Monday, 16 July 2018

Mother Molyvos

Ai, mother Molyvos
please stop complaining
because you seriously
chase your last clients away

Your bumpy little streets, centuries old
Your ancient houses well anchored
on the proud rocky mountain
that once gave you life

They saw a lot of history
but never let you down
agitation, war, doors closed
you survived with you head held high

A new wave of troublous times
no need to let the head hang
it is not the world that rules you
but your back that lets you down

You always rode the storms
your back like a solid mast in choppy times
now full of rheumatism
not knowing how to move

It is not Achilles who stands before your gates
but the sad illnes Me, Me, Me
of people that do not understand
that the world keeps on turning

the managers far away
no vision nor plans
they will tear down your walls
filling their pockets just for themselves

You, magnificent lady of Molyvos
where did you leave your pride
you let yourself under the command
of stupid and loud screaming

You know that your blood not only comes from the island
but also from the other side of the sea
you always helped in difficult times
but now you seem stiff frozen

A cold and pitiless heart
does not suit you at all
that is no way to save the world
nor your own beloved town

O, Mother Molyvos
dust is piling up
do not be seduced by too big dreams
but clean your own street first

As sparkling and beautiful you dress up in August
when shiny pianos and violins
do revive happy times
under the stars at the castle

You didn't forget
how to touch the hearts of the people
so do the same during the other months
with your head held high.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018


It is about a year ago that the Donkey King of Lesvos died. I do not mean that he was as stupid as a donkey (are donkeys really stupid?). He might have been stubborn, yes. But he embraced life as it came, loved to have a filled glass to hand as well as a woman to flirt with. He was a Greek like Zorba, a character never to forget. 

It’s not only Michalis who is missed: but also his donkeys who used to ride with tourists on their backs into the mountains or cause traffic jams on the boulevard of Eftalou. The clappetyclap of their hooves now died away.

The horses have another story. They seem to be pretty busy on the island. The garbageman in Molyvos for example tromps his donkeymulehorse early each morning over the cobbled streets, there where no car can pass. The same for the olive harvest: in the areas difficult to reach, horses are used as pack mules. In the summer horses are fully booked for the many traditional celebrations. Every village and each church, even those far afield, organizes a yearly festivity, some even have exciting horse races. For a small group of horse lovers, the tradition is to attend all those small festivals on horseback. 

Lesvos does have a tradition with horses. Its capital Mytilini is named after the sister of the legendary horse rider Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. There are archaeological finds proving that once the island was part of an Amazon Empire, where the women, who ruled without men, were skilled in making war and love. 

More and more myths seem born out by real history: it can no longer be denied that there once existed women tribes. Some think the Amazons once drove their horses around in Libya, or in Anatolia or in some of the eastern Greek islands like Lemnos and Lesvos. An archaeological site in southern Ukraine, where they discovered the remains of female warriors who rode horses, may prove that the Amazons came from there. Or maybe in ancient times you had more than one state, where women after emancipation, took up all the roles of men.

So it is possible that once, many centuries before Christ, an approaching cloud of dust on Lesvos meant that men had better hide - because the Amazons did not care about the '#me-too’ rules and just killed men right away or towed them away as slaves behind their horses. If a man was handsome enough, before dying he might have been given the experience of a good shag. Those sturdy women did need men for their propagation.

Clouds of dust now follow 4WD's, driving on the dirt roads, trying to get a glimpse of history. They might meet an Amazon, but those are mostly not-so-dangerous tourists who have rented a horse at Ippos in Molyvos or in Toumba, high in the mountains above Plomari.

For sure Lesvos is one of the most authentic islands of Greece, but also here history is advancing slowly, burying donkeys and Amazons under its dust. At Thermi there is the biggest excavation that proves that once this mythical tribe of women lived here. The city that now arises from the dust thanks to careful digging has lots of parallels with the Amazon town on the neighbouring island of Lemnos. This fortified city, dating from the bronze age has been named after another notorious Amazon: queen Myrina. She ruled over an invincible army of women warriors, that even defeated more than once the mighty army of Atlantis. She came and conquered all the way to Turkey, further even than Ephesos, a city which is said to have been built by Hippo, another Amazon.

