Monday was completely different from any other day I have spent in Greece. We hired a car!
One of the pleasures of being here has always been that we go everywhere on foot or by bus. Even my long journey around western Greece from the northern most point to the southernmost earlier this summer was accomplished entirely by public transport.
So why hire a car on Symi where there is less point in doing so than anywhere else I can think of. It’s small, I can cover most of it on foot and there is a bus service to the huge Panormitis monastery at the far end of the island. I could walk there and back but the last part of the trek would have to be done on hairpin tarmac roads and not very appealing.
It was simply a matter of economics and practicality. There were 5 of us and splitting the hire cost meant it was cheaper than the bus and it gave us more flexibility on timing and where we could go.
Hiring the car gave a set of completely different perspectives but it was a nightmare.
The only 2 hire places are on the harbour side and that in itself is a problem. The car was in a car park nose first and hemmed in by other cars parked higgledy-piggledy all over the place. I walk across the car park regularly and don’t look at the cars twice. Now they became hazards waiting to be bumped into as I inched my way slowly and tortouosly in reverse to a space wide enough to do a 3-point turn. The dimensions and ‘feel’ of the car were unfamiliar and being hemmed in so tightly meant any lurch from not knowing the ‘bite’ of the clutch could add to the collection of scrapes on all four corner of the car as wella s the wing mirrors and door panels.
When I have hired cars previously, both at home and abroad, there has been the ritual of walking around it with the person doing the hiring and making a note of all blemishes with a corresponding tour of inspection on its return. No such inspection here. I had my small camera with me so that I could photographed the parts of the car which were damaged in order to have a record before we set out in it. I now have photographs of every bit of the car except it’s roof, testament to how many collisions it had already had.
It took 10, thankfully impact-free, minutes to get out of the small car park and then another new perspective. As a pedestrian I hadn’t noticed that the square behind the harbour is one way.
Having negotiated that I then turned onto the road along the harbour. Always difficult to negotiate, in a car it was now transformed into some kind of real-life video game with natural obstacles such as bollards, high kerbs and straight–drop into the water augmented by parked scooters, cars and lorries, semi-permanent obstacles such as rubbish skips, restaurant tables and chairs and various marine paraphernalia as well as moving hazards including pedestrians, scooters and motorbikes, cars and the island bus. The majority of the road along the harbour is too narrow for cars to pass going in the opposite direction with several ‘pinch points’ where the kinks right or left not much more than the width of the car with the prospect of one wheel dropping off the edge straight into the harbour. Again, thankfully we survived with the car unscathed, or at least no more scathed than it had been when we picked it up.
And so it continued. We drove to the monastery of Panormitis at the far end of the island and had a wander around. There were 3 large trip boats in the large natural harbour when we arrived so the place was crawling with people over from Rhodes for the day but when the boats left it was a haven of peace and quiet. We bought spinach pies from the extremely well-regarded bakery at the back of the monastery building and sat on the side of the harbour and ate them before heading back along the road and up the amazing series of hairpin bends to the ridge-top.
Next stop was the crag-top monastery of Agios Stavros Polemou with stunning views in all directions, very hazy on Monday because of the high humidity.
Then back down to walk to the Byzantine winepresses built onto great slabs of rock on the mountainside, some of them restored to show what they would have looked like when in use. Altogether there are reckoned to be something like 120 or more and there must have been vast areas of vines to have kept them supplied with grapes. Now they are set in cypress woodland and most of them are just collapsed stonework.
True it was a bit of a nightmare driving around Symi but it enabled us to see more and do more in one day than we could possibly have done by using the bus and walking. And then in the evening the high humidity which had given us hazy views turned to rain. Not for long but it freshen up the air and was seen by locals as a welcome relief from the heat of what has been a long hot summer … even by Symi standards.