Symi and Nisyros: Back to old-fashioned island hopping

People often ask which is my favourite Greek island.  Given that I spend more time on Symi than any other, the natural assumption is that the answer is self-evident.  But it’s more complicated than that. True, I love the walking on Symi, and on Tilos, and on Hydra, and on Amrorgos …..  What makes Symi special is that I know a lot of people.  Being on my own, that makes a difference.  Since friends moved from Tilos, I haven’t been back there to stay, though look wistfully at the mountains as the ferry passes through.  It’s not just about places, it’s about people.

I was put on the spot by a local Greek guy on Symi last week who asked the same question.  Which is my favourite Greek island?  The answer I gave was ‘Nisyros’.  It seemed almost like a betrayal of friendship, a poke in the eye for Symi. The reason why the answer has to be Nisyros is that the walking is more spectacular than anywhere else I have been, thanks to the island being a volcano with potentially active craters breathing out sulphur gases, mountains made of volcanic rock ranging from incredibly soft pumice to incredibly hard obsidian, and amazingly rich historical landscapes.  Day trippers from Kos gasp as the caldera and crater come into view on their coach trip ‘to the volcano’, but that barely scratches the surface.  I’ve said many times, the island doesn’t have a volcano. It is a volcano.

First blog post of this visit, however, is of a walk on Symi.  Friends sometimes ask if I will take their visitors for a walk, and they invariably want to go to the deserted village of Gria. That’s partly because of the fascination of somewhere which was once a living community but is no more, and partly because on an island reputed to be the hottest and driest in Greece and uncompromisingly barren, it has a permanent pond.  It must be said that, in size, Gria is nowhere near on a par with Micro Horio on Tilos. It’s considerably smaller.  But as it can only be reached on foot it’s just as atmospheric.  And very peaceful.  Sit by the pond and you can experience a surprising ecosystem on this barren, ‘hot rock’: dragonflies, birds, frogs, snakes, lizards …. rats.

So how do you get there and why is it so little visited?

The first part of the walk is easy.  Go up ‘The Tarmac’, the road towards Panormitis Monastery at the other end of the island, and turn left at the second hairpin bend out of Horio at the Agia Marina Cemetery.  A rough bulldozed track when we first came here in 2000, from the new bridge behind the cemetery the road is now concreted.  In places it’s steep but easy walking with views across the Pedi valley to Horio and the ridge-top windmills and down to sheltered Pedi Bay on one side and steep rocky outcrops on the other.

The road leads to the monastery of Zoodohou Pighis Vrisi, the monastery of the Waters of Life.  I find it difficult to understand how money can be found to bulldoze and then concrete roads to monasteries which are accessed only once a year for the Name Day celebrations.  The EU funding bodies are obviously very generous.  At least in this case the road allows access to the officials of the water board to maintain the miles-long black polypropylene pipe draped on the surface from the spring at the monastery to supply Horio, warming the water nicely as it goes.

The tap in the monastery courtyard supplies deliciously cold water straight out of the mountain, enjoyed in the cool of the huge shade trees.  Very pleasant.  And it waters the extremely well cultivated walled gardens.

From the monastery the route to Gria changes dramatically.  The waterpipes to Horio come out of a cave behind a locked metal door in the mountainside and down a narrow channel at the far end of the courtyard.  The onward path to Gria is on the other side of the channel.  The first few hundred meters are a test.  It’s narrow and very loose, dropping away precipitously, a problem for those with vertigo or agoraphobia.  People have turned back at this point but if you get past it, the only problem is finding the line of the path as it meanders up and down over very broken ground. 

Arriving in the settlement is a stark reminder of one of the main reasons why places like Gria and Micro Horio on Tilos were abandoned – the water supply ran out.  My wife and I first came here over 20 years ago and picked figs off trees now not only dead but desiccated, being destroyed by ants or termites.

Houses survive, some with roof intact unlike Micro Horio on Tilos where the residents left en masse and took their rooves with them. The communal bread oven is still there. A couple of the houses are locked, one recently renovated, still used as day-bases by farmers. One has a partly collapsed roof but inside the fireplace and remains of the sleeping platform survive amidst abandoned and broken beehives. Enclosure walls survive with projecting slabs on top to keep out goats. 