Last weekend Agia Paraskevi celebrated its controversial bull festival, where the only bull participating was 'sacrificed' and eaten. I am not sure if they still butcher the bull in a ritual way in public. In any case it is more of a horse festival, where most horses of the island and even some from neighbouring islands, come to participate. Beautifully decorated, they thunder through the streets, have a drink at terraces, try to win some of the many games and they do dance, just like the people.

It is here that new Amazons will be born. More and more women come on the back of a horse to share the festivities. Beautifully dressed, they mix with the excited horsemen. The women of Lesvos slowly emancipate. Be careful, gentlemen: when they start liking what they do, maybe, just maybe, they might set up a new army of Amazons. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Sunday, 24 June 2018

June 23 - Trendy Lesvos Food

When I look at the food trends of this year I find that the trendsetters had quite varying preferences, but especially for food from very far away. Only a few things they had in common: the growing hype to eat more vegetables, mushrooms, fermented food, seaweed, a better awareness about eating meat and drinking local beer from small brewery's. There is a lot of choice for trendy restaurants. 

You will not find exotic fruit nor tropical vegetables in the restaurants on Lesvos (or for that matter, most restaurants in Greece). Most of them don’t even change their menu for tens of years, presenting only good old Greek food. I wonder if they even know that there are culinary trends.

However, the simple Greek kitchen is actually pretty trendy. To begin with: Greeks eat lots of vegetables, super fresh and preferably from their own garden. In the past years Greek food with local products scored high on the lists of trendy food. Now there is a new hot item: vegetable proteins. These are to be found in beans - of which the Greeks eat plenty, especially in the winter -, broccoli or mushrooms – also a new trendsetter – are also to be found regularly on Greek menus

Fermented food has become another fashionable concept, even though itis about just ordinary food like yoghurt, cheese, bread and wine. Greek food has your intestinal flora aplenty: tzatziki (yoghurt with cucumber and garlic), cheese, bread and wine are rarely left out of a Greek dinner.
Similar to the much-hyped Asian kimchi, in the Greek kitchen you will find preserved vegetables in salads and served with fish. They also like to ferment little fishes or octopus in vinegar. Vinegary food in Greek is named ksidatomarinato or toursi: also exotic names, ready to enter the trendy food lists next year.
Since a few years balsamic vinegar has found a place in the Greek kitchen: poured over 
roka-salad (rocket), sprinkled with pieces of ladotiri, the local replacement for parmesan cheese. Totally hot, this dish!

Wasting food is not done anymore. However leftover meals are not very poplar in Greece. Vegetables have to be fresh, so the leftovers go to the pigs, chicken or goats. That also is a way of recycling. Greeks have never liked to waste food: fish is served with head and tail (some Greeks say the head of a fish is the best part) and beetroots are served with their green leaves. What remains on the tables disappears into a doggybag, normal in Greece. Sometimes there are even fights over who gets the bag with the leftovers. 

Another trendy development is to no longer having meat on the table everyday. Greeks are familiar with this trend. For years now there has been no daily meat: by own choice or they simply cannot afford it anymore. If the meat is not from their own animals, they know exactly to which butcher they have to go for the best cuts of meat. Obscure meat packed in plastic from the supermarket is not done.

Lesvos is a little behind concerning brewed beers, but islands like Corfou, Tinos and Evia (I do not consider this as an island) brew their own beers, while in some bars in Athens they promoteproductsof all local breweries: Make it a Greek Beer please.

Greeks do not eat seaweed: they bath in it; the Aegean sea has plenty of it. Maybe that is the reason why the Greeks are a bit afraid of this green sea grass on their plates. One has to wait until a smart enterprising Greek starts to promote the product to be found everywhere along the Greek coasts.

