Saturday, 19 April 2014

April 17 - Kalo Paska


(Mitsos kanis souvla)

A drizzling rain has descended on the island. We say it each year: when the first tourists arrive, there will be rain. Easter also has a reputation for attracting bad weather, although I can’t remember a single Easter Party that was ever spoilt by rain. Just as they have this year, weather reports always announce rain for Easter, even though the heavens on the day itself may decide otherwise and we may yet see the sun contribute to the festivities. I can only remember one occasion when the forecast actually was for good weather and that was last year when Easter Sunday was as hot as a day in a heat wave.

This week in Greece is called Holy Week as we approach the end of Lent. Today, on Maundy Thursday all officials are on holiday, so if you want to get something from the municipal cooperative shop you will find the door closed. Today the women will colour the eggs red and they will bake Easter bread (tsoereki). In Greece all eggs will be painted with the symbolic blood of Jesus Christ, although you may see other coloured eggs appear too, probably the influence of other countries. Men will be busy slaughtering lambs, for the traditional dish to be served on Easter Sunday. Passing through the streets you may already be seeing skinned lambs hanging under a roof. On Sunday those poor animals will all end up above the fire for a souvla (lamb on an spit) or stuffed in the oven.

I don’t live in the village so I am spared the nightmare of the church bells this week. During the Holy Week the bells toll for every step made by the priests; but even worse is the electronic bellman, the speakers all over the village, that do not allow any liturgical service to go unnoticed. Living in the village you don’t actually have to go to church in order to attend a mass.

Tomorrow it will be Good Friday which is kind of a day of mourning in Greece: according to the Orthodox Church one should mourn the crucifixion of Jesus. Women will hurry to the churches in order to decorate all shrines with flowers. Flowers will be easy to gather as the island looks like a great flower paradise right now. Although I wonder if picking flowers in the rain is such a nice job. In the evening a procession will pass through the village with a symbolic bier of Jesus, it too is covered with flowers. I grew up between the fields of flowers in Holland and as a child each year I saw the great flower processions and I have to say: the Greek flower decorations always make me a bit homesick for the time when I was a child wondering how on earth could they gather so much flowers.

Here on the island you can also find tulips and hyacinths. But they don’t smell as strong as they used to in Holland. And I do hope that I will never see a bier decorated with tulips, because that will mean that they will have picked bare one of the very rare fields. You know, there are even people who pick very rare orchids: barbarians. Although I do not think they take them to cover the bier of Jesus or to decorate churches; they probably will end up in a herbarium.

Saturday is the day for preparations: for the food on Sunday, for the midnight mass and for the traditional soup that is served after the midnight mass. This Mayiritsa or Easter Soup is prepared with the offal of the slaughtered lamb. I do not like soup in general, and especially not this pretty sour soup often thickened with an egg-lemon paste (avgolemono). I had it once and I prefer not to taste it again. I am waiting for the food on Sunday, for when in the early hours the fires are lit for the souvla and the ovens warmed for the stuffed lamb. Then the air will be pregnant with the scent of roasted lamb and full of the cheerful voices of the Greeks celebrating Easter, I await the nice taste of a sweet and spiced Easter lamb.

Easter is traditionally celebrated with lots of family and friends. Often everybody brings a dish and I will also be attending such an Easter Party. But for days now I have been wondering what food I will make to bring. The closer Easter comes, the emptier the shops are. Are the Greeks buying so much stuff?

Greeks prefer to eat according to the season: cabbages in the winter, aubergines in the summer. In autumn you can eat the last tomatoes or the first fresh spinach. In late spring it’s different. Winter vegetables are gone and the fields are ploughed to make room for the summer vegetables. The result is that there are not so many vegetables available in the shops and the ones that are for sale wilt within the day. This is a time when I really long for the well-stocked supermarkets in Holland that sell all kind of vegetables all year round.

I cannot make wild asparagus. I have been eating them for weeks and now they’ve stop making new stems and I don’t believe that the rains of today will revive them. So the choice is between mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, or if I am lucky, fresh broad beans. Even though I have already been eating these vegetables for weeks, at least I have a choice. I’m probably just a bit sulky because of a day of rain and the weather forecast that, yet again, threatens us with a wet Easter Sunday.

