Friday, 4 October 2019


Waiting for the autumnal rains, stopping the figs harvest, but they cannot save the red blackberries. Even politicians cannot: Rainmakers

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

A pole here, a pole there

About poles in the Lesvorian landscape, especially those who popped up at the works on the new road Kalloni – Sigri: A pole here, a pole there 

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Waiting for Mary

(Photo: internet)

On August 15th masses of Greeks will visit a Panagía church in order to honour the Holy Mary. She ended her life like a refugee: Waiting for Mary

The two faces of Moria

(Photo: Z. Mathiellis)

A few years ago saying Moria meant the Roman aquaduct, still standing in the vicinity of the village of Moria. Nowadays its name is synonym to the refugee centre Moria, also in the same region. Read more about it: The two faces of Moria

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Aegean Sea Shenanigans

(Lesvos, 1597 by Giacomo Franco)

The murmurring of little waves lapping over coloured pebbles on the beach sounds like a sweet symphony lulling you asleep. The sun embraces you like a comfortable blanket, the rippling water stretches to the horizon where the dreamlike contours of another land emerges: this is the magic of a summer on the Aegean coast.

The skyblue Aegean Sea was created by unimaginable forces of nature. First there was the primeval sea Tethrys, serving only one continent Pangea, in times when homo sapiens did not yet wander around. Then parts of land broke off, the earth crust falling into different tectonic plates and the world divided into continents, separated by water. That is how we got our seas and oceans.

The Aegean sea was named after an ancient city, or after an Amazon Queen, both named Aegea — or after king Aegeus of Athens. When his heroic son Theseus boarded a ship to go to Crete where he wanted to kill the virgin-devouring Minotaur in his labyrinth, he promised his father that coming back he would hoist white sails as a sign that he had survived this dangerous expedition. Theseus defeated the monster and drunken with euphoria and love he forgot his promise: with boiling black sails he approached his hometown, making Aegeus so sad that he threw himself into the waves of a sea, soon named after him.

Nowadays thousands of people jump into the sea, only to paddle around. In the times of Aegeus swimming was not yet a recreational sport; although maybe there were a few people knowing how to cross a river or dive for fish, sponges or pearls.

It was around 1850, when it was said that sea baths were healthy and the beach became a place to be. Over a century later mass tourism invaded the Mediterranean coasts, thanks to the new rights like holidays and better wages for the working class. Before, it was mainly the rich who could afford to explore the mediterranean countries where they rented or bought villas at the seaside.

Now lots of people dream about having a house on the Aegean Sea, but in earlier times this would have been a nightmare: the beach was a dangerous place where bloodthirsty pirates came ashore and sad shipwrecks landed. There were only a few poor fishermen living on the shores, their daughters no chance of having a good marriage.

Times have changed enormously, just like the coasts. Millions of years ago when crashing plates created the volcanoes that spewed up lava from the boiling inner earth, Sigri was not a place by the sea. There was a primeval forest there, evidenced by the many petrified sequoias (trees that can reach mythical heights). Maybe Lesvos wasn't even an island in those times and still chained to the African continent and full of prehistoric animals endangering the place.

After the island was born during a horrible tantrum of nature, the earth crust didn't stop fooling around with earthquakes. Thus was the Gulf of Kalloni born, giving Lesvos' ancient city of Pyrros a seaman's grave close to Achladeri. Also the main parts of the proud city of Antissa got buried in the sea, leftovers of its city and harbour walls now sadly staring over the waves in Ancient Antissa. Recent digging prove that around (or even under) Lisvori, there once must have been another flourishing city.

During the historic wars around Troy (which brought us so much literature and many brave heroes) Petra – if she was already around – was not where she is now: the harbour where Achilles moored his ships in order to conquer the north of Lesvos, was more inland, towards the Mill Valley. The flat lands where Petra now stretches herself lazily under the sun, was caused by land and mud slides. The famous Maria-Church on the giant rock in the village centre was then surrounded by water.

