Monday, 30 July 2007

Fish & Chips, please!


Last week people from the village of Malia on Crete went out onto the streets to express their anger. They're fed up with tourists, especially the young, under 30, British tourists who terrorise their village. Whether or not they're drunk, they make the streets, bars and restaurants unsafe. They hassle other people, they drop their pants at every opportunity, they have foul mouths and they think nothing of making love in public.

The inhabitants are afraid to go out at night or to go out for dinner. This is upsetting their routine, because Greeks love to take a stroll in the evening, they love to sit in the street at night and talk about the problems of the world, they're used to going out to dinner late at night, especially in summer.

You won't find these sights on Lesvos, with tourists going crazy no matter where they are. Here you don't find large groups of youths roaming the streets completely drunk, nor people who think they're allowed to do whatever they please. On Lesvos you'll only find a few tourists that think they can lie topless in the sun wherever they want and stay shamelessly naked while changing their clothes, while Greek families who hate this look on.

Tourists who come to Lesvos for the first time are amazed when they don't find big tourism here. There are no big hotels, no long streets filled with souvenir shops, no bars with their music so loud that you can't hear yourself think 20 metres away, no restaurants that sell fish and chips.

Lesvos is still an island like a Greek holiday destination should be: just a few international tourism centres like Molyvos, Petra and Anaxos in the North, Skala Kalloni in the middle, Skala Eressos in the west and Plomari in the south. In between you'll find a vast and varied landscape that will enchant you. For the people who love company you have some busy beaches, but there are still enough quiet beaches where you can read your paper. There are modest hotels and pensions and restaurants that serve nearly all just Greek food.

In Lloret del Mar in Spain you can't find Spanish food anymore. There the Dutch tourists are so afraid of Spanish food that they just eat what they would normally eat in Holland. Well, I don't envy them because I love Spanish food, especially tapas. When Spanish tourists want to invade Molyvos I will receive them with open arms, as long as they bring their own tapas bar with them.

It's not that I'm complaining. I love Greek food, but I have to say that the restaurants here on Lesvos all have the same small menus. The only international dish which is really accepted in Greece is pizza and on the whole island there is only one Chinese restaurant (in Mytilini).

There are many tourists who come back each year and stay for a month or longer. When I see them going out for dinner each night, I wonder if they don't get fed up, eating the same things every day. I make it a challenge to cook foreign dishes with Greek ingredients: paella, couscous, bami, Indian chicken in yoghurt. And with some help from Holland I can even serve sushi here.

In Molyvos there are some places where they have some variations on the standard menu. There is The Brasserie, a little before the harbour, that serves a dish of the day like curry every week, there is Sansibal on the way to the harbour that serves amongst other things real steaks and there is the Captains Table that serves various dishes like taboule salad.

Though when I go out for dinner I prefer to eat Greek. After a few days cooking at home, I miss the grilled octopus, kalamari, fresh beans, home made feta, lamb chops, stuffed zuccini flowers and so on. I pity tourists who are afraid of the Greek kitchen because the food is seasonal and so is very fresh.

The heat wave has gone, temperatures are back to normal for the time of year. During the heat wave you just longed for ice cream or watermelon. Now that the sweat is not pouring off my body anymore I can sometimes long for things that don't exist here on the island. My longing for real Dutch herring is ever since I found the Greek sardelles past├Ęs, but sometimes I really want to have a snack like a croquette or a croquette ball, or a smoked sausage from the Hema (all probably equivalent to the British Fish & chips).

Otherwise, I'm sure that not for hundreds or thousands of smoked sausages would I want to live in Malia or Lloret del Mar. So I'd better do without a croquette.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 23 July 2007

To grill or not


I don't know if there are any people studying a correlation between temperatures and ants, but I think there is indeed a correlation. The hotter it is, the wilder the bands of ants are in the house. The temperature is again trying to reach 40°C and there are ants all over the place: impossible to destroy they roam around your things, from the computer, the shower, telephone, linen-cupboard to your bed. Everything you pick up, you have to do an ants-control. While you do your best to move as little as possible because of the heat wave, the ants are clearly out for war.

I give up trying to destroy them. Against high temperatures and running ants everywhere there is no solution. No oil with basil, no white pepper or thinly cut onions, no coffee dregs, no traps where whole armies of ants disappear and never return, unless they are replaced by at least 4 new armies. None of these remedies work. Ants keep on besieging the house, too scared to be grilled outside.

