Friday, June 09, 2017

Rodos log 5: Symi

Today we upped anchor and sailed to Symi, an island 41 km north-northwest from Rhodes. Originally I had considered going there by commercial ferry but changed my mind and booked a trip with a tour operator. This would save hassle - especially as we would be picked up and returned to our regular pickup point at the Blue Sky hotel - but we also received the services of a tour guide, who explained to us no small amount of material.

The wiki article states that the island has become a haven for tourists from abroad, especially British and Italians, and is now the permanent home of about 120 non-Greek residents, some 50 of whom are British. The influx of tourists has led to the restoration of a great number of homes (many of which were destroyed during World War II); these restorations, by law, have to conform to "guidelines laid down by the Greek culture ministry's Archaeological Service." Between 1998 and 2006, it is estimated that the price of a "ruin" on Symi increased five-fold. The growing population of British and other expatriates has led to demographic as well as political changes, since EU citizens are allowed to vote in local elections and have attempted to exert influence on the island's politics. Opinions on whether this is a sign of growing integration differ. Our guide told a slightly different story: there is no new building, and as several rich Americans (including George Bush Jnr, if my ears heard correctly) have bought houses, housing prices have risen dramatically, making it very difficult for many locals to afford to live in Symi anymore. Apparently the average age of the town in 55! There are many houses which are unoccupied, due to the high cost of living.

There is a statue in the harbour, which according to our guide, is a tribute to a boy who in the 1950s tried to kill a shark who entered the harbour. This episode did not go well for the boy, and over-reacting, the government prohibited fishing. This was the major source of income for the island in those days, so the prohibition was very serious. The ban might have been expected to last a year or two, but apparently it lasted for 25 years, during which the skill of fishing had almost completely been lost.

As a result, the economy of the island was ruined, and now the only real source of income is tourism. In common with many Greek islands, there is no fresh water available on the island, meaning that almost all forms of agriculture are out. Aside from tourism, the islanders make some money from sponges and spices.

The harbour area is seriously gorgeous and the pictures don't really do justice: the italianate facades are beautiful. But aligned with this beauty is the sad story of the economy and the demographics - a population of 25,000 has dwindled to 2,500 in the summer, and virtually zero in the winter. There is one school with 250 pupils, from grades 1 to 12; as there are very few teachers, it often happens that a class is attended by 8 year olds along with 15 year olds.

After spending several hours in the eponymous town (and being gouged by the restaurant where we ate - the Aris Tavern), we set sail for the opposite end of the island in order to visit the Panormitis Monastery. For some reason, our guide disappeared (I saw him disembark but none of the English speakers found him on the promenade), so I don't know anything about this area. Again, there is a natural harbour, although less closed than the main one. The non-appearance of the guide had one advantage: I could go into the monastery and take pictures before anyone else. We were allocated an hour at this stop, although I was back on the boat after about 20 minutes.

From there, it was sailing back to Rhodos and a minibus to take us home. Very strong winds were blowing, which caused the waves to be very agitated on the west coast by the Blue Sky hotel: no evening swimming. We normally open windows in our little flat in order to allow ventilation and cooling from three directions, but the strong winds prevent this tonight - I could barely close the bathroom door because of the wind. I hope that tomorrow will be back to normal.

A very strong recommendation for this trip!

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