Changing Seasons

These days I so seldom go down into the harbour, when I do it feels like a different island altogether.   They may be baling hay in the Pedi Valley but in Yialos they are selling sunhats to pink-faced tourists and cold beers go down like iced water in the desert.  The thermometer nudged forty degrees last week and rows of thunder storms are marching through Greece, from the Ionian, across the Aegean to Turkey and beyond.  The Mediterranean never really cooled down last winter and the rising temperatures are spawning lots of storm activity.  It is not usual for the Greek met office to be issuing severe weather warnings in June.

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A chance seed scattering is turning into a jungle of morning glory.  As the island turns gold under the summer sun, puddles of green provide welcome relief to dazzled eyes.
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Plumbago finds support in an olive tree.
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Down on the Pedi road, the draught beer is ready to head out to bars and tavernas around the island.
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Some things have changed – the old Symi Visitor office is now cherry red and a new Symi laundry has opened up in place of Wendy’s Sunflower laundry.  Other things will never change – like the town hall’s futile attempts to prevent people from parking along the front in the summer. The big red plastic bollards filled with water that were reasonably successful last summer have been deployed elsewhere, preventing motorists from going over various bits of road undercut or washed away in the November storm.
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Yes, he is talking on a mobile phone and yes, that is a lavatory seat in the single-use blue plastic bag (I wonder if he was charged the obligatory 4 cents?).
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The yachts are getting bigger and the harbour busier.

These days I so seldom go down into the harbour, when I do it feels like a different island altogether.   They may be baling hay in the Pedi Valley but in Yialos they are selling sunhats to pink-faced tourists and cold beers go down like iced water in the desert.  The thermometer nudged forty degrees last week and rows of thunder storms are marching through Greece, from the Ionian, across the Aegean to Turkey and beyond.  The Mediterranean never really cooled down last winter and the rising temperatures are spawning lots of storm activity.  It is not usual for the Greek met office to be issuing severe weather warnings in June.

As Sean Damer once observed, in his notorious Ethnography on Tourism on Symi, when we aren’t talking about the weather, we are talking about the ferries. Well, if you live on a small island without an airport and heavily dependent on tourism for survival, everything depends on both.  The Attica Group who own Superfast Ferries and Blue Star Ferries have now bought Hellenic Seaways. This has had some significant implications for Symi for the summer.  The Patmos has been moved to a different route and the Nissos Chios is now doing the Wednesday and Friday routes, with rather drastic changes in arrival and departure times.  For more information, please go to Andy’s excellent travel blog.  The other change is the return of the ANES Symi II to Symi waters.  This is to replace the Sea Dreams Symi which is now running the Skopelos route.  The Symi II does not have a ferry license and is only running excursions from Rhodes.  There are also photographs circulating on social media of a new shuttle boat built for ANES that is supposed to be serving the Rhodes Symi route on a passenger only basis. As this is still to complete sea trials and licensing procedures, there is no real information about when it will actually come into service and what the actual schedule will be.  As usual the only more or less consistent player in the field is Dodecanese Seaways.

Meanwhile, my new property management business now has a logo and business cards which should be ready next week.  My website needs a bit more tweaking.  I am still sorting out some logistical issues with my business premises in Pedi so I am currently still working from home. The people whose Symi holidays I managed to salvage seem very happy which can only be a Good Thing.  Various of the old Symi Visitor properties can now be found on AirBnB and other on line booking platforms.  If you can’t find the one you are looking for, please email me on symipropertyservices@gmail.com and I will put you in touch with the relevant person.

 

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Symi Faces

A wide range of languages can be heard on the streets of Symi, including Mandarin and Hebrew in addition to the more usual Russian, French, Italian, German, Danish, Norwegian…

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Semi-detached Symi style.
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Generally speaking, Symiot village houses are not big – often just a kitchen downstairs with the rainwater cistern behind and then a salon above with a moussandra sleeping loft above that.  When flush loos and showers arrived in the 1970s, there was seldom space indoors for the plumbing arrangements so they were build on wherever they could fit.  It is not unusual to see facilities separate from the house or tagged on in the courtyard or even, in some cases, actually across the lane on a separate plot.
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Not quite en suite but it will do!
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The Harani area of the harbour has become very built up in recent years.  Quieter than the main harbour during the busy months of summer, it is also one of the very few places on the island where one can live within walking distance of a beach.
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This narrow concrete track was the original motor road connecting Yialos with Chorio.  Apparently it was built by the Italians with motorbikes in mind and the angles of the zigzags are acute to say the least.  Chopped off when the new two lane motor road out of the town was built in the 1980s, one can still see remnants of the stone foundations of this original road up by the windmills.
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Now abandoned, this intriguing house on the Pedi road probably has the most ornamental faces on the island.  The winged Hermes/Eros motif also appears on the dentist’s surgery at the bottom of the Kateraktis lane at the back of the harbour.  The grimacing man is also a central motif on a pediment near Kampos in Chorio and several other houses in the area.
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The faces even continue round the corner.
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A neighbour was not so extravagant.
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Stars and flowers above a door below the windmills.

