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.

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 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.

Sleepy September

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You never know what you are going to spot, walking around Symi.  Anyone who knows where these are, please comment on this blog 🙂
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Back in the 80s and 90s this was a tourist shop at the bottom of the Pedi road.  Now you have to go to Yialos to buy sunhats, sarongs and beach towels.
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It may still be hot and the first rains are still about 6 weeks away but this local works on his garden every day.  I have noticed a big increase in agricultural activities on Symi in recent years.  The only way to survive on an austerity income is by living off the land as far as possible.
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Tyres perish in the hot Symi sun.  It is not unusual to see various protective improvisations like this one.
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If I had not heard the bleat I would never have noticed this nanny goat.  She looks almost as weather-beaten as her surroundings.
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Beehives.  Symi honey is prized for its delicate herbal flavours from wild mountain thyme, sage and rigani.  You can find it for sale in limited quantities at several of the supermarkets, grocers and tourist shops.
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August is definitely over.  There are very few yachts in Pedi now and they are of more modest proportions.  The rich and famous have gone to play somewhere else or are back in their counting houses, counting out their money.
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The so-called marina in Pedi. As you can see, it is far too narrow to be a marina.  Only very small local boats can squeeze inside.  Apparently the plans did not take into account the widening of the waterfront between the time the original survey was done and construction actually started so the enclosed area is 4 metres narrower than originally intended.  No comments please!  Visiting yachts can tie up on the outside.  Unfortunately there are no actual amenities available so don’t expect shore power, laundry, wifi or hot showers.  It is, however, conveniently solid to tie up to if you are tired of rowing an inflatable full of shopping across the bay in a brisk catabatic.
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Fishermen’s cottages on the northern Pedi waterfront, as seen from the head of the marina.
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And finally, spotted in the Chorio car park… Cats don’t have the monopoly on cuteness around here.

August is over. The crowds have gone. The children are preparing for another school year. Next week the ferry schedules change as Blue Star reverts to smaller boats on the Symi route.  Good bye, Nissos Chios, Welcome Back, Patmos!

There is also far less traffic on the roads.  British tourists tend to be apprehensive about hiring cars and driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. The holidaymakers from other parts of Greece and further afield who arrive with their cars on the Blue Star have also gone home again.  If you do visit Symi in September it is well worth hiring a car for a day or so to explore the interior of the island and visit Kokkimides monastery, Roukoniotis monastery and Toli Bay.  While there are organised mini-bus excursions if there are enough of you, having your own wheels gives you more freedom to stop and take photographs as well as linger at places that take your fancy.  On a clear day you can see as far as Kos on one side and Rhodes on the other with the islands of Halki, Tilos and Nissyros also visible.

As the continent of Europe starts to cool to the north of us, so has the breeze that blows down the Aegean, bringing welcome relief from the searing temperatures of the Symi summer.  It is still around 30 degrees at midday but after days in the forties, 30 seems quite mild.  Nights are cooling off too.  We plugged our boiler in for hot water yesterday for the first time since May.  Not quite time to dig out the duvet and woolly jumpers just yet though. That doesn’t happen until early November!

Have a good weekend.

Regards,

Adriana

 

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