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Symi Style

The roaring forties….”You’re going to by 40, my lovely wife, Nibby, has been reminding me from the day after my 30th birthday. Well, it’s finally arrived and “life begins…to show”. Hair now sprouts out of my ears and my beard is turning grey (no more trendy goatee for me). In a failed attempt to ignore the inevitable and keep things low key, four separate celebrations ensued. Thus:

a) party at home for the same generation of friends;
b) party with work colleagues (average age 27 – with an ergonomic commode as a present);
c) dinner out with older generation, parents, in-laws, and aunt and uncle;
d) my wife’s wonderful present…..A WEEK IN BEAUTIFUL SYMI.

Positioned 25 miles north of Rhodes and 3.5 miles from the rugged Anatolian coastline of Turkey, the island of Symi rises like a colossus from the deep azure of the Aegean. Very Greek, yet richly diverse, it reflects the tussles for control throughout its history. During the last 100 years alone, it has fallen under the domain of the Turks, Italians, Germans, British and finally, rightfully in 1948, the Greeks.

Nibby and I first came to Symi two summers ago. Like many before me, I fell in love with the place, which is why this trip was a fantastic present and certainly worth reaching 40 for.

The island will never succumb to mass tourism. Its rugged terrain will not lend itself to an airport, and the chronic lack of water (shipped in once a week from Rhodes) means that it will not have the infrastructure to support the hordes. 2,500 Symiots (down from 25,000 in its nineteenth century heyday,) play host to no more than 200 tourists – the number of available beds.

To those about to lose their Symiot virginity, arrival at the island is a visual treat. The sun sets fiery and orange, behind one of Europe’s most stunning natural harbour’s, emphasising the various pastel shades of what, at first sight, appears to be a Venetian artist’s paradise. Those Italians…..

Our previous visit had been pretty basic on the accommodation front. This time, Nibby had booked via Laskarina Holidays, a well-known, Observer travel award-winning specialist in up-market, unspoilt Greek islands. Their relationship with Observer readers appears symbiotic – or should I write Symibiotic.

All holidays to Symi from the UK begin in the same manner, with an early morning charter flight to Rhodes. Our trip began the previous evening at the Gatwick Hilton. The hotel is conveniently adjoined to the south terminal and always packed with gaggles of holidaymakers wearing their Mediterranean summer gear, regardless of the current external weather conditions. Tasked with meeting Nibby at the hotel, meant taking the entire luggage. Not easy with only two arms, one back, a neck and two legs, when one of us packs as if we’re about to depart for six months covering all continents and terrains. I arrived limping and looking a little worse for wear.

No doubt as a consequence of my appearance we were checked into an enormous room with extensive facilities for the disabled. Oh how they took pity. Fortunately, I am fully fit. The nearest I have to a disability is being very shortsighted which led to a bit of a shock when, with spectacles off, I thought that I was turning out the light when, in fact, I had pressed the emergency button. Within a nanosecond, Nibby had the bed sheets around her shoulders as the door was pummelled, the telephone rang, sirens went off and the SAS, masked and not carrying boxes of Milk Tray, burst in through the window. OK – the last bit was a trifle exaggerated, but I admired the response.

The early morning flight to Rhodes had three distinct categories of passenger. The majority, about 80% consisted of a 17-21 brigade sporting a neat range of tattoos, pieced bodies and over the shoulder CD players. They were on the annual shagathon to Faldaraki. The 19.9%, members of Saga’s newly constituted youth wing, carried copies of either The Guardian, or The Daily Telegraph and wore open-toed sandals surrounding black-socked feet. They were using Rhodes airport as a launching pad to get to the more remote Dodecanese islands. The remaining 0.1% was us – too old for the shagathon, and too young for the Saga youth wing. Vive la difference!

Rhodes airport was, as ever, inevitably in chaos. The baggage handlers played their daily game of “wind up the tourist” by waiting until the return flight had left before, bag-by-bag, placing luggage on the carousel. As a consequence, we arrived at Mandraki to catch the two-hour ferry to Symi with seventeen and a half seconds to spare. Luckily the “Symi 2” was operating on Greek time, which allowed us a further eighteen seconds to dump our bags and find a seat on deck.

We had booked into one of two adjoining studios with wonderful views over the harbour. As Rhodes disappeared into the distance and the Turkish coast became more visible, we played the age-old game of “I wonder who our neighbours are going to be.” We were right of course – but more of that later.

Symi Town is split into two. Yialos, is the spectacular harbour with its sponges and spice shops interspersed with a few bars, tavernas and bustle. Chorio, is the high town – a breathless walk 375 winding steps up the “Kali Strata”, or “Killer Strasse” as Nibby had renamed it. Naturally we were between the two. The Sevasti Studios sport a painter’s paradise vista across the harbour with time-changing colours reflecting into the water and Turkey beyond.

Our arrival was organised bedlam. Yet somehow, within minutes we were at our studio with the correct luggage deposited before us. It was worth paying a “little bit extra” this time. If you’re expecting five star luxury wherever you travel, then don’t come to Symi. However, within its range, our accommodation was clean and spacious. Living next to neighbours on the same trip was not a problem since, in addition to a large, shared terrace; we both had a private area to the side of the property. In any case, Paul and Julie from Ludlow made it easy for us by only having to remember one name.

