Symi Island

Symi 24km north of Rhodes is a barren and rocky island. Once famous for its sponge diving and ship building, making up to 500 ships a year. It was in the 17 th century the third richest island in the region. The Italian occupation and the beginning of steam ships stopped further expansion on the island, and the wealth and population declined. The islands geography consists of sheltered coves, steep cliffs and a rocky landscape. Symi is a popular day trip for tourists from Rhodes . The beaches on the island, can easily be reached on foot, bus or boat. The best beach for children is at Agios Nikolaos, most of the beaches have sun beds and parasols to rent.

The island of Symi has a friendly feeling about it. How many other islands print up a free booklet in English, with a warm letter of welcome from the mayor, proclaiming, ‘Our intention is to inform our visitors not only on the sights that Symi has to present, but also to give the visitor all the information necessary for a pleasant stay … Thank you for choosing Symi for your holidays … The mayor and the town council are always at your disposal.

Author I.M. Chatziphotis called Symi ‘a neoclassical beauty blanketed by the blue sky.’ I can second that! Visitors of all sorts are drawn to Symi, some being Symiot expatriates. Symi is ideal for yachties as well as hikers – with something for everyone.

If you’re near the island’s port (which is the town of Yialos) about 11 a.m. and see the hundreds of day-trippers rushing off the catamaran from Rhodes, you might get the impression most visitors to the island don‘t stay too long. True, the day-trippers will be back on the boat inside of five hours, after having explored the footpath bridge and maybe having attempted either of the two huge stairpaths (500 steps, count them), the Kali Strata or the Katarraktes.

You’ll find all necessities on the island. There are two banks and the post office is next to the police station.

Be sure to stop by the office of The Symi Visitor, the monthly newspaper, which is in both Greek and English. Copies are free (paid for by advertising) and each issue contain a handy tourist map. They are friendly and can offer tips for visitors. Their comprehensive Website is symivisitor.com.

History of Symi

In ancient times, Symi was known by other names, but its present one comes from the mythological nymph Symi, who married Posidon and brought Ithonios to life (who became one of the island‘s first inhabitants). Homer mentioned Symi in the Heliade for Symi‘s participation in the Trojan War – with three ships.

Despite being conquered and occupied throughout the years, Symiots kept many “special privileges“ (such as the freedom of religious expression and speech) by gifts offered to sultans or other dignitaries. Prosperity in shipping and commerce allowed the Symiots to later support the national war of independence from the Turks. In the 1920s, the sponge blight devastated the island‘s economy and right on the heels of that was World War II. Symi shares a common history with many islands in the Dodecanese chain, changing hands from the Turks to Italians, English and Germans.

Nowadays Symi has about 2500 inhabitants – plus quite a number of large turtles who seem to do nothing but cross the roadways back and forth. Hikers along the way often set them safely to the side of the pavement.

Symi is steeped in culture. It was Easter of 1995 when the mayor of Symi invited a piano soloist to give a recital to Symiots.

“Buy a piano and I will play,“ replied Sevasti Hatzistati. And thus began the international Symi Festival, held every July to September. It features not only musical talent, but performances by famous stage and film personalities.

How to get around

There are several options of getting around the island without relying only on your feet. You can find car and motorbike rentals. Symi has six taxis and a green mini-bus that operates hourly until 11 p.m. (60 cents is the standard fare).

Regions to visit

Panormitis Bay, not to miss, is near the southern tip of the island. Luckily, we had bought a tourist map at a kiosk (for 1 euro). Panormitis Monastery is right on the water.

 

Pilgrims are offered free food (haddock) with wine, as well as a place to stay at no cost. The monastery has an inn attached and summers rooms (called cells) are full of tourists, mostly from Greece. There are dozens of large rooms set aside for families (about 10 euro “donation“ per family). School groups visit in other seasons.

Visitors and overnight guests are reminded by signs in Greek and English that they must dress appropriately. Courtesy clothing may be borrowed. The complex has a pebbled courtyard, a gallery, as well as a Byzantine Museum and a Folklore Museum (entry is 1.50 euro, covering both). Other on-site facilities include a mini market, a taverna, a bakery and a tiny beach. Cars are parked outside the gates and the area has adequate space for walking or for children to play.

Of particular note is the marble (baroque-rococo) bell tower, which is a copy of the one standing over the Agia Triada Monastery in Sagorsk, outside Moscow. A manuscript of 1460 makes mention of the monastery. A Russian monk, Barsky, visited Panormitis Monastery at some time between 1723 and 1747. He wrote that at ‘the beautiful and quiet location‘ there is a ‘miracle-working icon of Archangel Michael covered all in silver and gold.‘

In a folk legend, a pious woman was digging in her field in Panormo and, under a mastic tree, came upon an old icon of the Archangel Michael. She took it home and placed it upon her iconostasis, where a candle burned day and night. The next day the little icon had disappeared. The woman found it under the same tree. Again, she took it home, but it disappeared once more. She realized the archangel did not wish to stay in her home and the archangel came to her in a dream and stated his wish to be in Panormo.

The woman‘s confessor instructed her to build a chapel at the site of the mastic tree – which she did. Today the monastery is ruled by a trusteeship of common people who are appointed by the Bishop of Rhodes.

