Symi:  castles in the air

One of the great things about the smaller Greek islands such as Symi, Nisyros, Tilos, and the smaller villages on the larger islands such as Emborios on Kalymnos, is their peace and tranquillity.  In Greek it’s called ήσυχια.

But it was not always so.

For centuries the islands were plagued by piracy.  The people of the small harbour village of Paloi on Nisyros got so fed up with being raided that they moved up to the crater rim, considering the simmering crater below a safer bet.  An incidental advantage was underfloor heating from volcanic vents.

The Crusades between 1091 and 1295 AD upped the anti big time.  For two centuries the Crusaders successfully defended the Dodecanese islands between Rhodes and Kos from attack.

It’s all very murky and there are many interpretations about what happened and why.  The Knights Templar are now generally considered to be the military arm of the Masons and to have been primarily in pursuit of loot. The Knights Hospitaller, who occupied the Dodecanese islands, seem to have been more about bringing medical aid to pilgrims though they were also a military force.  Medecins sans Frontieres backed by the SAS.

The combined effect of centuries of piracy and warfare left a legacy of fortifications.  Some are extant, like the Paleocastro on Nisyros, the castle above the harbour on Chalki and the fortifications on Rhodes.  Others are mere remnants, some completely obliterated by newer building or lost on abandoned footpaths.

Difficult to work out what went on as layers of culture and settlement sit on top of or replace each other ….. but fascinating to try to piece things together from observation trekking around the mountains.

Last year I wrote about some of the ancient structures on Symi:

Still a lot more to check out and think about.  This blog looks at another two fortifications and a possible third.

The mountain-top monastery and church of Archangelos Michail Kokkimidis can be reached by vehicle but I trekked there via an obscure trail up the steep northern flank of the ridge.  Dramatic location and extraordinarily well-preserved frescoes covering the  interior of the church are good reward for the effort.  I have visited several times in recent years.

But this time I looked behind the obvious.  Having been alerted to the fact by a chapter by Michael Heslop in the book “On the margins of Crusading: the Military Orders, the Papacy and the Christian World”1, I went uphill behind the church to look at the remains of fortifications, part of a Crusader stronghold.

At just short of 600 metres above sea level and perched on the edge of vertical cliffs, the views across much of Symi and across the intervening Aegean to the islands of Rhodes, Tilos and Nisyros would have been a crucial part of the inter-connected lines-of-sight of defensive network.  With remnant walls still over two metres high the fortification would also have been easily defended.


Random-stone walls on top of the cliff behind the church of Archangelos Michail Kokkimidis

Some hundred or more metres below the Kokkimidis fortification another smaller but better preserved fortification stands on a small rocky knoll close to the track.  It doesn’t have the same panoramic vantage point but it’s purpose may well have been very different.

There are a number of beach landing points on Symi but few better than Nanou on the east coast facing what is now Turkey.  With a comparatively easy access up the gorge (for a commando-style invasion force) it would have been a good way up to the ridge at the heart of the island.  The castle occupies a strategic location at the top of that gorge.

One thing has perplexed me about the fortifications on Symi.  The 20-foot high walls of the Paleocastro on Nisyros are built entirely of huge ‘ashlar’ blocks of stone to over 6 metres high.  The archaeological reconstruction in recent years has collected together hundreds of others found lying around nearby.  On Symi, the ashlar blocks of the remaining most fortifications rise to no more than 3 courses, just under two metres high at most.  There are large blocks lying around nearby but nowhere near as many as at the Paleocastro, certainly insufficient to make comprehensive walls to a defensible height.

The more intact walls of the fortification at the top of the Nanou gorge may provide the clue.  Large blocks rise to two or three courses with additional height gained by smaller, random stone.  There could be a couple of reasons for this.  The limestone of Symi may be more difficult to work into blocks than the volcanic rock on Nisyros.  Allied to this may be that the defences had to be constructed in more of a hurry under pressure from potential invasion.  Or it could simply be that the original walls were rebuilt post-Crusades for more agrarian purposes, though that doesn’t explain the paucity of other large blocks.