Kalo Paska

(with thanks to Mary)

© Smitaki

Sunday, 6 April 2014

April 4: The story of two moths


(A Big Emperor Moth)


Mostly I think of moths as those boring light brown butterfly-like insects that invade your wardrobe and enthusiastically redo your clothes. But the other day when a very big butterfly settled on my screen door, there was nothing about him that reminded me of a moth.

This beautiful Big Emperor Moth (Saturnia pyri) is the biggest butterfly found in Europe - his wing span varies from 80 to 160 mm - so he is a real emperor; but in Holland he is named after the peacock’s eye on his wings: the Big Peacock’s Eye. He is an impressive sight, but I have to confess that I’m also a little scared by his huge hairy body and legs that bring to mind a tarantula. Years ago another Big Emperor Moth visited my house and even though I have many cats and dogs around, it remained on a pile of wood for days. Why did such a butterfly stay there so long?

I was amazed that this magnificent creature belongs to the moth family, which I usually only associate with those clothes devouring devils. In Dutch moths can also be called Night Butterflies, which I think is a better definition and a name much easier to associated with those colourful and elegant flying insects. The biggest difference is that moths fly at night and (day) butterflies like to play in the sun. And by the way, the European Peacock (Inachis io) is the Emperor’s little sister, which in Dutch we call the Day Peacock’s eye.

Most people know that all butterflies lie eggs, producing caterpillars that start eating as soon as they can creep around. The caterpillar then change into a nymph, usually protected in a self-woven cocoon, which after some time produces a new butterfly. The Big Emperor Moth has the same cycle. As a youngster the big fat caterpillar is black with orange-yellow spots, then he becomes bright green with yellow spots that might change into a bright sky blue: such nice colours, just like a chameleon slowly changing colours. It is difficult to say which is the most impressive image of the Emperor Moth: the fanciful caterpillar or the butterfly that is a little grayish with dark red, brown, white and black.

(The caterpillar of a Big Emperor Moth)

The caterpillar world offers a wonderful collection of forms and colours: look here for 15 alien looking caterpillars. The Oak Processionaries (also the Pine Processionaries) are renowned for their dangerous ‘hairshooting’. It is a great relief that the caterpillar that shoots with real poison, like the Giant Silkworm Moth, lives far away from Lesvos in South America (Bresil).

There is no danger in taking a closer look at the sturdy caterpillar of the Emperor Moth, because he is totally harmless. This creature feeds on the leaves of fruit trees in the warmer parts of the world, like in the south of Europe. And they had better eat their bellyfull because when they become a butterfly, there is no more eating. The butterfly stage serves only to produce offspring: a lady tries to seduce a man (who can sense her presence from as far as 11 kilometres), then they do it and the female lies eggs.

For days that Big Emperor Moth remained hanging on my screen door (well, I must admit that I did not check whether he or she left for a flight in the night). After two days another Big Emperor Moth came and settled himself on the ear of the plush reindeer head that I have next to my frontdoor screen. Was it a female on the screen door that had attracted a male one? Were they going to produce offspring? I did not spy as to how they went about it. And anyway, on the internet (interpod) I read that their intercourse could last as long as 22 hours. One of them remained hanging on the screen door, no matter how hard or slow you opened or closed it and the other one nestled up to the reindeer’s ear, as if they were preparing for a long mating dance. But – reading further on the internet – the lifespan of a Big Emperor Moth is just one week! So there was no big love story developing between these two because they cannot live long and happy lives. Maybe the invisible mating dance lasted for several days, but without any result. I will never know because one morning the Big Emperor Moth on the screen door was gone and the other on the reindeer’s ear grieved for a day and then disappeared also.

If they’d had a quickie before saying goodbye, the new mother-to-be would have been in a hurry to lay her eggs because she had taken days to seduce her lover and there was so little time left. And then, thinking about the pictures of the Emperor caterpillars, it seemed that I knew them; I suddenly remembered that bright coloured caterpillar that last year had been in the cherry tree next to the front door. When I checked the photographs there indeed was for several days an Emperor’s caterpillar feasting on the leaves of my cherry tree. Could this butterfly have returned to her roots thinking that the screen door was her cherry tree?

