The tiny island of Symi is an enchanting place, where life centers around sparkling Yialos Harbor and a 19th-century town of neoclassical mansions, known as Chorio, which crowns the hillside above. The island has few beaches and almost no flat land, so it is not attractive to developers. As a result, quiet Symi provides a peaceful retreat for travelers, who tend to fall in love with the island on their first visit and return year after year.

Symi has especially good natural harbors, and the nearby coast of Asia Minor provided plentiful timber for the Symiotes, who were shipbuilders, fearless seafarers and sponge divers, and rich and successful merchants. Under the Ottomans their harbor was proclaimed a free port and attracted the trade of the entire region. The Symiotes's continuous travel and trade and their frequent contact with Europe led them to incorporate foreign elements in their furnishings, clothes, and cultural life. At first they lived in Chorio, high on the hillside above the port, and in the second half of the 19th century spread down to the coast at Yialos.

Proof of their prosperity exists in the neoclassical mansions that line the narrow streets of Chorio and the main harbor in Yialos. There were some 20,000 inhabitants at this acme, but under the Italian occupation at the end of the Italo-Turkish war in 1912, the island declined; the Symiotes lost their holdings in Asia Minor and were unable to convert their fleets to steam. Many emigrated to work elsewhere, leaving their mansions behind, and now there are just a few thousand inhabitants in Chorio and Yialos.

Even worse was to come during World War II, when the retreating German army set off an ammunitions blast in 1944 that destroyed many of the old houses of Chorio. Much has been done to restore the town, but you'll still come across the exposed bones of many of these old mansions, shrouded in branches, weeds, and history. It fuels the imagination for strolls among the narrow streets of the old town, though avoid entering for risk of falling masonry.

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