Symi: the island experience

I sometimes wonder whether islands which are connected to the ‘mainland’ are truly still islands.  It’s complicated. 

When we went to the Isle of Skye BTB (Before The Bridge) it had an intrinsic separateness even though there was only a narrow channel between it and the mainland.  We crossed on the tiny ferry from Glenelg reached by narrow, one-track road. En route we were stopped by a survey team asking opinions about the proposal to build a bridge across the Kyle of Localsh.  I was emphatic “No!  It will change the place irrevocably”.  Quite irrational, I know, but the bridge has devalued Skye for me. I struggle to think of Anglesey as an island rather than part of ‘mainland’ Wales, connected by the Telford Bridge nearly two centuries ago and soon after by Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge.

It seems I’m not alone in this view.  The Rough Guide to Greece says that Evvia, the second largest of the Greek islands after Crete “often feels more like an extension of the mainland than an entity in its own right”.

There is a slightly different perception if an island is connected by a causeway, especially if it is tidal.  There are 43 tidal islands around Britain, ones which can be reached by foot but only at low water.  Two of the most well known of those are St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Lindisfarne in Northumberland.  Because these are accessible on foot for only a short time each day the causeway does not degrade the ‘island experience’ in the same way as a permanent bridge link.  They are ‘true’ islands.

Towards the end of my stay on Symi in September I walked to the island monastery of Agios Emilianos ………. linked to the ‘mainland’ of Symi by a causeway but as the tidal range in the Aegean is only 6 inches it is a permanent link so does not feel like a true island.  Or so I thought.

For the most part the path to Agios Emiliansos is clearly defined and easy to follow.  Like the route to Agios Vasilios the first section is the walk up to the dramatic Viewpoint above Horio and then on past Agia Paraskevi to the tarmac road.  A short trudge along a concrete road and dirt track soon comes to the ridge at 350 metres just below the beautifully well kept monastery complex of Panagia Mirtidhiotissa, The Virgin of the Myrtles. The inside of the small church is particularly impressive, covered in well-preserved frescoes.

From here the path, not shown on the SKAÏ map, picks its way across mountainside covered in grey/white limestone rock before reaching a broad, flat field in a col with a sea of tall, stately gleaming white squill.  Several times we have spotted tortoises here and dubbed it ‘Tortoise Square’.

Part of the boulderfield which the path picks a way through

Part of the boulderfield which the path picks a way through

A sea of squill in Tortoise Square in the col

A sea of squill in Tortoise Square in the col

Changing direction, the path, increasingly clear and level, comes into extensive cypress woodland and for a time takes on the nature of a well kept park.   In the height of summer the air is redolent with the scent of the trees, sap heating up under the intense glare.  When we first walked through these woods in 2000 there were charred remains of fire a few years previously, whether from spontaneous combustion as the sap just reached critical level in temperatures up to 50oC or from a discarded cigarette end or glass bottle I don’t know.  The scent is very pleasant in September temperatures around 30oC but there is still that niggling thought at the back of the mind.

The path reaches the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos, St John the Theologian, and an opportunity to sit in the shady courtyard.  The Greek tradition of ‘philoxenia’, friendship to strangers, is often demonstrated in these monasteries by provision of a tin can on a string for drawing water from the sterna (underground water tank) and in some cases provision of coffee-making facilities – gas stove, matches, ‘briki’, (small saucepan for boiling the water), cups, coffee, sugar – but almost without exception the toilets are locked.  I guess they don’t mind sharing what they have, but they don’t want you to leave anything in return.  Still, in the woods that isn’t a problem for us blokes.

The entrance to the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos

The entrance to the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos

It seems that the saint in question is also known as Metastasi Ioannos Evangelistos1 whose Name Day is 26 September when the monastery is bedecked with flags and bunting, and tables are laid out with food and drink for the celebrations. When I passed on 27 September the clearing up operations were in progress.

