The first time we came to Symi it was August, a full-on Greek summer. Stepping out of the door of the chilled cabin of the plane was like walking into an oven with the fan on. I now always look forward to that Hellenic summer greeting after Cool Britannia At that time 2 hours north of Rhodes on a tub of a ferry, now only 45 minutes on a high speed cat, the island has the reputation of being the hottest and driest in Greece and indeed the overriding impression in the height of summer was of a hot rock, with most plant life crisped brown in the sun.
We found that parts of the island were forested with cypress trees stunted by poor soil and drought. But over much of it the only green was drought-tolerant herbs, principally oregano, sage and thyme with mountainsides dominated by one or the other depending on geology, soil and aspect. Walking across a mountainside covered in oregano the smell, now as then, so strong it feels as if it’s burning the inside of your nostrils.
Having been to Hydra in the Saronics in March and April and seen the vast number of flowering plants, I was interested to see what Symi would be like in Spring. It’s by no means as floriferous as Hydra where rainfall is higher but it’s very different from the parched appearance of summer. For a start, some of the terraced fields are covered in cereals or other grasses and not just bare soil.
The photographs taken on the walks I have been doing have focused on the flowering plants because there is a limited time when they will survive and because those who only come in high summer will be surprised at how the island looks in Spring. I’ll focus more on the wider landscape and the walks themselves later in the season.
On Sunday I walked down the Kali Strata, a set of steep steps dropping about 100 metres from Horio, the old village and centre of Symi, to Yialos the main harbour, and then around the coast road to the next bay and the hamlet of Nimborio. The hillside sloping down to the sea is normally covered in dried-up thorn bushes but now the slopes had attractive cushions of yellow flowers disguising the pain beneath.
Reaching Nimborio I crossed the narrow pebble beach at the head of the bay and then climbed a rocky footpath zigzagging up to the tiny chapel of Agios Nikolaos Stenou on the ridge looking across to Turkey, Asia not Europe, so close that you can count the wind turbines marching along the lower hills close to Datcha. The mountainside on the way up is dominated by oregano but the ridge-top is barren, craggy limestone, the only vegetation which the soil supports is autumn-flowering squill, leaving nothing but sagging, snail chewed leaves by Spring.
After lazing around in the sun at the chapel eating my banana and nutbar I set off across the rock and nearly failed to see a tortoise on the path. A fairly large specimen, it didn’t seemed phased by being watched and photographed. It didn’t even flinch when I put a €2 coin by it to indicate scale.
Having dropped back down to the beach I turned between houses into a flood channel at the bottom end of the Nimborios Gorge and made my way up the short distance to The Catacombs above two small churches and a well preserved but poorly presented Roman mosaic floor. The catacombs, apparently known as the Twelve Caves, have a side entrance but to avoid potential aggressive vegetation I climbed down through a hole where the roof has collapsed at one end. It consists of a central corridor with 4 tiny cells on either side making a total of 10 if you include the two ends. Climbing back out from the gloom into the light the colour of the small flowers clustered around the opening seemed more vivid.
I returned to Yialos on a well preserved and improved kalderimi over the shoulder of the hill past the church of Georgos Drakouniotis which offers very welcome shade in high summer but not needed in the very pleasant 20 degrees at this time of year.
The walk was undemanding but interesting, especially so because of the wide variety of flowering plants along the route. The walk in the height of summer is enjoyable but lacks the added colour. I know the names of a few of the plants but not being even an amateur botanist most of them are attractive but unknown to me.