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.
After visiting the Christodoulou monastery in Chora we hit the road in our hire car, heading north this time. We had heard that there was a traditional wooden boat yard at the top of the island and boat yards are like catnip to us so off we went. When we eventually reached the site of supposed boatyard it actually turned out to have been turned into a shooting range and all that was left was a large winch. For some reason, going back through our cameras, it seems that neither of us thought the place sufficiently photogenic to be worthy of immortalisation, unlike the goats who had taken over that end of the island. They seemed to be fairly feral and we saw no signs of ear-tagging or other forms of flock marking.
Patmos has a lot of arable land in comparison to Symi, with generously sized terraced fields, threshing floors, wells and meadows. Although there is quite a lot of tourist development it seems to be mainly low-rise and unintrusive, unlike the hotel complexes fringing Rhodes and Kos. The island has a large reservoir, out of bounds to tourists, as well as two large – and functioning – wind turbines.
The third village on Patmos after the port of Skala and the old town, Chora, is called Kampos. We stopped there for lunch on our way back. The only taverna open was a real time capsule. The walls were lined with old black and white family photographs, venerable patriarchs and matrons and, somewhat surprisingly, a black and white cat, all looking straight ahead in the formal poses of the day. The radiators were welcome against the chill. We would have sat outside at a table in the sun but that was the smoking zone and already occupied by a young Greek couple, wreathed in clouds of roll-up tobacco. The proprietor was busy loading massive skewers of whole chickens onto rotisseries over a bed of coals in the back kitchen for an event in the evening but he was happy to have a couple of lunch guests if we didn’t mind having something already prepared. We had braised lamb shanks cooked with roasted red peppers and apricots and a stifado. Both were delicious and we felt no need for a substantial meal in the evening.
By the time we got back to the hotel Skala was waking up from the brief winter siesta and we went for a stroll around the shops. As the museum shop at the monastery was closed we went to see what the town had to offer by way of mementos. One extremely dusty book shop yielded a copy of Cavafy to add to our collection but the souvenirs on offer were a bizarre mix of oriental bric a brac, discontinued Staffordshire pottery in a design that goes with nothing we already own, last year’s unsold Easter eggs and some very expensive icons. We moved on to investigate the other two bookshops we had noticed the previous evening as well as the bio food shop and the newspaper shop. In the newspaper shop we ran into the Croatian woman who was earnestly helping the young South Korean to select the best out of a bad collection of Patmos fridge magnets having resisted her exhortations to add an ungainly coffee mug to his suitcase. The woman behind the counter was familiar – she had served us in Jumbo the previous evening (we bought a deliciously chintzy kitschy kitchen clock for a friend on Symi). Even Patmos has job-sharing, it seems.
Supper that evening was a picnic in our room of hummous, pita and other bits and pieces from the AB supermarket down the road from the hotel while perusing the glossy picture books of Patmian icons and museum artefacts that the hotel keeps for the use of guests.
Sunday morning, before our departure, was set aside for a trip to the Church of the Apocalypse, the cave where St John the Divine had his famous revelations. Of which more tomorrow.
The windmills at Chora on Patmos have been restored, initially by private initiative but now with some kind of grant. One of them is fully functional and is, apparently, used to mill wheat in the summer.
The furthest one has a bronze Russian double-eagle over the door. At first glance it looks like the Byzantine eagle used by the Greek Orthodox church in the Dodecanese but it differs in that it has a small crown above it, making it the emblem for the Russian royal family. Interesting.
Apart from the Korean and Croatian tourists mentioned previously we did not see a soul on our walk from the monastery across to the windmills and back to the car park. We did, however, see quite a few cats, of which more later.
Patmian architecture is very different to Symi’s. The houses are flat-roofed stone structures with small windows and quirky doors within doors. There are many tunnels across the lanes, supported by strong reeds and wooden beams to support the stone above. The flat roofs are also made of reeds, wood and plaster which may be covered with gravel as insulation. Walls are painted white and woodwork is in muted shades of grey, eau de nil and verdigris. Very elegant. I took more photographs on the Sunday morning so you still have those to look forward to.
After our morning explorations we then drove to the northern part of the island in search of a traditional wooden boat yard mentioned in a guidebook and met a lot of goats, but that is tomorrow’s instalment.