From the monastery, with the first glimpse of Agios Emilianos, 300 metres below and 2 kilometres distant across Skoumisa Bay, the path drops down gradually through the trees.  In places it is clearly defined but occasionally distinguishable only by rocks polished or discoloured by the passage of feet and hooves.  It’s still used by donkeys as an alternative to small boats to transport goods to the scattered settlements, evidenced occasionally by hoofprints in the dust.

View from the monastery across Skoumisa Bay to Agios Emilianos

View from the monastery across Skoumisa Bay to Agios Emilianos

Coming out of the cypress wood overlooking the shore the path continues to drop gradually with enticing views of blue in sheltered Skoumisa Bay, normally calmer than the open sea but this time rougher than usual.  One smallholding on a small beach is about as idyllic a place as you could wish for, as long as you forego all the usual amenities.

A great place for piece and quiet.

A great place for piece and quiet.

Finally the path drops down the final metres to sea level and a tiny quay used by the local farmer/fisherman.  This trip there were larger boats pulled up on the beach undergoing repair as well as the fishing boat bobbing at the end of a mooring rope.  On a previous visit local lads came down to catch octopus, a donkey complete with wooden-framed panniers waiting patiently alongside. What a great lifestyle!!!  By contrast, two years ago there were large trip boats from Turkey tied up to rocks on the beach with trippers swimming to the shore in defiance of international maritime law and contrary to immigration controls, destroying the tranquillity of the bay.

Dropping down to the fishing quay and the 'dry dock'

Dropping down to the fishing quay and the ‘dry dock’

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Looking across the bay to the island monastery, the sea a little choppier than usual

One of the large Turkish boats moored to the shore

One of the large Turkish boats moored to the shore

The path skirts the bay to reach the monastery causeway and this year something of a surprise.  During the winter storms the causeway had been badly damaged, the concrete slab over the rocks broken up making it necessary to hop across gaps washed by the sea, somewhat choppier than usual.

The causeway breaking up, guarded by hungry goats

The causeway breaking up, guarded by hungry goats

The monastery is rented out to tourists in the summer who come and go by sea, a small boat with outboard motor for ferrying across the bay to visit neighbours, a larger one for going to the shops in the town on the other side of the island.  This year the causeway is still passable, with slightly wet feet.  Another winter of severe storms and the causeway may well get broken up completely.  Unless it is repaired, the island will then offer a true island experience once again.

1  The only definition I can find for ‘metastasi’ or μετάσταση is to refer to the process of cancer cells being transferred from one part of the body to another.  My guess is that it also an old Greek term to refer to St John the (itinerant) Evangelist.

If you fancy doing the walk yourself you might find these Walking guides useful:
Symi walk 1- Viewpoint
Symi walk 3 Ag Emilianos

and try this:

click to get Google Earth Fly to click to fly to the Greek island of Symi and view the route of the walks with Google Earth
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One Response to Symi: the island experience

  1. phillippa lee says:

    Hi Barry,
    thanks for the post. I love Islands, where ever I go in Greece I love to take a ferry and travel to different islands. 2 years ago I went to Skaithos, Skopelos and finally Alonissos – each had to be reached by ferry – each one getting smaller and smaller. I love the journey and the feeling of immersing myself into a different way of being. I loved the adventure of having nowhere to stay – just trusting to the lady in black to grab me when the ferry docked and take me to some unknown place.
    I agree with you that Lindisfarne does still feel like an island and I go there quite often – my favourite though is Bardsey Island or Enlli as the welsh call it or the island of 20,000 saints. Having gone across for the day a few years ago – I had actually booked to stay for the week but had to cancel for family reasons. I don’t know if you have been – its tiny, you have to get across if the weather is OK by the farmers boat. I found it to have a strong peaceful quality and a sense of wildness even though it was so small – maybe it was something to do with being surrounded by such dangerous sea and being at the edge of the world. There is a book written by a nun who lived as a hermit until very recently in a field overlooking Enlli. The book is called ‘a simplified life’ , she talks a lot about islands and living at the edge of things.
    Thanks again for your post – its great to have food for thought.
    best wishes
    Phillippa

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