My First Time

This month it’s 25 years since I first visited Rhodes and Symi. I had two weeks’ holiday from my work in London and wanted a complete change of pace. I knew I needed fresh air, sunshine, exercise, a laugh and to do some serious thinking – I was plotting a new path. A colleague recommended Symi, she went every year and stayed in the same accommodation and, needless to say, loved it. I took her advice and my diary. Here goes, with a highly edited version of events…

We arrive in Rhodes at 04.15 local time, on a plane packed with people I’d pay good money to avoid back in the UK. A relief then, to disembark. The plane pours us onto the tarmac under a full moon, into a cool breeze and the strong scent of dried herbs and pine trees. My first impressions of Rhodes are taken on the bus, as we travel through unexpectedly green countryside and gardens towards the town. The Old Town appears pretty, the rest (at its best) smart. By 09.00, I’m on the Symi I boat for the two and a half hour journey around the Turkish coast in the sun and cool breeze, to my destination – Pedi. Pedi is pretty, quiet and isolated and my studio is basic, clean and comfortable. All’s well. The window at the back of the studio faces onto terraced hills and a herb garden, the window at the front looks out over the bay to the blue, misty hills of Turkey.

Once I’ve eaten, I go for a walk around the bay and look at the clinker-built craft and watch fish-gutting. I meet a man from Woodbridge (East Anglia is never far away) doing the same. After the walk, I have to break into my accommodation through the window, as the door has jammed. As I’m climbing in, I meet the neighbours who politely ignore my breaking and entering and invite me to walk with them to St Nicholas. I climb back out. An hour later, I’m back to find goats everywhere and the owner fixing my door. He’s a very (too?) friendly, elderly, local teacher. His five surviving siblings all had to leave to find work abroad. He asks to be remembered to my colleague.

Over the next few days my walking takes me to the main town harbour, Gialos, up and over the top through a maze of village streets. The air is thick with the smell of honeysuckle, gardenia and jasmine; bougainvillea pink and lemons colour the air. On the way down the many steps, the views of the harbour below are splendid – often glimpses caught through once-elegant, now derelict, neo-classical houses built during Symi’s better times. Once in the harbour area, it’s obvious that a great deal is geared to day-trippers from Rhodes, shops selling sponges, herbs and oils prevail. On the first day, I head to the town beach to enjoy the fleeting peace where I’m soaked in the sea swell from an incoming ferry and drowned in the noise from a quarrelsome French family. The rest of my days are spent writing, walking, drawing, and reading. From time to time, I stop to chat with strangers and listen to their stories. In the evenings, I often go out to eat at the waterside under a clear sky cut with stars by nightfall.

By day three, I’m finding notes on my (now-functioning) door – the kindness of strangers is both fun and touching. That evening, I go with a small group of tourists and locals to a village celebration (reminiscent of a school play) which is supposed to show young local girls who their future husband will be. During this ritual, our small group becomes larger and we all go to eat together afterwards at a nearby taverna. I leave, so full I can barely move, to roll (mercifully) down hill past singing and screening of the FA Cup Final. There’s a clear night sky, opened up in a blue, blue bowl. I make it to the bottom of the hill when a large jeep full of people pulls up in a cloud of dust – I join them to go back up the hill and down again to a party at a bar in Gialos. By day five, I’ve convinced myself I should swim – the water’s freezing cold, but it constantly laps at the steps below me. What can I say? It’s refreshing! A sudden influx of sailors to the bay changes the rhythm – it’s noisy, alcohol-fuelled, party-time.

It’s the end of week one and the steps from my studio to the sea have become a meeting-point for a group of about eight people – we swim, we drink, we chat. But I still manage to find a quiet spot to finish reading ‘The Magus’ in peace. Most evenings are spent eating dinner at the top of the hill, followed by drinks at the bottom of it, on one side or t’other – with fingers crossed for a lift if it’s in Gialos. For a change of pace, and to see more of the island, one day I take a boat trip to Nanou Bay. By Symi standards, it’s verdant and tranquil. There’s a BBQ on the boat and there’s plenty to drink, too. We all swim from the boat before heading back.

I soon learn that a cooler alternative to walking up and down hill in the searing heat, is to take the Symi I boat from Pedi to the main harbour – it’s free and it’s scenic. One day, sitting in the town square, I’m joined on the bench by a very elderly lady who speaks as much English as I do Greek. She’s pretty, she’s tiny and she carries a silver-handled cane. She lets me know she has a story to tell and does so. At the end of the war she met an English soldier, from London, called Jimmy Baldock – he made an impression, she wants me to know. She gives me a toffee, smiles and leaves. Everyone I meet tries to persuade me to come back in September – there are shooting stars (they say), it’s more tranquil (I’m told), it’s more restful (she confides), there’s more fresh fruit (offers everyone)…

On another day, I take a road trip to Panormitis Monastery. I have a serious hangover. As we bump along the unmade road in an open truck, I just manage to stop myself from vomiting over the crumpled linen suits and Panama hats of my fellow travellers. The lifesaver is our stop at the chapel of St Constantine on the way there, which is being prepared for its name day. We are fed local pastries and coffee in a garden full of tiny pink scented roses. The sugar and caffeine sort me out. I light a couple of candles in thanks for not vomiting. It would have been churlish not to. Several times on the trip, we pull up on the crumbling edge of the road to enjoy the spectacular views of green, tree-filled valleys, those blue Turkish mountains and the misty seas between. Panormitis? The monastery? Municipal offices with a gothic clocktower attached. The museum? Baffling – full of unexplained exhibits. The chapel? Lovely. The way back is via Marathounda, with a 20-minute walk and a swim there before catching the Nireus boat back to the harbour. By the time I’ve walked another hour back to my accommodation, all memory of the hangover is gone.

Of course, by the end of the holiday, there are many on the Symi II to Rhodes in a far worse state, having decided to spend their last night on the island partying. It’s a very quiet boat indeed. In one hour and forty minutes little is said or done. Our group check into one room in a seedy hotel near Mandraki harbour which we take turns to use as we all have different flight times. We leave our bags and go to eat at a taverna in the Old Town. It’s my turn to use the room at midnight. I have it for two hours before leaving for the airport. Once there, I discover that an air trafffic control strike has stranded us all. Our group is reunited in a very crowded departure lounge. Although my flight is only delayed by 20 minutes, the cabin crew decide that a cargo door is open and we’re diverted to Athens, where we stay on the plane for 45 minutes while everything is checked. We land two hours late. I negotiate a dreadful train journey and an awful taxi-driver to make it home and wonder whether the previous two weeks really did happen.

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