“Symi has the most beautiful harbour in Greece. On either side of a steep-sided fjord rise tier upon tier of houses, some white, some pastel yellow, but virtually all with Neo-Classical pediments – a reminder that 100 years ago this was one of Greece’s most prosperous islands. There has been virtually no modern concrete construction here and now these fine old houses are being resurrected for visitors. The spirit of the island remains intact.”
It was up at dawn to get the Bluestar Ferry “Diagoras” to the wonderful island of Symi where Prometheus is reputed to have given the gift of fire to humans and was turned into a monkey by an enraged Zeus (according to myth!), hence the name; Symi = the Monkey. Although in Greek mythology nothing is clear cut. Symi is also reputed to be the birthplace of the Charites and to take its name from the nymph Syme (in antiquity the island was known as Aigli and Metapontis), and it is Pliny the Elder and some later writers who claimed it came from the word scimmia meaning a monkey. Behind the Mythos there is always some truth and the stories are probably allegories of the the spread of the Dorians along the coast of Asia Minor and the offshore islands. My story there was slightly less dramatic; Zeus opened the heavens and sent torrents down upon me! The journey down from Kos to Symi is full of promise from the very start. You stand on a harbour pier staring at the darkness and like sentinels two huge ferries appear out of the morning gloom and reverse carefully end on to the pier.
World Class is not an expression I would normally use about a Greek company but Bluestar and its subsidiary, Superfast Ferries are truly impressive. In the gloom of the morning the two huge ships appear out of the morning gloom having come down from Athens overnight. Efficiently with the assistance of the Hellenic Coastguard, probably the only efficient Greek State agency, they disembark and embark these Titans of the seas efficiently and safely. The Ferries have step free access and, uniquely for Greece, well trained disability aware staff who immediately offered to assist my travelling companion who was using a crutch. We were found comfortable seats in the reception area and when I went up to the coffee bar later the waiter insisted on bringing the tray down to our seats. The boats are well equipped but made in Korea and not in the former shipbuilding nation of Greece which has made itself uncompetitive in this industry as in many other. They are ultra modern with 2 floors of cabins and two floors also of restaurants, lounges and bars. The two hours to Symi pass quickly as we watch the sun rise over the Turkish coast and as we head into the port of Symi, known as Gialos or Yialos, the reason we are on the smaller boat, the 145 metre “Diagoras” becomes obvious as in an amazing manoeuvre it is reversed into the pier with probably only 30 metre clearance.
Symi / Σύμη, also transliterated as Syme or Simi is a small but historic Greek island and municipality. Geographically, it is part of the Dodecanese island chain, located about 41 km north-northwest of Rhodes (and 425 km from Piraeus, the port of Athens), with 58.1 km² (22 sq mi) of mountainous terrain. The other main inhabited localities on the island are Chorio (“The Village”), Pedi, Nimborio, and Panormitis which is the home of the island’s famous monastery which many people from all over Greece submit to a pilgrimage every year to visit. The island has 2,606 inhabitants, mostly engaged in fishing, trade, and tourism. In the tourist season which is roughly May until October, tourists and day-trippers bring the number of people on the island up to as much as 6,000.
Symi is one of the most beautiful islands in the Dodecanese, and has a rich history that stretches back to ancient times, when it was known as the Kingdom of Nireas. According to the writings of Homer, Nireas was one of the most handsome and brave of the Greeks, and he fought in the Trojan wars. What followed was the story of the rest of the Aegean islands: the Romans invaded in the 2nd and 1st century BC, the Byzantine years came after, interrupted in the 14th century when the Knights of Rhodes took over. They built a castle on top of the ancient acropolis to protect themselves against pirate raids, and were to stay of the island until the Turks invaded in the 16th century.
Because the Symian boats were extremely fast, the island got the important responsibility of post office to the Ottomans. In return, the island was left pretty much to itself, and did not suffer as many other places around Greeks. The fishermen of Symi were also allowed to fish sponges, which together with the wine production, was to be an important source of income, even though outshone by Kalymnos.
In 1912 the island was given to the Italians, along with the rest of the Dodecanese, and during World War II it was invaded by British and German troops, until its final unification with Greece in 1948. The shipbuilding and sponge industries were substantial on the island and, while at their peak near the end of the nineteenth century, the population reached 22,500. Symi’s main industry is now tourism and the population has declined to 2,500. Its nearest land neighbours are the Datça and Reşadiye peninsulas of Muğla Province in Turkey.
