmothers taking an early morning swim.  The temperature continues to rise and every afternoon there is a gentle migration to the sea to cool off.  Locals play at being tourists as they have little or no work and nothing much to do.  Very few places are open, and those that are, are generally empty.  The cicadas chirp on regardless.

The harbour is devoid of day-trippers.  There are no water taxis bustling in and out of Yialos.  All dressed up and no where to go.

The Greek domestic airports opened to direct flights from other EU destinations and 13 third-party ones yesterday. This comes with all sorts of provisos and restrictions which you can find here.  As you probably know, direct flights from the UK, the USA and Sweden are still forbidden due to the very high levels of infection in those countries.  They may be major contributors to Greece’s usual annual tourist income, but the risks outweigh any possible benefit, particularly as a number of recent cases have been linked to people coming in from the USA and UK via various roundabout routes.

What seems to be more of a problem is that would be travellers from countries that ARE on the approved list are being messed about by various airlines.  For instance, Danes booking with Spies for holidays in September, which is two months away, are having their flights cancelled on the grounds that there is insufficient demand.  Well, if they still have two months in which to sell tickets and people are only just starting to make plans, why cancel flights now?  That only creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fear of making plans and then having them cancelled, often at short notice (vis a vis those who were booked on flights from London for 1 July who were only informed on 30 June that they were cancelled) and fighting to redeem vouchers and refunds from flights cancelled earlier in the year are certainly putting people off travelling, even if they have already had – and recovered from – the dreaded virus.

The Greek government has put all sorts of measures in place to make travel as safe as possible.  Everyone travelling to Greece has to complete an on line Passenger Locator Form 48 hours before travelling, answering a lot of questions regarding where they have been for the past fortnight and who they have met as well as providing accurate details of where they will be staying on arrival in Greece.  Based on this information they are issued with a QR code to present on landing.  This determines whether they will be tested or not.  Other passengers will be subject to random testing.  There is more information about this on the links above.  By the way, the penalties for providing incorrect information are hefty and if you haven’t completed the form and received the QR code, you aren’t allowed to fly anyway.

Quarantine hotels have been established in various towns around the country so anyone, whether Greek or foreign tourist, can be isolated if not sufficiently ill to require hospitalisation.  On Symi the Chorio clinic is designated an isolation unit and anyone who falls ill with the virus will be helicoptered to Rhodes. (Apologies for the Facebook link, unfortunately this video was not uploaded onto the more widely accessible YouTube.)

Unfortunately the dearth of tourists on Symi has severe implications for the Symiots themselves.  Apart from pensioners and those in the merchant navy or working for the banks, power station and so on, everyone else is dependent on tourist revenues of one sort or another to pay the bills and put food on the table.  Whether it is foreign property owners or tourists staying in hotels and short stay accommodation, it is the money coming in from outside that keeps the island’s economy moving.  Greece does not have a well-developed welfare state to help people over the hard times – historically the solution has been mass migration rather than state intervention – and the Covid-19 crisis has lasted far longer than the government had initially anticipated.  If you are able to travel to Symi this year, even if it is for a few weeks much later in the year, please do.  It is going to be a long wait for those who have had no income since October 2019 if they have to wait until the spring of 2021 before they start earning again and by that time many of your favourite haunts may well have shut down permanently.

 

 

Socially Distant Symi

Carnival, Clean Monday Easter and May Day came and went discreetly during the Covid-19 lock down. The same cannot be said for Greek Pentecost which was celebrated with great enthusiasm last weekend. The first holiday since Epiphany in January that could be celebrated in any way, Greece saw its first real surge of domestic tourism.

In Mykonos, the famous party island, Athenians flocked to the beach bars that had opened for that weekend.  The inevitable happened and at least one was fined 20 000 euros and closed for 60 days for violating the social distancing regulations.  Symi, on the other hand, was a place of pilgrimage and Dodecanese Seaways brought people over from Rhodes to go to Panormitis monastery.  Rather more sedate and the photographs emerging on social media were nothing like the jam-packed throngs we usually associate with events like the Panormitis festival or even Sunday church-goers from Rhodes.  Those tavernas and cafes in Yialos that have opened finally had some customers and there was a bit of an ambient hum to the island that has been absent since last summer.

Katsaras in Pedi is one of the few organised beaches that is open at the moment.  As you can see from the photographs, the umbrellas and sunbeds are widely spaced.  The beach has been extended slightly seaward with more sand so that the front row of sunbeds is further out that usual.  The taverna is now open.  Apostoli’s on the other side of Pedi bay is still in boat-yard mode although most of the boats have now been launched.  Locals go along and help themselves from the pile of sunbeds in the corner.

Although the water taxis are being launched none of them is in operation as they don’t have their 2020 licenses as yet and in any case there isn’t really anywhere for them to go until the beach tavernas open and there are enough tourists to justify the service.  The beach and taverna over at Toli bay on the west coast of the island opened for Pentecost but that is accessible by road.

