I had one of those magical moments that I can’t really put into words.
As travelers we occasionally experience these moments of stunned wonderment. Marco Polo must have had his share when he gazed upon the magnificent splendor of 13th Century Hangzhou and Beijing. Most seasoned travelers I’ve met can recall at least a few of these instances. Off the top of my head I can vividly remember two:
the first time upon emerging out of the Batthyany Square metro station in Budapest and coming face-to-face with the dwarfing Orszaghaz across the Danube in gleaming white, and the second time on a boat slowly sailing into the small harbor on Symi.
I was breathless and speechless. As our touring boat sailed into the naturally narrow and steep harbor of Symi, we became surrounded on three sides by cascading layers of pastel-colored, neoclassical facades. The sheer beauty of the panorama and our closeness to these buildings
— the harbor was so narrow that these toy-like houses all seemed within arm’s reach — simply overpowered my sense of aesthetics.
No photo that I took could remotely do justice to that stunning beauty. While there were other spectacular sights on our trip through Greece from north to south — Santorini’s caldera and the cliff-top monasteries of Meteora spring to mind – our entrance into this little-known island of Symi became my favorite of all.
Symi is the most underrated among the Greek Islands, and to this day I still can’t understand why it isn’t on more tourist itineraries.
While transportation options may be limited at times, it’s only 60 to 90 minutes by ferry from the popular destination of Rhodes (Rodos) and is well within day-trip distance.
And on top of regularly scheduled ferries, smaller tour companies in Rhodes operate daily boat tours to Symi in peak season.
In fact it was one of those pleasure boats that transported us to/from Rhodes, setting out on a day trip to the Panormiti Monastery (located on the far end of the island of Symi) and stopping at the harbor of Symi. We just opted to complete the return leg on a different date. While the trip was unnecessarily long, starting out at 10:00 and finally arriving at Symi harbor at 14:00, it did offer a tour of the remote monastery and also served as a cruise of the Turkish coastline along the Datca peninsula. But that entry into Symi harbor was what we’ve waited for all along.
Staged on the harbor’s magnificent backdrop isn’t your typical whitewashed, cubist Cycladic architecture that most foreigners have come to expect of Greek Islands. Over the past 700 years this island has changed hands through the Knights of St John to the Ottomans to the Italians, before finally returning to the Greeks only a couple of generations ago. Today the stately assembly of old mansions above the port has retained that refined Italianate feel, as if these seas were somehow an extension of Lago di Garda.
Most of these buildings date originally from Symi’s heyday as a major player in the in the 19th Century sponge trade, and gradually dilapidated over the next hundred years during the island’s decline. It wasn’t until the late 1990s when Symi was reborn as a tourist attraction and many of the ruined shells of old houses were refurbished, mostly by affluent outsiders wishing to own a piece of heaven.
While its highly photogenic harbor front greets the majority of visitors, the real Symi hides further uphill in the main settlement of Horio, a quiet town of well-kept neoclassical houses along a wide cobblestone path. This is just the kind of place where children chase the soccer ball around the town square while their grandpas gather around the backgammon table next to the village store. The arrival of modern tourism hasn’t yet touched this little corner of authentic Greece.
What preserves the town’s authenticity from the onslaught of day-trippers from Rhodes is its geography — the path into Horio is a gruelingly steep 350-step flight of stairs known as the Kali Strata. It would take us 45 minutes to make our way to the top, with stops to explore the shops and side alleys along the route. The colorful entrance to the stairs was well-marked, at least in Greek
Wide terraces along the stairs provide the perfect spot for a coffee on lazy afternoons. The steepness of the Kali Strata translates well to lovely views of the harbor, and of the rest of the island and its surroundings. The land in the distance background was actually the Turkish coast of Datca peninsula.
The further we climbed along the Kali Strata, the more atmospheric the scenery became until we reached an area of narrow paths meandering through what appeared to be medieval-age stone houses and Byzantine arches. But far from deteriorating into an archeological ruin like Mystras, many of the houses were still inhabited by local villagers, as they probably have been for centuries past.
Perched at the very top of the stairs was the town of Horio, a ruggedly scenic locale flanked by a row of abandoned windmills and the ruins of an old Venetian fortress. As the setting sun cast long shadows behind the church towers, it was time for an early dinner on the terrace of the village taverna. Just the perfect way to round out a day.
To me Symi is such a magical place, so alluring that I can see myself settling down in one of these colorful houses along the harbor and retiring here some day. This is one of the few destinations in the world that I wouldn’t mind revisiting year after year … if only I live and work in Europe. Hmm … maybe that’s an idea
Here’s the downside of Symi’s peaceful, pre-commercialized charm — this rare enclave of tranquility has been preserved only through the lack of transportation options. And in the upcoming years of Greek austerity things may get even more interesting.
For years the villagers of Symi have run a reliable daily service to Rhodes under the communal ferry company ANES Ferries, and this service may be renewed in the future. But at the time of writing (summer 2012) things just changed and the larger Dodekanisos Seaways has taken over the route and providing one or two sailings per day during peak season, all on fast catamaran-type boats. If only schedules were this reliable during our visit! Check the official ferry company sites for the latest details, as things are changing so fast in recent months that schedules tend to become outdated the moment they’re published.
And if you happen to just miss the scheduled ferries, do what we did and check around the boats at the Mandraki harbor on Rhodes. During the peak season there are at least two excursion boats per day taking day-trippers from Rhodes to Panormiti to Symi harbor and back. Our boat departed at 10:00, arrived at Panormiti at 11:30 and docking for an hour for pilgrims to pay tribute to the monastery, then taking a scenic cruise and arriving at Symi harbor at 14:00. Our one-way ticket cost 11.5 Euros per person, probably more expensive than the ferry but definitely a lifesaver after missing the ferry.
Once on the island, one can stay around the harbor or travel further afield by the hourly community bus. It’s hard to miss — a large, old green bus which runs the circular route up to the main town of Horio on the winding road and then down to the beachside village of Pedi before returning to the harbor. According to our host there are even a few taxis on the island, but we didn’t need to inquire.
Thankfully hotel chains do not yet exist on the island. While there are a couple of three star hotels along the harbor front, IMHO private guesthouses provide better value, afford realistic glimpses into the homes of the islanders, and probably will provide you with the locals’ suggestion for the best scenic spots and cheap authentic restaurants (as opposed to the hotel concierge convincing you to dine at their own restaurant).
Our guesthouse was just steps from the harbor, which I still think is the most picturesque part of the island. But the main town of Horio, an uphill climb of a few hundred steps from the harbor or 10 minutes by bus, offered a more peaceful environment among the 19th Century Italianesque mansions. Personally I still prefer the harbor for the abundance of photo-worthy spots as well as for ease of transportation, and I’ll write a proper review of our guesthouse in the next article.