Steve and I had a perfect two weeks in Greece for all the usual reasons one loves vacation: we lived a life different than the one we live in. We ate out for every meal; we had a different adventure every day; we saw breathtaking landscapes on an hour to hour basis; and we connected with strangers simply because they were away from home at the same time we were. Sometimes the connection is so easy and familiar, you end up feeling as if you’d been friends with these strangers all of your life.
On the day we refer to as “The Poseidon Adventure”, Steve and I sat down at a picnic table with Wendy and Stephen from England and Guido and Anna from Italy. We drank wine and ate home cooked barbecue and watched the goats and embarked on a lively discussion of the Donald Disaster. These Europeans, as well as every other person we spoke to Greece, were shocked so many Americans find him appealing. After lunch we reboarded the boat for more swimming in the perfect water around the island and at the end of the day email addresses were exchanged. This led to a flurry of emails between Wendy and me on the virtues of Symi. I asked her if she would write a blog for WS50 and she graciously agreed. Our experiences in Symi were different but our feelings were identical: pure love for this magical speck in the Aegean Sea.
This is Wendy’s adventures in Symi.
BY WENDY ATKINS
Being romantic types, and appreciating any opportunity for adult-only travel, my husband I embarked on a return trip to the beautiful Dodecanese island of Symi in September this year. We married ten years ago on September 23rd 2006 and spent an idyllic and mainly horizontal ten days there to celebrate the nuptials. Spring clean your suggestive mind, our horizontal posture was caused by nothing more than the sheer exhaustion from organising and taking starring roles in what felt like a
Don’t get me wrong, we love our lives in the United Kingdom, but as busy people with multiple occupations, (I am a budding stained glass artist and foster carer, caring, until recently for three teenagers; Stephen is a mooring hand at the port of Dover and a plumber and heating engineer), we value our time alone and Symi is the ideal place to relish that time.
Back in 2006, when my husband Stephen and I travelled on a package tour to Symi, the journey to our honeymoon island was relatively stress free. The easiest route from the UK to the island is by air from London Gatwick airport to Rhodes and then a 90-minute ferry to Symi. On a package tour the worries of transport between airport and port and any difficulties with transport or accommodation are borne by someone else and this is often enticing. However, on this occasion we took the plunge and travelled independently. We are not entirely new to this, having travelled independently extensively throughout Europe and having visited China, Thailand, and the Maldives in recent years.
So this year we booked our own flights, arranged ferry tickets and accommodation on Symi and the trip there was fairly lengthy for a trip within Europe. We flew from London Gatwick airport at 9am and arrived in our Symi penthouse (sic) around 10 hours later, tired from the trip, exhausted by the slog up the steps and hills to our apartment but absolutely elated by the night time view of Yialos (the harbour) from the dizzy heights of Chorio (the village).
The next morning we awoke to the reality of Greek accommodation, which is basic to say the least. In the haze of the last ten years we had forgotten about the “no flushing of toilet paper down the loo” rule and the bucket in the shower to water the plants (water being a precious commodity) and the concrete hard bed. However, all that faded when we flung back the blinds and the full beauty of this striking island hit us right between the eyes and we found ourselves in possibly the most stunning place in Greece…..again!
We were blessed with ten days on Symi and spent our time exploring far more than we did ten years ago…. Probably because of aforementioned exhaustion and general blissful, loving happiness. Some highlights and absolute must-do’s:
Hire a moped – if you have never ridden one, even better. Riding across the island from Yialos, where you may hire one, to Panormitis which is a monastery at the farthest side of the island is an absolute must-do. The hair-pin bends and sheer drops with no railings are a cheaper, longer and far more thrilling ride than any fairground can provide.
For a more `genuine’ Symi experience stay in Chorio, rather than the more touristic Yialos. If you can get past the desire for fluffy towels and turned down bedding in the evening, then living in a `down’ apartment i.e. the room at the bottom of a large Symi village house, then you will experience more of what it is like to live like a local. That said, anyone with mobility difficulties will struggle living in the village with the many hills and steps.
Take a boat trip around the island early in your trip – you will then see all of the beautiful little coves and beaches and select those that draw you most, to revisit. When selecting your beach do try to visit one with resident goats. No Symi experience is complete until you have grappled with a goat which insists on eating the contents of your beach bag. Take bets on who wins the battle, amongst your fellow beach dwellers, just to increase the fun.
Ride the bus – if you didn’t get enough of a thrill from the moped ride, then the bus will finish you off. On more than one occasion I was working out my exit from a window in the bus, should we actually topple into the harbour. Truly, the width of the road around the harbour barely fits a moped, let alone a bus.
