A Symi Holiday: Day 3

These Boots were Not Made for Walking

No sooner had I closed the lid on my laptop from yesterdays blog, it started. I believed it to be a rooster, welcoming in the sunrise. But this rooster clearly had mental health problems. Certainly no sense of time. It was 3am and not 7.30am. Not only that, it had less of a “cock-a-doodle-doo” and more of a “caroo goo AAARGHH CACKOO”. I can only compare it to the likely sound of a practicing trombone player slowly garotted. Other roosters down the hill seemed equally confused, replying with “cock-a-doodle… eh?”.

A few hours later something more troubling startled me awake. Initially it sounded like a mobile phone vibrating on a table. A deep moaning hum shook the windows. It was a ship in the harbour, hooting with almighty power. Enough to shake the window panes, perhaps long enough to tear the space time continuum itself. When it stopped what seemed like minutes later, bells started to ring. A trio of chimes rang out near me, followed by another trio further down, then above, then more and more. These chimes went on for half an hour. At present I don’t know the significance of a Wednesday in Symi or in Greece overall, but it felt like they had some significance*. Oddly, the guy further up the hill from me was chiming four times. Perhaps he was the one with the rooster.

Today was meant to be a photography day. I stuffed my day pack as lightly as possible (camera, gorilla tripod, 50mm prime, 18-135mm, 75-300mm, 11-16mm, spare t-shirt, wireless trigger, IR filter, ND filter, 2 bottles of water). Unfortunately it was overcast from morning till late afternoon. The drop in temperature meant I could wear jeans and there was less chance of me being fatally killed by dehydration on the walk back up all the stairs**, like yesterday. Not swayed by the lack of sunshine I headed towards the stairway; Kali Strata.

My escapades late yesterday evening on the Kali Strata where upon I dived into the fridge for water at the nearest cafe led me back to The Olive Tree, ran by Jenine and Tina. I re-introduced myself as “that bedraggled fool from yesterday”. They knew who I was. As a token of my appreciation I ordered a BLT breakfast and a coffee to start the day, making sure I left a tip.

The sun just didn’t want to shine, nor the clouds want to move but blue sky could be seen in every direction other the perfect island-sized cloud overhead. And the winds had picked up. In case you’d forgotten Kali Strata is a walkway up the side of a hill from the harbour up to the ‘old town’. Another description would be wind tunnel. Even Jenine and Tina were concerned when a particularly large gust blew something over, causing glass to smash. It turned out to be the the scooter belonging to the recycling guy who collects the (staggering amount of) empty beer bottles.

Not distracted by the winds nor the cloud I set off down the steps where several angles and interesting scenes presented themselves. Brand spanking newly decorated houses stood beside ancient ruins and crumbling walls, graffiti spray painted onto old buildings, stairway after stairway of contrasting life and culture. For a change I decided against taking lots of photos, instead opting for sunlit versions perhaps the next day or later in the week. Today went from being a photography day to more of a location-scouting day.

And so I just kept walking. I got to the harbour and crossed the Kantirimi bridge, walking past the many sponge shops. Interestingly, Ian informed us on the walk yesterday that although the ancient trades of Symi were sponge diving and boat building, neither exist today. All of the sponges sold on Symi likely came from Florida. Which is a sham(e). Carrying on past the clock tower (every village needs a clock tower) I followed the road along the coastline, passing the relatively empty shingle beach and kept walking. I was told there was another small village called Emporios with a beach much further round the island, and with my feet set on walking I was determined to try and get there.

Symi Panoramic

Once out passed the shingle beach of Symi there isn’t much to see. On your right is a sheer drop down into the clear blue sea, and to the left is a desolate scene of red and silver rock taken straight out of any documentary about the Moon or Mars. I felt like the only person on the island the further round I walked, meeting hardly a soul along the way (apart from the old guy driving the colourful tourist toy train who drove past twice, waving toward me like I was some fairground attraction).

An eternity later it became apparent that walking further was almost pointless. I had reached a turning point. A literal one at that. Cars, busses, and tiny toy trains must circle in this vast concrete area before heading back along the desolate road. I could see sugar cube dwellings dotted along the cove at the next turning at Emporios, but by that point nothing inside me felt the need to see them up close. By day three on Symi, if you’ve seen one dwelling you’ve seen them all. Beach or otherwise, I wasn’t prepared to venture further by foot. Not to mention my feet had managed to push the insoles of my boots up my ankles.

Before heading back I took the opportunity to snap this JCB perched by the edge of the cliff, set against the lunar landscape. Random indeed.

Lunar JCB

Before I knew it, several hours had passed by whilst walking. It was 3pm and a lot of the shops and restaurants back in Symi were closing. I continued back and popped in to the Dolphin, a pizza place I ate at yesterday (sucker). The trustworthy owner took my order and closed up shop around me. Other customers were turned away, whereas I was left to dine alone in his empty establishment. Strange but true.

