It is a well-known fact that Mediterranean people enjoy markedly good health, and most of us think of Greece as being a particularly good example of low rates of chronic disease and high life expectancy. But it is the small, not very well-known island of Symi, a short boat-ride from Rhodes and within eyeshot of Turkey, that is the epicenter of Mediterranean health, happiness and longevity.
According to epidemiologists, Symi has proportionally the highest number of centenarians in Europe, and everyone has friends or relatives who have reached 100 or even 110 years of age. A typical birthday greeting is ‘May you live to be 100 and more!’ Even back in 1494, travelers visiting Symi returned with stories about the legendary longevity of its inhabitants. Disease rates are low, and when people die, it happens quickly.
Originally made wealthy by the sponge and shipbuilding industries, Symi is the black sheep of the Greek islands on the tourist trail, with its elegant cream-and-blue neoclassical houses gracing the steep hillside. Its interior consists of mountains and valleys and its coast of coves, beaches, and sparkling blue waters; the sea breeze carries the scent of herbs, pine, and eucalyptus.
In the mornings, a flotilla of brightly-painted fishing boats sets off, crewed by vigorous young and young-old men with easy laughs and biceps to make you feel faint. In the evenings they return with their haul of lobster, squid, giant sardines, prawns and succulent fresh fish, which will be turned just hours later into mouthwatering dishes in the restaurants lining the harbor. In amongst the restaurants are shops selling sponges, bottles of heart-protecting extra virgin olive oil, ropes of garlic and bunches of herbs picked from the hillside.
Symiots are simultaneously laid-back and enthusiastic, and there is always a sense of bustle, expectancy, flirtation and anticipation co-existing with the island’s serene atmosphere. Islanders keep busy, even in old age and very old age, fishing, looking after their goats and sheep, gardening, collecting herbs, eating, drinking local wine and chatting to their friends, family and neighbors. They also keep fit by climbing up and down the steep hillside or the 387 stone steps leading up through the village, often several times a day.
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