It is clear that the Greek kitchen is pretty trendy. Now that the summer really has started and the children are free from school, the time for festivals has begun. On Lesvos it starts with the Lesvos Food Fest (July 5-15), this year with a program all over the island: learn about trachana in Lafionas, fish products in Skala Kallonis, fig syrup in Erèsos, a market with local food at the Gulf of Yera, cook books in Mytilini and cooking with olive oil in Aya Paraskevi. In Molyvos children can have cooking lessons, herbs will be presented in the hamam, local women will open their kitchens and there will be a wine tasting. 

An interesting program for the food gurus; it is time that the trend watchers come this way. And the Greeks have to learn what is going on in the rest of the culinary world. They do not have to adjust their menus, they just have to highlight how trendy some of their dishes are. This way they can better profile themselves as modern, trendy restaurants. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

June 12 - Smugglers & Co


Have you ever tried to sit in a suitcase? Last week port officers opened the suitcase of a traveller boarding the ferry to Athens and in it they found an illegal refugee. It was not the first time that they have come across this desperate manner of smuggling. 

On Lesvos there are people smugglers, in the North of Greece, in the mountains close to the Albanian border, the police have to deal with other smugglers: Albanians who sneak over the border to steal tons of, often very rare, mountain herbs. They set up hidden camps from where the pickers swarm over the slopes to gather their loot, using faithful donkeys to transport their loot back over the border to their own country where they can sell in all freedom the herbs for good prices.

Tea and a rare species of sage are high on their wanted list, but most favoured is cowslip (Primula vera) whose dried flowers and roots can be sold for more than 20 euro per 120 gram, or they may ask 34 euro per 25 plants. This way these smugglers earn in one month what they normally earn in a whole year.

If they did the picking in a professional way, or left an address card behind in order to share the profit, Greece may not have taken such extreme measures. But these smuggler gangs uproot plants in such a hurry, that they destroy whole fields and thus threaten the future growth of the plants. Now plenty of donkey caravans with illegal herbs are catched onthe smuggler routes.

Lesvos does not have that problem: no primula veragrows on the island and it does not border Albania. Even ifthe Turks were to get the idea to come and steal herbs on Lesvos, no bags with thyme would reach the other side because thanks to the people smugglers the island is very well guarded. And besides, Turkey itself is a Valhalla for herbs, where you can, without danger of getting arrested, uproot orchids, something which is forbidden in Greece (and in the whole of Europe). 

Lesvos is rich with wild oregano, thyme and sage, that is harvested by the locals in pretty modest quantities. They may even not know yet the new Greek law from 2014, saying that you are only allowed to pick herbs for your own usage: ½ kilo a person, per day. They just do not realize that it’s money growing in their fields. Maybe it is better this way, otherwise they would loot the mountain slopes like the goats eat all the greenery.

On internet I have only found two companies specialized in herbs (and olive oil and salt) from Lesvos: Melima products and Nissos (Greek food). I take it that they have a permit and do the harvest in a professional way. 

Rock Roses (Cistus creticus) are wanted by the pharmaceutical industry because of its etherial oil. A north Aegean firm has now made a deal with a big company to deliver 800 kilo of Rock Rose from Lesvos. I wonder if they also have a new way of harvesting, because these flowers are not the easiest to be picked: in the heat of the day, when the flower petals sweat that fragrant oil. Or will they use the old method: chasing goats through the Rock Rosebushes, and afterwards picking the oil from their coats.

Now while tourism on Lesvos is still very slow – people may still be afraid of little boats with refugees landing on the beach – it may be time for some people on Lesvos to think again what business they open. The island is not only a paradise for tourists but also offers plenty of opportunity for herb picking (wanted by the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry) or seaweed cultivation (food of the future). With a bit of vision you could do better than opening the umpteenth restaurant or hotel for tourists who are staying away.