The two moths did not eat a hole in the screen door, nor was the ear of the reindeer damaged. But why did they stay so long without moving? Maybe next year their offspring will return and then I will have a better look at what they get up to.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014


Sunday, 30 March 2014

March 25 – The Riviera of Lesvos


(Plomari)

When I travel through Lesvos I regularly come across places that are totally distinct from other places on the island. For instance the point at Avlona with its turquoise blue bays. And each time I arrive in Plomari on a sunny day, I get the same feeling: it is like entering a little city on the French Riviera rather than on Lesvos. In some way the sunshine seems more intense with all the white-blue houses reflecting that light. The houses seem to be glued to each other or towering over each other, because built against two mountainsides, and that is why you get the idea of a real city.

Plomari (the second most populated town of the island) is a relative new city by Lesvorian standards: a coastal town, only having been built in the middle of the 19th century. It originally was not situated on the sea, but rather higher up in the mountains in the place we now call Megalochori. In the years 1841 to 1843 several big wild fires left Old Plomari in ashes; the inhabitants fled down the river Sedounda to the coast where they started a settlement that grew into the Plomari of today. Building a city on the coast was then feasable as the pirates had stopped terrorizing the Greek islands. For centuries people lived hidden in villages deep in the mountains, hoping to remain invisible to the buccaneers and only in the middle of the 19th century did this threat came to an end.

For the Plomarians hope was not lost, instead a new life was started: houses and factories were built and by the beginning of the 20th century this little city had 12 soap plants, 10 olive presses and numerous shipyards. In those times the Plomarians were world reknowned for building ships of 20 to 150 tons and their own commercial fleet consisted of far above 100 wooden boats (kaikis).

Now most commercial buildings have fallen down or are on the verge of perishing, as are the numerous huge mansions of the rich Plomarians, many of which have only their façade left standing. The rich people of today do not seem to want to restore the big industrial buildings or old houses: they do not even want to live in the city: on all the hilltops surrounding Plomari you see large modern villas arising.

There is however one industry that has survived and that is the ouzo business (see: ouziotary). In the Capital of Ouzo – as Plomari is called – different plants still produce ouzo according to old family recipes and it is said that the Plomarian ouzo is the best of the world.

Just driving to Plomari is a pleasant trip. All three (main) roads leading to Plomari are something special: the busiest one parallels the Gulf of Yera, going through the village of Papados and before it reaches the Riviera of Lesvos at Agios Isodoros it serpentines through a narrow and spectacular ravine (named after the little church of
Agios Fanourios). Another - wide and quiet - asphalted road leads high over the mountains, just under Olympos, through the charming villages of Ambeliko, Akrasi and Paleochori to the Riviera of Lesvos at Melinda and then continues over the most spectacular coastal road of the island towards Plomari, with high and steep cliffsides falling into the sea. The third route follows the river Sedounda, the lifeline of Plomari, which cuts the town in two parts. This last way might be the most beautiful and, from very high in the mountains, it meanders along the river through an impressive green jungle of trees, climbing plants and flowers. Just before the beginning of Plomari you feel you have entered another century because of the big old houses, connected to the road by wooden bridges. And then suddenly the rich green vegetation stops and you are blinded by the intense sunlight, the white houses and then a little later by the blue sea with its shimmering patches of glittering sunlight.

Now that I have called Plomari and its coast the Riviera of Lesvos, I will mention another paradise-like place with views over this Riviera. High in the mountains above Agiasos on a mountain top between the hamlet of Karionas and the nearly deserted village of Milies, is a place which I love dearly: Toumba, an organic farm with horses, where you also can rent one of the five very charming and neat cottages that are built on the mountain slope. It has a simple café and from everywhere a magnificent view over the Riviera of Lesvos, across the sea to Turkey and to the neighbouring island of Chios and the mountain ranges around Olympos. If you prefer rest and nature to the vigorous life of Plomari, then Toumba is a great base for mountain walks (by foot, horse or mountain bike), or a trip to beautiful Plomari and its surroundings.

I sometimes wonder why I do not live in the south of the island.