Whatever the reason, it seems a reasonable conclusion that the other fortifications on Symi followed the same pattern, two or three courses of large dressed stone and the rest of random stone.


Looking across to the fortification from the track.  Stone walls below it may have served the dual purpose of providing agricultural terraces and slowing down attack.


Getting closer shows the lower courses of stone are well-cut but above that the stone is random.  A few but not many large cut-blocks lie nearby.


The threshing circle inside the fortification seems unusually well built.  Most are just a circle of narrow stones set on edge.

The third location in this blog post may – or may not- be the remnant of a fortification.  The path from Horio to Agia Marina is one which I have avoided in recent years because it is increasingly impeded by the invasion of alien ‘tree tobacco’.  I carry secateurs and cut it back but it makes for slow progress.

However, at the end of my stay on the island last October I walked the route, going off-piste, as is my wont, and spotted what may be another fortification.  Certainly, on the top of a small knoll on the ridge overlooking both the main harbour and Pedi Bay it is in a location where a fortification might be expected.

The remnant walls of large blocks of stone are most unlikely to have been for agricultural purposes.  Two lines of such stone are clear, with a few others scattered around, but a lot of clearing of the jumble of rocks would be needed to get a clearer picture.  From its comparatively small size it is unlikely to have been a castle like that above nearby Horio but it may have been an observation point, commanding views of the two main anchorages and the approaches from the mainland.


The thin red line shows the single course of large-cut blocks above current ground level


And running to meet it, another culminating in a large jumble of rocks


1 On the Margins of Crusading: The Military Orders, the Papacy and the Christian World    Helen J. Nicholson     Published by Routledge (2016)

ISBN 10: 1138269832 ISBN 13: 9781138269835


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Nisyros: scratching the surface

Sandwiched between spending time on Symi I hopped a little further north in the Dodecanese to spend a couple of weeks on Nisyros.  Google it and you will see lots of photos of ‘The Volcano’ and the Paleocastro, both very dramatic. But there is far more to the island than that.  I have visited many times, in recent years spending a month each trip, each time amazed at how much I hadn’t previously seen.  This year was no exception.

First off, Nisyros doesn’t ‘have a volcano’, it is a volcano. And it’s still active. To be more accurate it is a volcano which is the remnant of a much larger volcano which originally encompassed the western part of Kos, the sea in between once the caldera.

Most people get on the ‘Volcano Bus’ or hire a scooter or a car and zoom around the roads ….. and miss a great deal. Trek around on foot and the island has a wealth of natural and historical interest.  The following is just a brief scratch below the surface, the island from a different perspective.


Looking down to the main crater from the caldera rim near Nikia.  Sit here, sip your ouzo and wait for it to blow.


Part of the cliffed wall of the main crater from the path around the rim high above


One of the active areas away from the main crater looking across to Oros Divatis, highest point on the island.  The fumarole changes all the time as the sulphur gas crystallises and is then washed away in winter rains


Sulphur washes down the cliffs


….. in places more thickly deposited than others.  Note the caldera-rim village of Nikia high above.


From the macro to the micro, a crystal flake on top of a pillar


In 2003 seismic activity opened a fissure in the floor of the caldera, in places 20 feet deep and more than that wide.


Increasingly the caldera is so hot and arid that many trees cannot survive the drought, especially closer to the main crater.  This one points towards the dramatic lava cone with the Crusader fortification of Parletia on top.


Though wooded at the eastern end of the caldera, the western end towards the still-active craters is desert, though even here a few trees still survive.

The whole island is made up of rocks which are without exception volcanic in origin.  Apparently, the magma chamber below the island is comparatively shallow and though there is no sign of lava flowing now, in many places past extrusions are very evident.


Some of the most dramatic, and least seen, are the lava stacks near the southeast of the island.  Isolated and inaccessible, difficult to reach overland


A giant sea horse emerged from the sea and has stood resolute over the centuries


On the approach to the coast at this point, gas bursting from large blocks of lava make them look as if they came from space rather than exploding out of the ground


Other blocks have contorted multicoloured patterning


While further north along the same coast pieces of lava bubble litter the shoreline (the toes give scale)


… many variations


Some are very different, looking like huge golden nuggets


Sea cliffs are very varied, in places layers of different colours and textures.

