Symi

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

In Homer’s Iliad Symi is mentioned as the domain of King Nireus, who fought in the Trojan War on the side of the Greeks and Thucydides writes that during the Peloponnesian War there was a Battle of Syme near the island in January, 411 BC, in which an unspecified number of Spartan ships defeated a squadron of Athenian vessels. Little else is known of the island until the 14th century, but archaeological evidence indicates it was continuously inhabited, and ruins of citadels suggest it was an important location.

Like many Greek Islands, Symi was first part of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire. However, unlike many Greek Islands, Symi was conquered by the Knights of St. John in 1373. This conquest fuelled by the Knights’ interest in shipping and commerce, launched what was to be a period of several centuries of prosperity for Symi, as its location made it an important waypoint for trade until the advent of steam-powered shipping in the 19th century.

The island was conquered in 1522 by the Ottomans (along with Rhodes) but it was allowed to retain many of its privileges, so the prosperity continued virtually uninterrupted. Symi was noted for its sponges which provided much of its wealth. It attained the height of its prosperity in the mid-19th century, which is why so many of the mansions covering the slopes of Symi Town date from that period.

Although Symiots took part in the Greek War of Independence of 1821–1829, Symi was left out of the new Greek state when its borders were drawn up and so remained under Ottoman rule. Symi, along with the rest of the Dodecanese, changed hands several times in the 20th century: in 1912 the Dodecanese declared independence from the Ottomans as the Federation of the Dodecanese Islands, though they were almost immediately occupied by Italy. The island was formally ceded to Italy in 1923, and on 12 October 1943 it was occupied by the Nazis. At the end of World War II, the surrender of German forces in the region took place on Symi and the island was subject to several years of occupation by the British. Symi finally became part of Greece in 1948.

Arriving at Symi Town is the loveliest way to begin any visit to a Greek Island. The bay has low hills on all sides and on those hills are stacked differently coloured ochre Italianate mansions, each one a slightly shade to its neighbour. The slope of the hills means these mansions appear in neat rows above one another, leaving the visitor spellbound by the man-made beauty. Added to this are lines of sail boats, small ferries, and large yachts bobbing rhythmically on the swell by the quay.

The wealth of Symi has been based on sponge diving and shipbuilding. Indeed just over a hundred years ago, these two industries meant more people lived in Symi Town than lived in nearby Rhodes Town. Symi has always been famed for its shipbuilding and legend has it that Symi provided 3 ships for the Greeks in the Trojan War. Nowadays tourism is the main earner, with enough expats staying on the island to allow some businesses to remain open all year round. Some of the houses built in the last two centuries have fallen into disrepair and the more you explore, the more ruins you will find.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Patmos

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

The island of Patmos has been inhabited since 3,000 BC, but the identity of those first inhabitants has not been conclusively proved. Some believe that the Kares, and the Leleges were the first settlers, others believe the Dorians were the first inhabitants, followed by the Ionians. Finds have excavated various buildings, cemeteries, fortresses and evidence of an ancient acropolis, testifying the existence of a densely populated area in the past, but no one can conclusively prove who built it.

During the Peloponnesian Wars, the Lacedemonians came to the island to escape from the Athenians and there are ruins that show a flourishing island during this period. However, Patmos started to decline when the Romans conquered it and used the island as a place of exile for convicts.

It was in these circumstances that St John the Divine or St John the Evangelist was exiled to Patmos from Ephesus in 95AD by the Roman Emperor Domitian. It’s said St John wrote his Gospel on Patmos, but his exile here is better remembered for his authorship of the last book of The Bible, The Book of Revelations. St John heard the voice of God and dictated the words to his scribe Prohoros in a cave on the island. The imagery provided by Revelations has been used ever since in frescoes to depict to people what will happen to them if they don’t believe in God and don’t follow the path of the righteous.

The Whore of Babylon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the Seven Trumpets that will sound to cue apocalyptic events are all depicted in Revelation. This book was sent to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor before John was allowed to return home.

A thousand years later the cave used by St John was enclosed within a chapel, which is now visited by hundreds of people on a daily basis as part of the Apokalypsis monastery. The chapel and cave together comprise an area not much more than ten metres square, with a central rock pillar that manages to divide the whole area roughly into two areas of about the same size. The first area nearer the entrance is where visitors stand and look around the chapel. The second area, closer to the icons at the front of the chapel, is where services take place and where people attending those services stand. My advice is to get there early so you can soak some of the atmosphere and have a good look at what there is to see namely, a small opening in the rock, outlined by beaten silver, where St John is said to have rested his head every night and a smaller gap in the rock, also outlined by beaten silver, which St John used to haul himself up in the morning after lying on the cave floor.

