Every time I sail into the harbor of Gialos (also spelled “Yialos,” or simply called Symi Town) I’m stunned by the beauty of the harbor, the meticulously maintained Italianate houses, the humble fishing boats and luxurious yachts. The water is so clear you can enjoy the undersea world from almost anywhere on the island. Do yourself (and your kids) a favor, come and stay.
There is no airport, so you come by yacht or ferry, and needless to say, we came by ferry. Day trippers from Rhodes look hot and exhausted and only have time to eat and shop for an afternoon and miss out on the real beauty of this island. Stay for even a few days and you begin to feel like a resident. Locals nod to you in recognition and even offer up advice. Yao Yao and I were occasionally treated to coffee and juice by men in a cafe in town, but I chalked this up to my daughter being irresistible or that foreign women, unaccompanied by a man, are often thought to be looking for – dare I say, companionship? (Not making this up, I saw it over and over again.) So if you are a woman traveling with your kids (or alone) and some handsome young Greek man approaches you and wants to “practice his English,” it’s likely he thinks you are looking for a “friend.” Just saying, not judging!
From Gialos, the Kali Strata is 357 stairs that ascend to the delightful, albeit quiet, town of Chorio (or Horio). We did the climb every day, and truth be told, when we went up after 11:00 and before 7:00, it was too hot for Yao Yao. I think we stopped at every cafe! We had a really fun dinner one night Taverna Giorgio & Maria, in the upper town. You get to go in the kitchen and point out the food you want, and the quantity. Yao Yao and I ordered so much good food that I was mortified at what we left behind! The garidaki simiako, or Symi shrimp, are amazingly sweet little shrimp that are out of this world. They are quite a treat, and every August there’s a little festival that the island comes out to celebrate and, of course, eat! Try them, they are incredible. Yao Yao was initially squeamish about eating the whole shrimp, so I gave her a tiny bite of mine, sans the head, and she dug in. The shell is softer than the skin of a pear. (The Greeks use a lot of olive oil, so you may want to be careful if you have a child – or an adult – with a sensitive stomach.) Yao Yao ate up a storm, and it was one of those nights we sat for hours talking about what we had seen and wishing Dad could taste the fried zucchini flowers and the stuffed shrimp.
Every day we went to a different beach so we could see another part of the island. Some of the beaches you can walk to, others you can only access by boat. Agios Nikolaos, one of my favorite little beaches, is still a funky, rocky beach with one decent taverna (and an ice cream stand where we sampled the wares a few times during the trip) but, unfortunately for the aesthetics, they’ve put up a fence to keep the mountain goats from coming onto the beach and eating sunbathers’ food. Years ago, I would wake up and they would be on the sun bed eating my apples! I had to tie all my food in a sack high in an olive tree. I kind of miss them.
I guess you could say I was relaxed, because I fell asleep after lunch and we missed our boat back to Gialos. We were lucky that there was one more taxi boat going back that evening and Yao Yao made sure we were on it.
Symi beaches are rocky, for the most part, and the sun-beds are old and a little worse for wear. Agios Nikolaos is the only semi-sand beach on the island. It’s not a French Riviera experience, but it’s fun, comfortable, and very Greek! Everyone has his or her favorite beach. We met a couple who loved Norimborios and others who thought Nos Beach was fine. (We thought the taverna at Norimboro was not good and Nos was too crowded, but that’s just us!) Maybe we hit them on a bad day. By the way, Nos Beach is the town beach and you can walk to it from Gialos. Maybe that’s why it’s so crowded?
Symi is a wonderful island to walk about. There are monasteries, little towns with cafes, restaurant,s and shops. It’s an island you can rent a house and stay by the pool or go exploring or island hopping. It’s a quiet island which appeals to us. But it may be too sleepy for some.
It’s funny what resonates with Yao Yao – what stories she tells her friends, or what she records in the dreaded journal I make her keep. Food, people, silly mistakes (mine or Dad’s), scary events, these are the things that stay with her. She delights in telling the story of the waiter who brought us the wrong meze (appetizer). I thought I was being nice so I decided we would eat the eggplant dip he brought instead of the taramosalata (cod roe dip) we had ordered. I took a few pieces of pita and had some dip, and before I could open my mouth the waiter came, apologized, and took away our eggplant and plopped it on another table! They dug into it immediately, so it was too late for me to say anything. Yao Yao still giggles about it.
The three weeks we spent together gave me an insight into her I could not get at home. None of us was distracted with tasks or obligations (well, a few work things). Long dinners, boat rides, and cafe stops gave way to wonderful conversations that aren’t feasible when work, school, and, well . . . life get in the way. The first morning on Symi, Yao Yao had her face in a book. By the second morning she was pointing out the fish and the little sailboats to me. I have been to Greece nine times and saw this country for the first time because of the lens Yao Yao gave me a peek through. I always hear how lucky YaoYao is to get to travel and what a gift we have given her. The truth is, Jim and I have gotten the gift.
This harbor is one of the prettiest in Greece. You can sit in a cafe for a song and watch the spectacular yachts that come into port for the night. If you prefer, you can walk to through the winding alleys and have dinner or a drink. There are some cute tourist shops and some upscale boutiques off the main square. When the day trippers leave, the town comes to life and when it’s all lit up, it’s a sight to remember.
Chorio is the quiet “upper” town of mazelike streets, with a few cafes, restaurants, churches, and sites. The view to Gialos is worth the climb up the Kali Strata. There is also a road from Gialos, so you can take a taxi or drive it.
Jim and I ate here years ago and it’s still the place to eat. The food is very good, but the waiter did try to up-sell me every step of the way. It was just Yao Yao and me, and dinner was over $100 – by far the most expensive meal we had. I do have to admit the branzino was perfection, though. The yachting crowd comes here and you will often see large tables set up for evening reservations. Once we settled in, we had a lovely time.
Taverna Giorgio & Maria
It’s a hike up to Chorio if you are staying in Gialos, but it’s well worth it. The food was very good and we just had a great time with the waiter and the location. I could have used someone to carry me down the stairs, but nothing’s perfect. This is an easy place to bring kids – with the exception of those stairs!
Good local food in Chorio. We saw primarily Greeks, but the restaurant was not intimidating for kids and the owners were accommodating. We dug into more Symi shrimp, but once you taste them, you won’t blame us.
Nestled between Gialos and Chorio, Pontikokastro’s ancient ruins are said to have been built by the Spartans.
Symi Museum houses traditional items, including costumes. I visited in the past, but we didn’t go in this time, so I can’t speak for its contents in 2013.
A small fishing village down from Chorio, certainly worth a visit if you are on the island for more than a few days. Pedi Bay’s beach is popular with the locals.
Home of the Moni Taxiarhou Mihail Panormiti, an 18th Century monastery honoring St. Michael, the patron saint of Symi. It also houses the Byzantine Museum, the Folkloric Museum, a guesthouse, and a restaurant and bakery.
Lots of interesting seafaring exhibits and sponge-diving information, lore, and boats and other equipment. Housed in a lovely Venetian dwelling on the harbor.
You can take little taxi boats from Pedi Bay or Gialos. We liked Agios Nikolaos, but again, this is a funky beach. Agia Marina and the other beaches can also be reached by taxi boat. Check the schedule to see times as they can change on a whim!
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