The fact that Niyros has been volcanically active over many centuries has not deterred settlement, if anything it has encouraged it because of the fertile volcanic soil. The main caldera, a number of smaller, hidden ones, and steeply terraced mountainsides were farmed and extensively populated.  There are large numbers of individual houses, others in small clusters, many under the terraced fields to maximise productive area.  Most are now abandoned, a few still used for agricultural purposes. Of the four main settlements, Mandraki and Palloi are on the coast, Emborios and Nikia on the rim of the main caldera.


From the flank of the mountain, zooming in on the Crusader castle and the Panagia Spiliani monastery towering over Mandraki


Approaching Emborios perched on the eastern end of the caldera rim


Within the village, arches brace the buildings against seismic activity.  Many are long derelict but an increasing number are now being restored, in many cases by incomers to Greece.


Perched on the southern rim of the caldera, Nikia has a very photogenic main square at the top of the village


One of the many architectural details in the square.

The island has been occupied from prehistoric times probably by a pre-Hellenic Cretan civilisation.  One of the earliest settlements is thought to be Nyfios in a small high-level ‘valley’, really a dormant caldera.  It was clearly settled and farmed but may also had a religious role, the ‘Sanctuary of the Nymphs’.   Though ‘Nyfios’ on the maps, local people still call it ‘Nymfios’.


Entering the tiny, completely hidden, settlement of Nifios high in the mountains. The ‘Horns of Consecration’ carved out of the rock indicate a Minoan culture.


The main settlement is built into the rock, a single cluster of about eight houses around what is now a church which is still painted, cleaned and candles lit.


Looking from the crag across the top of the buildings along the ‘valley’, Oros Diavatis towering above


Two of the houses in the cluster.  Note the massive stone lintels above the doorways.

There are also small fortified monastery complexes, most noticeably Armas and Siones.  Both probably started as cave dwellings with other buildings added later including small churches.  Both churches are covered in frescoes, that at Siones is open but the one at Armas is locked.


Terracotta storage containers in one of the caves below the Armas compound


Part of the fresco-covered interior of the church at Siones


Looking back at one of the two caldera leading from Siones, traversed by a now tortuous but once walled and paved footpath


One of the many small settlements on the caldera rim below Nikia, remains of a windmill above

These are some of the ‘themes’ on Nisyros but there is much else besides.


At the side of an ancient sunken pathway between terraced walls, an ancient oak has grown around a boulder next to a stepped entrance to a building and enclosure with a piece of imported dressed stone incorporated into the wall.


Scarce Swallowtails (Iphiclides podalirius) flit everywhere, occasionally settling long enough to photograph


A grass snake (Natrix natrix persa) basks in a patch of sun at the bottom of a dry sterna, next to the shadow of my head.  The following day another, about 2 feet long, shot between my sandalled feet as I walked up a narrow rocky path below Emborios.


In July the spectacular flowers of capers are much in evidence


Selfie.  Reflection in the water at the bottom of a sterna

Nisyros has some of the most dramatic and historically interesting landscapes I know.  This year I spent two and a half weeks on the island, trekking in the mountains every day under cloudless sky in temperatures up to the mid 40s.  Hard going, especially the trek to the lava stacks at the southwest of the island but worth every drop of sweat.  And in the evening, with another route achieved, sit back with a beer and watch the sun go down.


In the middle of summer the sun sets into the western end of Kos

Sadly I had returned to Symi by the time of the earthquake on 21 July.  At 6.7 on the Richter scale and aftershocks of 5.4 it woke me up at 01.30 with the house shaking and rattling.  With the epicentre further north the impact on Nisyros must have been greater. It would have been fascinating to visit the caldera and the craters again to see what changes there had been.  Next time.