We have rather small ants here, otherwise you could try to lure them right into a grill pan. Grilled ants are a delicacy in Santander (Colombia). In Mexico they eat ant eggs (escamoles) and also in Thailand and India they love to eat ants. Food gurus say that they are very healthy to eat, so in a way it's a shame that your house is invaded by such good food, without you eating it.

Anyhow, I did make the grill pan ready for another experiment. It's karpousi time again. Which means you see plenty of Greeks struggling to get these big monsters home. Watermelon can be very nice, but please, not every day! It seems the Greeks love them: they grow them by the millions. But I have the idea that they don't know what to do with so many. They are so happy to offer you one. Not only when you're just passing by, but also as they pass by your place. I could easily start a karpousi shop here.

And what do you get when you finish a nice meal in a restaurant? Yes! The biggest plate they could find in the restaurant, filled with karpousi. Since I know that watermelon is very good for your liver and that the fruit contains lots of vitamins A, C, B6, B1, potassium and magnesium, I really do try to eat a bit. After a big meal you have to take care a little about your health.

But I have to be fair: I got even smarter with watermelons. Last week we got a karpousi that weighed at lease 10 pounds to eat on the beach. It was offered with napkins and a knife to cut it. The strange thing was that even though this karpousi had been lying in the sun, it tasted at least a thousand times better than in a restaurant. When you have eaten plenty, just to see such a big plate with red fruit arrive makes your stomach turn. However by the sea, when you eat the karpousi with salty hands, the fruit tastes just how it should: thirst-quenching and even though not cold, very refreshing.

The mistake the Greek restaurants make, is to serve them after dinner. This can be very healthy, but it's an offence to your nice full stomach. But whenever you eat it in between, when you are thirsty, a piece of watermelon, especially sitting on the beach, tastes like heaven. I used to crush a watermelon for its juice. What a waste of time! Each mouthful you take out of a karpousi is equal to a gulp of fresh watermelon juice. And especially in a heat wave the energy to squeeze a karpousi is a big waste. You can also inject a watermelon with vodka. But again, in a heat wave you should be very careful with alcohol. It's even too hot to make watermelon ice.

However, I was intrigued by a recipe that I found on the internet. So I used some energy to find out how it tastes: grilled watermelon. I thought how can you grill something that contains 92-95% water? I was amazed that the grill pan wasn't filled with water, grilling the karpousi. It smelt lovely and I must say that the result was super: watermelon steak with a dressing of tomatoes and vinaigrette. There are tens of watermelon steaks you can cut out of one karpousi. So you really don't care about an overdose of watermelons. But it's a very nice variation on all the pieces you are nowadays getting offered so frequently, which you can't refuse.

If this heat wave lasts any longer I may become that crazy that I'll add roasted ants to the recipe below.

Grilled watermelon steaks (side dish, 2 persons)
2 tomatoes, skinned and seeded
3 leaves of basil, cut in thin slices
2 tbls pistaccio nuts, crushed roughly
1 espresso cup of balsamic vinegar
3/4 tbls sugar
pepper
salt
olive oil
2 pieces of watermelon, cut in the shape of a steak.

Finely chop the tomatoes. Add salt and pepper. Cook the vinegar with the sugar until it becomes a little thick. Brush the watermelon pieces with olive oil and put them in a grill pan or on the barbecue. Grill each side for about 5 minutes, until they look like grilled steaks. Put them on two plates. Divide the chopped tomatoes over the pieces, sprinkle the basil over it and sprinkle everything with the vinegar-sugar vinaigrette. This is best served with a goats cheese.

Photo from www.corvandepolder.nl

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 16 July 2007

Aegean rumbling


Every morning I read the paper. Well, reading, I mostly surf the Dutch headlines on the internet and then I go to a site for Greek news in English. Although there are Lesvian papers online, I don't read them because my still poor knowledge of the Greek language doesn't permit me to take in all the local news. Maybe just as well, because otherwise I would give you the latest news about which roads are closed, local politics or which Lesvian have gone to heaven.

Some days ago, amongst the articles about national Greek politics, reports of some minor earthquakes, the heat and the wild fires, I read the headline: "Conflict between Persians and Greeks". I was perplexed reading about the growing tension between the Persians, led by their new King Xerxes who prepared to attack Greece, and the Athenians, also preparing for battle. The article finished by saying that no doubt a conflict would soon take place.

And there has been a conflict. At the battle of Salamis (near Athens) in 480 BC the mighty Persian army was defeated by the Greeks, which meant that the Persians would soon withdraw from Greece. A curious article for the summer of 2007...