Its interior is dotted with small valleys, and its coastline alternates between rocky cliffs and beaches, and isolated coves. Its main town, located on the northeast coast, is also named Symi and consists of the lower town around the harbour, typically referred to as Gialos, and the upper town is called Chorio or Ano Symi. In addition to its many historical sites, the island’s isolated beaches, many reachable only with small boats, are popular with tourists. The Municipality of Sými includes the uninhabited offshore islets of Gialesíno, Diavátes, Kouloúndros, Marmarás, Nímos, Sesklío, and Chondrós. Its total land area is 65.754 km². Other villages on Symi are Pedi, Nimborio, Marathounda and Panormitis.
The harbour area of Symi town, known as Gialos must be rated as one of the most beautiful sights in the whole of Greece. The port has been an architecturally protected area since the early 1970s. Symi is really two places in one. The first, from late morning to mid afternoon, is a harbour thronging with hundreds of day trippers brought over in large excursion boats from the island of Rhodes.
Cameras start clicking as soon as the ferry pulls into the main Symi island harbour at Gialos or Yialos. It is a very impressive sight, a semicircle of Venetian mansions and houses tumbling down the steep hillsides to the shoreline. The ferry hoots madly and the sound echoes around the horseshoe of hills. Gialos is a favourite destination for day trippers from Rhodes and three or four big ferries arrive every day. As a result, it is often packed with visitors poking their way around the stalls that are set out on the long harbour front to meet the ferries.
Sponges and spices are the main goods on sale. Symi was once famous for its sponges but those on sale in Gialos today are mostly imported. There are also the usual souvenir shops and waterside tavernas. The Cathedral of Timios Prodromos, which was built in 1830 and refurbished in 1869, with a marvellous pebbled yard provides a welcome enclave just yards from the waterfront. In the right side of Gialos, a clock tower, named Roloi, built in 1881, counts for the Symiots the time which runs quietly in Symi. In front of Roloi, Michalaki the little fisherman (made by Kostas Valsamis) welcomes the ships, yachts and the caiques.
When all the day trippers have gone, the atmosphere in the town tends to relax, the hustle and bustle gives way to a much more laid back approach to life. Both the locals and those holiday makers lucky enough to be staying, on the island, coming out for an early evening stroll around the waterfront, then settling down for a quiet, pre dinner drink, and to enjoy the entertainment of watching the yacht flotillas that start to arrive at about this time, attempting to dock for the night.What the visitors may not realise is that this town was left virtually destroyed by the retreating Germans who vindictively let off a huge explosion with the munitions they could not take away. Despite the years of rebuilding and restoration walk in from the waterfront and the scars of this vandalism are still visible.
Above Gialos is the upper town known as Chorio. The main road that runs up from the waterfront to the high town is not for the faint hearted. Named the Kali Strata, it consists of 500 wide steps. Both sides of the road are lined with fine, old neo-classical style houses, some with doorways leading to secluded flowered courtyards.
There has been a great deal of building restoration done throughout the town to repair damage caused by the bombing and burning of the town during the Second World War however it still has a fragmented feel with the “centre” being none too obvious essentially a widened strip of road with a bus shelter, bench and kiosk. Many of the day trippers from Rhodes tend to take one look at all the steps and decide to stay in Gialos. But it is possible to catch a small bus whose route runs from along side the waterfront, up around the back to the top of the town. If you do take the bus or brave the steps, then you are rewarded with some of the best views to be found in all the Greek islands. You catch this bus on the far side of the harbour across the small bridge which connects the two sides of Gialos. Be warned, there is no obvious notice on the times of the bus which runs hourly on the hour up and on the half hour down. If Symi wants to improve its visitor perception it could do something dramatic like clean this bus. I have never been on a filthier bus anywhere. It looked like the interior had not been cleaned all season, it is beyond me how a bus driver could go to work every day and have so little pride as to lounge about smoking after each ten minute trip and not clean this mobile pig sty.
Once in Chorio you could visit the famous churches the island is noted for. You could only you will find them firmly closed and in the best helpful Greek tradition there will be no indication of when they might be open. The old town of Chorio is not car or indeed pedestrian friendly with essentially steep donkey tracks and steps. There are really only two places to head for. The Villa Pitse, perched high up in old town has stunning views of Gialos below. The hills surrounding the harbour form an amphitheatre so that on calm days, with the breeze blowing in the right direction, it is just possible to make out individual conversations being carried out way down by the waterside. Villa Pitse is only one of the many interesting buildings to be found, they range from large, lavishly decorated mansions, to much smaller houses, but each one seems to have a character of its own. However in the abscence of a guidebook or notices these are not accesible to the casual visitor.
