“I am called Melissa. My name is Greek.” And you? “Neil. My name is the same as the first person to walk on the moon!” Melissa and Neil seem more than jovial, two English retirees (he was a jeweler, she a lawyer) who managed to visit Greece and Symi this year.
They are not the only ones. Dozens of couples from northern Europe literally adore this small island of the Dodecanese – in fact, many have bought property and live here for half the year, some even all year long. This is not just an honor, but also very moving if you think about it.
All these people belong to the baby boomer generation, they grew up as the world was getting better, they worked, travelled, became powerful and earned money. And now, in the third phase of their life, when they are most mature and perhaps even most free, when they could be anywhere, they choose to leave their homelands, their relatives and children to settle on an island in the Aegean where access depends on the weather conditions, where there is a single main road and where the island’s permanent residents amount no more than a small neighborhood in a European capital.
People from Britain, France and Scandinavia inundate Symi en masse to enjoy a daily routine that their homeland cannot offer, to experience living near pebble beaches and refreshing waters, with goats chewing on almirikia (tamarisk, warm-weather Greek greens) and tortoises crossing the roads at their slow pace. And yet, even though Symi seems to have no connection to their homelands, there is a clear link – neoclassical architecture.
The neoclassical structures of Symi were influenced by the travels of Symiot sea sponge merchants through Europe in the 19th century. These houses still stand 100 years later, renovated or abandoned depending on the financial status of each owner, to remind us how expansive and innovative this island has been.
Admire the setting by taking a walk from Gialos to Horio (the two main villages that are connected via Kali Strata, a road with hundreds of steps) as you pass by wonderful, multicolored neoclassical buildings in different shades of ochre and blue, or maroon and blue, with the characteristic neoclassical pediments that are the ultimate essence of Symiot architecture.
With impressive originality, the Symiots have created pediments everywhere, from church bell towers to gateways; imagine an exterior door with a triple pediment – a central one with two smaller ones underneath, carved into the wooden door. And this wealth of neoclassicism, with a hint of Symiot spirit, coexists with traditional elements such as pebble mosaic flooring, stone arches and white-washed squares with enormous plane trees.
In the background, traditional Greek music from the open windows of the neoclassical structures floats through the narrow streets; when they see you, the amazingly hospitable Symiot old ladies greet you good evening and offer you ammoniakena (fluffy cookies with ammonia) and tzaharena (cookies with powdered sugar).
Gastronomy and nature
The truth is that these unexpected encounters with Symi’s cooks in the courtyards are very educational. Striking up conversations you glean a lot of information about local gastronomy, which goes far beyond the Symi small shrimp (even though caught on various islands of the Dodecanese, it has been established as the “Symi” shrimp).
If someone truly wishes to experience the gastronomy of Symi, it would be worthwhile to search out the book “Ekilise to tetzerik’ivre to kappaki” by two Symiots, Emmanuel K. Moraris and Dikea Maravelia, that presents traditional recipes through a more contemporary prism. Flipping through its pages, readers come in contact with a series of local dishes such as palamidosoupa (bonito fish soup), axtapomakarounada (octopus spaghetti) and fava xerotiganisi (yellow split peas with gently fried onions), and krommidenia giaprakia (stuffed vine leaves with onions) and Paermiotis’ baby goat.
Each recipe is accompanied by “grandma’s tips” and a nutrition table. For instance, to return to the famed Symi small shrimp, the book’s authors recommend frying until the shrimp acquire a deep orange color and finish with freshly squeezed lemon. Grandma’s tip is to add garlic and green bell peppers for more intense flavor.
The highlight of this useful edition, which literally travels readers to the gastronomic wealth of Symi in the present day, is a glossary of Symiot cooking terminology: “livgoume” means spread, “gdi” is pestle and mortar, “patelines” are limpets and “argania” is oregano.
How fascinating, yet how unknown all of this is to the average tourist who visits the island on vacation.
Another element of Symi unconnected with its cultural heritage that is also unknown is its landscape. As you walk along Gialos, you may be fooled into thinking that Symi is a dry, barren island filled with neoclassical buildings and a few scattered trees. But this is only partially true, as inland there is a large and dense cedar forest with self-seeded cedar trees.
Take a plunge into the verdant green to experience a more earthly Symi, with its untouched nature and clean air, where the silence is interrupted only by bleating and the sound of collar bells. A relaxing and calming Symi, for while the neoclassical buildings are indeed beautiful, the intense colors may sometimes tire you out, especially in the summer when the heat is intense, there are tourists everywhere and there is too much noise from the cars and mopeds whizzing by.
It is towards this great forest that we are heading one Friday afternoon. We drive towards Panagia Hames and then once we pass not the first, but the second road sign indicating “Monastery of Sotiros Mikros” we park the car on a small plateau and take the footpath. It is a comfortable 20-minute walk, easy to medium difficulty and the landscape is entirely typical of Symi, bursting with trees growing between the rock crevices. You really cannot escape the rocks here, they coexist in perfect harmony even with a verdant forest, as the stone complements the cedar trees, and vice versa.
The bucolic Monastery of Sotiros Mikros welcomes us: with a dirt channel like a labyrinth flanked by two stone walls on each side, it is filled with yellow dry grass and on it sit two turkeys. There is not a soul to be seen. At Gialos port we have noise and cars everywhere, at Sotiros Mikros we have the forest to ourselves.
The wild olive tree finale
We have seen much on this trip; multicolored neoclassical mansions, verdant green cedar trees growing on fields of rocks, unknown traditional cuisine. But we have yet to see any beaches, and the ideal person to give us the tour is – who else? – “Poseidon,” the traditional 17-metre wooden yacht owned by Giannis Giannikos, who has been operating the vessel for the last 27 years.
