Get me to the Greek islands
‘Mummy,” my 5-year-old daughter begins, as she plays with the tzatziki on her plate, “when are we going back to Greece?”
I’m impressed that our family holiday has made such an impression – it’s six months since we returned from two weeks on Symi, the Dodecanese island that hugs the Turkish coast. The trip is still firmly fixed in my mind, too, thanks to the extraordinarily blue seas and bright skies that the Aegean delivers in spades. Outside, the Abu Dhabi skyline is hazy with sand. “Soon,” I tell her, in spite of the endless Greek currency saga.
One lasting memory is of my two small daughters standing arm-in-arm on the deck of an enormous ferry, hair blowing in the breeze, eyes intently scanning the horizon through the railings. Symi is only a 50-minute trip from Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands. Over the centuries, it has been a useful staging post for the Minoans and Mycenaeans, St Paul, the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, the Turkish and, much later, Italian armies, not to mention an army of merchants and traders. Today, it’s mainly tourists who use Rhodes as a departure point for trips up and down the popular island chain, which, helpfully, is criss-crossed by ferry routes.
It has taken us 10 hours to reach Rhodes from Abu Dhabi via Athens with a merciless midnight start to catch a 2am Aegean Airlines flight. But in spite of one daughter projectile vomiting during our taxi ride to the airport, the journey fails to break our holiday spirit: it takes a manageable five hours to reach the Greek capital and the wait in transit is well-timed for breakfast, before an easy hour-long hop to Rhodes. The one-hour time difference between Greece and the UAE is similarly family-friendly, and we book in the hope that we won’t suffer super early-bird, wake-up calls.
So far so good, and as my husband and I struggle to shepherd children and suitcases over the flagstones of Rhodes Old Town, where we’ve spent our first night, their minds are distracted then captivated by the fortified walls that ring the old harbour, broken only by wide gates and crenellated towers. It’s a short walk to the new ferry terminal, and the diesel-smoked air, accompanied by the story of the ancient wonder of the Colossus of Rhodes, proves just as exciting as the promise of Symi, our final port of call.
In truth, pretty Symi is not our first choice of destination. There are so many Greek islands offering the same mix of beaches and gentle waves, half portions of spaghetti Bolognese, pocket-money-friendly fridge magnets and museums populated with figures from mythology, it’s almost impossible to choose between them. I’d briefly been put off by Symi’s reputation as a day-tripper’s paradise, imagining boatload after boatload of guided hoardes spoiling the view of its famous neoclassical house-fronts and stealing all the ice cream. But the relatively swift and fuss-free connection from Athens to Rhodes and plentiful ferries to Symi proved persuasive.
The ferry tips us out at the edge of the harbour, beside a modest stone clock tower. The boat is unable to go any farther thanks to the shallowness of the wide bay that smiles on Yialos, the liveliest part of town. Such practicalities don’t trouble the enormous yachts moored a hop, skip and jump from essential services; boutiques selling resort wear and a solitary sushi bar that line up around the water’s edge, alongside stalls displaying touristy gifts, leather sandals and sea sponge after sea sponge. Botoxed women in hand-printed kaftans trot down gangplanks to browse, and in the evening, there’s a golf buggy to help shoppers whose energy threatens to fade.
Long before the yachties, Symi had a rather glossy reputation thanks to its divers, who harvested the seabed for the natural sponges that became 19th-century Europeans’ bathing implement of choice. The islanders were also talented shipbuilders, and as the money rolled in, merchants built the gracious mansions with tall windows that look down from the hillsides and line the higgledy-piggledy lanes leading up from the harbour’s edge. Painted in chalky shades of ochre, dark yellow and Wedgwood blue, a few are derelict and sit peeling in the sun like rusty ships. The houses with the best views have already been turned into apartments and pricey holiday lets by local developers.
Along the waterfront, cafes and tavernas sell Greek and Italian staples such as souvlaki, moussaka, grilled sardines and pizza. As the sun sets on our first day, my children have a field day sucking the flesh from juicy olives and festooning the paper tablecloths with ribbons of coloured crayon.
We’re staying close by, at Hotel Kokona, a family-run guesthouse in a huge yellow building right next to a church jangling with bells. Our room is very basic, with only a sink unit and small shower room, but it’s exceptionally clean and its four narrow single beds, lined up like a school dormitory, are surprisingly comfortable when you’re exhausted. There’s a large courtyard outside with a plastic table and chairs – perfect for a painting session at 7am – and two tortoises that live in the neighbour’s flower bed for impromptu entertainment. Even better? Our 11-night stay costs only €660 (Dh2,659).
Being long-stay holidaymakers on an island where most people spend hours not days makes us a bit of an oddity, and as we become familiar faces, we soon make friends. Our days quickly develop an easy routine: breakfast at Mercuris’s cafe, just back from the waterfront, where €6 (Dh24) buys homemade yogurt, honey, eggs, tomatoes, olives and fresh bread. A former bank manager turned farmer, Mercuris greets us with open arms and tall, cold coffees every morning. He supplies flowers for the girls’ hair and reorganises his tables to provide shade for some unrushed jigsaw-puzzling. By 10am, we pile onto a former fishing boat with about 30 others and face the day’s toughest choice: which beach to call home for the day.
From €10 (Dh40) per adult return, the water taxi runs to five or six of Symi’s mainly stony beaches. The sea is astonishingly cold and clear, but what’s most startling is the colour of the water: from the palest turquoise on the shoreline to deepest lapis. In some places, a narrow strip of neon blue highlights the landscape where stone cliffs dive into the sea. The steep hills that rise back from the coastline are rocky, but you’re never long out of sight of green trees, cypresses, pines and wild herbs. In the early and late season, trekkers follow the goats and sheep into the mountainous interior, enjoying the thyme-and-sage-scented air.
In the height of summer, each beach has a family-run taverna offering sunloungers and a decent menu, if free from any surprises. While that’s bad news for gourmets, it’s perfectly acceptable if, like me, you enjoy the certainty of ordering something your family will eat – even fresh-thyme-sprinkled chips prove a little too experimental. By 5pm, when the water taxi returns, we gather ourselves for the 20-minute ride home, and by the time we are helped ashore at Yialos, our children are salty-skinned from the sea spray and, most wondrously, often fast asleep.
In the unlikely event that the water taxi becomes too routine, there’s a bus service that will take you the short distance to Pedi, a fishing village with hotels, apartments and very little else, and a man in sunglasses with a pickup truck (it’s that kind of place) who’ll collect prospective diners and ferry them to the excellent Dafnes restaurant overlooking the tiny Toli Bay.
The main reason most tourists abandon the beach is the Monastery of St Michael of Panormitis. We duly sign up for a boat trip around the island, stopping to anchor in deep waters and private bays to swim before we arrive at the almost unbearable blaze of white buildings flagged by an ornate clock tower on Panormitis Bay. There has been a monastery on the site since the fifth or sixth century, but what pilgrims and day-trippers see today is 18th century. Its vivid wall frescoes provide the cues for some entertaining Biblical storytelling, but it’s too hot to linger in the pebbled courtyards for long.
Back on board, the sea breeze is kinder and by late afternoon, jumping into the icy water – armbands on and pale legs pumping to keep warm – has become a joyous norm.
With those kind of memories, it’s no wonder that, drachma or euro in pocket, we’ll be back for more.
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Updated: August 13, 2015 04:00 AM