At time of writing, the Nireus, Aliki and Pedi Beach hotels are still closed.  Of these, the Pedi Beach looks the most promising as work is continuing on upgrading the rooms and there are staff around, doing things, even if the hotel is not actually open.

No word about what is or isn’t happening at Agia Marina.  No signs of any activity at Petalo.  NOS beach, the town beach, is not open yet but there is activity going on.

Technically the 2020 international tourist season starts from 15 June which is next Monday and travellers arriving from the approved list will not be subject to quarantine measures, only random spot checks.  All international flights will still be going through Athens.  Local airports like Rhodes will only start receiving international flights from 1 July.  Travel between Greece and Italy is supposed to start opening up from next week, although some Italian airports are still on the high risk list.  Main arrivals are likely to be on the big Super Fast ferries coming from Ancona.   All ferry travel, both domestic and international, requires the completion of a special form before departure, answering various questions regarding health as well as providing contact details and addresses so that in the event of anyone having the virus, all likely contacts can be traced and notified as quickly as possible.  Speaking of ferries, Symi won’t have daily ferries until the Panagia Skiadeni comes on line on 30 June to fill some of the gaps.  This is dependent on there being enough tourists in Rhodes to justify day excursions from Rhodes to Symi so there is a strong element of wait and see there.  The word in the harbour is that we won’t be seeing the ANES Sebeco shuttle this year.  Apparently it is most likely going to serve a potentially more lucrative route off the the mainland.  Of course as this is the year where no one really knows what is happening from one day to the next this may well change.

No one knows for sure yet what countries will be allowed in without any kind of quarantine requirements after 1 July as so much depends on epidemiological profiles elsewhere and these change daily.  There is also concern at all levels because there has been an increase in the number of new cases of Covid-19 in the last 10 days or so, many of them associated with arrivals from abroad (Greeks returning rather than tourist travellers).  The daily government briefings on TV have been reinstated and the situation is being monitored closely.  Specific areas may be isolated or locked down if there is any danger of them escalating into hot spots.  Qatar airlines is only allowed to resume flights into Athens after 15 June as a flight from Doha on 1 June had 12 positive cases out of 91 passengers.  Emirates only resumes on 15 July.  Other airlines are cancelling or rescheduling flights as they go, depending on changing regulations and reduced demand.  I have been receiving emails from mainly British regular visitors to Symi, telling me that their holidays have been cancelled or that they have been rescheduled.  With the UK now implementing a 14 day quarantine period for travellers returning from abroad, it is not surprising that the UK package holiday companies are cancelling June and July holidays on a rolling basis.

Once again, all we can do is wait and see – and do our bit to maintain social distancing to keep ourselves and others safe and well.

 

 

Coming Out of Quarantine

On Monday 4 May the first steps began to ease up on the measures first implemented on 29 February to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Greece.  We no longer have to send an SMS or carry a permit to be allowed out of our homes – unless we have just returned from somewhere else in which case the strict 14 day police-controlled quarantine still applies, in which event no amount of paperwork allows you out until the days are done.  Smaller shops where numbers can be easily controlled have been allowed to re-open. This includes bookshops, electronics shops, hardware shops, shoe shops and clothing shops.  In the case of the latter, strict regulations are in force to prevent clothes from being contaminated and you really need to know your size as trying things on is not allowed at this point.  More shops will be allowed to open on 11 May.

Masks must be worn in enclosed places including public transport such as buses, trains, the metro and so on.  This last isn’t much of an issue on Symi.  The bus has been mothballed for the duration and Lakis is using one of his hire cars – with one passenger at a time, travelling on the back seat.  Unnecessary journeys are still frowned upon and it is not permitted to travel between islands or outside ones prefecture for the time being.  Drivers are now allowed to have two passengers in their vehicles now, instead of one.  Gatherings are still limited to a maximum of 10 people and are generally still discouraged.  We can go swimming but not at organised beaches and not in large groups.  There are still restrictions in place regarding private boats and amateur fishing as the authorities don’t want anyone sneaking off to other islands or travelling illegally between the mainland and the islands, potentially taking the virus with them.

15 May is the day when it will be decided how the country goes forward as by that point it will be clear if there has been an up-tick in infections as a result of increased mobility and social interaction.

Restaurants and cafes may be allowed to open on 1 June, if all goes well. This would be with reduced clientele, greater spacing between tables and strict hygiene measures in place.