I was lucky enough to see a Greek Orthodox service at the Apokalypsis monastery, only attended by local people. The priest wore a white ‘dress’ decorated with Greek crosses. He had a large, bushy grey beard and his hair was a similar colour. He spent most of the service in an inner room chanting while two men, members of the congregation not garbed in priestly attire but definitely part of the service, on the opposite side of the inner half of the chapel were counterpoint to his chants. People attending the service had lit candles when coming in to the chapel, but these were replaced every 10 minutes by one of the two men helping to run the service, who would replace each thrown-away candle with a new one. There were a few chairs in the inner part of the chapel and there was no music, the only sounds were the three human voices.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Syros

The first historical mention of Syros is made by Homer, who named the island as “Syria” and then referred to it as “dipolis”, meaning it had two cities: Posidonia and Foinikas. The first known inhabitants were the Phoenicians during the second millennium BCE followed by the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and finally, in the early part of the first millennium BCE, the Ionians.

Ancient Ermoupolis was built by the Ionians, who then gave way to Persian invaders, Romans, Franks and Turks. The people who left the biggest impression on the city were the Venetians, who made Syros an important commercial centre of the Eastern Mediterranean. Repeated raids by pirates, forced the residents to relocate the capital up the hill to Ano Syros. Presumably the residents thought the pirates were either unfit or just plain lazy.

When the island was conquered by the French, Capuchins monks settled in Syros in 1635 and founded a small monastery still open to this day. In 1744, Jesuit monks arrived on the island.

At the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, the island’s population was about 4,000 residents mainly in the settlement of Ano Syros. After the massacre of Chios in 1822 and the persecution of Greeks on Samos, Rhodes, and in Smyrna, amongst many others, there was a large wave of refugees to Syros. Refugees found Syros to be a relatively safe place and started to build a vibrant city with impressive buildings at the foot of the hills below Ano Syros.

In 1828 there were 14,000 inhabitants in Ermoupolis, making it the the largest urban centre in Greece. Very quickly, Ermoupolis became the largest industrial and commercial centre of “free” Greece, reaching 20.000 inhabitants in 1850 and 22,000 in 1899.

Arriving at Ermoupolis, the capital of Syros and of all The Cyclades and known as “The Queen of the Aegean”, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the loveliness of this town that stretched up the hillsides towards the blue sky. Ermoupolis used to be the busiest port in the whole of Greece and a centre for shipbuilding. The wealth generated by all this commerce manifests itself in the stateliness of the mansions all around and in the number of large churches dotted across the town.

My hotel was the former home of the architect Georgios Vitalis and was located about a third of the way up the Vrondadho hill, just behind the Orthodox Cathedral or Mitropolis. In Syros, the orthodox population tends to live in the lower part of Ermoupolis whereas the Catholics live in the upper town and in the villages of the island.

The Plateia Miaouli is the centre of the town, a large open square, surrounded on three sides by palm trees, cafes, and benches for people watching. This is the place where the local population goes to be seen. The square is dominated on the land side by the glorious, neoclassical town hall, designed by Ernst Ziller. The square and accompanying statue are named after the Hydriot naval hero Andreas Vokos, whose nickname was Miaoulis. He commanded Greek naval forces during the Greek War of Independence between 1821 and 1829.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Paros

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

In around 1600 BCE, it was the Minoans from Crete who had the first recorded presence on Paros, tuning the island into a naval station with the name of Minoa. In 1100 BC, the Ionians became rulers of the island destroying the Minoan civilization on the island though traces can still be seen in the Mycenaean Acropolis near Kolimbithres.

In 1000 BC, Paros was taken by the Arcadians and became a power in the region, creating a colony on the island of Thassos. There was a cultural flourishing too with the construction of many temples, like a temple dedicated to goddess Athena (some of the columns from which can be seen to this day in the Kastro in Parikia) and the healing centre of Asklepieion.

Paros is the birthplace of many ancient poets such as the lyrical poet Archilochus, the first to use personal elements rather than heroic ones in his poetry. During ancient times, Paros was famous for its high quality semi-transparent marble, from the Marathi Quarries. This marble was used for the Temple of Apollo on Delos, the Venus of Milos (in the Louvre in Paris), and the statue of Hermes, by Praxiteles, at Olympia.

During the wars with Persia, Paros fought on the Persian side, but were defeated by the Athenian army. In 338 BC, the island came under the rule of Philip of Macedonia and became part of the Macedonian empire. After the death of Alexander the Great, Paros was taken over by the Ptolemies.

The ferries arrive on Paros at Parikia, a town of white houses with blue windows and doors, narrow streets, and shady courtyards, all found under a beautiful blue sky. The most important tourist sight in Parikia is the church known as Ekatondapyliani – “The One Hundred Gated”. The first church on this site, called Katopoliani – “facing the town” – was founded in 326AD by St Helen, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. However, most of what’s visible today dates from two centuries later and the time of Justinian. From a historical perspective this church is the most important in the Aegean and should not be missed, even by the most casual observer.

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