Sightseeing

Even if you can‘t manage the seemingly endless stairpaths in Yialos, you can get close enough to some of the neoclassical homes to appreciate the homogeneity of the architectural style. My guess is you’ll be so impressed, you’ll run out of film or batteries.

 

We opted for a scooter rental and as soon as the day-trippers swarmed off the Symi II, off we went on our 50 cc Peugeot. The windmills atop the hill were our first destination. Some have been renovated as living quarters and are inhabited. The main roadway has benches along the way so you always have a handy resting place, picnic spot or photo stop opportunity.

Within minutes we parked to hike to the Drakos Castle and Drakos Fortification. This tiny village (Horio), used to have 25,000 inhabitants a century ago, but now has only a fraction. It‘s worth a visit to see the pebbled courtyards and churches.

Symi Town (Galios)

Symi Townis perhaps one of the most striking in Greece, built up around the harbour with Neo-Classical mansions with fine facades, (Sad to say but many of them are neglected or derelict) the town is divided into two parts, the harbour Galios and Chorio the upper town. The Maritime Museum has displays of the islands once proud maritime history. Galios and Chorio are linked by 375 marble steps. A road leads to the top, for those who prefer a less strenuous way up. The Symi Museum in the Chorio is difficult to find, as the signs are misleading, it has on display costumes and other traditional items plus artefacts from the region. The Chorio is a maze of winding lanes with older houses from the 18 th century. The castle of the Knights of St. John with the church of Megali Panagia inside dominates the town.

Moni Taxiarchi

Moni Taxiarchi Michail Panormiti situated on the Panormitis Bay , is the number one attraction on Symi. This monastery is a place of pilgrimage for Greek sailors, with its white painted buildings dating from the 18 th century along the shoreline, though an older monastery was built here in the 5 th century. The monastery has a famous icon of Archangel Michael, the island patron saint and the guardian of sailors. The icon has on several occasions, been removed from Galios, but mysteriously has kept returning to the Panormitis, eventually a monastery was erected here. According to legend, if you ask a favour from Archangel Michael, you must promise to give something in return. As a result, the inside of the church there is an array of gifts given by devout pilgrims, some of these gifts are model ships made from gold and silver. The monastery is filled with wonderful paintings, carvings and icons depicting saints. Another item of interest is bottles with prayers inside, thrown by sailors into some far distant sea, and washed up mysteriously onto the shoreline of the monastery. There is a memorial to a former abbot, two monks and two teachers, who in 1944, were executed for running a spy radio for the British commandoes. The monastery gets hoards of day-trippers from Rhodes , so if you want to enjoy it in peace and quiet it is best to wait until they have gone.

Where to stay

Symi has no highrise hotel complexes, as on some of the islands. Some of the island‘s finer hotels are situated in restored mansions and are A class – naturally with corresponding A-class pricing.

Best bet is the en-suite rooms (with seaview balconies) above the Restaurant Les Caterinettes.

Yialos Tours is where we booked our accommodations (simple double room in an unmarked building, 35 euro).

Where to eat

 

My recommendations for breakfast:
Right at the footbridge, Symi‘s Coffee Corner is usually packed. Next door to it is the White House, with a varied breakfast menu.

 

My recommendations for lunch/dinner:
Restaurant Les Caterinettes: This menu offers a dozen veggie dishes and delicious ice cream. The special of the day when I ate there was fresh Symi goat (9.80 euro).

The site is historic, being where the protocol of the integration of the Dodecanese islands to the Greek state was signed (March 8, 1948). Be aware tourists barge in to take photos of the plaque, so ask to be seated as far away from it as possible.
Manos Fish Restaurant: An island favorite, the huge selection is a bit overwhelming and most items are grilled: Oysters, mussels, clams, prawns, lobster, crayfish, sea bass, octopus, kalamari, tiny shrimp, fish soup of the day and mixed fish platters.

Nightlife

Fast food joints stay open until the wee hours. Locals hang out in cafes lining the harbor. There is also an evening movie. You‘ll find the cinema schedules taped to bus stops. Most days the film starts at 6 p.m., except Sunday is 8 p.m. Some of the presentations are in English language.

Where to swim

The 11 beaches are either pebbles or shingles, none being sandy. Some are accessible only via water taxi (being located on nearby islets).

Connections with other islands

There is no airport. Ferries go to/from Rhodes and Kos and catamarans and hydrofoils go to/from Rhodes.

Found along the harbour: For day trips to Turkey (bring your passport), island roundabouts, beach taxis or weekly barbecue parties, sign up and pay at the tables set up near the various excursion boats.

Useful Information

Local Products

Available at supermarkets and tourist shops:

  1. Symi honey with thyme
  2. Herbs – such as oregano, mountain tea and sage

Low Season Visits

Many hotels and restaurants do close during October, but not all shut down for winter.

Facilities for the Disabled

Only the immediate harbor area is wheelchair-accessible. Other places could be difficult.

Banks & ATMs

There are two banks, but only Alpha Credit Bank has a cash dispenser. The National Bank is the other. Hours for both banks are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The post office is next to the police station and is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Tour offices

– Yialos Tours
This is where I booked accommodations (double room, 35 euro) and I found friendly service. They also charter yachts for small excursion groups.
– Symi Tours
This is where you book ferries (DANE Line), hydrofoils and ANES cataramans. There are some day excursions on offer as well.

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