Tuesday, 27 March 2007


Approaching Molyvos, the first building you see on your left is the Hotel Delphinia. It was the first hotel in Molyvos when it opened at the end of the fifties. It still has a certain charm, but in the sixties it was really a hot place to be. Famous people like actors, film producers, writers and the jet set took the then still dirt road from Mytilini to unpack their suitcases in the luxury rooms of Delphinia, so that they could show off their newest bathing suits at the swimming pool by the sea. Nowadays the real glamour has gone.

Real former splendour is to be found a little further on, besides Hotel Delphinia. There is Hotel Arion, a pretty big hotel that opened in 1985, but was shut down a year later because they could not pay their debts, so the bank took the hotel. That truly is a shame, because the hotel is in a prime location by the sea, with a beautiful view of the medieval town of Molyvos.

The hotel is now falling apart, but nobody dares to invest into this huge hotel. Doing business with the banks here is tricky. It can easily be that when you want to put money into the rebuilding of this hotel, many family members will show up in order to get a slice of the pie. Which means it'll be a nasty project to find your way through the complicated labyrinth of Greek bureaucracy. A friend of ours who bought a piece of land had to collect 26 signatures from 26 different members of a family. And this was a family who all agreed on selling the land and did not have any debts.

So it is a shame that Hotel Delphinia and Hotel Arion do not make a united front for the tourists. Because dolphins, the translation of Delphinia, and Arion belong to each other.

In antiquity Arion was a famous musician from Mytilini. He is known for creating the Dithyramb, at that time a hymn to Dionysos, sung by a choir. It is even said that the Dithyramb was the precursor of theatrical plays. Arion worked at the court of King Periander of Corinthe. When once he went to Sicily, to attend a music contest, he won every prize. When he returned with all his wealth, the sailors decided to rob him. Arion asked for one last favour: to play a final song. His music was famous and for his performance even the dolphins came to listen. There are different versions of the myth: either Arion threw himself into the sea or the sailors dumped him into the water. Anyhow, Arion ended up in the sea where a dolphin took pity on him, took him on his back and brought him ashore so that he could return to the court of Periander.

Also the god Dionysos was once attacked when travelling at sea. Pirates abducted him because they thought he was a mighty prince. On boarding the pirate ship, Dionysos bewitched the boat: wild animals appeared, vines grew along the ships sides and the oars changed into snakes. The sailors became so afraid that they jumped into the sea. Dionysos, god of wine and wild partying, took mercy upon them. He changed the bad sailors into good dolphins.

Dolphins belong to Greece. Some 2300 years ago Aristoteles had already made scientific reports about these mammals. In his 'Historia Animalium' amongst other things he wrote that dolphins could age to 25 or 30 years.

Dolphins are not everyday sea creatures. You have to be lucky to encounter them. However, in the Ionian Sea, for a lot of money, dolphin lovers can help scientists to study dolphins. In the Gulf of Amvrakikos they seem to swim around a lot. For 2349 dollars the EartWatch Institute organizes an expedition so that for 9 days you can follow the dolphins in specially equipped boats (with GPS), try to find their patterns, and try to recognize them by their scars and bites. On the shore you can help the scientists entering and organising all the data. The islands of Alonissos (Sporades) and Crete also offer boat excursions where you can see dolphins.

Besides a Dolphinarium, EarthWatch is offering maybe the only 100% certain chance to see dolphins in Greece. I doubt that you always see them during such a boat excursion offered on different islands. When you travel the waters of Greece, you always have a chance to meet them, so taking a special excursion to meet them... Also, around Lesvos, you regularly see dolphins jumping around in the sea. You don't even have to take a boat to see them.

Sunday afternoon was hot and the sea was like a blue mirror. A little grumbling fisherboat was looking for fish. And suddenly there they were: a school of dolphins, their fins cutting through the water, some happy dolphins jumping out of the water. It is forbidden to fish for dolphins and anyhow, a dolphin in the net brings bad luck to a fisherman. So the fishing boat lay still on the water and the watchman in the mast was enjoying the breathtaking view of the jumping dolphins as much as we did.

I think every spring the dolphins pass at least once at Eftalou. But also they are often seen in the bay and harbour of Molyvos. My advice: when the sea is as smooth as a mirror at the end of an afternoon, go to a taverna by the sea where you have a good view over the blue water. Like Anatoli in Eftalou. While enjoying the Greek food, stare out over the water and if you are lucky, you will see them. The costs of this excursion? A dinner of your own choice!

Photo: Earthwatch Institute

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Water management

Well, until now we haven't seen a lot of water. Especially not from all those showers they were forecasting for this week. So we shall have to wait patiently and see if the Gods will not forget us. One thing is for sure, Lesvos is a green island which will not face as many problems as the Cycladic islands. This coming summer they're going to have to import their water by boat, just like they did in the old days. How much does that cost? Seven euros a cubic metre!