 

June has arrived, hot and sticky with the rumble of far distant thunder storms over the embracing Turkish coast.  We actually had a couple of hours of steady light rain one evening earlier this week, enough to make the gutters drip and wash the dust off the citrus trees.  Every night we hear the desalination plant, squeaking away on the Pedi road as it frantically turns sea water into an approximation of the fresh stuff to keep our lavatories flushing and our showers running.  We had a lot of rain this winter but it came to an abrupt halt at the end of February and cisterns are emptying fast.

The water taxis are back in business. The beach tavernas are opening up, albeit with limited menus at the moment.  A wide range of languages can be heard on the streets of Symi, including Mandarin and Hebrew in addition to the more usual Russian, French, Italian, German, Danish, Norwegian…  There are still lots of British visitors around but they are no longer the dominant group they used to be.  June used to be referred to as ‘the English month’ on Symi.  Not any more. There’s a polyglot cosmopolitan vibe that used only to be in evidence in the high season months of July and August.

Have a good week.

Regards,

Adriana

Symi Pastels

Symi is famous for its beautiful neo-classical houses.  The pediments are adorned with all sorts of devices such as stars, crosses, concentric rings and, sometimes, faces.  I spotted this one recently in Chorio, near the windmills.

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Looking across to the old Kastro from Milos (windmill) ridge of Chorio.  The tree-topped hills on the right form the back of the famous amphitheatre harbour.  There is a narrow winding road along that crest, leading to the ancient monastery of Roukoniotis and the precipitous descent to Toli Bay.
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Another view from the same vantage point, showing the back of Yialos far below.  The diagonal row of houses visible just above the pergola in the right foreground are on the Kali Strata, the famous steps connecting Chorio with Yialos and Harani.  Symi is a very compact island, only 8 miles long and 5 miles wide at its broadest, and most habitation is clustered around this north-eastern group of hills.  Getting about, however, involves a great deal of legwork. Those tiers of pretty houses are connected by steps rather than roads.  The motor road that connects Yialos with Chorio is an incredible feat of engineering, sweeping far into the countryside and back again, to embrace the steep incline.
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Symi is famous for its beautiful neo-classical houses.  The pediments are adorned with all sorts of devices such as stars, crosses, concentric rings and, sometimes, faces.  I spotted this one recently in Chorio, near the windmills.
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When I first came to Symi in 1993 ochre and brown were the dominant colours.  Indeed these seemed to be the only colours stocked ready mixed by the local hardware store.  If you wanted anything else, you bought packets of pigment and mixed them into the whitewash yourself.  Gloss paint was limited to white, ochre and mid-brown – colours that are still common in some neighbourhoods.  Then along came acrylic paints and computer mixing and the fun began.  The archaeologia, the government department that looks after heritage sites such as Symi, still has final say on what colours are permitted but Symi’s palette has expanded in many directions.
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An immaculate house in a quiet lane below the windmills.
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Dragon’s breath has scorched the tender petals of roses and other flowers, turning them into pot pourri overnight.  Falling humidity and rising temperatures are taking their toll.
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This tottering three storey mansion house off the main square in Chorio has some delightful touches of whimsy.  A few months ago, when I was still writing on my original blog, I posted a photograph of the Greek flag held to the balcony railing by a yellow measuring tape.  Now the sun brings emphasis to an otherwise ugly electricity meter.
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Agia Trianda (Holy Trinity) is the last of the really big churches at the top of Chorio. There is the small church of Periotissa (Our Lady of Pireus) above it but that is little more than a chapel.  Those pink blobs on the slopes of the Vigla behind are oleander bushes flowering along the motor road that connects Yialos and Chorio with Panormitis monastery at the south western end of the island. The oleanders continue as far as the turn off to Xisos, Roukoniotis and Toli.
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The Markle Sparkle was felt even as far afield as Symi. This was the Olive Tree on Saturday. They were selling Royal Wedding themed elderflower cupcakes in aid of the local high school.  Further up the steps, at Lefteris Kafeneion, otherwise known as Bulmas, Pimms was being served with ever more fanciful garnishes as the island’s British expat community arrived, armed with plates of nibbles.
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A fallen bag of barley made a great breakfast for these two. They were both trailing loose tethers but showed no signs of going anywhere further than the bag of barley.  Ponies, donkeys and mules are still commonly used on Symi, particularly to take materials to building sites and to remove rubble.  Most places are just totally inaccessible to any other form of transport. Foals are taught the routes, following with the trains on the various jobs, so that by the time they are old enough and strong enough to carry loads, they know all the lanes and steps.

