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 The usual Monday and Wednesday routes have been replaced by Sunday and Tuesday for the two holiday weeks.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.
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January was wet and windy and so far February has not been much better. They didn’t give a name to the storm that pounded Greece on Tuesday night and Wednesday but it delivered a lot of damage, particularly in Rhodes where large boulders were thrown about by the sea and many small seaside villages and beaches took a hammering. Once again there were shipping bans and flight disruptions as winds topped Force 9, gusting Force 10. There are another 6-8 weeks of winter still to come so it isn’t over yet. Heavy hail storms on high ground took their toll of the new lambs in the mountain pastures on Symi and the local shepherds all have stories to tell.
In the quieter corners the almond blossoms are opening and the countryside is very green. When the sun comes through it can be as much as 20 degrees centigrade, out of the wind. Most of the time, though, midday temperatures are around 14 degrees and last night the thermometer on our car was reading 7 degrees centigrade. The wind makes it seem chilly, particularly as the water has found its way into everything indoors and out. Most Symi houses, regardless of age, have damp problems in the winter. Either condensation turns surfaces black with mould or water seeps through walls, turning green with algae if there is any sunlight. Apparently tea tree oil helps with the mould spores, if one can get hold of it. Everyone else is constantly swabbing down with bleach solution. It is not for nothing that spring painting is an annual necessity.
The bus is back, still running on a reduced winter schedule but much better than wading against the flow in the rain.
We have a few breezy partly cloudy days ahead and then the showers and next rainy spell is forecast to arrive on Monday night or Tuesday morning. As the Blue Star came in from Rhodes last night there should be fresh stuff in the shops this morning. Time to go foraging!
The cover photograph shows some of the sand and gravel that Tuesday night’s storm threw up along the waterfront road in Pedi. The small terracotta fragments are potsherds, fragments of ancient amphora and pithoi that have been smashed and polished by the sea over centuries.
Winter in the Mediterranean may conjure up visions of mild temperatures, sunny days and pavement cafes. This can happen, if you are lucky, but most of the time, particularly in January and February, it can be very wet, extremely windy and, on occasion, even snowy.
This year the snow even crept to sea level in places like Corfu, Skopelos and Thessalonica. Rhodes had heavy snowfalls on the mountain tops and the Evzones found themselves strutting their stuff outside Syntagma, Athens, surrounded by the white stuff.
We have had ferry disruptions of one sort or another every week since December and the Best Western Plaza hotel in Rhodes is offering special rates for Symiots hanging about, waiting for boats and doctor’s appointments.
On a personal note, I have been out of circulation for many weeks, due to severe back problems. A strict regime of bed rest, exercises and medication under the supervision of an orthopaedic specialist in Rhodes seems to be working but I have to be very careful about how much time I spend sitting at the computer and have only recently been able to go for short walks, with the help of a stick. It is unfortunate that the Symi bus is out of circulation so I cannot venture further afield. At the moment my perambulations are strictly local but I can at least provide you with some photographs to give you an idea of what Pedi looks like in January.