We plonked down our bags and headed down to the harbour to visit one of our old haunts, “The Katrinette”, a friendly taverna where we spent much of our time attempting to avoid eye contact with the albino cat. This was easier than would normally have been the case, since the peckish pet only possessed a single eye in the first place. For old sea-“dog” insert “cat”.

The young waitress was charming. In very good English she told regaled us with a story about Virginia, and American ex-pat, Georgios, her father and aubergines. I got confused, but it sounded nice and could have been the subject behind one of those sub-titled Euro-films that regularly win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The evening ended when the storyteller, charming as ever, placed her hand on my shoulder and mixed her metaphors beautifully: “Remember, my window is always open” she intoned. I wasn’t sure whether this was an invitation to avoid Georgios and “shin-up” the drainpipe with a Bouzouki, or simply a confusion between the words “window” and “door”. I was never going to test it anyway.

The Katrinette is well known on Symi. It was here that on 8th May 1945, General Wagener signed the unconditional surrender of the Dodecanese to the Allies. VE day is still a bank holiday on the island and, as luck would have it, the following morning just happened to be the 8th May. Cymbals crashing, and the pounding drums of marching music interrupted our welcome meeting. Children wandered through looking incongruous in ancient, local costumes with mobile phones growing out of their ears. I felt admiration for the fact that such a momentous day that occurred 58 years earlier is still celebrated in this corner of the Aegean.
Symi Stomach

Don’t worry – this is not going to be one of those daily diary “and then we did, and then we did pieces – day 3” 
Eating, crucial for the sustenance of life, is especially enjoyable on Symi. High above the harbour in Chorio is the famous “Georgios” Taverna. Yup  – another similarly named taverna owner. “George” is quite a short man, with an open personality and unusually piercing blue eyes. He appeared to be a one-man 24/7 industry. Early in the morning and throughout the day, he runs a taxi-boat service to the islands main, but small beaches. He also apparently owns a collection of lettable properties in Chorio, and, by night, runs the town’s most atmospheric taverna.

There were rumours that, in his youth, Georgios was six foot four until he became ground down by the excessive hours that he puts in. Apparently he will eventually retire when he has inverted his original measurements completely and becomes four foot six. Retirement cannot be far away.

The scene enveloped you immediately, as Georgios greeted us in his kitchen like long lost friends and we inhaled the pungent pleasant aromas of his cooking. With no menu, we were shown each available dish waiting to be consumed, currently either in their stewing pots, or ready to be flame grilled. The only difficulty was remembering each one a few minutes later when we were asked to place our order. I eventually nailed it, after circumnavigating the kitchen a few times.

Symi has a glutton’s supply of family run tavernas that specialise in good, local cooking and utilize the herbs that grow wild on the island filling the air with their sweet smells. The menus are fairly similar, with one exception (more of which later). Clearly in a week, we were unable to go to them all, but instead relied upon a combination of nose, recommendation, atmosphere and vista. Sometimes we achieved the lot. Honourable mentions go to:

a) the taverna on the beach at Nimborios beach, where the Tzaziki was so powerfully flavoured with garlic, that each time we exhaled Nibby and I were in danger of engaging in the biggest scorched earth policy since the Germans blew up the munitions dump on the island at the end of world war two taking half of Chorio with it;
b) the Haritomeni, three-quarters of the way to Chorio from Yialos, which had a view overlooking the moonlit tinged harbour that acted as a super digestive; the spontaneous mandolin playing by one of the diners could have been a delight, however, more practice was required;
c) Dimitius’ tiny and simple taverna on the harbourside probably achieved the gold star for value for money – on some nights the youngest son gets his accordian out to compliment the carafes of wine and the chicken souvlaki.

Symi’s most well known restaurant, outside of the island, is Mythos. Recently featured in the UK in Waitrose’s monthly food magazine. Stavros, its rather urbane owner, should therefore run a place that has much going for it. It has a location on the harbourside, is the only place where it’s essential to have a reservation all year round, offers a menu more varied than anything else on the island, and in all probability the whole of the Dodecanese.  This is coupled with a chef gaining something of an international reputation. Yet, although, together and separately, these should be commendable traits, our experience was not altogether pleasurable. It’s not that Greek. In fact, his dishes are so “fused” with other ideas that they have lost virtually all trace of Hellenic flavours. The locals did not appear to go there. In fact on the night we went the entire clientele were well to do middle-aged, middle-class English people competing with each other as to who had the eldest, most successful children, and worshipping Stavros as if he were a Jesus like figure that could turn water into wine and feed the 5,000 with bread and fish. Indeed Stavros appeared so pleased with himself that he had assumed the nomenclature of “kitchen messiah”.  Sure, the quality of the food was very good, but if we wanted to eat in an antiseptic international restaurant, we would have remained in London.  