At first light on the Saturday morning Nicholas set off on an exploratory run, up the kalderimi (traditional stone-paved donkey path) through the trees to Chora on the hill top. The path was well-maintained, although slippery with moss and weeds in places. There is a policy in place to replace the fire-prone alien eucalyptus trees with indigenous conifers and in between the scorched trunks of eucalyptus there were new saplings, protected by mesh and connected to an irrigation network. Once again, absolutely no litter, not even in the water courses.
After breakfast at the hotel we went up to Chora together. The monastery gates open at 8.30 and we got there about an hour later. There was not a soul to be seen but the door was open so we went in. As we stood in the main courtyard, looking round, a chap of about 40 came up to us inquisitively. It subsequently transpired that his name was Andoni, that he has learning difficulties of some sort and that he was in sole charge that day. He was not expecting to see tourists and it was just as well that Nicholas speaks good Greek as he was slightly intimidating. Eventually he left us alone to explore, only occasionally popping up from a random doorway or tunnel to check that we weren’t committing sacrilege. One drawback of visiting in the winter is that the museum, treasury and museum shop are closed, although this is not mentioned in any of the guide books and the locals, when we asked later down in the harbour, seemed surprised. A phone call from our hotelier established that these days there are so few tourists in the off season that it is no longer worth paying staff to open up these facilities between October and April. Hence Andoni, no doubt.
An advantage, on the other hand, was that we could wander about and soak up the atmosphere without too many obvious 21st century intrusions. Speaking of 21st century intrusions, the public toilets were open and immaculate, not just in the monastery but also the municipal facilities. Symi, take note!
As you can see the views from the rooftops are fantastic. In my next instalment I will share with you some photographs of the windmills as well as the lanes we walked through to reach them.
By the way, we weren’t the only foreign visitors on the island that weekend. There was also a young man from South Korea and a middle-aged woman from Croatia. More about them later!
December in Greece is a merry go round of storms rolling in from the west, interrupted by incredible calms and fantastic visibility. So far this winter the neighbouring island of Rhodes has taken the brunt of the weather in the region with destructive downpours, gale force winds and hail. Symi has got off lightly so far with little significant damage. Long may it last. The next round is expected to reach us on Sunday evening with a southerly gale and 100% chance of rain, turning into a strong northerly wind and showers for Christmas day. Temperatures are expected to fall dramatically and there may be overnight ice at high altitudes.
Temperatures at the moment are in the low teens. It feels colder as there is heavy drenching dew every night and the houses are also dripping condensation inside, particularly the newer ones with cement and brick construction rather than thick stone walls. Peeling whitewash is still a more picturesque look than acrylic emulsion covered in black mould…
The schedule for the Blue Star Patmos has been rearranged to take into account the Christmas Day and New Year’s Day holidays. The usual Monday and Wednesday routes have been replaced by Sunday and Tuesday for the two holiday weeks. As the main shops are open for Sunday trading on the Sundays before Christmas and New Year, Symiots can take their chances with the weather for a spot of Sunday shopping at Lidl, M&S and Jumbo. The Dodecanese Seaways schedule is unaffected except possibly by the wind.
The municipality put up the official Christmas decorations a couple of weeks ago. I will post photos separately of the town nativity scene at the War Memorial. By and large Christmas is not the big commercial extravaganza that it has become in the west and the shops on Symi are fairly low key in comparison to what you may be used to. Big centres like Rhodes put on more of a show and Athens is like any other major European city over the festive season. On Symi a few imported chocolate Santa Clauses and boxes of Panetonne share supermarket shelf space with boxes of melamakaronia (honey and walnut cookies) and kourabiedes (Greek shortbread). Vassilopita, a kind of round cake with the date of the new year embossed on it and a coin hidden in it for luck, is traditionally cut on 1 January, St Basil’s Day. There is no traditional Christmas dinner menu here although turkeys have become available in recent years and the expat population has had sufficient influence to ensure the availability of fresh parsnips and Brussels sprouts in a couple of local grocers. The locals are more likely to tuck into pork for their Christmas meal and roast suckling pig has been the midwinter feast meat for generations in this part of the world.
A team of professional tree-fellers is working around Chorio and Pedi at the moment, lopping the many eucalyptus trees that line the roads. Planted mostly during the Italian occupation between the two World Wars, eucalyptus are not indigenous to the region and although fast growing cause a lot of problems with their brittle branches and loose bark. They have to be cut back to avoid branches falling on the power lines and roads in the winter storms. There is a program of planned tree planting going on in various areas including Pedi and around the Kastro, putting in slower growing native species that are better suited to the climate and terrain.