The pond is still there, water level dropping through the drought of summer.  I have only known it dry up once, the year when a local guy put a pump in it to extract water for reconstruction work on one of the old houses.

Leaving the village behind a broken and narrow path drops down at a lower level.  It reaches a gully with the option of dropping down the dry waterfall into Pedi.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, even those whom have passed the ‘bottle’ test beyond the monastery.  The alternatives are to either backtrack on the same path back to the monastery or to continue on the lower path beyond the waterfall and leading to ‘The Drakos Ancient Edifice’.  I vehemently discount that option as it leads through a section with the seed-bank of all the thistles in the known world.  As I walk in sandals and shorts rather than boots and Barbour Thornproofs, I said the first time I did it that I would never do it again.  I did.  It was worse than the first time. Never, EVER again.

But the waterfall option is great fun, though requiring a good deal of focus and care.  And arriving in Pedi is tranquillity.

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Symi: back on the Hot Rock

Back on Symi.  Been here two weeks now.

A bit trepidatious about the travel chaos expected at Manchester Airport so turned up 4 hours ahead of flight departure. No queue at all at check-in, shortest queue at security ever.  Waiting in departure lounge three and a half hours – better than queuing outside and missing the flight.  Heartfelt ‘thanks’ to Jet2.

Arrived Symi the following morning.  Weather cooler than usual but still warmer than the UK.  Locals going around in the evening in padded jackets.  Then suddenly ramped up to usual summer heat.

A pleasant surprise was that though the fields swathed in Crown Daises (Glebionis coronaria) swaying in the breeze had finished flowering, there were still many smaller spots of colour in the rapidly crisping vegetation, juices sucked out by the sun and the wind.  Each plant driven by its own solution to the battle for survival, seeds swelling and dropped or wafted away, ready for the autumn rains and the next progeny.

Most dramatic are the poppies.  A fresh flowering every morning, petals dropped by evening as temperatures rise and their flowering comes to an end.

Less eye catching are the blues, pinks and purples, yellows and whites.  

Predominant is the white of the oregano, tens of thousands of bees from hives both local and shipped in garnering the pollen.  They make traversing many of the footpaths a bit nerve racking, hoping they don’t regard you as a threat.  Key is to stay away from the hives. Topping the steep climb up to the monastery of Panagia Hamon, the path leads straight through about 20 hives.  Suspecting they were there, I went off to the right before reaching the threshing circle where they are clustered but was still buzzed many times, bees colliding with my head to make the point.  I took my time over the climb, partly to not overdo things in the heat, partly to repair some of the directional stone markers on the confused path.

Always a pleasure to see wildlife: tortoises more evident at this time of year than in the heat of summer; billy goats tethered in the shade to keep them out of trouble; even the odd feral chicken with her brood skulking under bushes.

Trying to acclimatise to the intensifying heat, it has been great to visit many of the iconic places from previous visits, the Viewpoint above Horio (Walk 1 on the Greek Island Walks page), the walled garden at the monastery of Zoodohou, the rock slab at Lappotoniou Castle, and the monastery of Nikitas Kotikas  with its sundial.

One of the ambitions for the trip was for a friend and I to explore a cave found a couple of years ago.  The friend is a caver who has done some climbing, I’m a climber who has done some caving.  Between us we fetched out enough ropes and other kit to make the vertical descent and prusik back up (heaviest bag I‘ve ever brought to Greece).  The plan was to do the reconnaissance and set up, then return a few days later for the descent.  We found the cave and with a borrowed cordless hammer drill fixed an eye-bolt at the top in the most convenient place for the job.  Sadly, my friend twisted his ankle badly on the way back to the car – so the exploration will have to wait for another visit.


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Symi, Stockport: Then, now and soon-to-be

The Brexit Bonus has nowhere-near met cynically manipulated expectations.  Quite the opposite.  It has fallen far short and a realistic assessment is that it will continue to do so, despite the Ress-Mogg Magic Wand. One of the negative impacts, which admittedly affects only a tiny minority, is the limitation on the length of stay in EU countries, including Greece.  

A far more significant impact is that it has undermined European unity at a time when it is most needed.  The 40 or so years since its formation has been the longest period of peace in European history.  Russian interference in the Brexit referendum has achieved its aim of driving a wedge into democratic Europe and now the Ukrainians, and to a lesser extent the rest of us, are paying the price.  And it’s likely to get a lot higher.