Symi Steps

Symi is a walker’s paradise in spring. After an unusually wet winter, wild flowers sprouted from virtually every, normally barren, rock and blended their perfumed aromas with the already plentiful wild herbs. Armed with a map and Frances Noble’s (now the Laskarina rep) earlier walker’s guidebook, we packed the rucksack and tramped our way along the plethora of ancient donkey tracks that were the arteries for Symiot travel in a bygone age.

Our favourite walk took us from Yialos town square, in what appeared to be an almost vertical climb to the church of Georgios Drakoundiotis. We enhaled deeply during the steep climb, and exhaled deeply as we caught a first sight of Nimorios beach several hundred feet below. The church, with a lovely arched terrace and glorious views was a peaceful spot to ingest both the view and gulps of water. All the heavy breathing allowed us to experience the fresh kitchen perfume of the island, prior to getting a hit from the aforementioned tzatsiki outside the tiny taverna at the bottom.

Other walking stars go to the central island walk through ancient extinct vineyards, where we stumbled across old icon painted chapels; the labyrinth that is Chrorio to the fortification of Drakos, through the island’s most fertile plain and on to Pedi beach to meet Georgio and hop on his taxi boat to St Nicholas. That walk only takes 45 minutes or so, and St Nicolas’ beach with its pine tree lined shelter, tucked away in a little cove lapped, ever so gently, by a turquoise millpond like sea, is an ideal way to “assume the position” and let the rest of the day drift away.
Symi Sand

There isn’t really any. Symi’s beaches, for what they are consist of mainly pebbles and shingle. The most accessible ones by foot, or taxi-boat from either Yialos, or Pedi are Ag Marina, Pedi Beach, St Nicholas, Nos and Nimorios. Each of them has a little taverna, although we were a little disappointed that one of our favourites from our first trip, Ag. Marina, had been concreted over as the builders were lunching their way to the, no doubt inordinately slow, construction of an hotel. We hoped that this wasn’t a sign of the future.

The sea, as mentioned, is the colour of a semi-precious stone. It is as calm as a Yogi, so laid-back that he’s horizontal. It can be bracing though. A cold plunge can shock you into feeling that you’re about to spew up your testicles. All the men were tight-lipped, scared as they were with what might drop out if they opened their mouths in exclamation.

Symi’s Senses

Symi attacks the senses, since, along with the aforementioned smells, the blend ouf sounds taken together will forever make me think of the island. Sitting on our balcony, watching the sunset over the harbour; the meowing cats, howling dogs, schizophrenic time-confused cockerels and ancient Greek mamas, raising their voices to unimaginable decibel levels as they whispered sweat nothings into the deaf ears of their husbands, were the staple noises of the Symiot soundscape.

Symi Social

People, of course are a crucial holiday ingredient, whether it’s the locals, or those one meets from dear old blighty. We became pretty friendly with Paul & Julie. We knew we would from that first “sundowner” on our shared terrace. We had much in common as we chewed the fat and agreed that the world must still have terrible problems, the best example being that The Beatles were dying in the wrong order. Paul was a musician, originally from the Black Country who wrote songs, sang in a band and played guitar, mandolin and piano. “We don’t do drunk” he said in his brummie lilt that first evening – a statement that appeared somewhat bold when we arrived back from dinner to find them both still on the balcony having virtually polished off a bottle of Famous Grouse.

Julie, who amazingly never burnt given her exceptionally fair complexion, worked for English Heritage, could have been Paul’s agent. For it was she, who encouraged her sometimes self-effacing husband to lend us the latest CD from his band, MananiaRama. The music was pretty good – they deserved a wider audience.

We found out that Julie’s daughter, Louise, happened to work for Laskarina in the UK and actually took our booking a couple of months earlier. I wondered why my conversation with Louise at the time appeared part sale, part interview. We had many enjoyable moments with Paul and Julie, sharing music, conversation and humour. We even “did drunk”. Who knows, we may keep in touch. Actually we could really wind them up by calling Louise and booking ourselves in next to wherever they next holiday.

Local faces became readily familiar. The driver of the one Symi Bus and his bionic beard. Actually the bus was, in reality a tumbled down van that was a wonder of engineering in that it moved at all. The “beard” however was truly something. Clean-shaven at nine o’clock in the morning, he didn’t so much have a five o’clock shadow as early as lunchtime – more a full-blown growth. Travel on the Symi bus felt a little like “Groundhog Day” with the passengers on each trip consisting of the same brightly dressed young girls, who visually clashed with the black dresses of the short, white-haired, loud voiced, older women. These were the women who, when they were the age of the youngsters, had brothers who used to leave the island for eleven months a year to find fortune in Rhodes and send money back for their sister’s dowry’s. It was impossible to imagine them so young – thoughts made all the more difficult by witnessing washing lines crammed with the world’s most enormous bloomers that cast huge shadows over those who filled them sitting motionless in front of their houses.

Symi, “so long”

In no time our week passed by to its conclusion. The ferry’s horn roared three times as the pastel shades of Yialos harbour at sunrise disappeared behind the headland and Symi faded away into the distance. With my birthday celebrations finally over, I took a wink for each of my forty years.

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