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Sailing to Symi

As historian Jim Claven sails through the Greek island of Symi he transports us from the present to the past

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14 July 2017

I came to Symi one late summer day. As the ferry brought me into Panormitis Bay with its near-perfect harbour - the first stop on the island from Rhodes - what immediately struck me was the blueness of the water. As a previous visitor William Travis, and my trusty guide, had described, it was the 'crystal blueness' of the sea and sky, which seemed to merge as we arrived by boat.

Symi is basically a series of small coastal settlements clinging to the sides of mountain ridges. There are two principal towns – the capital Symi Town and Panormitis – both of which are ferry stops. Above them stand the bare mountains, harsh in the summer haze. These mountains separating its coastal settlements are now a haven for hikers.

Standing directly on the quay at Panormitis is the Monastery of the Archangel Michael. It's a striking building, if a bit unusual, with its baroque-style tower. Like many Greek churches, the monastery is built on the foundations of a previous temple to the god of the sea, Poseidon. That temple was destroyed in the 10th century, and the monastry building erected in 1780.

As I walked through the entrance gates, the crush of the crowd queued to pay their respects in the small chapel of the Archangel Michael left me to enjoy the coolness of the pebbled courtyard and surrounding architecture.

Reboarding the ferry my next stop was Symi Town. Built around a long inlet cut deep into the island's mountain core, the natural harbour is surrounded by tiers of striking tall houses perched on the rising hillside, painted in startling colours, not the traditional Aegean white and blue.

Looking up at the multicoloured houses I noticed something familiar. Perched on the balcony of one of the grand house facades was a houses-for-sale sign with a telephone number – beneath an Australian flag, blowing in the breeze. I wonder if this is evidence of a returning immigrant or their descendents. Or maybe it's just another Australian who has succumbed to the charms of the island.

Seeking my first vantage point to appreciate the town and its surrounds, I made my way around the quay, past the tourist shops and eateries and started my ascent. I was walking up an ever-rising cobbled street, surrounded by the solid evidence of Symi's former grandeur.

Symi and its population had grown wealthy from the sea and its produce. Yet by 1939 the island's fortunes had faded and emigration beckoned, reducing the population to 6,000 people. As I walked passed the stone houses I noted their impressive doorways were marked by inscriptions from over a hundred years ago. But many were now abandoned, some with no roofs, with eyeless-windows and no doors, like shipwrecks by the sea. These houses are survivors from the past, defiant in their dilapidated state, crying out to us to remember them and the many people and families who once found shelter within their walls.

Despite the warm summer Aegean heat I persisted in my pursuit of the summit, coming to more ancient ruins. The view is worth the trouble. The ridge juts out into the mouth of the narrow bay, turn around and you are standing above the town below, seeing it cradle by the surrounding hillside.

What these stones must have witnessed; Symi's past stretches back to the time of the ancients. It was here that it is said the vengeful Zeus exiled Prometheus, cast out for his gift of fire to mankind and transformed into a monkey - simis in Ancient Greek. It is written that Symiot women used to transport fire cinders in the stalk of locally grown fennel plants; just as the ancient legends say Prometheus did himself.

And according to Homer, Agamemnon's great fleet included three ships from Symi as it sailed to besiege Troy. Under the Ottomans, Symi would prosper through the benefits of its special treaty arrangements, guaranteeing its valuable sponge fishing and boat building industries and limiting taxation. By the 19th century Symi was one of the wealthiest sea ports in the Mediterranean - its harbour launching 500 ships, its population grown to 22,500 and its sponge divers famed as 'the most daring and experienced in the universe.'

There are few reminders of the Italian occupation of the island. They came in 1912, seizing Symi along with the rest of the Dodecanese from the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The island was ceded to Itlay in 1923. The new occupiers would try to place their own stamp on the island and its people.
But to no avail. As WWII erupted across Greece, the arrogance of the local fascist forces would be increasingly resented by the islanders.

This might have led some from Symi to volunteer and fight alongside other Greek volunteers from the Dodecanese who fought alongside the Anzacs at the first major engagement of the Greek campaign at Vevi in April 1941.

The island played its part in the seesaw campaign across the Aegean that began in 1943 which brought Allied Special Forces to the region in an attempt to harass and dislodge the German and Italian occupiers. And so it was that Lieutenant Anders Lassen, one of the bravest and most decorated Allied soldiers in the war, came to Symi in September 1943.