Last week I saw an, unknown to me, man dragging an enormous bag full of oregano on his back. Under the large load he made himself as little as possible. For sure there was more than half a kilo on his back and no donkey or car to be seen: it must have be hidden somewhere in the bushes. Was that an Albanian who crossed the border illegally and took the ferry to Lesvos in order to get some of that first class oregano of this island? If he is not caught along with the stowaways going back by ferry, there might be a truck waiting for him in Kavala that will bring him back to his country, not over the smaller smuggler routes but just over the highway: the new smugglers’ way. It is good that there is no primula vera on Lesvos, otherwise we might also become a smugglers’ island and then tourists might be frightened away totally! 

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

Friday, 1 June 2018

May 28 – Perky islands

(Caperflower and caperbuds)

Greece has so many islands that nobody can count them. That’s what I think when I read on Wikipedia that this country of Olympic gods has 1200 to 6000 islands. Most of them are probably so small that you do not notice them. Wikipedia gives a definition: “An island is a piece of land, on all sides surrounded by water, smaller than a continent but bigger than a rock or a sandbank.” Meaning when you have two rocks sticking out of the sea, it is officially an island. This explains why it is nearly impossible to count all islands of Greece.

The islands that are inhabited are easier to count: between 166 and 227. However it still seems odd that there is no exact number. Might it be that some 60 islands are some years inhabited and in other years deserted? The islands are at least divided into an exact number of groups: Cyclades, Dodecaneses, Sporades, Saronic, Ionic and Nord Aegean islands, to which Lesvos belongs, together with Chios, Samos, Ikaria and Lemnos.
Each island is a world of its own. They all have their own history, culture and climate. For instance the bright yellow broom on Lesvos will have finished its blooming, while on the more southern Samos it will still be spreading its sweet fragrance. On Samos you will also find blood-red anemones, while on Lesvos they will be long gone. On Samos you’ll see trees heavy with sweet oranges, a fruit only to be seen in the winter on Lesvos. I have been told that those are the ‘so-called’ summer oranges. I never knew those existed, but what a juicy treat!
Samos conquered the world with its sweet dessert wine, but great white and red wine is also produced in its vineyards, the vines gathering as much sun as possible high in the mountains. There you will also find thick sweet honey, due to the many flowers growing wild. Lesvos also has tasty honey, but the island is far less green than Samos, which in certain places looks more like a jungle. There you will hear the jackals crying at night (no other Greek island has jackals); yet there is barely space for grazing sheep and goats, plenty of which you will find on Lesvos. Many lovers of flowers weep at seeing a place shaved bare by sheep where once rare orchids flowered (sacrified to the excellent goat and sheep cheeses the island exports).
In ancient times Lesvos wine was even more famous than that of Samos, but that skill never came back. It is now ouzo for which Lesvos is famous — distilled following centuries’ old spice recipes. On each Greek island you will find Lesvian ouzo like Babayannis, but I must admit that the Samian ouzo Giokarini might be equally good.
When I regularly came to Chios and I told people there that on Lesvos they eat flowers, more than one Chiot had a big laugh because of its silly neighbours. Stuffed courgette flowers are unknown on Chios. There they throw plenty of capers and even caper apples over all their salads, while lots of people on Lesvos do not even know that there are caper plants on their island and have no idea what they look like. I have to admit that the caper bushes don’t grow everywhere on the island, contrary to Samos, where they seem to have as many caper bushes as they have grapevines. But on Samos I never saw a single caper on my plate*. There, available in each restaurant are the chickpea balls, while those are, as far as I know, only on the menu of one restaurant on Lesvos — Meltemi in Skamnioudi, and those are far more tasteful than all the chickpea balls I ate on Samos.

Salted fish, a beloved appetizer on Lesvos, was absent from most Samian menus (only marinated anchovy). Like the sardelles pastes, a speciality on Lesvos, made from the famous sardines from the Gulf of Kalloni, one restaurant on Samos offered salted sardines, but they were salted days before. I did not dare to order them. According to Lesvian cooks, the fish should be salted just a day to half a day before they are eaten. This way they keep creamy and soft. Furthermore sardines should be served only during high summer, when they have eaten their bellies thick and round. In June the real sardines time starts.
Each island has its own speciality: dried capers from Santorini, haloumi cheese from Cyprus, mastica from Chios, wines from Lemnos and so on. When counting the islands is already a difficult job, what a Herculian task it would be to register all those specialities? How many culinary treats do all those other islands still hide?