Like many other Greek islands, Lesvos was at that time occupied by the Persians. They were treated so badly that they had no choice but to fight with 60 ships alongside Xerxes against the Athenians. However a year later, at the battle at Mycale between the Persians and the Greek city states, the Lesvians sided with the Athenians.

Occupation by the Athenians was also not nice, so the Lesvians were still suffering. In 440 BC the whole of the island, except for Molyvos, rose up against the Athenians. Later the island was conquered by Spartans, then the Athenians returned, and then again the Persians and so on. It used to be a rough time here on the island, with wars always going on and always new occupiers.

Nowadays it is a lot quieter on the island, but you still keep reading articles that make you worry about the enemy of Greece that consciously or not tries to shatter the stability. What I'm talking about is the continual harassment of Turkish jets flying into Greek air space. According to the Turkish Daily News this month Greek jets already harrassed Turkish F-16s 58 times. Sometimes they have so-called dog fights, sometimes they are just chasing each other. If you believe the papers, it looks like a kindergarten for the pilots above the coast of Turkey. The politicians try to stay as polite and diplomatic as possible, while the military leadership and the pilots make it seem like war.

When I look over the blue sea, beyond which the Turkish mountains climb to heaven, I can only see a lonely windsurfer, far away a freighter or a ferry and sometimes a majestic old sailing ship with many sails catching the wind. The jets, I hear regularly, but those things are so fast that I rarely see them, and I definitely will never see if they are Turkish or Greek.

In the time of the Persians they used to have huge warships, the triremes. They had three rows of rowers at each side and one big sail. Well, that would've been a nice sight, seeing them passing by. At the battle of Salamis there were 371 Greek ships and 1,207 Persian. If I'd seen such a fleet passing I definitely would have called the papers, telling them something was in the air.

But as long as I live here on Lesvos, I'm used to the rumbling sound of these jets. Just like I'm used to reading about the chases of other jets. Except that last year a Turkish and a Greek jet collided in the air, not far from Crete, and the pilot of the Greek jet did not survive the crash. Even then the politicians didn't make a big deal out of it and kept the fragile peace between Greece and Turkey.

Last weekend there was a totally different reason to quarrel: a concert by the famous Greek singer Giorgos Dalaras was cancelled at short notice by the Turkish government, without any reason. The concert was to take place on Saturday night at the Rumeli castle, on the European side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. They say that they didn't want Dalaras to sing because he is outspoken about the occupation of North Cyprus by the Turkish. It's not sure how big the quarrel will get, but it's for sure that relations between Turkey and Greece will always rumble on.

When I hear the grumbling of jets far away, I rather think of a juicy thunderstorm with lots of rain. The heat wave is gone (a new one is approaching though), the days keep on being warm. The only effect of the strong winds that sometimes blow is making the danger of wild fires greater. The fires at Polychnitos and Agia Paraskevi were extinguished. The Persians are gone. That's all the news there is this week...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 9 July 2007

The Seven Wonders of Lesvos


What is missing amongst the following names: The Great Wall of China, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro, the ancient cities of Machu Picchu in Peru and Chichen Itza in Mexico, the Colosseum in Rome and the Taj Mahal in India? Well spotted: the Acropolis in Athens. It was a candidate for the latest selection of the Seven Wonders of the World. The result was published last week and the most important ancient Greek building is not supposed to be a new Wonder of the World.

The Greeks not only were not the ones to exclusively choose the new wonders, none of the newly chosen Wonders of the World are in Greek territory. While the classic Wonders of the World (the pyramid of Cheops, the colossus of Rhodes, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, the statue of Zeus in Olympia, the mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the Lighthouse of Alexandria) were all within the borders of the empire of Alexander the Great. Do you think it was by chance that the classic Wonders of the World were selected more than 2000 years ago by several Greek writers? Now it is the internet site new7wonders.com that made the new selections possible, although they are not supported by organizations such as UNESCO. Why won't I be surprised when the Greek don't accept this new selection of Seven Wonders of the World?

For me a Wonder of the World is something which you don't quite understand how it was made or if it has ever existed. Like from the mythical hanging gardens of Babylon there only exists drawings and stories about them, or like the colossus of Rhodes, a 30 metre high statue of Apollo that stood with its legs spanning the entrance of the port of Rhodes, which was destroyed by an earthquake, after which they never managed to find all the different pieces. The only building still standing is the pyramid of Cheops, but no one ever agreed on how exactly this huge death house was built.