And that was pretty much the end of the day! The setting sun turned the clouds pink and purple at around 6.30pm. Unfortunately the sun sets on the other side of the island, so there won’t be any spectacular sunset photos from me. On the other hand, sunrise is sure to be mind blowing. I plan on spending a late evening in the harbour so I can get some night shots of the area.

Having checked the weather (wifi suddenly appeared in the apartment!) it was due to be overcast today with 80% chance of thunder. The rest of the week supposed to be high’s of 26 degrees with little cloud.

We didn’t have thunder, but around 8pm we definitely had beautiful pink lightning to the North every few minutes:

Symi Lightning

This was a long exposure shot taken in complete darkness to try and capture a lightning bolt. Took me a few attempts to get the lightning!


* A fellow visitor in the apartment above told me the early morning hooting was likely from a large ferry from Athens that rarely visits Symi. The huge one I saw had “Blue Star” written on it. The bell tolls were likely linked to the arrival and departure of the ferry as they rang out again at 4pm.

** Also, I counted the steps I took from the marina to the apartment. 358, +/-20 for my photography distractions.

A Symi Holiday: Day 2

Day one on Symi was a waste, to say the least. I could have made better use of the hours left in the day other than falling asleep. Arriving at 9.30am and sleeping the entire day is worth a slap in the face. It’s fair to say half a days worth of traversing the skies above the Balearic and Aegean seas before sailing the Dodecanese islands would take it out of you.

Still, a waste is a waste.

Day two began with a startled awakening. I did that thing where you sit up with your eyes open wide and your brain has no idea where you are. It took a few seconds to realise that the heat and bright sunshine streaming through the window meant I certainly wasn’t in the UK. Ian, who met me at the dock (not a euphemism), mentioned a walking tour on Tuesday morning, and it made sense for me to spend some time learning about the place I’d be staying for the next two weeks. So off I went to the meeting place.

What immediately struck me when I left the apartment was that I had no idea where I was. Arriving was such a blur and I  remembered very little between getting off the catamaran and falling asleep in the apartment. I could have literally been anywhere on this island. I started walking, vaguely remembering the various stairways and turnings between the apartment and the main street. Before long I was surrounded by… cats. Lots of them. Dozens in fact, like little furry hoodies. They had ASBO written all over them, purring deeply and pacing with one paw crossing the other as they paraded in a circle like a scene from some musical. One-eyed kittens stared at me with anger on their faces…

Cats of Symi

As cute as they can be, it was pretty clear these were wild cats. And potential monsters. There are signs dotted everywhere in both Greek and English asking people not to feed the cats. No wonder they look pissed off.

My timing appeared impeccable as I spotted Ian at the end of the street in front of me towards the meeting point. He was chatting to Neil from Symi Dream, who invited me to their last meet-and-greet wine session (free!) on Sunday. Something I added to my to-do list.

I was expecting a group of camera-clad tourists to be at the meeting point already, but there wasn’t. Just two other people bothered turning up. During Ian’s walk we discussed architecture on the island and the reasons for it. We touched upon the water supply, which is either imported via water boats or via the desalination plant. Water capacity on the island is less than 50% of what it can be, so using it sparingly is advised. The water boats which top-up the local tanks come and go less frequently than in the past thanks to the single desalination unit that still works on the island. The other unit, german built, exploded and burned to the ground a few years back allegedly due to “lack of servicing or improper use by locals”.

Ian mentioned the helipad which sticks out like a military sore thumb upon the mountainous region. If you’re seriously ill or injured the ambulance (not ‘an‘ ambulance, ‘the‘ ambulance) will whisk you up to the pad and await extraction to Rhodes. The helipad ‘fact’ is connected to the water supply ‘fact’ in this way: the helicopter used to land in a peculiar place, right down by the dock on the only wide section of road. It was a tight squeeze between the police station and the clock tower, but they managed it with precision (like our air ambulances do in the UK). Occasionally they still land there, depending on the injury of the person and whether the trip in a shoddy ambulance up a steep incline through mountainous terrain to the helipad is a good idea or not. Ian tells us that one fateful morning a lady with a potential neck injury was to be air lifted from the dock rather than the helipad. But the water boat arrived in it’s speedy fashion, and without thinking twice about their normal procedures steered towards the dock and ploughing straight into the perched chopper, sheering off it’s tail. Whether this is true or not is unknown.

But back to the water situation. Because it’s interesting. Water is stored in large containers somewhere in or around each dwelling. It’s pumped locally via electric pumps from your tank through your taps or shower. This brings us neatly to the loo situation. And it is a situation. In Greece you don’t flush loo paper down the pan. Oh no. You complete your actions and pop your used items into a bin. It’s an odd thing to get used to but it’s done this way, yet again, because of the water supply. I’ve read elsewhere that locals do it this way as the sewage system gets blocked due to narrow drains. But Ian gave us another reason: Papier-mâché. Waste from the loo, or black water as it’s known, ferments the local trees and gardens. Yes, you read that right. Another area built somewhere locally to each dwelling contains all your unmentionables which eventually liquify and penetrate a single drywall in the structure which then feeds the trees and plants leading downhill. Loo paper doesn’t biodegrade and blocks the drywall, stopping the process.