The advantage of the drought is that it's easy to drive along all the dirt roads of the island, without worrying about getting stuck in the mud. Yesterday we followed the Sedoundas River from Plomari up to its source, over a breathtaking path that follows the winding river through a wild forest, where for centuries old and peaceful olive groves have slumbered.

Colourful flowers cheer up the dark vegetation. I think that the prettiest of all are the 'Fancy fair-anemones'. I called them that because of their bright pink candy-like colour. They make you think of those fancy fairs where unnatural bright colours predominate. Some colours even hurt the eyes! These 'Fancy fair- anemones' only seem to grow on the higher slopes of the mountains around Olympos.

Just before you reach the source of the Sedoundas River you turn a corner and you see the new Plomari reservoir. Well, a reservoir... There is only just a little bit of water in it. For years already they have worked on it, but it doesn't ever seem to get finished. So what you see is a big basin covered with plastic. The plastic is kept in place by bags of stones that are anchored to each other with ropes. I know that Greeks love plastic, but if this is the way to make a reservoir...

Between Molyvos and Petra there is also a big reservoir. Well, there used to be one. For two years the reservoir has been empty. Not because of a water shortage, but because it was leaking. Black plastic forms the walls for this huge water storage basin. It has become a strange sight: it looks like an enormous sea of black plastic with just a tiny bit of water in the middle and with the usual Greek garbage and some dead animals the farmers throw in. I have no idea if they are going to clean up this eyesore, but this summer some sensible Greeks will regret that it was not repaired.

The Plomarians think their reservoir is useless because they've always managed without it. They think it's a waste of money, but actually it was money from Europe which made it possible not only for the Plomari reservoir but also the leaky one between Molyvos and Petra to be built.

That Greeks can indeed build reservoirs, is proven by the idyllic Plastiras Lake in Thessaly, a region on the mainland of Greece. The dam was built at the end of the sixties and the reservoir not only provides the region with water and electricity, it also turned this region into a tourist place. The Plastiras Lake has popular beaches and water sports and it's a well loved subject for photographers.

So the Plomarians really have to think twice, before they slow down the works at their reservoir. A twinkling blue lake between those great mountains will make a fantastic sight. And besides water and electricity it might also provide for more tourists.

The same applies for the reservoir between Molyvos and Petra, even though it doesn't have an exciting dam, nor a superb position between majestic mountains. Even when there was water inside, it was an ugly sight. The walls clothed with black plastic seemed very unnatural. So for this lake, something more than repairing the holes would have to be done, if it wants to be a recreation area.

Managing water is not a strong side of the Greeks. Nor profitting from big projects. Molyvos and Petra seem to pass up another good opportunity to make their area more attractive. What about a floating restaurant, houseboats or a floating hotel, romantic row boats and a skating rink in the winter?

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Empty rivers

Today we got a clear view of how dry the island actually is. We drove over the concrete road via Vatoussa and Antissa to Lapsarna. And we totally forgot that in winter you have to come back the same way you went, because when you want to return over the dirt roads via Liota, you have to cross a river that in wintertime contains plenty of water.

Before we took the turn to Lapsarna, we took an unknown dirt road that we hoped would lead to Sigri. The road went high over the crests of some barren mountains, right in front of the mountain on top of which sits Ypsilou monastery, high above the landscape and looking like a waking God over the bare plains of West- Lesvos, once the country of the sequoia trees.

I always get quiet in this rough landscape. It is a merciless landscape with sharply silhouetted mountain slopes, decorated with endless long walls, built in the 1920s when there was a big land reform.

On an island that is full of bad dirt roads you would expect that a smooth sand path, well maintained, would lead to something. But after some kilometres and a sheep farm, the road ended at the second sheep farm. There was nothing left to do other than to stare down into the depths at merry winding small roads probably all leading to Sigri.

In Lapsarna the reed was waving merrily in the stormy wind. The beach was full of plastic and other garbage. The beach, which thanks to the winds and the sea gets full of all kinds of garbage in the winter, will only get cleaned in April or May when the worst storms are over. A little further on at Kalo Limano we could also not believe our eyes, because so much plastic got blown there last winter.

Only when we crossed a dry riverbed in Lapsarna, did we realise that this was not the way it should be. Here you would normally get out of the car to see if you could cross the water. After leaving Lapsarna we found the beach of Agia Triada, a little bay below some huge white cliffs which immediately make you think of the coast of the North of France. I'm sorry, I've never seen the white cliffs of Dover.

We were pleasantly surprised, because the little taverna in Liota was open and we could have a coffee there. Inside it is that small that only two tables can fit in, right under the big television. It is the first time we saw this taverna open in the winter. Great, because in that area only two other restaurants stay open the whole year: one in Gavathas and one in Kampos.

'O Costas' is the restaurant which towers above the road that goes through the riverbed that whirls itself through the gardens of Kampos. This scenic road boarded with walls is filled with water most winters. Today it was bone dry. Costas surprised us with lamb chops and pieces of chicken, roasted in the open fire place. That is the nicest way to eat this meat. But we also decided that he served better keftedes (meatballs) than in restaurant Perikles in Molyvos. And they really have gorgeous keftedes.

