Now a sparsely populated island best known for its Neo Classical architecture, Symi was once a major commercial, sponge fishing and ship-building centre with a population of roughly 22 000 souls. The island is approximately 13 km long, north to south, and about 8 km at its widest point. It is very steep and arid with some forests remaining on the high plateau. The highest point is the Vigla at 616 meters. Surrounded by Turkey on 3 sides it was this proximity to Asia Minor combined with its relatively sheltered location and easily defended coastline that contributed to the island's prosperity. It is a popular destination with walkers, painters, and photographers. A number of writers have also chosen the island to pursue their muse and celebrities come to enjoy quiet anonymity.
The first known historical reference to Symi is in Homer's Odyssey when King Nireus of Symi contributed 3 ships to the Trojan War. Occupied thereafter by Dorian Greeks, the island fell under various spheres of influence: Rhodian, Roman, Byzantine and that of the Knights of St John. Part of the Ottoman Empire from 1522, it was occupied by the Italians from 1912 during the Turko-Italian War and remained Italian until the Second World War. After an uncertain period during which Symi was bombed and attacked by both Allies and Axis alike, it fell under British Military Occupation at the end of 1944. In 1947 Symi and the other Dodecanese islands were incorporated into modern Greece. It was renowned for its boat-building, sponge-fishing, viticulture, icon-painters, wood carvers and schools.
With the Italian Occupation and later the Catastrophe of 1922, Symi lost much of its wealth as many of its agricultural and commercial concerns were actually in Turkey. Many Symiots emigrated, taking their sponge-fishing skills to France, the USA and Australia. The tide only turned in recent years with the discovery of Symi as a tourist destination which has led to an economic resurgence and many Diaspora Symiots are returning to the island of their ancestors.
The island is protected by a preservation order so the Neoclassical mansions of the 19th century sponge merchants and fleet owners remain to be seen to this day. There has been extensive rebuilding and restoration in recent years, all in the traditional style. The main area of habitation is grouped around and above the harbour, Yialos, and in Chorio at the head of the Pedi valley and in the vicinity of the Kastro. Yialos has been the main harbour for the past 2 centuries at least. Chorio and Yialos are connected by the famous Kali Strata, a street of about 400 steps lined with 19th century mansions. There is also a motor road from Yialos which skirts the perimeter of Chorio on its way to Panormitis on the other side of the island. A branch road runs down to Pedi. In earlier times when boats were smaller and were dragged up the beaches, Nimborio and Pedi were the main ports. The most ancient area of continuous habitation is Chorio, above the Pedi valley, as this was the most readily defensible in times of piracy and lawlessness. Most houses in both Yialos and Chorio are only accessible by climbing any number of steps and, in the case of Chorio, negotiating the windy lanes designed to confuse pirates.
Most houses are double storey and, to save space, the levels are either connected by external steps or internal ladders. There used to be a Castle crowning the acropolis, an area still referred to as the Kastro. This was built by the Knights of St John and survived until the Second World War when the retreating Germans who had been using it as a munitions store blew it up with tremendous damage to the houses and churches in the vicinity. Symi was the capital of the Dodecanese at the time of VE Day as Rhodes was still in Axis hands so the Peace Treaty between Britain and Germany was signed on the 8th May in Symi. This event is still commemorated with parades and traditional dancing every year.
The row of windmills on the crest of the hill between Yialos and Chorio are relics from the days when wheat was brought across from Asia Minor to be milled on Symi.
There are still olive and almond groves on the island but these are not exploited commercially. Apart from a few small market gardens and limited livestock, all foodstuffs are brought in by boat from Rhodes or Piraeus and hawkers arrive on the big car ferries to sell vegetables and household goods. The island has a comprehensive selection of shops and businesses, many of which are open all year round to support the needs of the community. There is a large monastery complex at Panormitis and this is a main centre of pilgrimage among the Greek Orthodox faithful. Panormitis has a big festival on 7th November and people come from many of the other islands to take part in the celebrations.
As the island has no natural water apart from what is saved from the winter rains domestic water is brought in by ship from Rhodes. There are no big holiday complexes on the island and the holiday accommodation available is within the community in the form of apartment hotels, villas, studios and some small hotels. Some places have vehicle access but generally speaking it is impossible to avoid steps or slopes so it is not an appropriate destination for those with mobility problems. Most visitors staying on the island quickly find that they are made welcome by the community and some have been coming for years. The present population of the island is about 2 500, with a growing proportion of young people. There are two high schools on the island, one academic and one technical, and, unlike many other islands which have small and elderly populations, Symi has a lively community life all year round.
As the island is so mountainous and steep-to, most of the beaches are small coves only accessible by sea. Water taxis run from Yialos and Pedi and most of the popular beaches have small tavernas which also hire out sun beds and umbrellas. Don't expect great expanses of gleaming sand but you can expect some quite spectacular settings and very clear water for swimming and snorkelling. Small boats are available for hire during the main months of the season. Scooters and small cars are available to hire all year round and make exploring the interior easier. Most holiday accommodation is only open from April until October but there is some limited out of season accommodation available. Tourist orientated businesses, however, tend to be closed during the winter months. From May until October excursion boats offer a range of itineraries including combination packages with guided walks and there are also Saturday day trips to the market in Datca on the Turkish peninsula.
There is a wide range of eating options available to the visitor, everything from traditional Greek taverna meals to more sophisticated cuisine, and most hotels only offer breakfast. Self-catering accommodation runs from the most basic all-in-one 'two rings and a sink' arrangements to complete fitted kitchens and BBQs so many visitors enjoy experimenting with ingredients bought from the local grocers and fish bought fresh from the boat first thing in the morning.
Not surprisingly for such a romantic location with a picturesque past the island is a popular wedding and honeymoon destination. With sufficient advance notice civil weddings can be arranged at the town hall and many couples have celebrated their vows with a blessing service on one of the beaches.