Danish-born Anders came as part of a small force of elite soldiers led by the Edinburgh-born Captain Jock Lapraik. And it was Anders who led the way into Symi harbour in his canoe. Arriving at the quayside in the darkness of the evening of 17 September, the locals erupted in celebration, ringing the church bells for their liberation – much to the consternation of the newly arrived Allied soldiers.

Over the next few weeks the Allied force convinced the local Italian garrison to join them and prepared its defence. For a few days the soldiers enjoyed the sun, a rest, and the hospitality of the locals. When the anticipated German attack came on 7 October it was defeated.

The fight on Symi was an intimate one, as Anders and his troop silently hunted the advancing Germans in the alleys and buildings of Symi Town. One of his comrades said that he could smell the Germans. Soon the Germans were in retreat.

As I stood on the ridge above Symi looking across to Pedi Bay, I could only imagine the fear of the Germans as they reboarded and sought to sail away from Symi, under fire from Anders and his comrades standing on these very stones. Anders accomplished this while suffering major burns and other illnesses. He was awarded his third Military Cross for his bravery in those days on Symi.

The locals seized the opportunity to aid the Allied cause – some fishermen like Marco Costandi volunteered to sail with the Allied commandos in their raids on nearby islands, the local blacksmith became an armourer and repaired a powerful Italian Breda gun Anders had brought from a raid on nearby Alimnia and as German and Italian troops retreated to the mountains they were hunted by the local villagers.

One of the most significant Allied supporters on Symi was Abbot Chrsyanthos Maroudakis of the monastery at Panormitis. Along with his young nephew Mihailis Lambrou, the abbot gladly operated a radio transmitter given to him by Lassen, and warned the Allies of enemy troop movements. The defeat of Allied forces across the Dodecanese saw Anders and the Allied force withdraw undefeated. Anders returned in 1944 to exact a terrible revenge on the local Italian fascist troops for their execution of the abbott, his nephew and another local Allied supporter in February 1944.

As with all wars, the fighting on Symi had come at a terrible cost to the island. Many islanders had been killed and many houses destroyed as the Germans launched bombing raids on Symi Town. As they left the island many of the Allied soldiers felt sorry for what had become of the island and its people, one writing how they were terrified, homeless and foodless, living in a town gutted and on fire.

Returning to the harbour-side I discovered two memorials to those dark days. The first stands in a small area carved out of the rising hillside. Here stands a memorial – like the many others that dot Greece - to those members of the Hellenic armed forces who fell here in the latter Allied raids of 1944. Further along the harbour is a unique memorial carved in English and Greek. It commemorates the surrender of the German forces across the Dodecanese which took place in this small building by the waters of Symi's harbour.

I almost stumbled across this humble sign, attached to the wall of the former Town Hall building, recently a restaurant and when I was there under renovation. There was no sign directing me to it, no story about that day on 8 May 1945. It was here that German General Wagner sailed into Symi Harbour and signed the formal surrender to the Allies, witnessed by Colonel Christodoulos Tsigantes, the commander of the Greek Sacred Squadron. And so the war in the Dodecanese came to an end. In 1948 Symi was joined to Greece.

I have read that after the war much remaining war material was put to more practical use by the islanders – the Church of the Ascension on the hill above Symi Town has what must be one of the most unusual church bells in the world, made from the nose-cone of a 1,000-kilo bomb!

After a relaxing swim in Symi Town's beautiful little beach, nestled to the north of the harbour, a harbourside meal in one of many taverns, it was time for my ferry ride back across the Aegean.

So if you are in the area during your next summer in Greece, I highly recommend you take the time to discover Symi. For me, I love its essential unpretentiousness, in the small but beautiful things that it offers the inquisitive visitor. Despite everything it has endured – from the losses of emigration, through war and occupation, to the waves of temporary tourists like myself – its essential character remains. Maybe that's why the famous English chef and travel writer Rick Stein has made Symi his second home. And what a lovely wish. Maybe I'll ring that number.

* Jim Claven is a historian and freelance writer. In November this year he will take part in a commemoration of the service of Major Anders Lassen at Melbourne's Denmark House, along with the Thessaloniki Association 'The White Tower' and the Battle of Crete and Greek Campaign Commemorative Council.

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