Worth following the many signs for through narrow climbing pedestrian streets is the Symi Archaeology and Folklore museum which is housed in the house of Nikolaos K. Farmakidis. Here the friendly curator takes pride in showing you the paintings, photographs, costumes and material which shows the history and culture of the island. It is open from 08:30 to 15:00, except for Monday. Down below and part of the same complex is the fascinating four-storied house of Chatziagapitos-Chatziioannis, next to the museum with its impressive wall paintings. This mansion shows you the inside of an aristocratic Symian house with the dining and the sitting room (furniture, settings, paintings and photographs of that period), along with some traditional local costumes and artefacts. For me the most fascinating insight were the small servants quarters with above a ”quarantine” sleeping area for people who had infectious diseases and needed to be kept out of the main house.
The Museum includes the following collections:
» Archaeology collection of artefacts dating back to Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods
» Byzantine collection
» Folklore collection
Before leaving go onto the terrace for the classic view of the harbour of Symi down below. Going back down to get the mobile pig sty bus back to Gialos you’ll find a couple of cafes aimed firmly at the locals and patronised by economically under utilised young men of the island who firmly laugh in the face of the alleged smoking ban. As with using seat belts and crash helmets this is seemingly a law which only applies to tourists!
In the south of the island and connected to Symi by a spectacular 8km road you will find the reason many Greeks visit Symi, the shrine at Panormitis. However to get there from Symi Town is difficult as buses go at 7.45 and 13.30 hrs, one before the ferry arrives and the second which won’t get you back in time for its departure! Better to go there on a direct boat trip from Rhodes in season. Panormitis is the island’s famous monastery which is visited by people from all over the world, and many Greeks pay homage to St Michael of Panormitis each year. The monastery of the Archangel Michael (Taxiarchis Michael) is the most important sight on the island. It was originally built in the 6th century, but what you see today is the result of restoration and new buildings from the 18th century. Panormitis is a small place and there are two museums, a folklore and a religious, as well as a tavern. However the monastery is a substantial complex with facilities for feeding and accommodating pilgrims.
A nave was built on the remains of a Byzantine chapel, also dedicated to St Michael, in 1783. Since those days the monastery has expanded enormously, so much so that its guesthouse can accommodate up to 500 people. The harbour is dominated by a highly decorated, mock-Baroque bell tower that was built in 1905 and is a copy of the bell tower of Agia Foteini at Izmir in Turkey. There is a taverna and a bakery that bakes excellent bread. There is also a small beach. The excursion boats from Rhodes, usually make Panormitis their first port of call before moving on to the main town, so if you wish to try the bread from the bakery you will have to be early, for when the boats arrive they tend to sell out very quickly. As the boats only stay for a very short time, you may think it wise to plan your visit for late morning, early afternoon, so avoiding the crowds.
Since 1995, Symi has hosted the renowned Symi Festival during the months of July to September. This festival was founded by famous Greek political journalist, Ioannis (John) Diakogiannis, who established it in the birthplace of his father Eleftherios C. Diakogiannis. Since its inception it has attracted many of the leading Greek musicians (Katy Garbi, Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Glykeria, Alkistis Protopsalti, Mihalis Emirlis, Dimitra Galani, Despina Olympiou, etc.) to perform at free open-air concerts in the main square of Yialos, and also consists of many dance and theatre events. Well known Greek artist Eva Geraki has painted the Festival programme’s cover, each year for the past 15 years.
In summary, Symi is a very friendly island which has not been spoilt by mass tourism, and still retains the traditional Greek island way of life and hospitality. There are no high rise hotels, no villa complexes, just some small friendly hotels, holiday houses and studios which are traditional Symian houses, some of which were originally wealthy sponge merchant’s mansions, renovated with loving care, with modern conveniences which you expect when on holiday. Staying in one of these old traditional houses and living amongst the local people means you will be able to live like an islander and totally unwind and forget the stresses of modern life. Come and see for yourself why people who come to Symi become enchanted with this special island and keep returning year after year.
Σύμη , Δωδεκάνησα – Symi island, Dodecanese – Greece
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