As things stand at the moment, all-year-round hotels should be allowed to reopen on 15 June and international hotels on 1 July.  These dates, however, have not been confirmed and are dependent on how the figures run.  There are also no firm dates for when international tourism will resume.  Although tourism is responsible for about 20% of Greece’s economy and, in the islands, practically the only significant source of revenue, re-opening the doors to foreign visitors also brings with it the potential threat of a ‘second wave’ of infection which could be much harder to control.  The quality of the tourist product also has to be considered – would people still come if they can’t go clubbing in crowded Mykonos nightspots or line up like sardines in a row on organised beaches?  Perhaps this will be the year the tide turns back to the things that are uniquely Greek – history, culture, archaeology, museums – things which cannot be found elsewhere and which can, actually, be easier to make safe for visitors and locals alike. Only time will tell.

If you look carefully at the photograph, there is a cat, suspended in a special cat bed so that it can look out at the passing parade.  At the moment I think many of us feel like that cat.  Watching to see what happens next before we venture back out into a world that is likely to be very different to the one we saw in on 1 January 2020.

Symi April Blues

 

Human tourists might be unable to travel but the migratory birds have no such problems.  The barn swallows are nesting in quiet corners of Pedi and every evening we hear the owls calling across the valley.

As 1 May is a big holiday in Greece and falls on a Friday this year, once again a strict vehicle curfew will be in place for that weekend to prevent people leaving the cities to head for country houses and islands.  Effectively the lock down definitely remains in place until at least 4 May for this reason.  We are, however, expecting an announcement, either this evening or tomorrow, outlining the proposed stages for re-opening the country. Starting with easily controllable businesses such as bookshops and hair dressers and, eventually, seasonal hotels.

We have already been told that the most we can hope for is a 3 month tourist season, from 1 July to 30 September, with various restrictions in place concerning which country nationals will be allowed in and what measures will be taken to ensure the safety of both the tourists and the locals. This is all being hammered out with the EU as a whole to make a co-ordinated plan.  Proposals including opening up the larger hotels first but reducing the number of rooms occupied as it is easier to impose social distancing in larger premises, replacing buffets with table service, changing bars so that drinkers sit at spaced tables with table service and so on.

It will be interesting to see how the airlines tackle the issues of social distancing, disinfection and hygiene and still keep their planes in the air.  We saw huge changes in the travel industry after September 11 but this is going to be even more momentous.  Even if people like Mike O’Leary of Ryan Air complain about the costs involved and refuse to fly within the limitations unless the state picks up the shortfall, the reality is that airlines are going to have a hard time persuading people to travel on their planes unless they feel safe.  With awareness of the importance of hygiene at an all time high, the average person is more likely to be conscious of just what might be lurking on armrests, tray tables, back rests, upholstery and the like, not to mention plastic bins at security checks, airport seating and so on.  It is not just the recycled air which people have been complaining about for years.  Now the threat is not just catching a cold or flu. Unlike trains, buses and other forms of public transport which are a daily necessity for many people to get to and from work, it is rare for flying to be essential so consumers have the luxury of the last word.

We shall see what tomorrow brings.

Adriana

 

 

Strange Times

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.

Keep well, keep safe, keep sane and stay at home!

 

 

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.

Living on the Edge in Yialos

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Shortly after 11 on Monday morning, once the day trippers from Rhodes have safely disembarked into the custody of assorted tour guides, I noticed activity at the stern of the Sea Dreams Symi.
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On closer inspection, this turned out to be a plank.
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Followed by a ladder.
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Don’t look down!
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I hope this takes my weight.
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No, I don’t need the ladder anymore.
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Can’t you see I am still putting the tape on?  I don’t need the paint just yet.
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Marking out the letters with masking tape.
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It looks better already.

Health and safety rules do exist in Greece.  I mean, once a year a road block is set up at the windmills above Yialos to check that people are using helmets when out on their motorbikes.  It is illegal to use mobile phones while driving but no one pays much attention to that one either. We have all seen such Greek island classics as a motorcyclist yakking on the phone while juggling a frappe cup and a cigarette and steering with his knees as he negotiates the waterfront bends in Yialos.

Painters totter at the top of extension ladders, the bottoms of which are balanced on steep steps or out in the street with no hazard signs.  Occasionally someone comes unstuck but this happens remarkably seldom.  This might be because in Greece, particularly in the islands, people grow up taking responsibility for their own actions and don’t count on someone else to look out for them.  If you have survived childhood sleeping on a moussandra loft with a 3 metre ladder to climb up from the stone floor below, the chances are good you have been living dangerously from the outset. Riding to school on a motorbike, clinging to dad’s back along with several other siblings, because there’s no money for a family car brings with it a confidence those of us from more sheltered backgrounds can only envy.

I watched the above sequence of events play out in Yialos yesterday morning.  Harbour balconies offer fascinating insights into island life and if you can handle the steps, it is well worth spending at least your first visit to Symi in one of the neo-classical houses that form the tiers of Symi’s famous amphitheatre harbour.  You may never leave your opera box vantage point for the duration of your stay.  For more mesmerising harbour view observations, visit James Collins’ blog over at Symi Dream – he has to try to work with that view from his desk!

Regards,

Adriana