I’ve just walked back from the swimming pool – one at a nearby hotel. It’s been a quiet, unassuming weekend and it was the perfect way to spend a fading Sunday afternoon. A cold drink, a swim, time in the hot tub, a good read – all with a cheesy 80s soundtrack in the background. Added sport included beating SoundHound to naming that tune. I’ve known the town as visitor and resident for many years now, but it wasn’t until last May that I walked into this hotel to meet an old friend who was staying there before she headed to the airport. Since then, I’ve been back, summer and winter. I like it. The place itself has become a friend.
The previous Sunday saw me on a drive down to the deep south of the island to two places I’ve watched change a great deal over the years, yet which I never tire of revisiting. A friend (of tenacious longstanding) was celebrating her birthday at a beachside restaurant with a group of tourists and residents. The temperature rose, the mercifully-cooling wind blew, we ate, we drank, we chatted, we laughed and we had cake. The beach was full of happy holiday makers, the sea full of determined swimmers. A slow drive back took us to a fishing village in a small bay dominated by a ruined castle on the rocky outcrop above. The birthday cake digested, we stripped off and jumped in the water with the local ducks.
Two weeks back now, and my Sunday was spent on as well as in the sea. The friend who’d introduced me to today’s hotel, invited me to meet her on another island at a favourite bay. One catamaran and a speedboat later, there I was and so was she. The crystal blues of the water were clearer and colder than usual – choppy, too, as the wind blew hard. On the boat and at the beach, I met two Dutch women, who talked of heartbreak, survival and fortitude with gusto and good humor. For a while, I walked alone along the shore, I had time for reflection before the return boat journey. I travelled through time at speed, remembering the first time I was there, the lasting value of the friendships made then, moving past all those made since, arriving happily, bumpily, covered in sea spray, back in the main harbour with those made that day.
Yes, it’s not hot enough for me in Rhodes Old Town, so I’ve swapped cobblestones for steps and am spending the weekend on Symi. My feet are happy, my calf and thigh muscles in shock. There’s no special occasion, it was simply high time I took the trip – so I did. This report is coming to you from Εlpida’s cafe – from her front row seats for the few super yachts which can squeeze into the harbour – in a rare space of peace and relative quiet (no shouting, yet).
My Symi weekends start on Saturday night and end on Monday afternoon – thanks to Dodecanese Seaways’ current schedule. I leave Rhodes on Saturday at 19.00 and am usually in Symi by 19.50. Although this weekend there was a switch of boat and harbour and arrival time to 20.45, this still will impress those of you reading who remember the halcyon days of the Symi I (more than two hours, even with a following wind, and seamanship to rival Captain Pugwash – enough said). I return on the 17.00 boat – back in Rhodes by 18.30 on Monday. These days, two nights every few weeks is just about right for me.
When the boat pulls into the harbour, I still get a buzz from the view on deck. It’s one of those skylines in the world which never tires, for me, along with (say) London from the air, Colchester from the train and San Francisco from the sea. What gives me an even greater boost is knowing that my room is only five minutes’ walk from where the boat docks and, even better, there are few steps to reach it. I stay in the butcher’s wife’s rooms – Stamatia’s place.
My room has a view – all of Stamatia’s rooms have a view. It is of the sea and yachts and Turkey and my favourite restaurant (more on that later). It is set back a little from the main drag and attracts photo-hungry tourists. I’m not sure why, but it does mean that I have to be careful when going outside to remember that it’s not secluded or private (nowhere on Symi is private) and to make sure I’m decent (well, as close as, for an Essex girl).
Saturday night I’m a latchkey kid – the key is left in the door for me, I see myself in, wash, change clothes and head out. I say hello, take in some of the sights and sounds, block out some of the others, smile broadly at anyone on an expensive yacht who looks remotely sentient and go to the Vapori for a drink – I just have one for the road back round the harbour before yachties and ‘regular visitors’ arrive.
‘Regular visitors’ are a type of tourist who eschew that term – Symi and Lindos in this region, in particular, attract them. You know, they’re the ones who’ve been here 394 times (not counting that first time they came on a daytrip from Rhodes – a place they now claim to loathe) and are best friends with simply all the people who matter (but still can’t understand or use the language their best friends speak).
On Sunday (that’s today), I head out to a beach on a boat. Recently, I’ve developed a serious Agia Marina habit. That doesn’t look like it’s going to change today and I’ll probably take the 11.00 boat. Sometimes I have company, sometimes I don’t – either way it works – today, I’m waiting for a call to find out whether a friend will join me on the beach or if we’ll just meet for dinner tonight.
Monday, the furthest I’ll go is Pedi or Nimborios – push comes to shove, I can walk back from both even when the heat is blistering; because I have a boat to catch and can’t be too careful. In the morning, I walk round the harbour to have a final catch up, before heading to the butcher’s to pay. Now, here’s the thing – I could leave the money in my room, I could hand the money to Stamatia when I see her in the harbour, I could leave the money with a friend to pay when they go to buy meat, but I don’t. I really enjoy going into the butcher’s to pay the money over the blood and carcasses. It gives me a buzz – money, blood and meat. Something visceral about it. Maybe I spent too long in Sicily?
Anyway, back to dinner, my favourite restaurant, there’s another thing. After my one drink at the Vapori, I walk right the way back round the harbour, past my room, through the boatyard and on to Tholos. That is where I eat. Yes, there are loads of other restaurants to choose from – up hill and down dale, prices to suit all budgets, food to suit most tastes – but Tholos is the only place, for me. If someone asked me to describe my perfect place to eat, I would describe Tholos. Here’s why.
Location, location, location – it’s on the point at the far end of the harbour, bringing breeze and (some) peace away from the main drag. It is on the water’s edge – your dinner may be swimming at your feet and you may feed your dinner to someone else’s (future)dinner. Style – less is more. There’s no music; you can hear the sea, the wind and each other when you speak. Plain white table linen and crockery and simple, effective lighting – no walls, it’s all outside, so the decoration is the view (from all sides). Service – polite, discreet, effective, unobtrusive. Food – cooked on site, from fresh – understood and treated (as are those who eat it) with respect. I never look at the menu – food is suggested, I agree. And it’s a family affair.
I am always happy when I’m there – if I could choose where I had my last meal on this earth, that’s where it would be. I’d die smiling and haunt for second helpings.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the noise levels and heat have increased here at the cafe and I have a boat to catch.
First published on axrhodes on 21/07/2013