The Taj Mahal in India or the Great Wall of China were simply built by workers/slaves. There is nothing miraculous about that. So these new Wonders of the World are just magnificent buildings, standing out due to their beauty or their greatness, but there's nothing mysterious about them. Similarly, you could name many more wonders everywhere. Like for example the Seven Wonders of Lesvos.

Wonder number one of Lesvos should also be on the list of wonders of the world, except that it was not made by humans but by nature: the petrified forest. These colourful trees, some pieces looking like precious stones, are a rarity worldwide. Greece should be more proud of a park full of million year old trees.

The second Wonder of Lesvos was not built by Greeks but by the Romans: the aqueduct at Moria. It is not even the huge building in the middle of the olive trees that makes you wonder, but the fact that the aqueduct was once part of a water system running all over the island. It is even said that it transported hot water from the hot springs. Imagine, when the Romans lived on Lesvos, Molyvos got hot water. That is more than you can say for modern times, especially when there is a power cut. Near to Lambou Mili you can admire a second aqueduct, smaller than the one at Moria, but the spot where you view it is more impressive. It stands between two mountain crags where nobody cares that the vegetation is slowly creeping up to arrive at the other side.

Ancient Molyvos in the north of the island can be called wonder number three. Unlike other old cities on the island this ancient city managed to survive many wars. Its square houses made of big stones, some still having wooden overhangs, and its narrow medieval streets running up to the castle, are the favourite targets of tourist cameras. It's a miracle that for so many years the Greeks have preservied this beautiful sight.

My number four on the list of Wonders of Lesvos is the Ypsilo monastery. Not because of its size or importance (for that the Limonas monastery and the Mandamados monastery are number one), but because of where it is and therefore because of its atmosphere. It is built on a rather high mountain, where you have a panoramic view over the rugged landscape of the south west of the island. Standing on the highest battlements you will lose all sense of time. There it is easy to imagine that the island was once full of sequoias, the enormous trees that are found at the petrified forest. It is here you can easily imagine how the head of Orpheus washed ashore at Old Antissa. Wind is always blowing around your ears, which makes it easier still to hear the music that Alceos continues to play.

The fifth place in the Wonders of Lesvos goes to the mountain village and the surrounding area of Agiasos. This village is hidden on one of the slopes of the mighty Olympus and is surrounded by the most beautiful forests on the island, such as the chestnut woods. Here you still find old crafts like wood carving and pottery. The shops are endlessly filled with their products, as well as with numerous religious relics, because the Church of Maria in the middle of the village is an important place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims from all over the island rush to the village on the 15th of August. They are not as dangerous as the bulls they release in the streets of Pamplona (Spain), but I can guarantee that reaching the middle of the village that day is nearly impossible.

In sixth place is the hollow tree at Karini. Not because it is so big and so hollow, or because Karini is such a beautiful spot with lots of water, but because it's the tree where Theofilos, a painter from Lesvos, once lived. His naive paintings even reached the Louvre in Paris. Although there is enough Greek art in that museum, most is from the antique past. The merry scenes of Lesvos life, that Theofilos painted at the beginning of the 20th century, can be seen on the island in the Theofilos Museum in Varia, a suburb of Mytilini.

Seventh place in the Wonders of Lesvos goes to the Ouzo of Lesvos. Dozens of different ouzos are brewed on the island. It is not a building, but the Greeks have made it already for centuries. So why not choose a culinary wonder? A good ouzo from Lesvos transforms the taste of fish or grilled meat. No French foie gras, German choucroute or Spanish paella can beat roasted octopus, salted fish, fresh sardines or grilled lamb chops that are accompanied by a good glass of ouzo.

Of course the island has far more wonders. Like the Kremasti bridge, the picturesque village of Vatoussa, the Italian-like city of Plomari or the castle of Mytilini. And I will not forget the most important: the absolutely gorgeous nature of the island.

So still plenty of wonders left in the world. And you don't have to travel all the way to Brazil, India, China, Peru, Jordan or Mexico to see them. Greece is close enough...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 2 July 2007

Do not!


Some time ago I warned you not to go barefoot into the sea. That warning is not meant for the sandy beaches here on Lesvos, like at Petra and Anaxos, but for all stony beaches. It's not just for show that they sell water shoes here in all the shops: there are sea- urchins here in the sea!

In Dutch they are called sea-hedgehogs: spiny balls which live in large numbers here on the sea bottom, near the coast. They prefer an environment with rocks and stones. Inside these spiny balls they hide a marvellous kind of roe, which is best described as sea- caviar. It melts on the tongue and you swallow it smoothly and saltily away.