“Poseidon” goes around the island every day, stopping on many beaches along the way: Agios Emilianos, Saint Basil, Fokospilia, Seskli island, Agios Georgios Dysalonas. We are unlucky on the weather front as the 5-6 Beaufort north-westerly winds prevent us from approaching the beaches on the west coast, so that leaves just the eastern and southern parts of the island.
First stop, Agios Georgios Dysalonas, the beach most widely recognized as the most beautiful on the island, with its characteristic vertical rock. We do not approach the shore, but instead the boat slows down as we approach the beach and then one after the other, Scandinavian, French and British tourists jump into the sea. The Greeks follow suit as well; we also braved these icy cold waters and enjoyed the first swim of this very strange year.
Next stop, the islet of Seskli. Again the sea is filled with tourist hats bobbing up and down as they enjoy an amazing swim, before heading to the beach for a feast by the wild olive trees, featuring Greek salad, amazing potato salad, fasolakia (Greek green braised beans), beetroot, curry rice, pasta and gigantes (oven baked broad beans) with regato cheese. “Because many people are vegetarians, we avoid too much meat,” says the captain as we sit on benches under the shade of the trees, much like at summer camp.
We see happy faces all around; the foreign tourists who are enchanted by the beauty of Symi, and the Greek crew members who have chosen to stay here even though they could have worked on neighboring and touristy Rhodes. How come? Because they love Symi. Everyone on this table, whether Symiot by blood or by choice, decidedly loves and stays on Symi, always returning for more.
We would like to thank the Offshore Yachting club of Rhodes for their assistance during the photo shoot.
New life for a historical neoclassical building
The name Fotis Mastoridis will never be forgotten in Symi, as he was the first person to bring the first autonomous diving suit (“scafandro” in Greek) to the island in 1860, thus giving rise to sponge fishing and economic growth. Mastoridis also built a single neoclassical mansion on Gialos at the end of the 19th century, which begins a new lease of life this year as the 1900 Hotel.
Architect Dimitris Zografos and civil engineer Kostas Rizopoulos are heading the project, as they were in charge of intervening, restoring and reviving the two-story mansion to its former glory. When they scraped the walls to see the building’s original color, they found dark colors such as deep ochre, dark green and dark grey. They decided to follow a similar motif, “lowering” the dark shades of each ceiling to the walls.
Featuring ornate ceiling paintings (the main hall features the theme of four cupids, the dining room a bowl of fruit) the Mastoridis mansion had plenty of rooms, though the number was halved for the purposes of the project (eight rooms have become four at 1900 Hotel).
Nevertheless, the new hotel is operating with a house mentality, as there is no reception, no keys but passcodes, and instead of conventional bars the hotel features honesty bars, where visitors can serve themselves (tea, coffee, drinks) and then be charged for whatever they claim they consumed without anybody checking. Namely, based on the same bonds of trust and honesty that we find in a house!
1900 Hotel opened its doors in mid-June. For more information visit 1900hotel.com.
You can reach Symi by boat from Piraeus (14-16 hours, 46 euros single fare with Βlue Star Ferries, bluestarferries.com), or by plane via Rhodes (from 24 euros one way) with Olympic Air (olympicair.com), Sky Express (skyexpress.gr) or Volotea (volotea.com), and from there by boat (1½ hours, from 10 euros) with ΑΝΕΣ Ferries (anes.gr), Dodekanisos Seaways (12ne.gr), Sea Dreams (seadreams.gr).
Choose between the Pedi Beach Hotel (Pedi Beach, tel. 22460-71870, pedibeachhotel.gr, from 100 euros), the stone boutique hotel The Old Markets (Kali Strata, tel. 22460-71440, theoldmarkets.com, from 200 euros), Niriides Hotel with its amazing view (Emporeios, tel. 22460-71784, niriideshotel.com, from 115 euros), and Iapetos with its oasis-like garden (Gialos, tel. 22460-72777, iapetos-village.gr, from 120 euros).
Should you be interested, you may find the cookbook, “Ekilise to tetzerik’ivre to kappaki” at Niriides or Iapetos. Alternatively, various apartments and neoclassical mansions are available for rental via Airbnb.
We visited Symi in the end of May, when the island was just coming out of its winter hibernation and getting into summer mode, with many restaurants still closed. We should mention two classic choices of the island’s restaurant scene: Tholos (tel. 6940-997916) and Pandelis (tel. 6977-261710), two establishments that hold the bar high regarding the quality of food and service. The Secret Garden (tel. 22460-72153) is also a special place for wonderful meze.
Two great and very different excursions are to Horio (by foot) and to the Holy Monastery of Archangel Michael Panormitis (by car). Visitors usually ascend to Horio via the Kali Strata, but the route is rather tiring. It would be more practical to take a taxi to Panagia Peiraiotissa and explore Horio on the way down, admiring the abandoned pre-neoclassical buildings and the incomplete or restored neoclassical mansions as you head to Gialos. It is preferable to travel by car to Panormitis Monastery – the most famous monastery in Symi (20km, 30 minutes). It is worth visiting this small citadel nestled in a verdant gulf on the south of the island, especially in the afternoon; sit on a bench and admire the sunset.
You will find information about taking the tour of the island on “Poseidon” at symiexcursions.com.
Being extremely photogenic, Symi is an Instagram favorite. For a hint of the island’s beauty as part of your digital reality, check out these accounts on Instagram: seeme_in_symi and symimages.
It is also worth watching the multi award-winning, short documentary “Symi – The Mamaland” by Stamatis Liondos on YouTube.