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.


Halki: A perfect Greek island escape

An hour and a quarter ferry ride from the Greek island of Rhodes lies the picture-perfect Instagram-ready island of Halki – no filters needed. At just 28 square kilometres in size and lacking the cruise crowds of many islands, it is perfect for a short Greek island break. Or for day-trippers like me to take time out from being a tourist to simply chill out by the water.

In the petite horseshoe-shaped harbour of the island’s only town, Emborio, freshly-painted pastel-coloured villas flow down the slope to the water’s edge.


From the harbour front, I explore the labyrinthine maze of narrow paths so typical of Greek villages. In late Spring, whitewashed walls spill over with bougainvillea in shades of fuschia pink, orange and white.

At 10am one fortunate couple are ensconced in deck chairs at a table on the terrace of their boutique hotel, polishing off the last crumbs of their croissants, straw hats shading their faces from the warm sun. Lapping a couple of metres below them is the crystal clear water of the bay, accessible via stainless steel steps adjacent to the terrace. Meanwhile, a few villas along, five middle-aged ladies practise tai chi in synchronised moves on their terrace.


Villas become less immaculate in appearance and the paint less freshly applied the further up the slope and the more distant the villas are from the water. Some down-at-heel villas are for sale,  the owners’ phone numbers painted on raw stone walls which have crumbled with the passing seasons. Yet even these have charm, their derelict doorways framing enchanting harbour views.

Derelict stone house overlooking Halki’s waterfront

Eventually the passageways come to a dead end. From the stony slope above, sounds drift down of chickens chuckling and the clanking of a goat bell. I return towards the harbour via winding paths, heading towards the clock spire on the right hand side of the bay for more views.

Gathered by an outdoor bread oven, a knot of four women is chatting. As I stop to literally smell the roses spilling over a wall, two of the ladies invite me to visit the adjacent 200-year old Traditional Chalki House, as its sign states. For a few euros, I temporarily step back in time to their ancestral family home, furnished in late 1800s style in the open-plan design. The younger of the two women provides a lesson on the forgotten use of some antique kitchen implements. Up the steep stairs is a spacious whitewashed bedroom complete with antique iron bed and cot sitting on wide-planked pine floorboards, with hand-worked linen spilling from the open wooden trunk. As I leave, the two ladies usher me out with smiles and a wrapped lolly to go.

Inside the Traditional Chalki House

Further around on the right arm of the bay is the clock spire. Up some steep steps from the clock tower, just below the brilliant white town hall, is one of the best views in Halki. It is being enjoyed by Jane, an Englishwoman soaking up the sunshine on her villa’s terrace. She confides that, although she holidays with her family in Halki five times a year, retirement here is not an option as the town of around 400 residents virtually shuts down during winter once the tourists depart.

Following the laneway around and up to the right, I continue down a bougainvillea-lined path, passing the three windmills on the ridge above, and come to a sign indicating the way to Ftenagia beach and a tavern down a gravelled path. I follow it for 10 minutes to find that the path ends at a taverna and a beach that would be a strong contender for a “prettiest tiny beach” award.

Prettiest tiny beach award: Ftenagia beach, Halki

Past some shingle, a small strip of sand leads into transparent waters in colours graduating from pale aquamarine, to vivid topaz blue, Ceylon sapphire, finishing in deeper water in the royal blue tones of Australian sapphires. My polaroid sunglasses enhance the colour transitions to breathtaking effect.

At the tavern I order coffee then, with several hours left to kill before the ferry arrives returning me to Rodos, hire for three euros one of the blue banana lounges with its own umbrella. I zone out admiring the water for a couple of hours while two hardy northern Europeans brave the “no, it’s lovely, not cold at all” water. If it wasn’t for a coolish breeze and the sparse vegetation, I could imagine myself in the South Pacific.

Deck chairs and umbrellas for hire at Ftenagia beach, Halki

Finally, I head back into town, hoping to sample the Halki pasta mixed with caramelised onions and fetta cheese I have heard so much about. But in late May, still early in the tourist season, at 2.30pm the tavernas along the waterfront are almost devoid of tourists.  At one deserted waterfront café, the owner suggests that she could rustle up the local specialty if I was in no hurry. Although there is plenty of time before the ferry returns at 5.45pm, my stomach is more impatient. I head for the only taverna showing signs of life and order a dessert and a large coffee.


While I wait, a group of a dozen English artists-in-training rearrange the tables for a drawing class. Appearing from nowhere is a young Greek man clad in traditional black vest, pants and cap, contrasted with a white shirt. He allows the teacher to arrange his pose. “Make sure you don’t include his feet,” the teacher says, gesturing towards his non-traditional white trainers.

There is still time for another walk around the harbour front, and photos of the fisherman patiently untangling metres and metres of fishing line in front of the row of small colourful fishing boats lining the harbour. He allows me to photograph him with a smile.

Halki fisherman repairing a net

Still time for one glass of red wine for two euros – cheaper than the coffee – and more information about the island from Nico, the tavern owner. I discover that one main road runs most of the length of the island, that some beaches are only accessible by boat, and that there is a Venetian Castle dating back to the era of the Knights.

In the distance, I see the ferry to Rodos returning. In typical Greek fashion, everyone clusters by the dock edge, surging in the moment the metal gangplank touches the dock. Even though I was near the front of the crowd, I just make it to a seat when the ferry departs. No wonder the ferries in Greece’s Dodecanese islands run on time!

 Aegean Air runs connecting flights from Athens to Rhodes, with regular ferries to and from Halki. There is also a twice-weekly ferry to the port of Piraeus, Athens’ port.