Ok. We are going to say it up front. We didn’t come to the Dodécanèse for cultural or spiritual enlightenment. We came for the water views and the fish tavernas.
We drank a lot of ouzo and we ate a lot of fish. The closest we came to pondering an existential question was wondering “Is there more to life than this?” We asked the waiter but his reply was all Greek to us.
So here’s an overview. (No food pictures. We haven’t sunk that low. Yet.)
We spent some time on Rhodes a few years back, so this time it was just one night coming from Turkey before going on to Symi. No sightseeing. Superb fish lunch.
Beautiful, beautiful Symi. A Venetian port in colours of pastel shaded chalk sticks.
Fans of Rick Stein will recognise Symi from his Venice to Istanbul series. All the segments where he cooked in his own kitchen were filmed in a house they rented on Gialos harbour. So almost every episode has Rick on location somewhere and then cuts to a shot of Symi and he cooks something. Locals say it was great publicity for the island.
The backstreets and the town spreading up the hills merging with the hilltop township of Horio are very picturesque and there are superb views over the town. The more than 500 steps up are well worth the climb.
We took a bus over to the other side of the island where the Panormitis Monastery stands. It is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, Symi’s patron saint and the guardian of sailors. Bottles thrown into the sea ‘anywhere in the world’ containing a request to the Archangel have ‘miraculously’ found their way into the bay in which the monastery sits, and are exhibited in a museum here.
We didn’t have a bottle and our only request was seafood, so we returned to Gialos town and ate. Again. Symi shrimps are famous and understandably so. Small, sweet, simply fried and served with a squeeze of lemon. Heaven on a plate.
Kos Town was almost completely flattened by an earthquake in 1933, so the town architecture is all fairly modern. But it’s got a pretty harbour.
It had some cute little villages inland including this one, where local people still collect water from an ancient cistern.
It was sometimes hard to tell letter boxes from shrines.
Back in town there are lots of ruins to see, just casually interspersed with regular buildings. Hippocrates was born and lived here, and the plane tree under which he taught his students is still alive.
We looked at a few ruins.
Then we went and ate some fish.
Another beautiful harbour.
Kalymnos prospered as a sponge diving centre until the market for sponges disappeared with the invention of plastic.
Even apart from the danger of the diving itself, it’s incredible to think they routinely sailed as far as North Africa in tiny boats like this one.
The traffic along the waterfront was annoying – a constant stream of noisy motorbikes – but the backstreets were quiet and pretty.
Inevitably, there was a monastery on the hill above town. It contains the body of St Savvas, a monk who lived here for the last 20 years of his life. When he died in 1947, the nuns attending him saw his soul ascend to heaven on a golden cloud. Three years later he appeared to the nuns and asked them to exhume him as the side of his head was getting wet from being buried with his head against a water deposit. The bishop refused the nuns’ request to exhume him, but relented seven years later. It is claimed that upon being exhumed, his body was completely intact and uncorrupted despite the passage of ten years in the grave, except for a small part of his skull where the skin had deteriorated from water leaking onto his head.
You can make what you will of this story, but undeniably, the monastery is beautiful and the view is stupendous.
We walked back down to town from the monastery. Then we ate some fish.
According to Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus was washed up on the island of Ogygia, home of the nymph Calypso, after a shipwreck. Calypso imprisoned him on Lipsi for the next seven years because he refused her amorous advances and wanted instead to return home to his wife Penelope in Ithaca. That’s one helluva good excuse for getting home late. Seven years late. More likely, Odysseus landed here and couldn’t bear to leave. So he made up the whole imprisonment thing to justify staying so long.
You might think we would be a bit blasé about harbours by now, but Lipsi is stupidly, incredibly beautiful.
Lipsi in mid Spring is like a fairytale princess just awakening after 100 years of slumber. The village is so quiet you can hear the wind blow a leaf down the lanes. The harbour is quiet, the only sound is lapping water and fishermen pulling nets around. Activity consists of taverna and ouzeria owners sprucing up for the summer.
With a population of just 600, there is little traffic and some things are still done the old fashioned way.
The village is like a postcard.
There are about 40 churches, which seems a lot for a population of 600 people. Hence there are little white and blue domes dotted all over the landscape. Then we found this. We thought it must have built by some crazy expat but were told it was built by a local guy. Guess he got sick of the more, ah, orthodox churches.
The whole place had a quirky feel.
We saw a dog on a motorbike. Not sitting on the fuel tank as you would usually expect, but standing up on all fours riding pillion on the back, looking for all the world like a surfing dog having the time of his life.
Instead of a Mr Whippy van playing Greensleeves, in the morning a truck plied the streets surrounding the village outskirts announcing the sale of chickens. Live chickens. You can’t get fresher than that!
We deviated from our seafood odyssey at a brilliant little restaurant named Manolis in Lipsi village, where we had the second best slow cooked lamb shanks on the planet (the best being at the invitation-only Ange’s Cucina in New Farm, Australia).
We so wanted to do an Odysseus and stay indefinitely, but reluctantly we moved on.
Ferries arrive at Agios Marina and the town climbs up to join the village of Platanos on the top of the hill and then cascades down the other side to the opposite bay where it becomes the village of Pandeli Beach.
We stayed in a renovated windmill up the hill overlooking Pandeli Beach with great views over the bay.
The lady who owned the windmill lived next door. She REALLY loved cats.
A few of the cheekier ones came to visit.
Leros had several candidates for best fish taverna in the islands.
We applied ourselves seriously to the task of determining a winner. It was an onerous task, but we felt it our duty to pursue these investigations.
Ultimately, based on location, food and originality of name (yeah, right), the winner was clear.
John was still confusing his kalimera (good morning) with his calamari (fried squid) but decided he was really Greek in spirit, and started plotting ways to gain citizenship. Was he like Persephone who, in Greek mythology was kidnapped from Greece as a child and taken to Hell (in John’s case, New Zealand)? Was an inviolable love of swordfish and a conviction that the Greeks make the best chips enough to prove native Greek-ness?
Last but not least, we headed to the island of Patmos. Famous as the island to which St John the Divine was exiled and where he wrote the Book of Revelation, the port (and main town) of Skala is dominated by the enormous Monastery of St John on the ridge above.
Below it is a smaller monastery built over the Cave of the Apocalypse where St John received the vision which he wrote in the Book.
We caught a bus to the monastery and then walked back down a combination of road and walking tracks. The views over the harbour were very fine.
Spiritual nourishment having been gained, we sought physical nourishment to match. More fish and calamari was consumed. Life was in good balance.
The town has a maze of back lanes with some nice boutiques.
We scootered around the various other bays and villages identifying further fine options for fish lunches.
After a final fish lunch at the beautiful Grikos beach, with heavy hearts and even heavier waistlines, we boarded a night ferry for Athens. We said goodbye (for now) to the Dodécanèse and, with due attribution to Douglas Adams, ‘So long and thanks for all the fish’.