(with thanks to Maty Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

March 15 – Old and new Lesvos


(The old olive press of Millelia, now transferred to Agi Anargiri)

It is fascinating how archaeologists and historians piece together history. On July 18 in 1858, German historian and archaeologist Alexander Christian L. Conze arrived in the harbour of Mytilini. Not only did he research the capital of Lesvos, he also made an island tour from Thermi to Mandamados, Napi, Molyvos, Petra, Old-Andissa, Sigri, Eresos, the Gulf of Kalloni, Agiasos and the Gulf of Yera. Of course this wasn’t a tourist outing: Conze was armed with a pencil in order to transcribe old inscriptions, using them to distillate new facts for history. His travels were determined by the stories of the locals who showed him churches and houses where old stones with Roman or Greek inscriptions had been used, as well as areas where ancient artefacts could be found.

More than a century before, Englishman Richard Pococke had also toured Lesvos. This globetrotter travelled through the East in the years 1737-1741 and wrote that he had been told that the castle of Mytilini contained the stone tomb of Sappho (He was not allowed in the castle, where the Turkish Aga and his soldiers resided). His travel notes - published in A Description of the East and some other countries in 1747 are a little meagre. The story of Conze, written down in Reise auf der Insel Lesbos and published in 1865, is much more exciting and precise. Pococke travelled by boat, while Conze travelled on a horse and made lots of interesting discoveries. It would appear that, even in those times, much was already gone of the ancient Greek world. It was probably the Romans who destroyed temples and other large buildings, using the remains to build their own monuments, a tradition that only came to a stop in recent times. Rather than digging in the earth you would be better to search the walls of domestic buildings for treasuries of ancient times. Although the famous theatre of Mytilini, reknowned in those times for its greatness and beauty, did survive Roman times. It even served as a model for the building of a theatre in Rome. The few remains of the Mytilinian theatre can still to be visited in Mytilini.

It was Conze who described the locations of some of the ancient Greek towns that had disappeared, like Andissa, Eresos, Arisve (next to Kalloni) and Pyrrha. He was not sure about one place: the old town of Hiera, which was described by Plinius as a big and lively city. It must have been a beautiful town at the Gulf of Yera (which was named after this old place Hiera). It either perished by disappearing into the Gulf after an earthquake or was totally destroyed by the citystate Mytilini (who did not tolerate a competitor nearby).

Robert Koldewey, another German archaeologist excavated most of the treasures from ancient times in Lesvos (Die Antiken Baureste der Insel Lesbos); even he never found traces of where Hiera may have been. Both Conze and Koldewey think this old city might have been just above Perama, in a region called Chalakai. Or is Perama build on the remains of this disappeared Hiera? Until the beginning of the last century Perama was a booming industrial town; it once had the biggest tanneries in the Levant, as well as a thriving olive industry producing oil and soap. Now the place consists of huge empty buildings, most of them ready to fall down.

When you pass these faded glorious buildings, it gives you a certain melancholic feeling for older times. So many cities and buildings, once beautiful and rich, have disappeared on Lesvos. Will this also happen to Perama?

All over the island, lots of old (olive oil) factories, hotels (Sarlitza) and other milestones (Ancient Andissa) of Lesvos’ history stand or lie in ruin (when the stones have not already been recycled) slowly becoming one with nature. But in Perama there seems to be a rescue plan: more and more buildings are being repaired and rebuilt as cafés or discos. More than one of the tall and square buildings, that cast sharp shadows across the narrow streets, offer space to a small super market, a kafenion or a bar. It is fascinating to stroll through this town, hidden in shadows.

In these times of crisis, the only project Molyvos can come up with is to make a park under the impressive rock wall above which the medieval town was built. Another townpark, next to the old olive press, which was ‘renewed’ is already deteriorating because nobody cares about maintaining it. But elsewhere on the island – where fewer tourists go – residents do care for their history. Not far from Perama – just before Asomatos and Agiasos - is the fairytale oasis of Agi Anargiri: an open space, deep in a valley, skirted by huge trees where lots of water streams sing a watersong all year long. In this beloved Lesvorian picnic place there is also a church and a little tavern, now open all year round. Since last year they also moved the old olive mill of Ta Millelia to this beautiful spot and there is a watermill under construction.

