The decision to become hoteliers was made sitting on a pavement with my mum and sister, shielding our eyes from the Greek sun. There, in front of the neoclassical palazzo we had just visited, the hotel idea somehow presented itself as a solution. For a year, we had been trying to find a small holiday apartment for ourselves. We had fallen in love with the island, and my sister had a little money she wanted to invest.
The estate agent had only mentioned this particular property in a fit of exasperation. We kept asking about this or that house, and he said “the only one for sale in that area is this”: a monumental building from Syros’s shipping heyday, with Doric columns and spiral marble staircases, five metre-high ceilings, four floors, gardens, 20 rooms. Once the headquarters of the Cycladic tax authorities, it was now abandoned. We asked to see it, just for fun, and he humoured us.
The cost of the property was seven times our budget, and roughly four times our combined savings and assets. This, without taking into account the necessary restoration. We had no wealthy relatives (or, indeed, any relatives) to fall back on. It was 2017 — Greece was still mired in a financial crisis, the banking system was crippled. We had no experience of property investment, restoration or the hospitality industry. That afternoon on the sunny kerbside, we exchanged high fives.
The remarkable thing about Hermoupolis, Syros’s capital, is that it exists in the first place. Until the early 19th century, the island’s largest settlement was the medieval Catholic village of Ano Syros: quiet, whitewashed Cycladic houses perched on a steep hill. The turning point was when the Greek war of independence broke out and Syros declared itself neutral, suddenly attracting waves of refugees from conflict areas in Asia Minor and from other islands. There seemed to have been a miraculously high concentration of entrepreneurs among them: they took no more than a few decades to create the city of Hermoupolis and turn it into the industrial and mercantile heart of the eastern Mediterranean, the cultural centre of Greece, and its main port.
Vast fortunes were made in shipping, shipbuilding and textiles. Hermoupolis acquired the cultural and societal trimmings of a place of consequence: Greece’s first public high school, a university, banks, stock exchanges, a theatre modelled on La Scala, art galleries, charitable institutions, courts of law, foreign consulates. Town planning was approached methodically and sought to combine Greek classicism with romanticism. Almost overnight, an architecturally homogenous capital was built that today seems too ambitious for an island of less than 40 square miles: a town of marble pavements, palatial buildings and large, neoclassical public squares.
Back to late 2017: we confirmed to a sceptical seller and our bemused estate agent that we would be buying the property. The money we had set aside for the holiday apartment became a measly deposit, giving us six months to cough up the rest or lose it all. I gave up my London flat and job as an economist and moved to Syros, with a small degree of personal financial security intact in the form of a freelance contract as an economic journalist.
My sister resolved to spend another exhausting year up in the Swedish Arctic — she had been working gruelling shifts as a locum doctor there for the past 18 months — and it was her pay that was going to finance the bulk of the restoration. We applied for EU regional development funds, and I spent most of my time assiduously petitioning all four of the remaining Greek commercial banks. In May 2018, within weeks of the deadline, we obtained a mortgage. High fives, again. We thought the difficult part was over.
Not many have heard of Syros. Hermoupolis eventually declined in importance once the Corinth canal was built and Athens’s port, Piraeus, took over most of the trade and shipbuilding activity. Geography itself was against our little upstart: there are only a handful of island capitals of countries that are on a continental landmass (the most striking example, in Equatorial Guinea, is currently in the process of being moved to the mainland). Failures on a grand scale followed Hermoupolis’s initial success. Shipbuilding dwindled and companies such as the Greek Steamship Company, the first such enterprise in Greece, went under; the few that survived mostly did so by moving to London or New York. More often than not, the great optimists of history are figures of tragedy.
The other reason for Syros’s relative anonymity is that the island never invested in mass tourism. Thanks to the many public institutions and various remnants of the old industries, there were employment opportunities outside the tourist sector. There’s also a degree of what might seem snobbery to some, foresight to others: Syros locals had watched the quaint fishing villages of nearby Mykonos become international party hubs, and turned up their noses at that prospect.
The renovation started in mid-2018. We obtained planning permission surprisingly quickly, although I struggled with the vagaries and inconsistencies of Greek law. From the start, matters and finances weren’t helped by the fact that the project morphed yet again, from “let’s make a hotel” to “let’s make our dream hotel”. Where someone with experience might just say “that’s the way to do it”, we thought about everything for ages, did a lot of research, and often stumbled on some novel and costly solution.
I learnt that every profession I came across, every area of expertise, is relevant to a hotelier. Firemen, sound engineers, graphic designers, sommeliers, skippers, pharmacists, gardeners — all are potentially useful partners or advisers. We used to joke that the only person I would fail to find a task for was a nuclear scientist. I learnt that a large restoration project involves tens of thousands of decisions; something like 500 separate decisions just for the windows and doors. By the end of the first six months, I had such a bad case of decision fatigue I couldn’t even look at restaurant menus.