All over the island there was a strong wind and the dunes of Kampos seemed like moving sandhills. They were all over the road and you got the impression that these rare Greek sand dunes had blown away. But I think they seemed less high than usual because we were driving a high 4-wheel drive.

We had no problems when we crossed from the area besides Kampos to Old Antissa. At that crossing in springtime it's always fun to scare your passengers out of their wits by driving straight into the river. Only this time there was so little water that even the wheels of the car barely got wet.

It is that dry on the island that they were watering some of the fields at Old Antissa. In the tiny harbour after the ruins of Old Antissa we found a huge dolphin rotting away. The bled of Old Antissa was deserted, like it is most of the summer.

There was more life in the normally picturesque Kalo Limani, which this time was not that picturesque because of all the plastic. Here some fishermen live all year round. But keep their village clear? no thank you very much.

The water level in the small pond after Skalochori was as low as it is in August. If this pond has to survive like this in the summer, I am pretty afraid for its inhabitants: terrapins.

The strong northern wind that drove the temperatures down, even though the sun seriously tried to make it warm, is getting stronger and stronger. Dark clouds are gathering above the mountains. The weather forecast says that there might be a light shower tomorrow, but we all know now that these showers just sail past our island.

They also predict much lower temperatures for the end of the week. You think in this almost spring we will get some sensation of winter, although the giant fennels are nearly in bloom, the yellow broom is colouring the green mountain slopes, the red anemones are nearly gone, garlics are waving merrily with their tiny white flowers, some orchids already took a look around and we even picked the first wild asparagus?

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Silver toadfish

The good weather doesn't know how to stop. Temperatures only go up and the sun doesn't leave the blue sky anymore. So of course we had no problem seeing the eclipse of the moon last week. It was that warm that night that you could have slept beneath the red moon with its silver border.

My father used to say that when there's an 'r' in the month, there are fresh mussels. Well, it's not like that here on Lesvos. In autumn and December, there aren't always fresh mussels. When the new year is on its way they arrive. They're traditionally eaten at the Carnival and from then on the hunt for shellfish is on. The gulfs of Kaloni and Yera are famous for it.

I love shellfish, but only the cooked ones. This year I heard from many people that they became ill after eating shellfish. But mostly they ate shellfish - just like oysters - raw. If I get served raw shellfish, I very nicely ask the taverna owner to cook them. I am allergic to oysters and I am so happy that I can eat mussels and other shellfish. But cooked.

If I manage to find shellfish in the shop, I cook them just like I do the mussels in Holland: with a little carrot, an onion, some garlic, thyme, rosemary and some white wine. Like this they are very tasty.

When the Greeks cook them they also taste wonderful. I make sure that all cooked shells are open. You don't want to eat the closed ones, because they can be bad. Just as when you clean them, the open ones can be a risk. That's how I never get ill after eating them.

For me the best shellfish here on the island are the chtenia's, small St. Jacobs shells. After that there are the kidonia's, which have the same name as quinces, but they are Venus shells. And then comes the media, the mussels. And you should eat them outside in the sun, with one or more glasses of ouzo, some fava and some salad. Because without the gentle warmth of the sun and the fresh taste of the ouzo, you will taste only half of the salty flavour of the shellfish.

These days are the shellfish eating days and you can bet we do take advantage of that. Other fish are not about so much. The fishermen have bad days and in the restaurants you only have a small choice of fish: small fishes like gopa, marides and koutsomoures or sometimes a big palamida.

Just like the worlds population the fish are also migrating. Recently in the English language paper Kathimerini they warned of a lethal fish which moved from the Indian Ocean via the Suez canal to the Aegean: the lagocephalus sceleratus, or the silver toadfish (silver striped blaasop). For years some have already been seen along the coasts of Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. But now it seems that the silver toadfish finally settled down. In some places in the Indian ocean they are considered a delicacy, if they are prepared by an expert cook who knows how to remove the skin, the liver and the other organs because they are poisonous. Several people already died in Israel and in Lebanon after eating the silver toadfish.

This story very much reminds me of the stories of the Japanese poisonous blowfish, which is however number one on the Japanese gastronomic list of fishes. When the blowfish is not correctly prepared you take the chance of dropping dead at your table. However the blowfish seems to be such a treat that many people see it as an honour to risk death and eat it. The silver toadfish has the same poison as the blowfish: tetrodotoxin. Maybe not as much as the blowfish, because you do not die immediately after touching it, a risk you do have with the blowfish.

The blowfish got world famous thanks to the Japanese and eating one is high on the list for culinary tourists. Now we also have a fish here with which you can play Russian roulette. It's up to the expert cooks and the culinary dare-devils to turn this into a tourist attraction. I'll probably stick with cooked chtenias.

Photo: www.thejump.net: silver striped blaasop

Copyright © Smitaki 2007