The bus is switching to its winter schedule with no evening service and a limited service on Sundays. There are very few people wanting to go anywhere as there is not much open and it is not unusual for the bus to be replaced by one of the hire cars if too few people turn up at the stop to make it worth running the big yellow bus.
Have a good weekend and I will put up some photographs of Symi Christmas decorations next week.
The Panormitis Festival is now a week-long affair of stalls and fast-food outlets. Thousands of visitors came from Rhodes and further afield and apart from the Blue Star which is too big, all the other ferries serving Symi operated in and out of Panormitis for the duration. The actual religious event was Thursday evening and Friday morning but the quest for 1 euro squeezy dinosaurs and gold plastic tablecloths knows no such boundaries. Amidst the designer-rip-off handbags and the global Chinese tat there were also monks from Mount Athos selling blessed crucifixes on bits of cord, a stall selling some wonderful artisanal cooking tools including big terracotta casserole dishes and another selling some charming wooden gifts, handmade by a local carpenter and his wife. It would be lovely to see more of the latter and rather less of the former. In the interests of commerce part of the monastery garden has been concreted over to provide extra space for the food vendors and a large formal car park has been built at the head of the bay, before the entrance. A security firm directs the traffic into the car park. If you are catching a ferry and have to off-load luggage, you hand your driver’s license to the guard at the gate and he only gives it back to you when you leave. The carpet sellers and basket makers who used to be a feature of the entrance road have all disappeared – presumably no longer allowed as they would not have been paying ground rent being outside the gates. Apart from the Panorama cantina and the souvlaki stall manned by the Symi high school pupils, all the other food outlets were from Rhodes, including the Diva pancake, doughnut and ice cream bar.
The last boat leaves Panormitis today 12 November and from here on we are on the winter ferry time table for both the Blue Star and Dodecanese Seaways. I am leaving myself on the Dodecanese Pride this afternoon for a short trip to the UK. The Panagia Skiadeni has been moth-balled for the winter
After some glorious autumn weather more rain is on the cards, starting on Wednesday this week with a cycle of thunderstorms, showers, rainy days and occasional downpours. Let us not forget that it was on 13 November 2017 that Symi was hit by a cataclysmic weather event that changed the landscape in many places and caused hundreds of thousands of euros worth of damage. These days everyone is a bit twitchy when the long range forecast shows stormy weather ahead.
Down in Pedi both tavernas are now closed for the winter. Costas Mavroukos has closed his mini-market on the seafront and has moved around the corner into his old kiosk for the duration. The Katsaras mini-market stays open through the winter and sells hot coffee to the odd walker and fisherman. The bus service has scaled down considerably too. We won’t see much life down here again until April at the earliest. Time to hibernate!
The weekly storms are still vicious but the sunny intervals between them are growing longer and milder. There is a feeling of spring in the air and there are more people around. It is that time of the year where it is warmer outdoors than in and everyone is relishing the sunshine. Walkers of all ages promenade past under the watchful gaze of grazing sheep. The ground is still to water-logged for much agricultural activity. More heavy rain is forecast for the weekend as another storm system passes over Greece. As we near the spring equinox the storms increasingly pass to the north of us so while they may disrupt the big boat schedules they are not as destructive locally.
Wherever one looks on Symi there are bits of history tangled up with the present day. The sense of continuity has a steadying effect. Invaders and occupiers have come and gone and people are still here, growing olives, grazing sheep, fishing …
The photograph at the top of this blog shows the Kastro, Symi’s acropolis. This has been a fortification of one sort or another for thousands of years although the most recent structure was a castle, built by the Knights of Rhodes. Much of the remaining structure were destroyed during the Second World War when the retreating Germans blew up the munitions store they had there but there are still chunks of wall visible. The main habitation was always huddled around the acropolis rather than the sea. Trouble came from the sea. Pirates, invaders – anyone on the shoreline was vulnerable. Ancient settlements tended to be on high ground where you could see trouble coming before it arrived and defend yourself. Symi’s hill tops and mountain peaks are dotted with the remnants of ancient fortifications and settlements. They are not always easy to spot, particularly in the summer months when everything is uniformly dry and patterns are not so easily distinguishable on the landscape.
If you have any topics about Symi that you would particularly like me to focus on please let me know via the comments section or by emailing me or commenting on Facebook. I would love to hear from you.
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.