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Land of fulfilled promise

Despina Meris has a spiritual encounter - and locks eyes with a goat - on the Greek island of Symi

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Symi

The serene waters of Symi.

07 April 2011

I look up from my book and am startled to find two dewy brown eyes staring back at me. The large round eyes of a billy goat. Lying on a beach chair at an intimate beach in Symi, I thought I’d be met with the dewy brown eyes of a cocktail waiter.

Startled, I lean back and fall off the edge of my suddenly narrow chair and into the gleaming white uneven pebbles below. The goat chews his imaginary grass (or is that my sunglasses case?), and wanders his way back to the well-worn path along the dry hill. I suppose that’s what I get for seeking out a beach that only the locals know about, somewhere slightly remote where I can escape the day trippers.

Tucked away from the main towns of Yialo and Chora (where we are staying), Marathounta Beach is accessible by car or motorbike along well-sealed roads. The lengthy drive is rewarded with crystal clear water, natural shade, a small blindingly white pebble beach and a fantastic tavern serving organic local delicacies. And stray goats. Not only are goats found on the beach, but on the menu too.

I am assured by the waiter that the slow-roasted goat is local. Gulp. I overcome the guilty lump in my throat, and savour the delectable meal that could only be from a family recipe. Symi, part of the Dodecanese island chain, is small but perfectly formed. As we tour the island on our motorbike, this becomes stunningly clear. The undulating hills, the panoramic views around every curve in the road, and the towns below that are so perfect they seem too good to be true. We are on our way to Panormiti Monastery, a dedication to Archangel Michael that Symi is renowned for, and the drawcard for many visitors to the island. It attracts devout Christians from around the world, on a pilgrimage to this sacred site to have their prayers answered.

The white Venetian-style building is set on a remote part of the island, surrounded by pine trees. The hoards of day-trippers mostly arrive by boat from Rhodes. Arriving by road, as we did, must be rare - we had to manually open a gate on the only road into the small town dedicated to the Monastery. The grounds of the monastery echo with the sound of international visitors speaking in their native tongues. It’s busy with tourists navigating the mosaic-pebbled floor of the courtyard, and not quite peaceful, as I had hoped.

While I wait for a gap between ships, I strike up a conversation with the aging caretaker, coincidentally named Michalis. Michalis openly shares with me the mysteries surrounding the site. Heavy-hearted visitors come seeking help, making promises to Archangel Michael for their wishes to come true. If these promises go unfulfilled, he will arrange for visible signs that you haven’t kept your end of the bargain. One oft-repeated miracle, according to the locals, is that the Archangel will not allow the boats to leave until the vows are kept. Mental note to self - don’t make promises you can’t keep or you’ll answer to a much higher power.

The ship’s horn bellows dramatically, beckoning most of the tourists to file out of the front doors hurriedly. The elegantly landscaped courtyard is suddenly serene, so I take this opportunity to enter the church itself. Alone in the cool marble surrounds, I light my candle and admire the icons that grace the walls from floor to ceiling. I make my way to the nearly life-size figure of Archangel Michael, who is depicted carrying a sword and powerfully standing his ground. Kneeling before it, I make my silent prayer for the continued good health of myself, my family and friends. In exchange, I make an oath to the Archangel.

Symi is a blessed island with exorbitant beauty crammed into every nook and cranny. Yialo is the port town and arriving there is picture perfect. Its charming neoclassical buildings, perfectly restored, cluster around the port in symmetrical unison. The buildings are painted in the alternating hues of a pastel colour palette, giving the town an ethereal glow at sunset.

Warm and welcoming, the town invites you to stroll around, exploring its shops and markets. Symi’s charm hasn’t gone unnoticed. Well-heeled tourists, mostly British and Italian, are buying up properties and restoring them to their former glory. In all of Yialo, there is not one rundown or derelict building. A walk along the waterfront leads you to smartly furnished boutique hotels and sleek bars, with no shortage of candles to create a romantic ambience in the alfresco terraces. You are spoilt for choice of waterfront restaurants, but they are too busy tonight for my liking.

I am after a more serene dining experience befitting of a small Greek island. On our tour of the island today, we discovered a small traditional outdoor tavern in Pedi Bay. The tables were stationed literally on the pier and the outdoor barbecue was grilling up a fresh catch of octopus, sea bream, and red mullet.

The scents that drifted through the air etched themselves in my memory. So nothing else will do, and we find ourselves back at the rustic surroundings of the beach tavern. Grilled octopus, zucchini fritters, fried eggplant, Greek salad, feta, whole sea bream - and only two of us are eating. It’s a calm night and we are serenaded by the sounds of hushed voices and the sea lapping against the pier.

The patrons at the neighbouring table finish their meal and walk toward the end of the pier. It turns out they are stepping into their motorboat to whisk them off to their luxurious yacht floating regally in the bay. It reminds me that this is no ordinary island. It is frequented by millionaires. It seems that people from all walks of life can appreciate an incredible island when they see one.

I vowed to Archangel Michael that I would spread the word and tell everyone I could about the beauty of Symi. And now, I’ve fulfilled that promise. I hope he keeps his.

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