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Symi: Spring and early Summer landscapes

I think that is the longest gap between blog posts on Barry’s Ramblings.  Force of a range of circumstances.  I had to return home to sort out some of the issues still unresolved when I flew back to Symi in May.  Then technical issues with the IT kit bought After The Fire which could only cope with temperatures up to 35 degrees and unable to withstand the heatwave raising temperatures in the Greek Islands to the mid-40s.  But hopefully sorted now.  More about Survival Trekking on the Hot Rock soon, but first the Spring Landscapes as promised.

Looking across the bay at Pedi in Spring there is no sign of the gin palaces and sailing boats which flock (or whatever boats do) here in summer and provide entertainment for landlubbers who watch them failing to grasp that the water is very deep and anchors fail to hold.  Just a calm, tranquil bay.


A couple of local boats waiting for the start of the season when they will ferry visitors to Agios Nikolaos beach.  That’s Turkey beyond the end of the jetty and the bay.

Nor is there any sign of the deserted village high above the empty bay.  That’s hidden behind the crag in the centre.


No sign of the deserted village on the mountain, just rocky crags


…. but get up the mountain and the extent of the deserted village is clear, with signs that at least one house and enclosure is being renovated.


….. and to the right more enclosures … and The Pond

It was very pleasing to see that the pond at Gria now had water in it again.  In October before I flew home last year I saw it completely dry for the first time in 16 years. I don’t know about before that. There seemed to be less wildlife than usual but that may be down the parched habitat failing to support the next generation of particular species.  Other ponds on the island are also back to normal levels.


The pond at the deserted village of Gria is remarkable because it is usually completely surrounded by barren rock and parched soil


Elsewhere ponds are surrounded by Spring growth.

Another great walk is up to the top of the ridge on the south side of Pedi Bay.  The path is strenuous, zigzagging over rocks and between trees, and can be difficult to find. So I and others put markers at key points, trying to make it clear that it is a marker and not just a heap of stones. Amazingly even on the very top of the ridge there are indications of ancient habitation when things were very basic.


I prefer to use markers with a stone standing on edge – that makes it clear that it hasn’t happened by accident and is easy to spot.


Right on the ridge-top, a still well-formed threshing circle.  Nothing to thresh now!


Having passed this way many times I hadn’t previously spotted this water hole, collecting rainwater run-off and presumably with a short lifespan unlike the pond hundreds of feet below at Gria.


A drop down to Pedi for a swim and then gentle amble back up the valley footpath with rapidly ripened cereal in tiny fields hand-reaped ready for collection.  After the Alpha-male cockerel has had his fill.

Another great walk is to Nimborio and up to the ridge on the East side of the bay.  A very clear if strenuous path leads up to the ridge-top Agios Nikolaos Stenou monastery.  It’s not shown on the ΣΚΑÏ map which purports to be the result of thorough exploration of the island on foot.  My guess is that the ‘cartographers’ were on a jolly, based the map on satellite imagery and filled in other bits in the taverna with locals over a few beers.  It’s a great walk with views across to Turkey (be careful you don’t get hooked in to roaming charges on your mobile phone, Turkey is outside the EU) and the benefit of a swim on a deserted beach when you drop back down to the bay.


Looking across the Nimborio Bay from the cool of the Agios Giorgos Drakounda monastery in its West side, another monastery nestled at the top


Reaching the monastery after a long, hot pull


…. and then a peaceful swim back down at base.

Great stuff!!!

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Symi:  A bit of colour

One of the effects of climate change which, despite what some may say, scientific evidence shows overwhelmingly is not a myth, is increased unpredictability in the weather.  Even on the Greek islands you can’t assume that usual climate patterns will work out, especially in Spring and Autumn.

Blue skies prevailed but May on Symi was cooler than usual with temperatures in the mid twenties most of the time with more than usual number of showers.  This meant that the crisping of foliage by searing summer temperatures was delayed.  The bonus was that plants continued flowering for longer, the built-in rush to set seed deferred.

There was therefore still a considerable amount of colour even at the end of the month.  Visitors who only come mid-summer miss all this.