Just about ‘getting back to normal’ after the pandemic and again there is a new uncertainty hanging over us.

Nonetheless, I’m at the early stages of planning a trip back to Greece and Symi.  And Nisyros.  I won’t be going as early in the year as I have previously, so will miss the full impact of the profusion of Spring colour.  Nevertheless, I count myself fortunate that in previous years, I have been able to spend time on the islands from the middle of April.    If you can make it this year. Here’s a taste of what you can expect to see, assuming you go off the beaten track.

A walk on the colourful side

Walking through Spring colour

A floriferous walk down the valley

Symi, not-so-wild-walks

In the meantime, I’ve been in St Ockport looking after my daughter’s geriatric cat and taking a few local walks.  Here are a few images from Abney Hall Park on a sunny afternoon and Heaton Mersey Common on a not-so-sunny one – trees, crocuses  …. and Red Elf Cups.

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Christmas Greetings

Because of the continuing and growing uncertainties of travel during the pandemic, I’m not going to Canada again this winter, stuck in Grey Britain, so harking back to Christmases Past for a greetings photo.  This one, taken high-up at the Lake Louise ski area in The Rockies with temperatures around minus 350C freezing every tiny droplet of water in the cloudless sky, shows a spectacular Sun Dog and, striking down to earth, a Sun Pillar.

Hope to make it back to Banff next winter.

In the meantime – Happy Christmas and best wishes for a significantly better New Year.


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Symi: Autumn life

Back home in Grey Britain now.  Warmer than average for this time of year, cloud acting as insulating blanket kept temperatures up through much of November – but spirits down. Mostly between what mountaineers call ‘claggy’ and ‘very claggy’ – grey or dark grey skies.  Guess I suffer from SAD.  Thankfully there is the occasional day or two of sunshine.

In the summer, before flights to Greece re-started, I harvested fruit from the garden, enough stored in the freezer for the next twelve months and beyond.  But little is left now. Beans finished.  Pests have ruined winter veg.  Caterpillars ravaged brassicas.  Weeds inevitably rampant after weeks away.  Deepens the gloom.    

Need to get on with Autumn clearing which is never the most joyful of tasks.

One bright spot is the crop of tomatoes. Three plants in the Blue House, reached nearly 5 metres to the roof, climbing through the palm tree and the agave, and produced a huge crop, a final 5 kgs of fruit, when I cut them down.  Finished now. 

Quite different from arid Symi where summer is the dormant period and Autumn marks the beginning of new growth.  End of September and beginning of October sees the emergence of life.  Not as flamboyant or as prolific as the flora in April and early May, the flowers of early autumn are perhaps more appreciated because they emerge from months of drought and are comparatively scarce.

In a couple of easily bypassed locations, sharply contrasting with the summer-crisped vegetation, is a profusion of pink flowered Autumn Crocuses, (Colchicum Autumnale), one of the plants also known as Naked Ladies because the flowers, up to 10cms across, emerge from parched soil and bare rock ahead of the leaves.  They begin to appear at the end of September and multiply rapidly into October.

Less flamboyant, indeed small and insignificant, seemingly shy and retiring (to anthropomorphise), is the Biarum Marmarisense.   Again, I know of them only in a couple of small areas in the mountains on Symi.  Pale white suffused with pink and only about 6cms high they are easily missed even though close to and even in paths. They are not missed by bees as they are one of the few sources of nectar at this time of year. They don’t begin to appear until the first week of October but as I head home mid-October I don’t know how long they least or when the foliage comes through. One of the places they occur is on a goat-migration route and they are usually grazed-off at soil level.

With cooling temperatures, wildlife which has been keeping out of the scorching sun during much of the day begins to emerge. Gnarly tortoises (Testudo graeca) amble along jerkily even towards midday. 

It’s good to look back.  And to look forward to Spring.  Meanwhile hunkering down and hoping for bright frosty days and a good dump of snow  

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Twelve years, and not a day goes by ………

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Nisyros: rambling through history

A week of trekking around Nisyros.  So much to see.  So many familiar places to revisit.  Such a warm welcome from so many people.

