For sheer breathtaking beauty, the Greek islands can offer nothing to beat arriving at SÝMI. While the island as a whole is largely barren, its one significant population centre, Sými Town, is gorgeous, a magnificent steep-walled bay lined with Italian-era mansions.
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With its shortage of fresh water and relative lack of sandy beaches, Sými has never developed a major tourist industry. Sými Town however holds a wide range of small hotels, as well as abundant delightful rental properties, while day-trippers from Rhodes – and yachties lured by the wonderful harbour – mean it can support some very good restaurants too. In the height – and searing heat – of summer it can get uncomfortably crowded, with a large influx of Italian visitors as well as mainland Greeks, but in spring and autumn it’s wonderful, and even in winter a substantial expat community keeps many businesses open.
Visitors who venture beyond the inhabited areas find an attractive island that has retained some forest of junipers, valonea oaks and even a few pines – ideal walking country in the cooler months. Dozens of tiny, privately owned monasteries dot the landscape; though generally locked except on their patron saint’s day, freshwater cisterns are usually accessible. Near the southern tip of the island, the much larger monastery of Panormítis is an important pilgrimage destination.
Little more than a century ago, Sými Town was home to more people than Rhodes Town, thanks to the wealth generated by its twin ancient skills of shipbuilding and sponge-diving. Many of the mansions built during that age of prosperity have long since tumbled into decay – a process hastened in September 1944, when an ammunition blast set off by the retreating Germans levelled hundreds of houses up in Horió. While restoration is gradually bringing them back to life, the scattered ruins lend the island an appealing sense of time-forgotten mystery.
SÝMI, the capital and only town, is arrayed around a superb natural harbour in an east-facing inlet on the island’s north shore. Inter-island ferries arrive right in the heart of town, while excursion boats jostle for room in summer with mighty Mediterranean cruisers. Immediately behind the straight-line quaysides that enclose the main segment of the port, scattered with sponge stalls and souvenir stores targeted at day-trippers, the lowest row of Italian-era mansions clings to the foot of the hillsides. Each is painted in the officially ordained palette of ochres, terracotta, cream or the occasional pastel blue, and topped by a neat triangular pediment and roof of ochre tiles. The hills are steep enough that the houses seem to stand one above the other, to create a gloriously harmonious ensemble.
The lower level of the town, known as Yialós, extends northwards to incorporate the smaller curving Haráni Bay. Traditionally this was the island’s shipbuilding area, and you’ll still see large wooden boats hauled out of the water. Yialós also stretches some way inland from the head of the harbour, beyond the main town square, which is used for classical and popular Greek performances during the summer-long Sými Festival.
On top of the high hill on the south side of the port, the old village of Horió stands aloof from the tourist bustle below. It’s hard to say quite where Yialós ends and Horió begins, however; the massive Kalí Stráta stair-path, which climbs up from the harbour, is lined with grand mansions, even if some are no more than owl-haunted shells. Another similar stairway, the Katarráktes, climbs the west side of the hill, from further back in Yialós, but it’s more exposed, and used largely by locals.