*Restaurant Eptastadio, just before Pappa's Beach in Ireon, does serve capers in some dishes. It is beautiful situated and has wonderful food. Worth visiting!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

Sunday, 20 May 2018

May 18 – The best spot of Samos: Karlóvassi

(An old building in Karlóvassi)

For one summer in the Eighties I worked for a travel agency on Samos in Samos Town. I saw little of the beautiful island, because my time between working hours was mainly spent on Gangou Beach, in those days a quiet city beach with only one taverna that had just two music cassettes. The whole day through, only the voices of Alexiou and of Parios (ena gramma) floated over the blue water of the bay.

In the evening I spent as much time there, but with different music: first in the disco, then at the bouzoukia which was above the disco. In my memories, each night was a party with heart-melting Greek songs, lots of hoppa hoppa and broken dishes.

The floor of the building where I spent so many languorous evenings and where the legs often swept through the air —now a derelict and unsafe building, standing as a sad Greek ruin at the end of the now fully developed Gangou Beach. All the sunbathers who are now relaxing there have no idea what great evenings that dilapidated building once offered.

Why an order to demolish it has not been made, I do not know. Unlike Lesvos, Samos does not have that many ruins, especially not in the capital Vathy. To find them you have to go to Karlóvassi, a place that I hated in the year I worked on the island. It was a place to quickly pass by because it seemed to consist of only huge ruins. Now I walk among them and admire all those crumbling walls of factories that once gave Karlóvassi such a splendid life. 

Samos had its first golden century during the reign of terror ofPolycrates (540 - 522 BC). The famous mathematician Pythagoras – who had some revolutionary philosophies – had fled from this tyrant to the South of Italy. Having some hundred warships, Polycrates played a role in world politics. He was good friends with the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis who paid him handsomely to defend Egypt. However when Polycrates became friends with the new king of Persia, that flow of money stopped; the Persians occupied the country of pyramids and the armies of Sparta and Corinth attacked Samos. Its huge defence walls stopped them and so Polycrates was able to continue his leadership, but soon after, crazy for money, he walked into a trap of king Oroutos who killed him. 

The history of Karlóvassi starts at the beginning of the 17thcentury, when settlements nestled in the mountains around a large fertile plain, where they grew mainly grapes. At the end of that century, Karlóvssi was the richest town of the island. Just like on Lesvos and in the whole of Europe at the end of the 19thcentury the grape plague phylloxera ended all viticulture. They then started to grow tobacco and to produce leather. How rich the town became can be deduced from the great mansions that arose, huge churches, various schools and even a horse-driven tram. Further history is a bit similar to that of Lesvos: the union with Greece and the war with Turkey slowed down the flourishing economy. The arrival of hundreds of refugees in the Twenties and the economic crisis in the Thirties brought the industry nearly to a stop and that is how the great Karlóvassi became partly a city of abandoned factories. 

The area Ormos with its old industrial buildings is many times bigger than the same like area of Yera on Lesvos. It is pretty lively because of an explosion of building fever. Between the old dilapidated buildings, houses have appeared in all shapes and colours and even hotels have planted themselves inbetween. For some unknown reason, nobuilding istouching anotherone.It has a remarkable effect on the 'boulevard', stretching along the sea with old glorious buildings along merry newly build houses. 

Lots of tourists on Samos are interested in the historical legacyof Polycrates: the temple of Hera, the Tunnel of Eupalinos and the walls of Polycrates. Only a few take interest in the more recent heritage that mainly can be seen in Karlóvassi. From a period when commercial vessels occupied the harbour, factories blew great steam clouds into the air and families in large mansions dominated daily life.