Climb as high as you can, as high as your lungs will carry you, up the Kalli Strata to see the epic views of Chorio, Yialos and Pedi beach. You will not regret it. If you are lucky you will pass Dead Goat Alley, although hopefully the goat will be a thing of the past by then.
Eat, eat, eat, then eat some more. The food on Symi is a wonder to behold. It is mainly simple and mainly locally caught but it is also mainly fresh and mainly plentiful. It is difficult to recommend a good restaurant because we didn’t manage to find a poor one. From the `posh’ restaurants in the harbour, designed to draw the wealthier yachting clientele, to the takeaway kebab shop on the Kalli Strata in Chorio, we ate like Kings and Queens. We had the most stunning prawn risotto on the beach at Marathounda beach, an amazing Moussaka at Zoe’s Taverna, mouth-watering casseroled calamari and melt in the mouth lamb at the Windmill restaurant in Chorio (well worth a second visit), where we spent our 10th anniversary evening.
So, our ten-year-old and rose tinted view of Symi remains intact after our return visit. The island has hardly changed in that time and for that it is precious indeed. Will we return? We spoke to lots of people who return year on year and sometimes several times a year. We aren’t ruling out a return visit, but the world is such a big place and we are adding places to our bucket list faster than we are crossing them off so….. watch this space….. perhaps we will celebrate our 20th anniversary there. Next time we may need to stay in Yialos, far fewer steps!
We have been ensconced in post-vacation reorientation for about a week, having spent 16 days in Greece splitting time between Athens and the islands of Rhodes, Symi, and Kos. I am sorting my 3400-plus photos and reliving the trip. Each place was special, unique, and memorable and I do not want to play favorites, BUT there is something about Symi that is magical, as cliched as it sounds. I hope these photos provide a smidgen of its charm.
I am a meticulous planner and when it comes to trip planning all is laid out in charts and diagrams and self-made calendars months before we depart. I have friends that recoil at this sensibility because their joy is derived from cobbling together a flight and hotel to Italy in two days, but that’s not me. Half of travel pleasure is figuring out where to go and the other half is the research that goes into making what I think will be the perfect trip.
We debated and volleyed between Cyprus and Greece, and the Dodecanese Islands in Greece topped out. I scavenged my saved travel archives and bought books and read articles online and figured out the islands to visit and the ferry schedules to get there, taking into account beaches and weather and UNESCO World Heritage sights, and in June, three months before we left, I presented the itinerary to Steve:
*JFK to Athens; two-plus days to check out the Acropolis, the museums, Hadrian’s Arch and the Plaka.
*Onto an early morning hour flight to Rhodes to see Old Town and Byzantine fortifications and Anthony Quinn’s beach:.
*Board a ferry to Symi on Sept 26; a ferry to Kalymnos on Oct 1 (for my birthday); a ferry to Kos on Oct 3; and a short flight from Kos to Athens on October 7 and from Athens to JFK on October 8.
Seamless travel! Well-organized by a paramount control freak. And so it was — until the Dodecanese Seaways ferry broke down and we couldn’t seem to get off the island of Symi.
But when you have soaked it up and know that you need to get to the next island, the best laid plans become a minor mockery.
As we became friends with the booking agents at Symi Tours, we found out on Saturday evening, October 1, that there was no possible way to get to Kalymnos at all, but there would be a ferry from Symi to Kos at 7:30 a.m. on Monday, October 3. Although we were disappointed Kalymnos would be crossed off the danced card, we sallied off to dinner knowing we had one more day in paradise and would still be able to get to Kos Monday morning after a 50-minute ferry ride.
But ferries that run aground have their own schedule because when we went to buy our ticket the next day we learned the ferry from Symi to Kos was the same one as the ferry from Symi to Kalymnos and it was not repaired, and so it was impossible to get to Kos from Symi.
The only way we could move on was to return to Rhodes on the 7 a.m. ferry, arriving at the port at 8:30 and thereafter departing from Rhodes at 4:10 for the five-hour trip to Kos. Oh, and there was no storage at the port in Rhodes, so if we wanted to walkabout the walled fortifications of Old Town Rhodes, we’d be carting 22 kilos of luggage each:
Hmmm. Not quite what we had in mind.
