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.