You swallow quite differently when you step on a sea-urchin. More than one fine needle will penetrate your foot and it will take a lot of patience, and maybe even some tears from the pain, to get them out. So be wise and visit a doctor, to be sure that they are all out of your feet. The needles tend to infect your feet.

I never warned you about the wall that lines the cliff side of the road going to the harbour in Molyvos. It is very nice to sit on this wall and enjoy the view over the magic Bay of Molyvos. But at some places it also offers a view of nasty steep precipices.

For years now this wall has been a dangerous place for night-revellers. They may be enchanted by the moon throwing its shiny moonbeams over the water and may get reckless because of too many drinks. They take strolls along this wall, when the precipices are shrouded in darkness.

So sometimes tourists fall off the wall, ss a man did last weekend. But this time he did not survive. Because it happened at about 5 o'clock in the morning nobody saw it happen, so it's not sure why and how this man came to fall. He was found hours after the accident. Some years ago two Dutch men were luckier. After some hours they were found still alive.

While talking about the dangers of the island, I also want to point out the danger of fire. Lesvos survived the last heat wave well. On other islands, like Samos and Chios there were some forest fires, but Lesvos stayed flame-free. However a big catastrophe happened on the slopes of Parnitha, a mountain close to Athens. The fire destroyed at least 3,000 hectares of the forest, which is considered one of the main green lungs of Athens. The weekend after the heat wave there was ash raining down on the Greek capital. Another fire disaster took place at the old Troodos forest on Cyprus.

I still remember when about 15 years ago we drove along a small path in that mighty old forest. The path was too small to turn the car around, so we were forced to drive along, deeper and deeper into the wood without meeting anybody, the impressive trees becoming higher and higher, the atmosphere even becoming fearsome. After some two hours we ended up in an open place where there was an enormous clock. The clock didn't show the time, but the level of danger from fires. That gigantic clock then had its indicator on green, but I never forgot the image of the clock.

If that clock hasn't been eaten away by fire it will probably now indicate the red area. It might have been warning people, but it didn't prevent an ecological disaster. Cyprus was even helped by firemen from Lebanon, Italy and Israel. They managed to extinguish the fire.

I hope tourists don't start a fire in order to clear the trees from the plot of land on which they want to build their dream house. But around Athens it's common that developers become arsonists in order to get more building land. However there are tourists that, used to a wet climate, just throw their cigarettes ends from their cars. So, my dear smokers, please be careful when smoking. Try not to smoke in the car when all the windows are open, so that a spark will fly into the countryside, don't flick the ash over you shoulder, don't just throw your cigarette away and put some water in your ashtray when it is windy. A small spark is enough to start a fire and we don't want a blackened Lesvos, do we?

One thing that's officially forbidden in Greece is dogs in the sea. They don't strictly enforce this but it may happen that some old Greek lady that thinks that dogs in the sea are dirty will scold you, when she finds out it is your dog swimming in the sea. Our dogs are not very happy swimmers, but in the latest heat wave even Rocky was happy to be immersed in the sea. To get dry he rolls in the seaweed so that he looks like a sea-urchin. Albino lets himself go a few paces into the sea. Then he sits down, looks around to chack that everybody sees he is such a hero and leaves the water only half wet. He still doesn't understand how to cool off in the water.

I take it that you know that swimming after a big meal is out of the question. Some people think that this is an old wives tale. Every year in Greece a few people drown because they went swimming right after dinner.

And then there are still people who don't know how to survive a heatwave. They are on holiday, so they have to go to the beach. Heatwave or not, they go in the middle of the day sunbathing. Recently on Crete a 17 year old girl died of heat stroke!

This column isn't translated into Greek. Otherwise I would have added some do-nots for the Greeks as well. Like dumping their trash everywhere, like overtaking while you're approaching a bend in the road, like chatting in you car in the middle of the street with one of your friends standing by the road, like the nasty habit of pretending that you are all alone on the beach and screaming to your kids all the time, kids screaming even louder back, like picking your place on an empty beach, just one metre from the only other people on the beach, like in an overcrowded cafetaria ordering the impossible and changing your order at the last minute or those reckless taxi drivers many of whom drive too fast.

Well, anyhow, the Greeks at least know the wonderful taste of the sea- urchins, they know what pain follows when you step upon them and they know what a catastrophe can be a forest fire. There are not many Greeks walking on walls longing precipices and you will never see them in the middle of the day working on their fields or sunbathing on the beach. They already know a lot of do-nots that you still have to learn...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007