Todays Karlóvassi is partly populated by students that give the town a lively fresh air. The townhasn’t erasedthe past, but witha bit of anarchism included itin its new structure. That anarchism seems to have seeped in from the surrounding mountains where a lush jungle-like carpet of plants, bushes and trees is growing. Between these amazing dense woods, in between vineyards, many churches hide, amongst them one in a cave like a cathedral. The ruins of a Venetian castle dominate a hill not far from refreshing waterfalls and some villages built high in the mountainsare a placesof interest because of their superb views. Now that there is no more bouzoukia at Gangou Beach, I think Karlóvassi is the Hot Spot of Samos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

Thursday, 3 May 2018

April 28 – Island of water

(Panagia Zoodochos Pigi at Faneromeni)

When you think about the Greek islands, you see white little houses and blue water. Green hills, ruffling trees and juicy meadows are not in this cliché. But – especially on Lesvos – in the winter green is the ruling colour. Only after the flower explosions in May the landscape slowly looses life and the grasslands turn straw-blond. People only coming in the summer and autumn may not know this.

This year everything is different. After the pretty wet winter, the rains extinguished, temperatures shot up andcreatedsomething close to a heatwave in April. The month felt like May where the heat of the day was compensated by nice cool evenings. Also nature, suddenly without rain, reacted: the landscape withered rapidly and yellowed. I wonder what kind of summer will follow.

Lesvos, being rich in many natural sources, will never dry out, at least that’s what I thought. But you see that some of those rich with water wonders do disappear. It is said through the grapevine that it is the farmers who are to blame. They drain natural sources, causing streams to dry out, for example the Pessas waterfall at Achladeri, that for years now just drips a bit; and the waterfall at Klapadosalso seems to have had its best watery time. 

This week I visited the little church Panayia Zoodochos Pigi on Faneromeni beach next to Sigri. Zoodochos Pigi means life offering source (one of the many names the Holy Mary has). Indeed there used to be a source in the church that is built around an open cave. Downstairs in the cave is the altar, behind it is a huge opening in the rocks, where the source used to be. There alsoonce was a little river going from the church to the sea, where you could find huge delicious oysters. 

The beach where the church has been built is named after an apparition of Holy Mary (Panayia Faneromeni). It is not clear if she was spotted at the cave, or just sunbathing on the beach. Maybe that is why the beach and the church have different names. I did not see any Maryin the cave, just a fat mouse climbing up and down the huge cross behind the altar. So there is life in this little church: the rustling even sounded spooky. When I shone a lamp at the hole in the rock behind the altar, a big black and silver snake slithered from the hole. I got a fright and ran back up the stairs. You never know what life this source is giving! 

But there was no water to be seen, even though the weather gods poured so much water over the island last winter. Later somebody told me that he had seen the little church being built and even tasted those holy oysters. But since so much agriculture came to the region, slowly the source dried up, as did the little river. 

Faneromeni is not entirely dependent on the Gods of the desert. A river still ripples through the landscape towards the sea, with photogenic reeds, croaking frogs and lazy turtles. It remains a watery region with abundant vegetation. 

One monastery on the island did not lose water, but got a whole lake in front of its gate: the Pithariou Monastery at Erèsos is named after the gorge (which looks like a jar), that it oncelookedover. Of course it was not like from one day to the other the new lake was there andthe monks could go fishing. It is a water reservoir built to tame floods and to provide water for the local agricultural.

Lesvos has other reservoirs, like the one at Molyvos and the reservoir at the Sedoundas river, high in the mountains above Plomari.

The island nearly got another reservoir: in Eftalou.
Last week my toilet did odd things and when the plumber came to have a look he found a huge pool under the house. The house could have sailed away on this big underground lake. Tree roots had blocked the drain pipe and the hills above the house collected so much water that a reservoir had built up. It took hours to get the water away through the unblocked drain pipe.

Now I suddenly think that maybe we should have kept this reservoir. With the summer already started in April, how much water will be left in August? But then I would not have been living besides asky blue lake like the monks at Pithariou, but in a swampy brown one, a paradise for mosquitos. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018