Molyvos should reread its history and try to reconstruct some of it   like the old aquaducts, a Roman project that provided Molyvos with water. The remains of these impressed Conze so much that, in his book, he wrote about little else of Molyvos. So, making a park in a little town that is already situated in a natural park? I think I’d rather go and enjoy the proud old buildings of Perama and have a coffee in the lovely green Agi Anargiri.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Sunday, 2 March 2014

March 1 – Yammy, Lent is coming!


('Bread and beans', designed by Sylvia Weve for the cookbook Almost Greek)

The colourful carnival days – in Greece called Apokriés – began a while ago and will end this weekend. Apokriés, like the Latin word carnival – means a farewell to meat. During the three weeks of carnival you may eat whatever you want, before the forty days of Lent. In the second week (Kreatini), the highlight is Tsiknopempti, also called Grill-Thursday, the Thursday when the air will be full of the scent of all the roasting meat. In the third week (Tiriní) lots of cheese is eaten, because dairy products are also banned during Lent.

It could have been that Dionysus invented carnival. This god of wine and parties celebrated the beginning of new life in spring. Another explanation may be that someone once thought: let’s help the spring and chase the evil spirits away by dancing and making music, thus celebrating their expectations for a rich harvest. Whatever the explanation for carnival, lots of cultures now celebrate it with great and colourful festivities, full of dance, music and disguises.

In Greece it’s the city of Patras that is reknowned for its carnival festivities, as is the small town of Tyrnavos which is reputed for a very special carnival tradition. When you want to celebrate on Lesvos, the best place to go is Agiasos, where music, dance and theatre together have a long history.

The transition between the carefree carnival days and the sober Lent period takes place on Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday), a day when there is still some carnival celebration, a day when families have picnics and fly kites, but also a day when the fasting starts: when animal products, fish and meat, give way to shellfish and lots of vegetables.

There are vegetarians who ask if restaurants in Greece have vegetarian menus. Then I have to laugh a little because if there is a country where a vegetarian can be a king –  it is Greece. Greeks love varied dinners and usually eat more than one kind of vegetable a meal. They are masters of cooking vegetables: from salads to cooked cabbages.

That’s why the period of Lent is not such a burden: salads, pulses and shellfish, they form great meals! Beans are an especial favourite (and chick peas). In all forms and colours, they find their way to the dinner tables: gigantès (butter beans), black-eyed beans (mavromatiki), white beans in tomato sauce, fava  (creamed peas or broad beans) or fresh green beans. You will be amazed how well Greeks can prepare beans. In ancient times they even had a God for beans: Kyamites. This somewhat mysterious god who was responsible for the growing of beans had his own temple in Attica, on the road from Athens to Eleusis, where parties were thrown for the goddess of the harvest, Demeter.

Some Greeks even thought beans were holy. The famous mathematician Pythagoras (570 - 495 BC) who came from Samos, was also a philosopher, a sage and a reformer with many followers. Possibly in his time his group was seen as a sect: these Pythagorians lived according to strict rules: not wearing clothing made from animals, anything that fell from the table was not allowed to be retrieved and they were forbidden to eat beans. Pythagoras believed that our ancestors lived in beans (a belief that he may have learned in Egypt where it was believed that the dead travelled through the stems of the beans to the afterworld). At the end of his life Pythagoras lived in Crotone (nowadays in Italy) and when the locals, in revolt against the strange ideas of the mysterious Pythagorians, attacked their school, Pythagoras had to flee into a bean field where he died. Scientists disagree about the cause of his death: he may have been caught and murdered because he run too slowly through the bean field (afraid to step on a bean), or he may have taken refuge in a temple, where he died from starvation.

I take it that there are no longer any Greeks who believe in this philosophy: especially during Lent when mountains of beans are consumed. Other favoured dishes are wine and cabbage leaves filled with seasoned rice (dolmadès and lachanodolmadès), wild vegetables (chorta), and of course squids, calamari and cuttlefish, sometimes cooked with vegetables or stuffed with seasoned rice. Plenty of shrimp is used for garides saganaki (shrimps with tomatoes and feta from the oven). And there are shellfish, here on Lesvos, from the bays of Gera and Kalloni, which are especially popular on Kathara Deftera. Do not be offended when they serve you not only raw oysters but also raw mussels and scallops: Greeks eat all shellfish raw.

