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marianne Symi - A travel report by Marianne
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Symi,  Greece - flag Greece -  Dodekánisos
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marianne's travel reports

A Dot on the Map

  24 votes
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The island of Symi is only 15 km long and 8 km wide and one of the smallest islands of the Dodecanese archipelago. Sponge diving and shipbuilding industries have declined and day-trippers make up for the loss. report of the month contest
Apr 2006

The island is steep arid and rocky
The island is steep arid and rocky
Symi is closer to Turkey than to Greece. On clear days the Turkish coastline looms up in the distance.

The island is steep, arid and rocky. Its highest point is 616 m. The vegetation consists of juniper, pine and olive trees. Goats roam freely about the countryside. I found the scenery not typically Greek but very similar to that of the Turkish peninsula west of Marmaris.

The island is speckled with monastries and secluded coves. In summer it gets very hot and temperatures soar to 40 degrees C. We were on Symi in early May. This time of the year the climate is near perfect: a hot sun and a refreshing breeze, temperature 20 degrees C.

In spring but also in autumn the island is a walker’s paradise. The longest hike will take some 6 hours: from Symi town in the north to Panormitis Monastry in the south. On wheels it will take one hour.

The island boasts one village bus which plies between Symi town and Pedhi, every hour, on the hour, but only from May to October. There are some 5 taxis and a motor-scooter rental firm that charges €20 a day.

We came on a day trip from Rodhos. During the summer season day trippers can board either the 9 am (from Rodhos Commercial Harbour) or the 10 am (from Rodhos Mandraki Harbour). The trip to Symi takes 90 minutes, a three-hour stop in Symi town, another 30 minutes sailing to Panormitis, 50 minutes to see the monastry and then back to Rodhos. If you buy your ticket at the harbour in Rodhos it costs €19, if you get it at your hotel or at one of the travel agencies the price is €29, but this includes transfer from and to your hotel.

Winter is not a good time for a holiday on Symi because winter rains and cold winds are as much part of the Mediterraean climate as hot summers. Most accommodations close from October to March as do the tourist oriented businesses. Best time to visit is spring and autumn.

The beaches are very disappointing, don't expect large expanses of gleaming sand, but the water is clear.

Favourite spots:
Symi waterfront
Symi waterfront
When the Rhodes ferry swings around the last headland a picture postcard vista opens up: a horseshoe-shaped bay flanked by tiers of ochre-coloured two-storey houses. Rich merchants built these neo-classical mansions in the 19th century, the heyday of sponge diving and shipbuilding. The sight is utterly charming and very different from other Greek islands.

We disembark and walk along the waterfront lined with restaurants and souvenir shops, all selling the same sunhats, T-shirts and Greek windwills. A couple of shops specialises in sponges. Their colours vary from bright yellow to deep brown. ‘Brown are best’, one shopowner told me. ‘The yellow ones are bleached because Americans like this’.

He dips a sponge into a bowl of water so that I can feel the texture. The softer ones are used to apply or remove makeup and the coarser ones to scrub the body. Others are especially good to clean windows. I buy two brown ones, at €7 each.

What's really great:
Tiny cups of Greek coffee
Tiny cups of Greek coffee
Symi town is divided into Yialos, the lower village, and Horio, the upper village. This is reached by stone steps which seem to lead to someone’s front door, but in fact are a public road. The stairs lead past old homes of rich merchants. Many of these mansions have been restored to their old glory.

There are quite a few tavernas in Horio (which ís Greek for ‘village’). After the 450 steps we sat down at the first we saw and enjoyed a Greek coffee, tiny cups and we didn’t drink all because the dregs will stick between the teeth, and drained the glass of water. Water is always the first thing put on the table, or so it should be. These days, especially in tourist places, the old custom seems to have been forgotten.

Before we went down to Yialos we visited a charming little museum: a 19th century pharmacy, lined with shelves full of old apothecary jars filled with herbal remedies. We did not go right to the top to the remains of the Knights of St John Castle.

The Clock Tower and HQ of the local police
The Clock Tower and HQ of the local police
Symi is small and doesn’t have many sights. We walked all along the waterfront past the clock tower and the statue of Poseidon. The white building behind it is the Head Quarters of the local police.

A bit further on is the shipbuilding yard. Up the hill a charming church whith an ornate bell tower, which looks like a kind of wedding cake. Each tier is supported by bigger and smaller pillars. The church courtyard was laid with pebbles in an intricate pattern. You need not go all the way to Symi to see these floors and towers as you will find them in Rodhos as well.

Round the corner is a tiny cove with a pebbly beach. Some one was cleaning sunbeds and putting them in line for the sun-loving tourists.

As we had already been to one museum we did not go to the Maritime Museum, which is housed in a Byzantine House. Instead we walked through the warren of narrow streets behind the seafront. They are dotted with souvenir shops and tavernas.

Panormitis Monastry flanked by visitors' rooms
Panormitis Monastry flanked by visitors' rooms
Accommodation is mostly in small apartments, hotels, villas and studios. In the high season, from July to September, it is best to book in advance. Fortunately there are (not yet) big resort hotels. The main reason is the chronic shortage of water. Water of the winter rains is saved in a resevoir and drinking water is brought over by ship from Rodhos.

See ‘tips’ for hotels and addresses.

Simple pilgrims rooms are available at Panormitis Monastry. €10 is the minimum donation. These rooms are sparingly furnished, just a bed, a table and a chair. It is best to enquire beforhand, as they are often full with pilgrims.

sponges galore
sponges galore
Not much nightlife as we were here on a daytrip. But some info about the sponges.