Mytilini was founded on an island just off the coast. It was separated from the mainland by a canal that connected the south and north harbour, until the city started to expand, the canal silted up and the elegant marble bridges were of no further use. The major shopping street Ermou follows the line where this canal once was. On a map of Lesvos from 1597 the bulging island of Mytilini with pretty buildings beams like an evening star. The maker Giacomo Franco seemingly was not so impressed by the rest of Lesvos, because the north and west were poorly represented, making you wonder where is Mythimna (Molivos) and its castle, he placed Petra with her feet nearly in the Gulf of Kalloni and Sigri probably taken away by pirates. On other maps you see the same misinterpretation, or would they have been all copies? Another – better - map from 1607 or 1612 clearly shows Mythimna, but has forgotten Petra. Old maps of Lesvos, full of mysterious castles, rivers and islands, have plenty of these enigmas.

The sea has not finished with its monkeyshine. Scientists say that the continental plates keep on floating towards each other by just a few centimeters a year. In a very long long time the whole of the Mediterranean sea, including the Aegean will disappear. But that will be long after humans may have destroyed Mother Earth.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)
©Smitaki 2019

Sunday, 21 July 2019

May 20 - A missed opportunity

(Photo: internet)

In May for the first time I had my semi-longhaired dog shaved. Other years he unhappily made it through the warm summers, always on the brink of fainting. Now he hops around, as happy as a newborn lamb. Some people say that shaving dogs is unhealthy for them, because their fur is a natural sun protector. My dog thinks otherwise: he now loves sunbathing, not bothered by anything.

It is not because of the heat that sheep are shaved, although I can imagine that wearing a coat of several centimeters of pure wool in the hot sun is no fun. Their coats will be cut because of the sheer weight of it: a sheep bearing meters of wool can just fall over because of the number of kilo's he or she has to carry and risks not being able to get up again. Other reasons are hygienic: shaving can prevent illnesses.

In earlier times sheep might have been shaved for their wool. It was a necessary substance to make cloths and tapestry. Before cheaper synthetic fabrics flooded the markets, lots of women were behind a spinning wheel or a loom instead of in front of the television. Even Irene of Athens, Empress of the Byzantine Empire from 797 to 802, had to spin wool when she was banned to the island of Lesvos, where she spent the last year of her life behind a loom.

Lesvos has never been a wool-island. In the times that the Romans commanded half the world, Lesvos was famous for its wines. Centuries later, around 1900, the island had its Golden Age thanks to commerce in olive oil and soap. Between the olive trees there were fields full of tobacco and corn. These were the years that ouzo was born out of tsipouro, a much older anise drink. On the shores ship yards prospered and until the mid 20th century resin was harvested from the many pine tree woods.

The island now still has a name for great olive oil and the best ouzo. But there are new products to be proud of: visiting a fish shop in Athens with a choice of sardines, the fat ones from the Gulf of Kalloni and those of Gera are the most praised. In the cheese shop you can find a fine choice of cheeses from Lesvos that are the best of their kind: ladotiri, gravièra and myzithra. And Lesvos is the only island that is allowed to produce a cheese named feta. The other regions of this nowadays exclusive Greek cheese are Macedonia, Thrace, Peloponnesos and Epirus.

Thanks to many subsidies the island of Lesvos is full of sheep and goats. You will even find them on the roads and always in the distance you may hear a jingling sheep. In the most deserted places you might run into a sheep or goat farm, if that’s what you can call those derelict buildings constructed from drift wood, old bed springs and other debris. But that still doesn't make Lesvos a wool producing island.

Lesvos may have many more sheep than it has inhabitants, but apart from their milk and sometimes a lamb roasted above a fire, these animals are not well utilized. The island never knew a tapestry industry. In the Sixties they weaved a bit, but made rugs with leftover fabrics. Those merry striped, so called ragrugs did not contain any wool. The bi-products of the shaved sheep were only to be found in the illegal dumping places.

The island has no idea what riches it has: hot springs that are for the most part closed, beaches containing tons of seaweed and truckloads of wool given back to Mother Nature.