Another traditional dish for Lent is taramosalata: a tasty puree of fish roe, bread or potatoes with some lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil. A little strange because you are not supposed to eat fish during Lent, but the roe probably does not count as a fish, so we can enjoy this kind of Greek caviar.

Fast during Lent?! It is more feasting during the Greek Lent.

(part of the text comes from my cook book Almost Greek

Sunday, 23 February 2014

February 19 – Peeping at the neighbours


(Halcyon Months on Lesvos)

The Halcyon Days are a typical Greek weather condition. They usually take place after the New Year, sometime in January, normally a few days to two weeks when the wind is hiding and the blue sky is decorated with a bright shining sun.

Greeks (and many other people) have myths to explain most natural phenomena and so too for Halcyon Days: Halcyon, daughter of Aeolus, God of the wind, married king Ceyx. During a bad storm her beloved king drowned and Halcyon became so distressed that she too threw herself into the angry waves and drowned. The Gods took pity on them and changed the loving couple into a pair of Common Kingfishers. And Aeolus insured that for a period in January the winds would no longer blow, so that the birds could easily build themselves a nest on the rocks and lay their eggs.

I thought that the Halcyon Days this year took place at the beginning of January when the weather was beautiful. However, the weather became even more beautiful in the middle of January, so maybe that’s when these special days took place. But the great weather did not stop then, in fact, it has even become warmer. Were the Halcyon Days at the end of January or even transferred to February, when spring weather set in to transform nature? Everywhere flowers were in a hurry to unfold their colourful petals, almond trees flowered and even the first wild asparagus rose towards heaven. In mid February the thermometer tried to reach 20 ºC, a sign for the hastening arrival of many more flowers.

It’s now so warm that even the Gods must be at a loss at what’s going on: this year we’ve had Halcyon Months rather than Days! I guess the birds are overjoyed to have such warm nests. I’m a little less happy because it’s not only the birds that are profiting from this warm winter weather; the insects too will be surviving and increasing in numbers for this coming summer. They’re already up-and-running: big buzzing bees, the first mosquitoes, delicate fluttering butterflies and fat zooming flies. And I am sure that the fruit fly dakos, responsible for the bad olive harvest this winter, is already preparing for another big offensive.

I shouldn’t complain too much because, of course, I really enjoy this lovely weather and lots of Greeks are happy that they’re not having to spend as much money on their winter heating. One complaint, however, is that there hasn’t been enough rain, leaving lots of rivers still dry. But it’s only late February, so we still have a chance for big rains.

It’s just as well that we cannot make the weather ourselves, otherwise there would be a war between the people preferring a cheap winter and enjoy the great weather and those who believe that low temperatures and lots of rain is necessary to keep a balance in nature

Anyway, the unusually warm weather is the topic of the day. They say that the Dutch speak a lot about the weather, but come to Greece and hear how much they talk about it. You don’t even have to come to Greece to see the weather. Just open your computer and click: through the webcam in Vafios you can enjoy blue skies and splashing sunsets at Molyvos. If you are curious about what goes on in the harbour at Plomari, you can watch that through this webcam. Perhaps you know people in Plomari and want to say hello; in Plomari there even is a second webcam from which you can observe the comings and goings on their main street: webcam Plomari 2 (note: like the webcam in Mytilini it does not work on all computers). If you’re wondering if the weather is the same on the neighbouring island of Chios, just click and watch the weather there with a webcam in Kampos.

If you have plenty of time and you’re curious about the weather in the rest of Greece, here is a page that lists webcams all over Greece, from a busy highway near Athens, to a snowless ski track, to Olympus and idyllic beaches, through clear or dusty cameras or just as frames. For those, who apart from nice pictures, love everything about the weather (temperatures, air pressure and humidity) the weather webpage of Paleiochori in Kavala is possibly the best one to visit, with a.o. 3 cameras filming in 3 wind directions.

Do you have boundless curiosity and do you also want to know what flies through the air and what sails over the seas? Then you can even peep at sea and air traffic: through this link you can try to discover what ship you can see passing over the horizon and through this link you can see which airplanes are flying over your head.

