We have not quite said goodbye to summer. This week feels like a very-needed break from the dismal patter of last week's rain. It seems perfect timing to have this exquisite Knock Knock on the site. Thaleia Dimitriadou's guest house possesses the magic concoction of charm, intrigue and homeleness. That mixture is never achieved without heart, and as you will read below, Thaleia's heart is very much on the island of Symi. What I particularly love about these sorts of Knock Knocks is that it is a heavenly story to be enjoyed, but for those still routing around for the last of the summer sun, the 234 guest house could be just the ticket. If you do pop by Symi, remember to pop by The Gallery, which sells artisanal works as vintage pieces sourced by Thaleia.
Symi, a tiny Aegean island, is known mainly for the beauty of its harbour with its amphitheatrical colourful settlement, which is a listed monument of architectural importance. A charming mix of natural beauty, particular architecture and a rich cultural heritage create a unique whole that attracts visitors -who sometimes become residents- from all around the world. People visit to discover the island's beauty and stay for its sense of serenity - a sensation manifested both through its natural properties and inhabitants. The island experienced a period of great prosperity during the second half of the 19th century, mainly due to the sponge trade, resulting in a population hike of upwards of 25,000 inhabitants.
My husband Yanni's grandfather, an orphaned 8-year-old boy from Symi, boarded a sponge fishing boat around 1910 and migrated to Benghazi, Libya, where his big family would live for over 70 years, spanning three generations. The boats coming from Symi to fish for sponges brought news from their tiny island and letters from their beloved relatives. Living among the large community of Benghazi's Simians, they never lost their identity, maintaining their local language idioms, the local cuisine and all their customs and values.
Growing up on the neighbouring island of Rhodes, I fell in love with little Symi at first sight on a day trip there with my family at seven years old! Since then, many journeys have followed me at various stages of my life. So, when I met and married Yannis many years later, it was inevitable for us to get a summer home there, followed much later by a business space.
With great care and respect for its past, our architectural office has restored and renovated the two-storey mansion that sheltered Captain Konstanti's family for many years. Captain Konstantis was a frequent visitor to Yannis's family home in Benghazi, as he came every year with his boat to fish for sponges.
The mansion is located on Kali Strata, the 500-step street that connects Gialos - the harbour district, with Chorio - the upper part of the island that accommodates most of Symi's population.
Kali Strata was the neighbourhood of the wealthy merchants and captains who, during their journeys, got in touch with the artistic streams of the world. Upon their return to the island, they managed to incorporate these experiences uniquely through the vernacular of Aegean architecture that already existed on the island, thanks to the excellent artisans of the time.
During the restoration, we were carefully progressing in a way that would not 'betray' the character of the house's craftsmanship. A restoration that would reveal rather than cover up its history. This feat is only possible with the help of the contemporary local craftsmen who have learnt their trade and acquired their arsenal of skills from their fathers and grandfathers, compounding generational know-how on top of modern preservation techniques.
We used as much as possible of the original furniture, fabrics and little bric-à-brac which we found inside to keep alive the memory of all those who lived in it. That way, we have reformed the ground floor into our architectural family firm and an Arts & Crafts gallery. In contrast, the upper floor of the residence was renovated into a simple yet elegant, modern yet not unnecessarily luxurious apartment.
The aim was to create a "vessel of life" that could narrate the history of the place and its inhabitants in its unique way. After all these years of running this business, I am pleased to realise that all the visitors who chose our house for a short stay in Symi were cultured, respectful, lovers of the simple life, with a keen passion to discover the authentic life of the island.