 

May Postcards from Symi

Most of those package holiday companies have either dropped Symi from their listings as too expensive and awkward to get to (the shrinking ferry schedule is a self-fulfilling prophecy) or the companies themselves have disappeared, gobbled up in the eternal quest for ever cheaper ‘value for money’ deals that eventually became unsustainable. 

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May is a fragrant month on Symi.   Apart from the ubiquitous jasmine and the somewhat cloying Persian lilacs, many older gardens also have honeysuckle scrambling over fences and pergolas.  On Symi this usually flowers twice a year – in May and then again in September.
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Pomegranate flowers.  Pomegranate trees are quite small, more like big shrubs than proper trees.  As you can see, the flowers are quite solid with thick waxy petals.  The fruit is ready to pick in late September through October.
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The courgette glut is well underway.  New blossoms appear early every morning, shrivelling away in the heat of the day.  The fruits grow so fast they have to be picked daily, even if one does not intend to use them that day.  Today’s sweet tender courgette becomes tomorrow’s tough vegetable marrow if left a day too long.  Courgette fritters in all their incarnations are a taverna staple at this time of the year.  They can also be used instead of aubergines in the making of moussaka, sliced thinly lengthwise and grilled to eat with garlic sauce as a mezze, hollowed out or halved lengthwise and stuffed with rice or meat – in May and June every housewife on the island is working her way through kilos and kilos of fresh courgettes. 
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There are more yachts about now.  I caught this early morning departure from Pedi one clear morning last week. That scar on the hillside on the right is the foot path to St Nicholas beach, one of Symi’s most popular family beaches.
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A novel way to discourage cats from sauntering into a Chorio courtyard.  If you spot this place, take a quick peak over the wall. There are the remnants of an old and elaborate colonnade, a fragment of which you can just see on the left of the aperture.
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A last lingering poppy in Chorio.  As the earth behind the dry stone walls dries out, the plants shrivel away.  Symi’s secret stone gardens turn back into barren dry stone walls until the drought breaks in late October.
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This was the view from the terrace of Agios Thannasis church in Chorio one afternoon last week.   This was most probably a flotilla of charter yachts being delivered to their cruising base such as Kos or even a Turkish port such as Bodrum.

A band of thunder showers passed over Greece last week.  Symi got off lightly with a few muddy sprinkles and a general clearing of the air.  Rhodes and many parts of the Greek mainland as well as neighbouring Turkey had heavy downpours, enough, in some cases, to cause local flooding.  We are unlikely to see any significant rain now until late October or even November.  The Southern Aegean has one of the longest summer droughts in the Mediterranean.  The last time Symi had rain strong enough to set the gutters flowing to fill cisterns was the end of February.  It looks as though 2018 is going to be a very long hot dry summer.

The first Olympic Holiday people arrived on Symi last week, marking the beginning of the official tourist season.  25 years ago there were many package holiday companies servicing Symi, notable among them being Laskarina, Manos, Kosmar, Small World, Travel a la Carte and Hidden Greece.  Accommodation was a mixture of restored traditional local houses, privately owned small studio and apartment developments designed to look just like Symi’s traditional houses and small pensions.  The emphasis was on authentic island life, simple self-catering and lots of convivial dining in local tavernas.  Symi’s tourist businesses timed their openings to coincide with these arrivals, knowing that there would be enough visitors staying on the island to provide them with customers in bars, cafes, tavernas, excursions and the like.

Now that certainty has gone.  Most of those package holiday companies have either dropped Symi from their listings as too expensive and awkward to get to (the shrinking ferry schedule is a self-fulfilling prophecy) or the companies themselves have disappeared, gobbled up in the eternal quest for ever cheaper ‘value for money’ deals that eventually became unsustainable.