Despite the cooler weather, by the end of April some plants were finishing their flowering.


The swathes of delicate cyclamen had disappeared leaving only the occasional bloom in deep shade on the north side of a stone wall.


Crown daisies had filled entire fields but now confined to discrete clumps.


A few tiny sparks of Star Clover remain


As do a few flowers of ‘bush lupin’

Other plants only start coming into flower at the end of April and early May.  A walk along the path down the side of the Pedi Valley is well rewarded and even mountain tops have patches of colour.


Wild hollyhocks are coming into flower at the beginning of May and continue throughout the month.


….. lit by evening sun


Masses of tiny yellow flowers on stalks up to 2 feet high nearly block the path down Pedi Valley


…. attracting courting couples


They also attract butterflies though they seem to prefer the tiny cornflowers on the end of long nodding stalks.


One of my favourites is the Holy Orchid (Anacamptis or Orchis Sancta).  If you know where to look there are more than 30 along one short stretch of path …. but only for a couple of weeks in early May


On a similarly Biblical theme and found nearby, Star of Bethlehem (species Ornithogalum, though I don’t know which) looks very different, striking in its simplicity


One of the hundreds of allium (garlic, onions) species, this one I think is Allium ampeloprasum or elephant garlic


Huge areas are covered in oregano, in full flower in May


Normally different mountainsides are covered in one of three herbs – oregano, sage or thyme.  Rarely do they occur together but here oregano and thyme are not only together but in flower at the same time.


Another favourite, if only because of its dramatic size and deep purple spathe and spadix, is the dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris).  Shame it smells like rotting flesh.


Considerably smaller, the poppy is eye catching and this year flowers seemed to continue to open later than usual.


A single poppy grabs the attention in a sea of green barley


…. or is dominant in a field of mixed flowers


In a monastery garden on a mountain top, backlit by the sun, blown wildly in strong winds

Next time a look at landscapes.  Then revisiting fortifications.

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Symi: it’s good to be back

I didn’t manage to get the issues sorted out which prevented me coming back to Symi in April as planned but I bit the bullet, cut the Gordion knot, took the bull by the horns, and came back on 3 May anyway.

First day back I went for a short walk armed with my new camera, a replacement for the one lost in the hotel fire, so this is a very short blog with a few images of early May on Symi.


Looking down to Yialos from The Viewpoint


Just before reaching the ridge, another great view down the valley to the harbour


On the final leg back to Yialos, Nimborio Bay always seems especially blue and inviting


This is the time of year when tortoises are most in evidence in the mountains, rustling through the vegetation as it starts to crisp up


Butterflies take advantage as the oregano comes into flower


… opening their wings if the wind isn’t too strong


In places a few dog roses are still in flower



At this height there are not many daisies but a few are still in flower, these known by many names including ‘edible chrysanthemum’


… while convolvulus creeps everywhere


A few eye-catching splashes of colour as poppies survive though most are now looking a little worse for wear


Probably the most dramatic are the great spathes of the Dragon Arum.  Shame they smell like rotting flesh.


But they manage to look very statuesque


Thistles, better able to withstand the blistering heat of summer, are starting to come into flower


Snails gather in high rise tenement blocks before they disappear in the summer heat.


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Symi, Greece:  Looking back and looking forward

In early April in recent years I have headed to Greece for the summer.  Not possible this year because of various ongoing issues.  There is still a degree of uncertainty about when I’ll get back to the islands but, trying to think positively, I’m aiming for end of April/early May.

Therefore this is just a brief look at what Symi is like at that time of year and a reflection on how I plan to spend the summer over there this year.

May is the end of spring in the Greek islands.  Flowering plants hasten to complete their cycle by setting seed before they and the landscape are scorched by the blistering summer heat. Nowhere is this more so than on the Dodecanese island of Symi, reputedly the hottest and driest of the Greek islands.

During May 2016 I was in the throes of my Annus Horribilis with walking severely restricted and a stint in hospital on Rhodes, so there are very few photos.  Those below are some of the many taken in the first week of May 2015.


