The harbour town of Symi is – as we often state in our brochure and on our website – widely regarded as one of the most picturesque in the Greek Islands.
Rightly so: its serried rows of hundreds of “traditional houses” each of them decorated with a Neoclassical façade and painted in bright pastel tones, is certainly among the most memorable scenes we encounter on any of our tours.
Beyond their enjoyment of the scene and their fascination with the remarkable setting, many visitors to Symi are puzzled: why would such a small and rocky island produce such a wealth of ostentatious architecture and on the basis of what economy could it do so? Well, it’s our job, here on the blog or – even better – on our tours, to explain.
The truth is simple enough: in the 19th and early 20th century, Symi was a wealthy island and its single main town was a player in international trade and commerce. For centuries, perhaps millennia, the people of Symi had specialised in a peculiar and dangerous, but highly profitable, activity: sponge diving. Before the advent of modern artificial sponges, this was a major economic factor, as the few places involved in this highly specialised activity, essentially the Aegean islands of Symi, Chalki and Kalymnos, had a near-monopoly on a rare and highly desired product. This, and their tradition of building fast ships, had already ensured Symi considerable privileges, such as internal autonomy, on joining the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
The heyday of Symi, however, was between 1800 and 1910. During that time, as the Late Ottoman Empire was increasingly opening itself to international trade, Symi and its inhabitants used their access to a unique product to forge commercial connections all over Europe and beyond, as did the cloth-dyers of Central Macedonia, the furriers of Kastoria, the tobacco-growers of Eastern Macedonia and the ship-owners of countless islands around the same time. Thus, places like Symi, geographically set at the very periphery of Europe, became integrated into European, even into global, economies, and gained the ability not just to absorb cultural influences from those contacts, but also to express them!
The main and most lasting such expression is the Symi house, the very feature that defines the island’s main town, composed of the old village of Chorio on a saddle high above the coast, the harbour of Giali below it, and the slopes in between. In the space of three or four generation, the area filled with highly ornate and brightly coloured mansions, each of them home to a thriving merchant family. The houses all tend to follow the same structural outline, usually on four levels: a rock-cut cistern for rainwater is hidden below the house. The ground floor contains reception rooms and offices or shops, i.e. the spaces were the family’s business ventures and social contacts mostly took place, as well as the kitchen. The upper floor, distinguished by tall ceilings and ornate decoration, was reserved for private life: bedrooms, drawing rooms and often the dining room were found here. The low attic above, with an opening in the gable, served to permit warm air to escape: a rudimentary natural air-conditioning system.
The interior decoration of many houses is now lost, but here and there such detail can still be observed. What dominates the visual aspect of Symi Town, however, is the execution of the house facades. Aware of their Greekness, and perhaps also of architectural trends developing first in Western Europe and later in the newly-independent Greek state (Symi had supported the War of Independence, but would only become part of Greece in 1947), the Symi merchants opted for a reduced version of the Neoclassical style. Thus, the houses are distinguished by features such as pediments, mouldings indicating the different floors, pillars (often imitated in plaster), decorative door and window frames, and so on, adding variation to the otherwise simple and flat façade. The other key aspect, perhaps the most striking at first sight, is the habit of painting the walls themselves in pastel colours: yellows, pinks, reds and blues all occur, giving Symi a truly unique appearance.
It is immensely pleasant to stroll the stepped lanes of Symi, imagining the busy lives of those merchants of days gone by, and admiring their effort in creating a unique and highly beautiful urban environment. In a very Greek way, the combination of individual effort and ambition has created a greater whole the makes at least one tiny corner of the world a very memorable and very pretty place. The sense of civic responsibility that was clearly important to these people also led to the donation and decoration of various public buildings, such as schools, a post office, a public pharmacy and – of course – many churches. Charmingly, the churchyards, usually covered in wonderful pebble mosaics, are often overlooked by ships’ masts: an affluent Symi merchant or captain would dedicate his vessel’s mast at the end of his career, leaving a permanent memorial of maritime success.
There is much to explore and much to admire on Symi. You can start doing so by joining us on our Cruising the Dodecanese!