All inclusive packages to resort hotels in Rhodes are good for consumers who want to know exactly how much their holiday is going to cost and don’t really care if it is Greece, Spain, Egypt or Turkey as long as the sun shines, the pool is full and the food and drink bountiful and free.  Unfortunately these packages are death to local economies as holiday guests seldom venture forth into the community, prices are pared down to the last cent so wages in these complexes are often below the legal minimum and limited local resources are stretched to breaking point.

Last summer Rhodes found itself in the previously unheard of situation of running out of water.  So much water was being diverted to hotel complexes with their swimming pools, manicured lawns and unlimited showers that there was no water available for the locals.  Villages and towns found themselves without water for days on end. A situation with which Symiots are only too familiar – this is why we all have cisterns – but for which Rhodes is poorly equipped.

Ironically, high value property owners who had invested significant sums in purchasing holiday homes and villas on the island found themselves seriously inconvenienced for the benefit of low value all inclusive holidaymakers whose tourist spend largely stayed in the pockets of the international holiday companies hosting their holidays.  A state of affairs hardly likely to encourage further foreign investment.

That’s probably enough of the serious food for thought for today.  If you are still reading, have a good week!  Remember, you can always join in the discussion by commenting, or by emailing me here.

Regards,

Adriana

 

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

Shopping for Essentials

While Greece is a fairly conservative country and sexism is rife, when it comes to food there are no gender divisions.  You are as likely to see men as women picking over the produce, examining the quality and buying fruit and vegetables by the kilo.

Although we live off the grid and try to be as self-sufficient as possible, there are some things one just has to buy.  Loo roll is one of them.  This morning I realised we were down the last one and as tomorrow is a local holiday, the Feast of St Michael, over at Panormitis monastery, I had better make a foray this morning or hang on until Thursday.

We are very lucky in that although we live on a small holding effectively in the middle of no where we are actually only a 5 minute walk from the shops of central Chorio, the old upper village.  Perfect for a non-driver such as myself.

There is a bit of a square at Kampos, the central bus stop for Chorio.  More a widening of the road really than a square in the formal sense, but there is a kiosk and a bit of parking space where hawkers doing the rounds of the islands park for a few hours to sell their wares.  This morning the greengrocer from Kalymnos had taken up the slot.  Usually he favours the space at the back of the town square down in Yialos, Symi’s main harbour, and it is quite unusual to see him up here.

Kalymnos is a famous sponge diving island in the northern Dodecanese with a population of about 30 000 inhabitants – and a wide fertile well-watered valley called Vathi where Kalymniots grow fruit and vegetables which they sell to less fortunate islands such as Symi.  There is no way we could ever grow cabbages that size with our limited water resources, stony ground and temperature extremes.  Did you know that cabbages take anything up to 30 weeks to get from seedling to marketable size?  A lot can go wrong in that time.  A sudden rise in temperatures and they bolt.  Low humidity and insufficient water and they shrivel and go leathery.  A hungry caterpillar or two and there’s not much left except rabbit food.  So we leave the farmers of Kalymnos to keep us in cabbages.  We grow rocket, coriander, parsley and other faster and more resilient stuff that gives us a better return for our resources.

In the world of cold chains and global imports it is easy to forget that citrus fruits are actually a Mediterranean winter crop.  Given enough water throughout the year, citrus trees can bear fruit and flowers simultaneously all year round but their main fruiting time is the winter.  As you can see from the photograph, the first oranges are starting to appear.  Not quite the radiant orange of the fully ripe but they are getting there.

Something else worth noticing in this photograph is that the shoppers are men.  While Greece is a fairly conservative country and sexism is rife, when it comes to food there are no gender divisions.  You are as likely to see men as women picking over the produce, examining the quality and buying fruit and vegetables by the kilo.  The diet here is largely seasonal and people shop every day, deciding on what to cook based on what is available.  Although the range of frozen vegetables and savoury dishes has improved somewhat in recent years, they are still too expensive for the average household to have on a regular basis.  Meat, poultry and fish are treats rather than a daily event and in the winter months when most people are out of work in the islands, pulses and pasta rule the day, augmented by whatever fresh vegetables are available.

The man to the left in the photograph is a local Greek Orthodox priest.  He came to the priesthood quite late in life, after the death of his wife.  I don’t know the exact numbers but just counting off the priests I know, there are at least 30 on the island, serving a community of about 3000.  That is pretty good considering that in countries like the United Kingdom, the clergy have declined to the point where it is the norm for one priest to be serving several different towns and villages.  The priests here do move from church to church too.  Symi has about 400 churches and chapels, many of which are privately owned and only used on their name days and for various dedications. They are all, however, lovingly maintained.  That however, is another story for a different blog post.