Much of the landscape on Symi is limestone, this a small artistic cairn marking a path through it


In places early May is the time to see orchids, including Orchis Sancta, the Holy Orchid


Taking a closer look at the delicate flowers on each stem


Many times taller than the orchids are the wild hollyhocks


Colourful in early May, in just a couple of week’s time this will be crisped and brown


Scarce Swallowtail  (Iphiclides podalirius) draws nectar from a lone cornflower swaying on a long stem


Hidden among twigs, a mantis is generally only spotted if it moves.


Oertzeni lizards (Lacerta oeertzeni) locked in a passionate embrace


Dramatic seed-heads 3-4 inches in diameter.

I can’t sit around soaking up the sun and holding down chairs in a taverna, I need to have a goal, a project on the go. Ants in my pants as well as in the kitchen if everything isn’t cleaned meticulously and screwed down tight.  And sometimes even if it is …..

I spend much of the time on the islands writing when I’m not trekking in the mountains.  I finished my first book ‘Greece by bus’ in the summer of 2015 and had a limited print run at the end of the year.  My second book ‘Greece Unpackaged’ was printed in a limited run at the end of 2016 and one goal for summer 2016 is to publish it on Kindle.

The main aim for the spring and early summer this year is to further explore Symi and look at a couple of issues in particular.  One is to visit and examine more closely ancient settlements on the island.  Linked to this is to plot the location of natural springs and water sources ….. which some think don’t exist. The ambitious outcome of that I hope will be a third book – ‘Symi off-piste’.


Initially identified from satellite imagery and then located on the ground, one of the fortified structures way off the beaten path. I hope to map this and other similar fortifications.


Dressed marble in the middle of it shows a degree of sophistication prior to its construction


In October 2016, my last day on Symi, I visited the ‘permanent’ pond at the deserted village of Gria …. only to find for the first time since I went there originally in the year 2000 that it was completely dry.

A lot of questions.  A lot to explore.

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Banff, Canada: After The Fire

The fire on the night of 28/29 December dramatically changed the focus of the trip.

With nothing but what I was wearing when I evacuated the hotel into -25oC, the priorities for the next few days were somewhat heavily circumscribed: replacing toiletries; replacing basic clothing; applying for emergency passport ….. tedious, exhausting, but necessary stuff.

With two and a half weeks still to go it also meant replacing basic skiing gear, the main purpose of the trip. Additionally, I replaced my netbook computer so I could communicate with the outside world but not the smartphone because in Canada they are all locked to a provider, there is no sim-free option.

After spending more time shopping than during the last 25 years in total, I had enough to have a change of clothing and to get back to skiing, though I didn’t replace any of the winter trekking gear.

I lost both my SLR camera and the compact (Canon SX720) I carry in my hand in Greece and my pocket in the Rockies.  That meant that I also lost the memory cards with all the shots I had taken up to that point.  They were downloaded every day onto the computer but ……   The two which I posted on my blog to wish folks a Rocky white Christmas are the only Pre-Fire photos to survive from the 2016-17 trip.

So, having given up on the shopping and with painful new ski boots adjusted almost every day, I got back into the mountains and managed to take a few phots to look back on.


The burnt-out top floor of the hotel from Banff Avenue,  blue sky showing through the smoke and water stained windows.  My room is on the left.


Looking along the length of ‘Downtown’ Banff Avenue from my new room in the sister hotel.  That’s not smoke but air venting into intense cold even in the mid-afternoon sunshine. The road covered in compacted snow from frequent fresh falls.


At the top of the other Banff Avenue, an easy groomed run at Sunshine Village.


Looking down the frozen river to Mount Rundle from the Town Bridge over the Bow


Deep snow at the top of Sulphur Mountain


Looking along the boardwalk to the old weather observatory on Sanson’s Peak


Some of nearby peaks are dramatically craggy


The new interpretation centre and restaurants seen from Sanson’s Peak


Back at the hotel and cloud behind Mount Rundle is set on fire by the setting sun


…. which also lights up ice crystals inside the double glazing


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