Monday, 1 October 2007

Monumental planes

Whenever a tree is not for bearing fruit here in Greece, it stands there to give shade. The most popular shade trees are the planes that you see everywhere, especially in the village centres. Not an unusual tree, but more than one can be rather special: their shape can be strange and the older trees are often hollow. They can reach an age far greater than 200 years.

The most famous plane tree in Greece is on the island of Kos: the plane of Hippocrates, the plane under which the founder of medicine taught his pupils. Hippocrates lived from 460-370 BC. This means that the plane would be some 2400 years old. Which is nearly impossible. It's said this tree, with a crown about 12 metres wide, is some five hundred years old. Which is still an impressive age. According to the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, it is the oldest tree in Europe.

It's said that in the little village of Aegio, in the north of the Peloponnese, there must be an older plane tree. The Greek travelling geographer, Pausanias, who lived in the second century AD, already mentioned this tree. That's why this tree is called the plane of Pausanias. The archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in his book about Troy and the Peloponnese (1868) thought the plane to be about 1450 years old. The plane tree watches over centuries old fountains in Aegio. But its age nowadays has been brought back to some 600 years. Still, what an age!

Another famous plane tree is only known from the story that Herodotes wrote about the Persian king Xerxes. When Xerxes conquered Greece he found a plane tree so beautiful that he hung its branches full of gold. He left a soldier to watch over the tree.

If on Lesvos you walk up through the ruined village of Chalikas, you will find the path that goes all the way to the top of Mount Lepetimnos. On this path just after the village you will also encounter some huge plane trees. It's the most enchanting part of this path, when you walk under these magnificent arboreal giants that hover over a ravine. They don't need gold to be beautiful. The curved branches that reach for metres into the air, the thick knots like elbows, the hollow spaces that play with the light, they form such a statue that no sculptor could ever better. With their enormous branch like roots the trees cling to the sides of the ravine.

You will find a similar ravine just behind the village of Sykaminia. There more than one plane has toppled because the walls of the ravine slowly collapse when in winter gushing streams search for a way down. The fallen trees are still very impressive. However the planes above Chalikas will still endure. I should think they're centuries old and I wonder what you could see if these trees had had a hidden camera. Do we then see lovers, or families having a picnic, do we see wicked people that hang someone in the tree, do we see murders in the wood, persecutions? Or will you see only shepherds and their sheep enjoying the cool shade of the planes and the crackling sound of the fallen leaves? The path is not a busy highway and that's probably the reason why no conservationist organization ever found the trees.

There are quite a few plane trees in Greece that are considered protected monuments. Besides the above mentioned planes of Pausanias and Hippocrates, you will find protected planes in Scholari, Geroplátanos, Vavdos, Kambotades, Arta, Heraklion, Veria, Nafplion, Dimitsana, Valtos, Fthiotida, Lamia, Ilia, Azogirón, Messinia, Thessaloniki and Kalavryton. Then there are also some protected olive trees, a century old grape vine, a pine tree, an oak, a palm tree, a beech forest and last but not least the petrified forest of Lesvos.

Although I'm not sure if petrified trees are still to be considered as trees. But one thing is certain, they will be far older than any of those trees mentioned on the list of protected trees in Greece. Most of them are sequoias and pines and they are millions of years old.

Lesvos also has a famous plane tree, although not mentioned on the list of protected monuments. It's the plane of Theophilos in Karini. The Lesvian painter Theophilos lived from 1873 to 1934 and for some of this time he lived in the plane tree. When you are standing in the plane tree you can imagine that indeed it was possible to live there. A small bed, a table and a chair and still enough space to move around. To survive Theophilos also made wall paintings in tavernas, as he did in Karini. His work, that consists of naive paintings, depicts life on the island of Lesvos.

In Molyvos there also lives a kind of Theophilos. Stelios is his name and he works at the castle, where before the rebuilding (the rebuilding is not so quick, the castle is still closed for public), he had a small room full of his paintings. The merry scenes are all about life around Molyvos. Stelios might not be such a colourful man as Theophilos, who liked to be dressed in a kilt or in old soldiers clothing. Stelios is a special man and certainly one of the more colourful characters of the village.

Last week we met him when he was wrestling with two big bags. Being curious, I asked politely what was in the bags. I thought it might be feta and when he offered me something I couldn't resist the offer. Fresh feta is far better than the feta you buy in a shop. Instead, when I got a bag from the shop where we met, he took an enormous freshly slaughtered leg of lamb from one of his bags and put it in my plastic bag. When he saw my startled expression, he took another big piece of meat and put it in my bag...

Painters don't live in planes anymore. Stelios, who is also an archeologist, paints nearly as well as Theophilos. In the future he will be known as 'The Painter of Molyvos'. But he probably won't have a plane tree named after him. Maybe it'll be the castle: 'The Castle of Stelios'. And certainly the castle is already on the list of protected monuments.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

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