We went into strategic planning mode. Should we rent a car and drive around? Should we contact our prior hotel and beg to store our luggage for a few hours or should we simply rent a cheap room by the port? Steve found a great deal at City Hotel Venus and there we parked the bags … … and off we went to explore the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes, housed in a 15th century hospice and housing artifacts dating from 1500BC. It is a wonderful place to wander between ferry arrivals and departures. Add in some fresh grilled fish and octopus and it turned out to be a mighty fine day as we boarded out ferry to Kos:
And of course I woke up the next day in Kos and stared out to sea, there was the Dodecanese Pride Superfast ferry back in action. I watched it pull out of the port in Kos. C’est la …
So I am 61.
And entering my seventh decade. (That sounds older than 61.) Steve and I are celebrating in Greece. Game plan was to take the 9:25 ferry from Symi to Kalymnos:
We arrived and asked at the closest kiosk: “Where do we board the ferry?”
Answer: “No ferry. Problem with ferry. Go to Symi Tours.”
We followed those directions. And saw this sign:
So off we went to Symi Tours, which confirmed that there is NO WAY to get to Kalymnos today. We could go to Rhodes at 4:00 and then maybe there will be a ferry, but nothing could be confirmed or promised.
We could not get back into our room because we were in a private house and locked the door on our way out. We have to find a room!
New plan: put on our bathing suits and take the water taxi to the beach in Symi, which as of this writing, we remained. And which is hardly a place in which to be bummed out while stranded in:
Remember planning for Memorial Day Weekend and the anticipation of a daily stream of succulent tomatoes and sweet corn, post-BBQ evenings sitting with the mosquitos, and pork roll sandwiches on the beach. We blinked and summer was over. It’s a cliche to speak about the speed with which it passed but somehow it’s too appropriate to ignore.
This afternoon, my friend Maura will board a Lufthansa jet bound for Beirut, Lebanon.
“I love you.” “I’ll miss you.” (“Go for it!”) has been written, spoken, texted and sent (accompanied by hugs, kisses, sing-alongs, tequila shots, dining-room dancing, swimming, and wine-soaked feasts), by those of us who were part of her two-month summer send-off.
“What!” “Wow.” “Whoa!” has also been, and continues to be, uttered by many upon hearing of Maura’s decision to spend a year, and possibly two, in what was formerly dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East,” and is now a headline and a five-hour trek away from the war in Syria.
Maura, who will be 57 in November, is heading to the Middle East to teach reading, writing, math, science, and social studies to 4th graders at The American Community School in Beirut. She estimates she is one of eight to 10 new teachers coming to the school, with about 25 percent of the faculty from the United States.
What drew her to Beirut (she also had offers from Guangzhou, China and Doha, Qatar) is that it is “lush, Mediterranean, and old, with so many cultures (55% are Muslim, 5% are Druze, and 40% are Christian) that live together in shaky harmony.”
She plans to ski Lebanon’s snow-capped mountains, wander the “farm-rich plateaus,” swim its gold-sanded beaches, and snorkel over ancient Phoenician shipwrecks. There will be hiking in ancient caves, monasteries and Roman ruins to explore; hummus, fattoush, and shawarma to eat.
And then there’s the kids.
“I anchor myself in all the nuttiness of the move in reminding myself that I love to teach because I really enjoy spending the day around children,” she said.
A recent by survey by The International Educator, a resource for educators who are looking to teach abroad, revealed that middle age is ripe for grabbing that global teaching opportunity, and “some school heads and recruiters are quite eager to hire older candidates with extensive experience and the wisdom that can only come with age.”
Maura’s got just that. Plus she is intrepid, lovely, pragmatic and tough. Since suffering the loss of her husband Lee, who died two years ago from complications stemming from multiple sclerosis, her gearshift has been parked in Forward.
So putting her house up for rent, packing a year of life into three 48-pound suitcases, and trading her 14-year teaching job in an elementary school in small-town New Jersey for an urban-international school in the biggest (and among the world’s oldest) city in Lebanon is not much of a leap.
After all, she scuba dives in Honduras:
Powers through 5K mud runs in New Jersey:
And opened up the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in Cleveland:
No doubt Maura’s solid middle-age bedrock is fortified by her younger years with Lee. She has him tucked inside; his initial tattooed on her wrist. He’s going with her.
“I want to be strong, she said. “I know I will get lonely and miss everyone madly. But I want to grow as a human. To get out of the familiar way of being and thinking. And being alone and feeling lonely will have to be a part of that. I both accept it and dread it.”
So, I feel I can speak for those of us for whom Maura has been a staple in our every day for years; more sister than friend. One last (albeit tearful) round of: “I love you.” “I’ll miss you.” (“Go for it!”)
Maura will be blogging from Beruit. Follow her at Eyes Wide Open, which will go live once she lands.