What impressed us first when we arrived on a day trip from Tilos in 2001, and continues to impress, is the 3-kilometre-long caldera and its craters.  The eastern end, towards the caldera-rim village of Emborios, is an open woodland of oak and turpentine (Pistacea terebinthus) trees, riven by a fissure from seismic activity in 2003, roamed by goats, turkeys and feral pigs. The western end is a dustbowl with a series of sulphur-venting craters.  Half-expect the Pale Rider to emerge from the shimmering heat, but more likely to see a lanky Welshman trudging along.

Returning from the crater on the bus on that first trip, we were let loose on the town to spend our hard-earned in the shops and tavernas of Mandraki.  Instead, we somehow found our way a short walk from the town up to the Paleocastro, the second WOW factor in a couple of hours.  As with the caldera and craters, I revisit every time I’m back on the island.  This time, once again, there were new things to see as well as be gob-smacked by the sheer size of the blocks in the stone walls.

But the historical interest is far from being just the immense structure of the Paleocasto.  Though the chapel is locked, the small, walled monastery complex of Armas has three cave chambers used for storage with amphorae still in place.

The even smaller walled monastery of Siones, is even more interesting.  I had heard reports that it was being turned into a private house with the frescos in the chapel painted-over.  Given what happened to the remnants of the castle at Emborios, I found that thought depressing.  But not so.  The work which has been done has been to protect what is a valuable historical monument.  Still open to those wanting to go inside, but with properly fitting doors and bolts to keep out the goats, nothing has been lost.  The roof of the chapel has been repaired to protect further damage to the frescos and all that has been painted over is the wall below them.  The original cave dwelling and the other rooms built on later are all intact and repaired.  Very encouraging to see.

Another fascinating place is the high-level hidden ‘valley’, really a caldera, of Nifios.  With settlement history dating back to Dorian times, there is much evidence of antiquity.  The ‘Horns of Consecration’ and the cave below. A complex of linked stone houses and a church built into the rocky crags.  Nibs for roof timbers in a crag.  Underground chamber with a central stone pillar used as a chapel. Terraced fields stretching up the mountainside. …….Frescos

At the far end of the now inactive Nifios caldera, looking straight down into the craters in the main caldera, is a rock where I perch with my camera, hoping the whole thing will blow and I’ll get the Ultimate Shot.  Never mind that no-one will see it.

A challenge every time is Oros Diavatis, highest mountain on the island topped by the chapel of Profitis Ilias.  It can be climbed by taking a hire-car or scooter to Evangelistria which cuts the climb by half, but to climb it properly should be from sea-level at Mandraki. This time, having reached the top, the challenge was to avoid being blown off by the significantly stronger than usual wind.  It was the first time I have been cold on the top of a Greek mountain in summer.  Very satisfying trek.  Challenge overcome.  I think I earned my post-walk pint.

Perhaps one of the simplest but greatest pleasures at the end of September on Nisyros is seeing the Sea Daffodils.  Coming to an end but still in evidence.  Then returning to Symi in time for the emergence of the Autumn Crocuses and the prospect of the tiny, shy, Biarums.  Fabulous.


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From the Hot Rock to The Hot Spot

After three weeks on the Hot Rock, I took advantage of a new ferry service and travelled to Nisyros for a week.  I have done this for a number of years but it has been hampered by the fact that there has been a direct link from Symi to Nisyros but not back again, necessitating diverting via Kos.  The new service is not only direct both ways but from 15 September, is free.  I travelled on the 16th.  Yes, that’s right, fare both ways, €0.00.

Nisyros is a volcano and walking is the most dramatic I know.  The bus service to the caldera-rim villages has now shifted to term-time hours, leaving the harbour at 08.00 in order to collect kids for school.  As I said in my last post, my metabolism is very slow to ease out of overnight sloth, so rather than struggling to catch the bus, I walk from the hotel, leaving about 09.30.  This means that distances are longer than I do on Symi.  First day I did 18 kilometres, second day 22.  And it’s getting hotter again. 

Given that the wind has dropped and temperatures are back up in the mid-30s, walking around a volcanic crater requires more care.  The usual check for dehydration, monitoring the colour of my pee, is more a case of noting the lack of frequency and downing more and more water.   That may be too much information, but it’s all to do with safety in the mountains.

