Things Are Not Always What They Symi-Island Hopping in the Dodecanese

After spending one eventful morning embroiled in the entrails of Piraeus port being unable to locate the Hydra ferry, I swore never again to arrive at a port without doing my homework properly. I was also very glad that Duolingo did find it logical to teach me the Greek for ‘where is the boat to x’ quite early on in the course. Finding the ferry to Symi in Rhodos port would therefore be a piece of cake. Except, of course, it wasn’t. I hadn’t done my homework, and what’s the use of knowing some Greek if I refuse to talk to strangers even in languages I speak fluently.

To my excuse, I did already have a general idea on the setup of Rhodos port- we had, after all, arrived by boat from Turkey. But I was therefore familiar with the international, and not the domestic terminal. And as a further complication, the Mandraki marina, close to the old town, was dotted with boats offering day trips to Symi. But these were not the ferries we were looking for. We’d opted for the regular ferry service, whereas the various vessels that greeted us first were the kind of day trip solutions which involve a preset itinerary and swim stops in scenic settings. Not a bad idea per se, but with a high risk of annoying co-travelers and scary onboard music. A pass, for the time being, but where was the Dodekanisos Express. Much to our relief, we spotted her at a terminal close to Liberty Gate- the fear, at this point, had been that we’d need to walk along to the farthest tip of the port which would have made catching our 8 o’clock ferry somewhat challenging.

Ferry connections from Rhodes to Symi are run by Dodekanisos Seaways, with at least three connections each day during high season, but considerably less in off season, when some weekdays are skipped altogether. Besides Symi town, you can also opt to sail directly to Panormitis monastery, which is at the opposite end of the island- by car it’s roughly a half an hour drive, or a solid four hour trek on foot. We skipped Panormitis and settled for a visit to Symi town and its closest beach.

You may know Symi even before knowing Symi: it’s one of those colorful, tantalizingly picture perfect Greek port towns perched over a gulf with clear blue waters. Given the small size of the island (65 square kilometres), it was never a centre of Rhodos’ importance, but it has been constantly inhabited since ancient times. It pops up every now and then in classical culture: the island was known to be the home of the three Graces, and Syme, who lent her name to the island, was one of the nymphs. In the Iliad, Symi is the kingdom of Nireus, who fights the Trojan war on the Achaean side. Both the Knights Hospitaller and the Ottomans (who called the island Sömbeki) used it as a vital waypoint for sea trade but its significance declined with the advent of steam powered shipping in the 19th Century. Most of the vividly colourful, neoclassic mansions of Symi town date back to the last glory days of the mid-19th Century. Once its trade importance waned, the economy became refocused on sponge fishing. Today, the main source of income is, of course, tourism and the town also boasts a large expat colony, which contributed to the renovation of many of the hillside mansions.

An early arrival into the small, well kept port gives you a glimpse into an idyllic, unhurried islander way of life. Coffee houses and bars stir, slowly and carefully, into the first activities of the morning. Locals walk dogs and push strollers on the fabulous seaside promenade. Greetings are exchanged, stalls are being put up, gradually packed with fluffy, golden sponges. A few leisure boats, some with Turkish flags, having come from the closest port at Datça, sway gently on the waves. Breakfasts of simple sandwiches and black coffees are had. All is not quite as it seems, though. This is merely the quiet before the storm- not a literal storm, as the sky stays impeccably blue all day, but the raucous hordes of day trippers who are soon being unleashed from the bellies of the beasts we’d seen early morning in Mandraki port, multiplied with those arriving from the Turkish coast. Since they all disembark at around the same time, the seaside road soon becomes unfit for purpose. Guides yelp in a cacophony of languages, the slow and the lazy are being scolded for falling behind, mixing in with foreign groups, piling chaos upon chaos. The show must go on. Here is a beautiful blue staircase. A beautiful white house. A traditional sponge shop. The statue of a waiflike, but heroic, diver. Yet another church in case you forgot you were in Greece. Phones and tablets are lifted, selfie sticks unleashed, the inevitable, unbearable old bore with an expensive camera self righteously stomps ahead to take a good shot, because he deserves it, and ruins everybody else’s. We dash into quieter side streets and explore the lower town. Should your stay be longer you can consider some excellent cardio on the stairs of the upper town, a visit to the fortress (Kastro), built by the Knights Hospitaller and the already mentioned trek to Panormitis Monastery, though something tells me that the day trippers won’t be far behind.

Many of Symi’s beaches are quite isolated and hard to get to, except by boat, so we decided that for the second half of our day we would settle with whatever was closest to town. The location goes by the unassuming name of ‘paralia’, Greek for beach, and is about a ten minute walk from the port. The waters are blue and clear, but the beach is on the rocky side. Sunbeds and sunshades are available for rent, and then there’s the modestly named Paradise Nos Beach Bar. Online reviews of the restaurant are a mixed bunch, but I can’t lodge any complaints about my fish patties, which were excellent, though perhaps the price of a pint of tepid Alfa was a bit steep.

Actually, I have one complaint about the fish patties. I couldn’t finish them, through no fault of their own. The glitch in the matrix came from the site of Dodekanisos Seaways, which staunchly showed that no tickets were available for that afternoon’s return leg to Rhodos, which seemed as fishy as my patties. As per one of the restaurant staff, it was highly unlikely that there would be no tickets left, since the return leg was serviced by the larger, if somewhat slower Panagia Skiadeni. But another waiter suddenly seemed conflicted. Maybe there wasn’t a ship returning so late after all?  There was, however, an agreement that we should dash to the port immediately and check out the status quo, so we left our half eaten meals, grabbed the beach towels and made hastily for the port.

Symi is not the worst place in the world to be stuck, all things considered, and one night away from the infamy of the Parthenon Hotel seemed almost enticing but I just prefer things to go, largely, according to plan, and the plan was to be in Rhodos that evening. The Panagia Skiadeni was in the port, alright, and seemed to have plenty of room. The ticket office was, however, not yet open. This arrangement saddened me, thinking of the lonely, abandoned patties that I could have peacefully eaten, but the rest of the party made good use of their time, and engaged in the very Symi kind of activity of buying sponges. At least we made the day of the young lady in charge of the ticket office- rarely had she been greeted by such a raucous and delighted party upon arrival. The whole ticketing system was indeed down, which had never happened before, but there would be tickets, she reassured us. And eventually, there were tickets, somewhere in the cloud, at least, but they would have to be physically produced. Our fate was thus dependent on the most unreliable and capricious device known to humanity. A printer. But luck was on our side and the white contraption came alive in a concert of creaks and crackles. Soon enough, we could bid farewell to Symi town, resplendent in the afternoon sun, as the Panagia Skiadeni lumbered out from the port. A charming, if brief, encounter.

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