You know how you plan to see few specific locations when traveling to a new place and you just can’t wait to visit? The island of Symi was on my list when I came to Rhodes, right next to all those places on the actual island like Lindos, Prassonissi, Kamiros. I have booked a boat trip with Ivana, our Odeon World Travel guide on the island, and as the day of the excursion was approaching, I became more and more impatient.
When ever I have mentioned to any of the locals Greeks that I will be off to Symi soon, they would immediately point out that I would love the place. “Beautiful island!”, they said with that pensive face expression. That just added up to my impatience!
And so, the day has come! We were leaving early in the morning on a large catamaran ship that was packed with tourists from all over the world. It was more fun to sit on the deck than in the air conditioned space inside, even though the wind was a bit stronger that I have expected. Still, beautiful weather, dark blue sea reflecting the sun rays and we were sailing into the Aegean Sea, northwest of Rhodes, even closer to Turkish mainland.
(Greek island of Rhodes is located around 9 kilometers away from Turkey, while Symi even less – 5.5 or so. Between the two there are 21 nautical miles, or roughly 39 kilometers.)
Looked over to Rhodes we have left behind, and there was the western coast peeking proudly out of the beautiful sea. This is where I was few days ago, driving along the rough shore, admiring the rich history heritage of this lovely island in Greece. And now I was off to see traces of another heritage that made Greek Symi island look – Italian?!
As the ship approached the bay, one could see few scattered houses similarly shaped and painted in various colors. It was getting crowded on the deck as more and more houses appeared behind the mountains. We were entering the harbor of the town of Ano Symi. Oh my, just like Positano! Look at it!
The bay was packed with colorful houses all around that looked like hanging from the hill or like being built one on top of the other. It was obvious that the town was not that big, it probably wouldn’t fit the bay itself if it was any different. There was the lovely quay going all the way around the marina with shops and restaurants, the Clock Tower was peeking from the right and, look – there’s a church above, while the bay was full of huge yachts and ships that seemed way bigger than the place itself. Like the 21st century ship sailed through time and into one small town still unspoilt by modern gadgets!
Remember the story about the Knights of Rhodes (in one of the previous Glimpses)? The order was found in Jerusalem by merchants from Amalfi, Italy who were permanent residents of the Holy Land. They have moved their headquarters to Palestine, Cyprus and then Rhodes (now it’s located in Malta). After establishing a stronghold on Rhodes, they have conquered surrounding islands. Italians were also present on these islands after Turks left in the 19th century. Hence the similarity to Amalfi towns!
No roads, no hotels
According to mythology, the god Glaucos abducted beautiful king’s daughter from Ialyssos on Rhodes and brought her here. Her name was – Symi!
And it’s true – Symi is one of the most picturesque islands in the Dodecanese with mountains that plunge strait down to the sea. The traditional architecture, neoclassical houses with pediments, pebbled courtyards, impressive scenery that mostly dates back to the 19th century.
The small island covers the area of 68 square kilometers and it’s coast is about 85 kilometers long. There is no road around, you can actually get from Ano Symi to the opposite side of the island driving through the hill area “inland”, and that was it, there was no other road. Other bays could only be reached by boats or on foot. Sounds so isolated, but then again, people here are so used to being good seamen for centuries that it might sound complicated only to someone coming from mainland and being used to roads and cars (like yours truly).
At the beginning of the 20th century Symi had 30,000 inhabitants (compared to 2,600 today) and was the capital of the Dodecanese. It was the largest sponge-fishing center in the world! The simple and carefree way of life has changed little over the last few decades. Still, with tourism expending, Symi gets more and more attention which starts to impact its everyday life. It’s possible to rent an apartment or a room, since there are no hotels here.
They say that it is even hotter here than in Rhodes, the air is drier, so the best time to visit Symi would be in June or September. But there was no way to hide in shades, hot or not! I have rushed down to the quay impatient to go around. Everywhere you look there are steps going up. Laughed to myself when remembered how Ivana said that “women here have beautiful legs, going up and down all the time”.
The promenade Yialos around the harbor was so charming. Lovely traditional Greek tavernas, a lot of people on scooters and bicycles, small souvenir shops. Turned to one of the narrow streets and it led me up somewhere among colorful houses. More steep steps were emerging from both sides, disappearing behind small corners, up somewhere. Lovely view from one of those.
The panorama and the beach
The plan was to go to the other side of the town, to climb few hundred steps (don’t remember how many any more) to the Greek Orthodox Church. It’s true, it was extremely hot, but the views from up there were so rewarding! It seemed that there was nobody there, the church was closed, but it was possible to walk around the building and take photos.
And when you look towards the sea, there was the entrance to the bay, beautiful dark blue waters and contours of distant islands. Breath taking! Down below – oh, there was the city beach! They have put rocks to make it easier to get in, so the beach is artificial, but equipped with sunbeds, restaurant, shower (which wasn’t working at the time). Here, you are supposed to pay for food and drinks or the sunbed (prices are similar to those in Rhodes). But you can also just take a plunge and a shower for 0,50 euros, if the latter works, that is.
Those rocks in shallow waters are sharp, but once you plunge in, you forget about it, since there stretches the dark blue deep sea, so beautiful and fresh! (Other beaches around Symi island can be reached by foot, water-taxis, by bus or car rentals.) Just a break I needed so that I could continue to stroll around.
I was in awe all the time. “Look at those herbs!”, the guy was selling tea herbs and giving away “the sex tea”, “just in case!”, he said. I was passing by fishing boats floating on such clear waters and shops that were selling sponges. Had enough time to have coffee and something to eat, and we took off, to another bay of the island.
There stood the renowned Panormitis Monastery at the southern tip of Symi! Dedicated to Archangel Michael, it is the second most important monastery in the Dodecanese. The original church of St. Michael was built around 450 AD on the site of an ancient temple to god Apollo.
The Monastery houses the icon of the Saint done in gold, lovely bell tower, two small museums and one amazing “chochlaki” floor. St. Michael is one of the most worshiped saints in Greece, being the protector of sailors and travelers.
You are supposed to dress appropriately (you will be given clothes at the entrance if needed), to leave a small contribution and if you want to visit the museums, the fee for both is 1.50 euros. The first hosts silver icons, various religious items, souvenirs. The other displays an exhibition of folk culture. The Monastery also hosts a library with Byzantine manuscripts of religious, historical and philosophical content, some dating from the 16th and the 18th century.
When you get to the gold icon, make a wish. They say that St. Michael will almost certainly grant it!
Farewell, for now
And that was our last stop on Symi. Bear in mind that it can get very hot here, especially in July and August. After this daily excursion, I felt exhausted. People were actually sleeping on the catamaran ship on our way back to Rhodes.
I was looking at the horizon and glanced again towards the shores of Rhodes that we were approaching. What an amazing island this is, one can learn so much! I was supposed to leave in a couple of days, going back home. The time has come to say farewell.
“At least for now”, heard myself whispering.