And I learnt not to take local gossip seriously. Several workers claimed there was an ancient smugglers’ tunnel going from our house to a secluded cove; two men even insisted they had been inside the tunnel. The problem was that not one of them could remember the point of entry. So I, being a 10-year-old boy scout and not a grown woman, duly had holes drilled in every plausible place. The garden, the basement, the cistern. I can report zero smugglers’ tunnels, but many bricks bearing the inscription “British made” — apparently, Hermoupolis was wealthy enough back in the day to import bricks from the UK.
Naturally, my life changed compared to London. When I first moved to Syros, I had imagined my days something like this: I would wake up early and go for a swim at the beach just beneath the hotel. It’s the place that first made me fall in love with Hermoupolis. The backdrop of the neoclassical architecture is glorious, and in combination with the perfectly clear water and the quiet time of day, it’s balm for the soul. Then I would go check on the construction site, and later on work on my novel. It seemed the ideal life.
What happened is that years went by when I didn’t swim once. Partly it was the lack of time — the hotel needed constant attention — but also the stress got to me in a way that seemed anathema to swimming in that peaceful spot. I felt like a bomb floating in the water.
The only way I was able to relax was by walking. The north of the island is a nature reserve, and instead of being littered with half-finished concrete bungalows, as happens so often on Mediterranean islands (and as is the case for the southern half of Syros), it is pristine and open. The walking trails take you along the coast, the inner valleys, or to the many sandy beaches that can only be reached on foot and where you can find yourself alone, even in August.
The landscape is rugged and dramatic, the cliffs covered in spiky shrubs and the odd long-suffering tree, sculpted by the wind. It was a surprise to me that, unlike the Europe I was used to, Syros is most colourful in winter: there are flowers everywhere, enormous butterflies, and the round, spiky shrubs create an undulating pattern of shades of green. There’s fresh grass, and something implausibly fleshy for the climate that looks like clover. For two to three months, this mostly rather dry island becomes a little bit Irish.
I miss my London friends, I miss the theatre. Sometimes I miss things like Korean restaurants, or anonymity. But it hasn’t been the culture shock that might have been expected. The island is full of interesting people, its history has seen to that. There is a stable population of about 25,000, there are festivals throughout the year — international film, jazz, street art, animation and many more. There is a university and so there are student bars, and art galleries. A Syros local is almost as likely to quote Foucault at you as to do some clichéd Greek islander thing.
The preferred art form on the island is undoubtedly music. In my early days on the island I was repeatedly taken aback to come across our accountant playing the accordion in a taverna, our estate agent killing it on the violin in some square, or civil servants singing on the mini-La Scala stage. Syros, it turned out, loves music.
It could also be that my affinity for the place runs deeper than arts and culture, and has something to do with the psychological make-up of the island. The three of us were refugees, too, once (from Romania and Yemen to Sweden); maybe there’s some element of recognition at play.
There are not many construction site anecdotes: mostly, works went well. Contractors were generally reliable, workers competent. Sourcing was not unduly complicated. It’s just the financing that was a nightmare throughout. Again, partly it was our fault: it’s too depressing to look at the numbers, but I suspect we went between two and a half and three times over budget. There were times when we didn’t see a way out of the financial hole we had dug ourselves in.
And then, the pandemic hit. Because we were a new hotel and had no operating track record, we didn’t qualify for any of the financial assistance offered by the government. We opened anyway, in late July, with just the five rooms we had managed to finish, and while opening was wise in terms of obtaining the first reviews and valuable experience, financially it was yet more hole-digging. The previous year I had signed a publishing contract for my novel, and on some particularly desperate days I found myself at the absurd junction of hoping that the novelist folly would help pay for the hotelier folly. On a less amusing note, my sister’s one-year exile in the north of Sweden is on its fourth year. The last times we talked about her having to extend her stay and keep working at that insane pace, she cried. She’s still up there.
Paradoxically, I am much more relaxed now, even though we are still in the midst of a pandemic. At least the hotel is finished, and we are happy with the result. We did everything we could do. Should the pandemic rage on, the attendant tragedies will dwarf any business concerns anyway.
It’s been a dramatic four years. We are in a debt of gratitude to our friends, who have been supportive, and even helped out financially at crucial moments. To our serene and patient estate agent who stuck with the mad foreigners through the renovation, and without whose help we would have had to give up. I also like to think that the island’s patron deity, Hermes, smiled on us, that this was a project to appeal to the god of travel, mischief and commerce. He always struck me as an approachable, down-to-earth figure, far less inclined to take offence than other members of his divine family. All in all, we have been lucky.
Oana Aristide is the author of “Under the Blue”, to be published by Serpent’s Tail on March 11
Direct flights from Athens (skyexpress.gr) to Syros take 35 minutes, or there are frequent ferries that take about two hours. Alternatively, neighbouring Mykonos is served by numerous international flights; from there, Syros is 30 minutes by ferry. For more on the writer’s hotel, see hotelaristide.com
Greece’s borders are currently open to residents of the EU and certain other countries, including Australia and Japan, but subject to testing and potential quarantine; for details see travel.gov.gr