First day I trekked up the path to Evangelistria with its great shade-tree (the reverse of Nisyros Walk 2 on the Greek Island Walks page of this blog), a climb of 250 metres, Then continued up a further 100 metres to Emborios on the caldera rim (the reverse of Walk 1).  Ancient agricultural terraces climb to the tops of mountains, now disused because of drought and massive population migration.  The path has deteriorated in recent years but is still passable and well worth it to see the awe-inspiring lava bubble rising about 60 feet above.

After a frappe in the Balcony Taverna cantilevered out over the caldera and looking along its length to the active crater at the far end, time to turn round and walk back.  Though the much-visited main crater, ’Stefanos’, is nearly 3 kilometres away, it should not be overlooked that the whole island is a volcano.  Some of the houses in Emborios have fissures underneath providing ‘underfloor heating’.  Whatever the weather, Nisyros is a Hot Spot.

Back in Mandraki, time for cold beer looking across the narrow channel towards the mounds of ‘white gold’ on the island of Yali, pumice from volcanic eruptions being quarried at the rate of up to 1,000,000 tonnes a year and shipped for industrial uses worldwide.


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In the groove

On the Hot Rock for just over two weeks and getting into the swing of things.

Walking in the mountains every day, increasingly long distances, increasingly strenuous, interspersing occasional easier days to allow recovery before the next big hit.  My metabolism is very slow to ease out of overnight sloth, so I aim to get going about 09.30 or 10.00. 

Walking conditions are extraordinarily good, mostly cloudless, temperatures now dropped to low 30s with a breeze taking the edge off even the mid-day heat.  It means that sweating appears to be reduced, skin and T-shirt drying up almost instantly except under the rucksack. It means you don’t realise how much moisture you are losing, and how dehydrated you are becoming.  One of the ways the body acclimatises to heat is to reduce the amount of sweating.  Another is to reduce the amount of electrolytes in the sweat.  But that is by no means certain and you can’t count on it, especially in the short term.  So, I’m trying to make sure I drink more water than I have in the past, carrying an insulated sleeve with 1½ litres with a core of ice.

After the unusually high temperatures over several weeks on the island before I came, the vegetation is more than usually parched and crisped.  But this is just a continuation of years of rising temperatures and drought. Fig trees from which we picked figs at Gria even 15 years ago are now dead and crumbling into the dust, being finished off by ants or termites.  Many trees are looking stressed, leaves on the evergreen holly oaks looking distinctly jaded and off-colour. By contrast, in the old ruins in the Horio, fig trees seem to be thriving, exploring sternas and vothras with their roots, ready supply of water and nutrients.

Places visited so far include Agios Emilianos, Agios Vasilios/Lapathos, Agia Marina, Nimborio Gorge, Agios Nikolas Stenou, Sesklia, and Lapotoniou Castle.  The trek up the steep ridge to Panagai Hamon was particularly pleasing, repairing the markers I put in place to indicate the tortuous route a few years ago. 

Below is a random selection of images.  I’ll try to get down to a more systematic approach soon.



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At last !!

After three failed attempts to return to Symi this year, I have finally made it.

A cancelled flight in May because of the pandemic was followed by another at the beginning and then another at the end of June.  I usually fly home at the end of July partly to sort the vegetable garden and partly because August is very hot on The Hot Rock.  The exorbitant cost of PCR tests in the UK and the UK Government’s insistence to having them meant a short visit was not an attractive proposition financially.  So, I decided to postpone further attempts until the end of August.

I finally made it.  Temperatures are mid-30s, a good bit warmer than the 20 degrees before I left, but significantly cooler than the mid-40’s which prevailed for the previous 4 weeks or so.  First task is to acclimatise to the heat.  Normally I come out end of April or beginning of May and then acclimatise slowly as the heat ramps up.  The body undergoes chemical changes to accommodate the heat and it remains to be seen if that change can take place over a shorter rather than longer time-scale.

For now, I’ll be doing shortish walks and avoiding the middle of the day, not usually a problem with early-season starts.  Given that the house is 50 metres above the shops, tavernas and restaurants in the village and 150 metres above those in port, there is plenty of exercise just going about normal day-to-day activities.  But I did a walk via the ridge-top with a friend yesterday.  Fighting over-confidence now.

As an intro, here are a couple of photos of the view from my balcony.


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