Here’s my chance to state why greek wine tastes like shit.

The walk continued uphill through the long narrow lanes of the old ancient town where hand-chiseled stone buildings lay in ruin, waiting for owners through some miracle. Property ownership is a big thing in Greece, and if someone comes forward with documentation suggesting long lost relatives of Symi own a building, it is handed over to them. Ruins lay in complete disrepair, sometimes surrounded by beautifully bright renovated homes. And that’s just the way it is.

Symi has very much an unorthodox Christian following. With a population of only 2’500 (90% less than during the war) it seems incredible to have so many monasteries, churches and chapels. There are purportedly over 300. And on our walk we visited at least four or the larger ones, one of which is perched high up overlooking everyhwhere else on the island.

A View of Symi

This is the view I had seen online from previous visitors, though they didn’t mention they had walked for hours and were actually on the grounds of a church when they snapped their version.

We had started our walk-and-talk just after 9am. Four hours later we had reached the end, somewhere high up the terrain. Meaning it was literally all down hill from there. I expected to be coated in sweat with aching legs but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought. Back at the meeting point we said our goodbyes and I headed downwards into the town, where from high up appeared to be the heart and soul of Symi. Various tourist couples and families pottered around the sponge shops occasionally hopping on and off anchored yachts. Some clearly from the UK, others spoke German and Dutch.

What struck me about the harbour is just how clear the waters are. And I literally mean crystal clear. I’ve never seen anything like it, with the bobbing hulls of boats and yachts clearly visible, with shoals of tiny blue fish mingling around the surface.

Previously I mentioned the walk and how my legs and body were ‘okay’ with it. This is where things go wrong. The walk back to the apartment was via the Kali Strata, translated means “the good way/route/steps”. Hundreds of steps. Coming down was fine. Going back up in direct sunlight was not. Several times I had to stop and sit in shadow, attempting to catch my breath. When I eventually recognised the route back, several hundred steps on, I was in dire straits marching into the first available shop and grabbing bottles of water from their fridge. I think the owners were slightly startled by my demeanour, something I hope to resolve when I deliberately go back there for breakfast!

Although technically this was day two, I’m counting this as my day one. Knowing I had plenty of time left, I didn’t take out my big camera nor was I in a hurry to take photos. I merely snapped away instagram images on my iPhone for the purposes of FaceBook (probably clocking up massive data costs for when I get home).

On Wednesday, the photography starts.

A Symi Holiday: Day 1

Symi is a small Greek island with a population less than 2’500, is part of the Greek Dodecanese island chain and remains part of Greece, although it’s closest neighbouring land is Turkey.

Why go on holiday to Symi? Normally I do things that other people don’t tend to do. Dog sledding in the arctic circle, desert trekking across Egypt or tall ship sailing around the south of Britain to name but a few. These are things I can appreciate as a single traveler. Symi was brought to my attention when I was looking for an isolated place with few people around where I could walk for days with my camera, unwind and eventually leave with a clearer mindset. It was a recommendation from someone who had been many years previous with his kids. I had a look online, considered the prices, and without much other thought went ahead and started communication with a tour operator on the island to organise accommodation.

This is my diary of the adventure.

I knew travelling to Symi wasn’t going to be too much of a problem. Having lived in London since 2001 I’ve known to sort travel in advance and have back-up plans. Fly Heathrow to Athens, fly Athens to Rhodes, sail Rhodes to Symi. I made sure there was plenty of time between flights and so forth, and brought books to fill the time.

Inherit The Stars

Thankfully, it was as easy as that and there weren’t any problems or delays apart from the one hour wait in Rhodes for the catamaran to leave for the island.

Dodecanese Seaway catamaran

I had literally been up 24 hours when I arrived in Rhodes and my body was less than willing to appreciate the bright sunshine or the temperature of Greece. Stepping off the catamaran I was met by Ian holding up a  ‘Symi Visitor’ sign, the company I had organised the trip with. Ian had been living on Symi since 1995 and so knew a great deal about the locals, the area and the history. I was hurried through the departing crowd into a taxi which would take me to my accommodation, with Ian following behind on a scooter.

Ian kindly led me to the apartment and left me with a bottle of water, a carton of orange juice and a small bottle of white wine. Certainly one of the nicer greetings I’ve had in my time. Unfortunately for me I was so shattered from the travel I had barely unpacked my bags before I fell asleep in the apartment at about 11am, my body failing to wake again till late that evening. When I did eventually wake in this dark and unknown place, I peered outside at the stars above the island and listened to the chirping of the crickets before unpacking the rest of my bags.

Part of me appreciated where I was. The other half of me disagreed wholeheartedly and was wishing it was somewhere else (my usual response to being anywhere other than my own flat).