But there is, as yet, no webcam that can make you smell the sweet fragrance of the blossoms, hear the whispering of the trees or the lapping of the waves on the beach, nor feel the sun on your bare skin. For that you have to leave your chair and travel to Greece.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

February 10 - The natural hotspot of Greece


(Jeepsafari on Lesvos)

Greece is the country of azure seas, clear blue skies, golden beaches and white temples. That is why, since ancient times, tourists have travelled from one archaeological treasure to the other. Then there came the period of island hopping, visiting as many islands as possible with only a backpack, the more history an island had, the more visitors it had. Tourists booking flights and hotel together came next. Those tourists spent the majority of their holiday on the beach. Nowadays tourists seem to be tired of hanging out at the seashore all day; they are becoming more active and want to adventure out into nature.

Lesvos has no world famous treasures, so tourism came pretty late and slowly. Maybe that is why the third biggest island of Greece has no big resorts and has not been exposed to the explosion of developers who, in just a few years, turned coasts and villages into the so-called ‘tourist paradises’. Lesvos is still mainly what it was: a paradise of nature. Of course all the sunbathers are more than welcome: the island has many beautiful and often deserted small beaches and a smaller number of larger beaches with tavernas like at Petra, Vatera, Skala Kalloni, Skala Eresos and Melinda. There is plenty beach pleasure to be found.

Lesvos is the Greek island famous for birdwatching, wild flowers and for its Petrified Forest and it is only now getting discovered by a larger group of tourists for hiking. The island still has its ancient network of roads, consisting of narrow paths called monopati, once used by travellers on donkey, and the wider roads paved with boulders called kalderimia. Many have disappeared, sometimes crushed beneath a new tarmac road but some still slink through quiet meadows and whispering forests, passing small churches and old villages, right through the island’s breathtaking nature.

Like elsewhere in Greece, on Lesvos the donkeys have been replaced by cars and many roads have been asphalted (or new roads have been built). This asphalt fever has slowed down so there are still some popular hiking roads – like the one going from Eftalou to Skala Sykaminia – left for the hikers and the one or two farmers and their pick-up trucks (and some tourists neglecting the orders of their car rental firms not too take the dirt roads). Tarmac roads connect most villages, although some of them have fallen into such a bad state they qualify as dirt roads again. Touring around the island provides great pleasure because the roads are quiet, the majority of other users tending to be flocks of sheep, wandering cows and donkeys. Car drivers who stop in the middle of the road in order to have a chat with a friend and birdwatchers with all their equipment form, along with the manholes, exciting distractions to keep you awake.

However not all the most beautiful areas are connected by tarmac and some can only to be visited by hikers or drivers with a 4Wdrive. If you really want to see the wilderness and are not a great walker, you had better rent a jeep or even better: book a jeep-safari. There is a risk of getting lost in the Lesvorian jungle, so a guide is no superfluous luxury. A guide will know which roads to take in order to see the most beautiful spots, to see wild horses, to help you climb to hidden little churches, to show you a waterfall or to present to you the fragile and sweet scent of the rare yellow Rodondendrons. You never know what you will encounter, but jeep-safaris are always full of surprises.

High on the list of excursions offered by all tourist offices are the traditional boat trips, daytrips to the Petrified Forest and other bus excursions. But there is more to do on the island. The new tourist office Pandora Travel offers, along with a number of different jeep safaris, hiking, kayaking, sailing, diving, climbing a waterfall or an expedition to find orchids. For people already tired of reading about all those activities, Pandora also offers coaching with horses, donkey trekking, watching the stars and photography, mosaic or cookery lessons.

It is clear that sunbathing for a whole day on the beach is ‘out’ and the new tourist trend is closer to nature: by foot or car hiking through nature, being creative with nature, outdoor sporting and learning what edible things nature offers. For parents who want their children to engage with nature they can book a family holiday at the micro farm and stay in a comfortable safari tent with a Greek farmer and his kids.

For decades Lesvos has not been a hotspot for holidaymakers: it has no important archaeological monuments, it’s not on the most popular route for the masses of island hoppers, it has no big hotels at a beach. But now that the desire for nature holidays is growing, I am sure that this island - still not spoilt by tourism - will soon become the natural hotspot of Greece.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© 2014 Smitaki