Symi: Ancient place of pilgrimage

By Lois Green

The tiny Greek island of Symi remains steeped in tradition, discovers Lois Green.

Fisherman mend nets from their blue and white wooden caiques in Symi's harbour. Photo / Lois Green
Fisherman mend nets from their blue and white wooden caiques in Symi's harbour. Photo / Lois Green

Elderly Greek women sit in the doorways of the narrow lanes stitching lace cloths. Terracotta flower pots and purple bougainvillea add a splash of colour to the whitewashed walls and window frames.

In the shaded squares tiled with black and white pebble mosaics, stray cats sleep outside souvenir shops stacked with T-shirts, painted plates, lacework and imported sponges.

This is the Greek island of Symi, accessible only by boat and located in the Dodecanese group within sight of the Turkish coast.

Formerly an island of ship builders and sponge divers, Symi now attracts artists, writers and photographers who find inspiration in its rugged beauty.

Sailing into the pretty harbour of Yialos on the daily ferry from Rhodes is a breathtaking experience. Tiers of pastel-painted Neoclassical houses with wrought iron balconies cling to the hillsides, forming a natural amphitheatre above the port.

The unique architectural style of these restored mansions is the result of strict conservation laws.

For the new arrival the perfect start is breakfast in a cafe along the waterfront. Cafe Eva serves strong Greek coffee and freshly baked croissants and is an ideal spot to watch the locals: fishermen selling fresh fish from blue and white wooden caiques or mending nets ready for the next catch.

Nearby is the Maritime Museum with a fascinating collection of model ships, old maps and compasses that reflect Symi's nautical history.

High above the port is the town of Horio, a village almost untouched by tourism. It can be reached on foot up 357 steep stone steps or you can catch the bus which chugs wearily up the road from the port, picking up passengers and livestock on the way.

At Horio is the Symi Archaeological Museum, housed in an old Italian-style villa. It contains a collection of Hellenic and Roman sculptures, Byzantine icons and medieval manuscripts.

Another 200 steps up the hill is the Knight's Castle, with spectacular views down to the port below. Surrounded by a fortified wall, it was originally built by the Knights of St John in the 14th century.

Walking tracks and stone staircases snake up the hillside, leading to abandoned windmills, deserted villas and the Symi Gallery, which has a display of local handcrafts and artworks.

We heard an ex-pat Briton bought the original Postman's house from a 94-year-old who could no longer navigate the 82 steps from the port. Apparently, Symi has a reputation for longevity, with more centenarians, proportionately, than anywhere else in the world.

There are also tracks along the cliffs to secluded coves, such as Saint Nicholas Beach, with clear turquoise water and pebble strand, only accessible by water taxi or on foot along a rocky track.

In the evening, after the charter yachts have docked at the quay, the little port comes alive. Along the waterfront, lights twinkle and music pumps from bars and tavernas where you can try the local wine and specialities such as grilled octopus and Symi shrimps.

For the ultimate dining experience, climb the stone staircase to Milos Petra, a 200-year-old flour mill converted into a restaurant.

Symi's most famous attraction is the Panormitis Monastery, on a stunning beach site, where the ferry from Rhodes makes a 20-minute stop. Built in the 18th century with a mock Baroque bell tower and dedicated to the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of sailors, this Greek Orthodox monastery is a popular place of pilgrimage.

But, really, the whole island is a place of pilgrimage, and a Unesco World Heritage site, for those wanting a taste of traditional Greece.


Getting there: Excursion Ferries to Symi leave daily from Mandraki Harbour, Rhodes. The trip takes three hours.

Where to stay: Try the family-run pension Hotel Maria right beside the church tower. Alternatively, the Panormitis Monastery offers simple rooms with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. Note that credit cards are not widely accepted on Symi.

Further information: See

- NZ Herald

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