One of my favourite easier walks on Symi is to Nimborio, the original harbour on the island, and then along the narrow shingly/pebbly beach and a steep zigzag climb up the razor-sharp limestone crags at the far side to the ridge-top Agios Nikolaos monastery. It’s always very peaceful and only very occasionally do I see anyone else once past the taverna and straggle of beach-side houses. In fact the only other person I have ever seen up on the ridge is the elderly farmer who tends beehives inside ancient stone walled enclosures towards the end of the peninsula, bringing his produce to town by donkey along a narrow but well trodden path. The only other possible means of access is by helicopter which would be a bit over-the-top for honey.
Whether walking all the way along the coast road to Nimborio or taking the shorter but steeper route over the shoulder of the mountain via the peaceful Agios Giorgos Drakouniotis monastery, at this time of year the range of plants in flower is very impressive and very colourful.
Once, some years ago, I saw a 6 foot Black Rat Snake basking in the sun at the top of the Drakouniotis valley and its sinuous slither clearly etched across at-the-time wet cement, preserved for ever as it set ….. until cheap stone paving slabs were cemented over the top of it. I look out for the snake every time I pass that way No sight so far this year, just a couple of tortoises, butterflies and sundry lizards, some of them up to nefarious activity and refusing to be put-off whatever it was they were up to.
But as I sat on the monastery wall munching a banana and looking east I couldn’t help but contemplate that just across the water, no more than the width of the Bristol Channel, is Asia. This is the end of Europe. Or viewed from the other side, the beginning of Europe.
Therein lies a problem. It is a frontier which is completely porous and refugees fleeing conflict cross the narrow channel in problematic numbers. Without even having to worry about fast ocean currents, which are characteristic of the Bristol Channel, inadequate boats set out from Turkey several times every week and bring hundreds of refugees fleeing the turbulence and bloodshed in the Middle East, especially these days from Syria which borders Turkey to the east. The Hellenic Coastguard picks up the refugees from boats which are often foundering or tow them into harbour. In summer they have little or no water, no food and are adrift. In winter they face strong winds and rough seas.
They are taken to the tiny police station on Symi. In some cases these are obviously middle-class professional people, men wearing suits and carrying briefcases and laptops, most with passports, looking for asylum. Some have crossed with 3 generations of family. They are ‘processed’ in the woefully inadequate space of the police station, camped out sometimes more than a hundred at a time on a balcony with, so I’m told, one loo between everyone, men, women, children and the elderly. Imagine yourself in that situation.
Often they have been lied to by those they have paid to arrange their boat trip, and don’t know where they are, just that they are coming to Europe. I met some guys who had been told they could get to Athens for €14, a complete nonsense. At the end of their processing, with an attempt to filter out extremist infiltrators, they go to Rhodes or Athens. Athens, by all accounts, is also increasingly overwhelmed by the problem.
Local Greeks and those visitors with a sympathetic nature, a feeling for the suffering of other humans beings, don’t resent their presence but are at a loss to know what can be done to resolve the problem. Reporters, some from broadsheet newspapers, come and badly misrepresent what is going on because scaremongering and bigotry sells more copies. I was here when it happened last year. Locals were outraged at the lies and distortions. At least there isn’t the tragic loss of life on a massive scale on the crossing from Turkey as there is on the crossing from North Africa.
This is a problem for Europe but Greece is one of the countries at the sharp end of dealing with it. Good news that the EU is to triple funding for tackling the problem …. but time will tell whether it is enough.
I walk back from the ridge in a more sombre, reflective mood.