Symi: island of saints, sinners and stunning scenery

At 10am, the spacious lounge area of the large inter-island ferry docked in the commercial port of the island of Rhodes in Greece has taken on a party atmosphere. It brims with three generations of families enthusiastically meeting and greeting friends.

I join the pilgrims accompanying the icon of the Virgin Mary and child to the Monastery of Panormitis on the island of Symi, a 90 minute cruise and more than 40 kilometres north-west of Rhodes.

Panormitis Monastery, Symi

Like the island of Rhodes, Symi is part of the Dodecanese, Greece’s southernmost island group. The Knights of St John conquered the island during the Crusades in 1309; it was then taken by Turks in 1522, then by the Italians in 1912, before being united with Greece in 1948.

In the ferry’s lounge area, people queue to kiss the glass protecting the framed icon sitting prominently on an easel. The portrait icon of the Virgin Mary and child is worked in the traditional Greek style, the faces painted and the head and upper body covered in hand-embossed sterling silver.

Icon of the Virgin Mary and Child

The Monastery on Symi is famous for its chapel containing the miracle-performing life-size icon of Panormitis, the Archangel Michael. With his body clad in a gold-highlighted embossed  silver suit of armour, complete with silver wings and carrying a sword, he looks like a winged warrior. According to legend, if you ask a favour of Panormitis, you must give something in return.

Panormitis, also known as the Archangel Michael
Panormitis, also known as the Archangel Michael

To aid their prayers, some passengers have brought candles as thick and long as walking sticks to light outside the chapel and place in a large sand-filled stand.

Lighting candles at Panormitis Monastery
Lighting candles at Panormitis Monastery

Others have brought straw household brooms for Panormitis so he can sweep away their sins. Legend has it that, very late at night, the sound of sweeping can be heard around the monastery as the Archangel gets busy. Common household straw brooms are prominently displayed for sale at the corner shop for those who haven’t brought their own. The monastery shop features dustpan-sized brooms, the latter perhaps to whisk away smaller-sized sins.

Brooms for sale for the Angel
Brooms for sale

As the ferry nears the Monastery’s dock, hundreds of passengers gather around the gangplank in anticipation. A blonde-haired woman in her early twenties drops to her hands and knees, her palms and jean-clad knees covered in padding, and heads slowly towards the chapel and up the stairs. When I ask her whether she is a pilgrim she looks puzzled then says, “I do it for the saint.” A local woman, Maria, suggests she may have someone sick at home so she needs a grand gesture to ensure help.

Penitent on lengthy trip to the Monastery...
Pilgrim heading to the Monastery to ask a favour of Panormitis

Over the next hour-and-a-half, the crowd flows like a slow-moving stream of treacle into the tiny chapel. Its arches and walls are covered in frescoes of saints painted in colours muted by years of candle smoke. Taking photos is forbidden. Inside the chapel, the faithful buy and then light small tapered candles, and large squares of bread are handed out. There is much kissing of smaller icons on the way towards the main kissing event at the back right-hand wall of the chapel where the Archangel’s icon sits next to another of the Virgin Mary.

Waiting to enter the chapel of Panormitis
Waiting to enter the chapel of Panormitis

By the time I finally edge my way into the chapel, brooms of all shapes and sizes – enough for a witches’ convention – are stacked around the icon. Then the ship’s horn sounds, urging a speedy return to the ferry and the next leg of the journey to Symi’s port town, also named Symi, 50 minutes’ cruising north.

Harbour at Panormitis Monastery, Symi
Harbour at Panormitis Monastery, Symi

As the ferry enters the horseshoe-shaped harbour of Symi’s tiny port, many on board – myself included – snap endless photos of the town’s renowned tiers of elegant two- and three-storey neo-classical houses in pastel shades of peach, terracotta, lemon and pistachio. These houses, remnants of an affluent past, rise up the steep slope behind the waterfront which is lined with small fishing boats and yachts.

Symi harbourfront

The harbour has a deep anchorage enabling the giant ferry to simply back in against the pier by the elaborate clock tower. Again, the gangplank descends and hundreds of passengers surge off in search of lunch at one of the many cafes lining the waterfront.

I stroll past shops selling sponges, vestiges of the former major industry on the small island which has a permanent population of only 3,000 on its 58 square kilometres.

Sponges at a Symi shop

Waiting to take soak up some of the visitors on a tour is the egg-yolk yellow and terracotta pink tourist train.

Symi tourist train

Just past the train and overlooking the water is a statue of a boy pointing a wand, looking like Harry Potter, minus the glasses. Originally the work by renowned Greek sculptor, Kostas Valsamis, was of a fisherboy, but the lower part of his fishing rod went missing.

Harry Potteresque statue of a fisherboy

I wander up and up narrow laneways and steps, finding yet more Venetian-style villas, some in a state of ruin, their gardens running wild. Even houses with flaking paint and faded blue or sea-green doors have their own charm. In crevices of rocks, cyclamens grow wild.

Symi cyclamens growing wild
Cyclamens growing wild

Every turn offers glimpses of the harbour below and gardens filled with poppies, daisies and oleanders. Above the right arm of the harbour, on a rocky ridge, are the remnants of several stone windmills.

Sneaker washing day in Symi

Returning towards the waterfront with its clear sparkling water, I join the rest of the population for lunch. I head back towards the clock tower, turn left, and find a table metres from the water under an umbrella, and order a mix of regional favourites: meatballs with tomato sauce and fried cheese balls.

Symi waterfront cafe

With time left for shopping I find tiny corner stores and shops selling Symi specialities, including hand-made jewellery, elegant clothes and shoes, leather work, and tourist trinkets. And of course, more sponge varieties than I knew existed.

Symi silver shop
Symi silver shop

Soon it is time to head back to Rodos, leaving the rest of the island and its small rocky beaches to others to explore with vehicles. The ferry blasts another warning signal for passengers to return for the trip back.

This small island, four kilometres away from Turkey across the Aegean Sea, is a haven for those seeking a visual feast, solace for their past sins and help for loved ones.

Symi is regularly serviced by ferries from Rodos and Kos operated by Dodekanisos Seaways. The trip from Symi port to Rhodes takes just over an hour.