At some time or other many of us have had a real sponge, quite different from the square synthetic ones. Sponges have been used from time immemorial.

The servants in the Odyssey cleaned tables with sponges as is done today. They were used as drinking vessels when no other means were at hand. Soldiers used to wear them as pads inside their armour and artists had them to apply paint to their canvas.

It is hard to believe that the sponge is in fact an animal. This animal propels water through its network of channels and feeds on minute organisms. After the sponge has been captured the soft tissues are gradually pressed out by rinsing it and letting it dry in the sun.

In the old days sponge divers went overboard naked, clutching a 15 kg flat stone. This would take them down to 30 m during 4 or 5 minutes, depending on their lung capacity, just enough to harvest some sponges.

sponges all sorts
sponges all sorts
In the middle of the 19th century divers began to use diving suits . This allowed them to go deeper, to 70 m, where the best sponges were found.

Although the suits were an improvement to naked diving, it brought along more casualties than the old method had done. Many of the divers became paralysed, invariably followed by death.

We now know that this illness is caused by decompression, but in the old days the divers and their families were clueless.

Poor economic climate made many divers migrate to the USA and Australia. Presently only a handful of sponge divers still live in Symi. They use modern equipment and are attached to an air hose which is connected to a compressor on board. Sponge diving is no longer the dangerous job it used to be.

Due to pollution and huge harvesting, hardly any sponges are left in the Mediterranean. Therefore, it is highly likely that the sponges we bought in the shops along Symi’s waterfront came from the Caribbean or Asia.

The Rhodos ferry and a passing fisherman
The Rhodos ferry and a passing fisherman
Along Yialos harbour front there is wide range of tavernas serving everything from traditional Greek food to sophisticated cuisine. All foodstuff has to be brought over by boat therefore prices are slightly higher than in Rodhos.

We went to one of the tavernas along the harbour and saw one of the Rhodos ferry dock, an almost endless stream of day trippers and were happy we had a table

Our lunch consisted of fava (chickpeas paste similar to hommous served in Arab countries), bamies (okra served in oil and tomato sauce) and Greek salad consisting of cucumber tomatoes and onions olives and feta cheese. This was served with big chunks of fresh bread. Restina to drink with the meal and Greek coffee afterwards

Retsina is a white wine, preserved in pine-pitch sealed vessels. The result is that the wine tastes of resin, which some describe as a turpentinelike taste. These days the wine is preserved in staineless barrels. Resin is added during fermentation and filter out afterwards.

Other recommendations:
Panormitis monastry and monk-doorkeeper
Panormitis monastry and monk-doorkeeper
The Monastry of Taxiarhis Mihail Panormitis was our second port-of-call, 50 mins to wander about.

The monk-doorkeeper handed out wraps to underdressed tourists before we entered the pebble-mosaic courtyard.

It took a few minutes to adjust my eyes to the darkness in the the small chapel. Then I admired the incredible number of oil lamps, votive offerings and embroideries that clutter the church. Colourful frescoes grace the walls. It didn’t matter that they were recent and mediocre. A bearded Orthodox priest, his grey hair tied to a bun, sprinkled holy water from a bunch of fresh herbs blessing the faithful and day-trippers.

Then I moved on the museum (€2), a mix of antiques and junk. Most interesting was the pile of messages-in-bottles. If the Aegean currents bring them to Panormitis harbour, the sender’s prayer will be answered.

For more Symi photos click on my slide show.

Published on Saturday May 27th, 2006

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Wed, Feb 21 2007 - 03:52 PM rating by travler

I have been to Rhodes but not here. I'll add it to my list of places to see if I go back to Greece. I enjoyed your slide show.

Mon, Sep 25 2006 - 10:56 AM rating by mrscanada

I have never been to Symi so I found this a most interesting review.

Fri, Jun 16 2006 - 11:39 PM rating by downundergal

Well deserved ROM and as usual full of interesting and personal anecdotes, I had no idea about the history of sponges nor that they were an animal. Loved the pics too.

Thu, Jun 08 2006 - 06:37 AM rating by magsalex

Well deserved Report of the month.

Thu, Jun 01 2006 - 10:13 AM rating by bootlegga

As usual, excellent!

Tue, May 30 2006 - 04:55 AM rating by terje

Quality as always. Good photos as well!

Mon, May 29 2006 - 11:39 AM rating by eirekay

Marianne, Symi is not far from my husband's island of Ikaria. Your report so well describes the islands in this region! They have aptmoshere but not much else. Thanks for a wonderful report!

Mon, May 29 2006 - 03:33 AM rating by st.vincent

Now we have some words to go with the beautiful photos of this idyllic little island. Well written and an interesting read, you packed so much into a day trip.

Sat, May 27 2006 - 06:35 PM rating by gloriajames

bravo! another wonderful read and the pics are great! did not post your best pic from symi in this report. nevertheless a class report.

Sat, May 27 2006 - 08:17 AM rating by davidx

How nice to know from a trusted reporter that all the ggod reports on Symi are not just advertising hype. Great portrayal in words and pictures.

Sat, May 27 2006 - 07:54 AM rating by mistybleu

What a lovely feel good report. Really interesting. I especailly like the picture in the monestry. Well Done.


Sat, May 27 2006 - 06:45 AM rating by rangutan

..... small island, BIG REPORT :-)
A perfectly presented report full of tips and curiosities, brilliant pictures and well described interesting place.

Sat, May 27 2006 - 06:17 AM rating by frenchfrog

Marianne, another excellent report, really lots of given, it is a pleasure to read, I love pecefull little resort, not the big resorts full of tourists, Symi, sound really great, as it look a bit away from the "mass". Good history lesson provided about the sponges! Well done!

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