Something has changed since last year. A Turkish enterprise came to take the wool of Lesvos. Maybe it is a smart company that profits from the new hype of knitting with fancy wools (knitting is said to be the new yoga). Or it is a building company, active in the building fury that rages through Turkey these days, that badly needs insulation material: wool mutes sounds, regulates the humidity in the air, protects against cold and heat and is not particularly inflammable

There is no building fever on this island, nor has it many new enterprises. However I am happy that the farmers now gather the wool in big white bags, which are waiting at collection points along the main roads for the Turks to come and collect. A lot better than dumping it secretly along a deserted dirt road.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

June 23 – Nomad Beer

(Beer from the Sigri Brewery)

Have you ever heard of grape honey? It is collected on Santorini, where they allow the bees to feast on the grapes that lie in the sun fermenting to make the famous sweet Santorini wine. And what about leaves of the kitron tree? Those come of an old fashioned tree species, with odd looking fruit that taste a bit more intense than lemons. They still grow them on Naxos for Kitron liqueur. Soft spring water, filtered by centuries old lava stones full of local minerals also sounds tempting. What drink do you think is proud enough to contain all these divine ingredients? 

Volkan, Nissiopi, Sedusa, Verginia, Septem, Crazy Donkey, Zeos, B29: all are names of Greek beers from small producers. The Volkan Brewery gives the best description of its brew. Who would think that beer contents grape honey, kitron leaves and lava washed water? 

The Greek Gods didn't like beer. In their times beer was associated with the nordic barbarians, even though the yellow juice already flowed abundantly in Iran and China, where - they say – beer was invented. Even the Egyptian Pharaohs gave their permission to drink this fermented brew. However the ancient Greeks preferred wine. As an exception they might have drunk a pint in honour of Demeter, when she had overseen a good harvest. The writer Xenophon mentioned beer in his famous Anabasis, Sophocles warned his readers to stay away from beer. Recent excavations in Greece have proved that indeed in ancient times a drink was brewed out of corn; and that it might have been consumed with a straw!

The Greeks only started to be interested in beer when Otto, the little son of Ludwig I of Bayern, in 1832 was installed as King of Greece. He moved to Athens with his entire German court, including three court brewers who had to make sure that the German soldiers got their beer. One of them was named Herr Fix. His son became in 1864 the founder of one of the Greek beers that – apart from Heineken and Amstel – is the most consumed in the country of the Olympic Gods: Fix. Alfa appeared in the Sixties and now is part of Athenian Brewery, a company owned 98% by Heineken. Mythos was a late baby in 1997, but got successful and is now incorporated into the Danish Carlsberg Brewery (who also has the popular Kaiser beer). How Greek are Alfa and Mythos? 

Greek market leader Athenian Brewery (distributing also Heineken and Amstel) rules the country with iron manners. If you’re selling Amstel, then in most cases you are not allowed to sell a beer that is not from the same brewery. Which is unfair and difficult for the many new small breweries that try to sell their product in a growing beer market. Many islands already have their own beer: you will find Nissos on Tinos, Santorini toasts with Volkan and Crazy Donkey, Crete brews Harma and Chios has Chios beer, just as Corfu has Corfu beer.

The small Greek brewery MTB (Macedonian and Thracian Brewery) has Verginia beer and so much guts that they brought the mighty Dutch beer giant Heineken and his daughter Athenian Brewery to court, accusing them of unfair concurrence. They have done this in Amsterdam, hoping that the Dutch judges – probably better than the Greek judges – will decide in favour of the little companies and judge that Heineken is totally responsible for the unfair deeds of his Hellenic daughter. When the Dutch beer power gets broken in Greece, then all those refreshing little beers could possibly knock ouzo and retsina off their thrones of traditional Greek drinks. 

Lesvos has also had its own beer since last year. The Sigri Brewery however is still 'virtual': it is a nomad brewery that does not own its own cauldrons and brews wherever it can. The result is a blond ale named Nissiopi and a red one called Sedusa. They do not have a smart publicity machine ‘selling’ you the taste of their brew. Will the Sigri Brewery take truck loads of Lesvorian source water that, with a little bit of imagination, still has a smokey touch from the violent volcanic eruptions that once put the island on fire? Will they take truck loads of ouzo herbs with them and boxes of Lesvorian chestnut, thyme, heather and flower honey? For sure the recipes were concocted somewhere in a house in Sigri: the beers have a taste full of fresh secrets. They are top beers for the beach, to be drunk under a scorching sun, at the water’s edge. And if we keep the consumption high, next year Sigri will have its own brewery.

Since June the big ferries to and from the mainland have reappeared in Sigri: the crates with beer can be easily loaded on the boats and shipped all over the world. Sigri is no longer just the village of the Petrified Trees, but also of Nomad Beer!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019