Sunday, 27 January 2008

Following Sappho

Last week we enjoyed the warm Alkionides days, but for tomorrow they say snow is coming. On one of these warm days we travelled with friends to the west, to Eressos, where we would visit a waterfall.

Besides its hot springs Lesvos also has a number of waterfalls that could appear in the tourist guides, were they not so difficult to reach. The Pessa waterfall near Achladeri is the easiest to reach. Taking the road from Kaloni to Polichnitos, past Achladeri, there is a walking path that disappears deep into the pine woods. After about half an hour of walking you will reach this elegant waterfall. Opposite is a wooden platform that offers a beautiful view of the running water. When you go there in the summer, you could have the bad luck that there is no more water running. When the dry season is here, the water can disappear. Best time to visit the Pessa waterfall is in spring (after a wet winter!) or in the autumn, after the first rains.

There should be another waterfall near Asomatos (close to Agiassos), and one in the neighbourhood of Mandamados. The fourth big waterfall, close to Eressos, we visited last week. It was a nice and big surprise.

When you drive through the barren wild mountains of the west, you get the feeling that only thorny scrubs can grow there. The green valley of Eressos shows that in places where there is water, the area can be very fertile. So your conclusion is that the rest of the west is as dry as a desert. But it's the infertile volcanic rocks, that millions of years ago, after the eruptions of the volcanos, covered the west in thick layers, that made this desert-like sight of the mountains of the west, which once was a land full of trees, amongst others sequoias.

The waterfalls of Krinelou prove that these mountains don't lack water: a natural spring provides so much water that it causes these beautiful waterfalls. Deep between the faults of the mountain slopes it meanders downwards. Big plane trees are flourishing by little pools full of clear water. In the summer you can only dream of these places. But in this place your dreams come true: the source provides as much water in the summer as in the winter. During the heat waves this must be a hidden paradise.

And it's well hidden. It's a three hour walk from Eressos, or a little hours walking distance from the main road, or a fifteen minute very difficult drive with a good jeep (4WD). There you will find the watermill of Panayotis Krinelou, bordering these waterfalls.

Panayottis, once a ship's captain, has retired to the place where his grandfather long ago ground corn. In the summer Panayotis lives at the mill, in the winter he lives in Eressos, from where he transports the materials to rebuild the mill and to transform the place around it into an ecological Valhalla. There are seats cut out of tree trunks, he cut through rocks in order to make paths with wooden rails, he made a wooden platform in front of the waterfall with some seats so that you can gaze for hours into the falling water. He made a little stream going to a fish pond, his neighbour, a sheep farmer, has water pipes going to the feeding places of his sheep and Panayotis made pipe lines to his newly planted fruit trees, which in the future will add to the shadows already provided by the big plane trees.

Panayotis told us that these waterfalls were a favourite place of the poetress Sappho. From Eressos she traveled by donkey to bathe in the cooling water. When he was young Panayotis visited the falls daily. Barefoot he walked in the morning the three hours to go there, he then herded the sheep (which means up mountain, down mountain), and in the evening it took him another three hours to come home.

The old mill with its huge millstones and its shabby appearances, makes you reflect upon the past. It's not that long ago that the island was very poor and didn't know anything about the rapid modernisation of the world around it. There are even Greeks who say that Lesvos never has been poor: even during the war there was plenty of food because everybody had some cattle, a vegetable garden and ate chorta from the mountains. But how many times do you hear Lesvorians tell that when they were young they had no shoes? Bette Roland says in her book 'Lesvos, the pagan island' what an expedition it was in the Sixties to travel from Mytilini to Eressos. It took her a whole day!

Nowadays you drive comfortably over tarmac roads and every village, which took days to reach in the old times, is now within two hours reach. Although the way to the door of the mill of Krinelou is still not paved. That may be good, because you wouldn't want to think about all the many bus excursions going to the Petrified Forest making a stop at the waterfalls, so that masses of tourists can refresh themselves in the clear water, so that you'd have to queue in order to swim under the falling water.

In March we will return to the watermill and Panayotis will then show us the paths where once Sappho drove her donkey. Then maybe I'll tell you how to reach this paradise.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Alcionides Days

A Dutch proverb says you can 'live like a God in France'. But in Greece you live with the Gods. Each year this is proved by the Alcionides Meres or Halcyon Days, also called The Little Summer of January. The Gods must organize these warm days, how else would you explain this phenomenon?

The warm weather encourages the Greeks to empty their last olive trees and it's a wake up call for those in nature that are behind, like the almond trees this year, to prepare for spring. Aeoles, God of the wind, remains calm. The sea is like a mirror, where grumbling fishing boats have happy fishermen, because the fishes these days are eager to get caught. A fisherman from Chania, Crete, was lucky enough to catch a squid of one and a half metres! When you cut this huge squid (these big ones normally live in the deep sea) into rings, you can hulahoop with them!

The myth of the Alcionides Days shows that although the Gods could be cruel sometimes they also showed some mercy. Alcyone, daughter of Aeoles, married an earthly king, Ceyx. They were so in love that they sometimes called each other 'Zeus' and 'Hera'. This made Zeus mad. So when one day Ceyx was travelling over the sea, Zeus produced a big thunderstorm and Ceyx was struck by lightning and drowned. Alcyone was so grieved by the death of her husband that she threw herself into the sea and drowned as well. The Gods took mercy. They changed the pair into seabirds (ice birds) and Aeolus made sure that for two weeks in January the weather would be nice so that the birds could build a nest and lay their eggs on the rocks.

The inhabitants of the city of Arta (North West Greece) also showed their mercy, after priests published a letter in the local paper about the shameful circumstances of the life of local foreign workers. These workers live a life like in the middle ages and are exploited by the local farmers and businessmen. Greeks do listen to their papas, but the priests were still surprised when after publishing this letter of mercy, goods started flooding in, as well as free medical treatment.

Many immigrants in Greece come from neighbouring Albania. But just as many Greeks did in the Fifties in America and Australia, the Albanians now know how to make a good living. That good that they leave the countryside, where living conditions are the most difficult for them. And now the Greek farmers are panic stricken, because they have nobody to do their harvest. A Farmers Syndicate is now talking about getting some 50,000 workers from Egypt, in order to solve this problem.

Last Christmas an Albanian friend of ours travelled to Italy, to visit some relatives there. She was stunned by the price of goods in the shops. She told me that her relatives earn twice as much money as they do here in Greece. But then they have to work the whole day, from early morning to late at night, leaving them no time for other things.

She said here in Greece she has to work hard as well, but in Greece work finishes early, which leaves time to spend going for a walk, helping the kids with their homework or going out to dinner (one of the things that is still relatively cheap in Greece). According to her, life in Greece has much more quality than in Italy.

The Greeks may not agree with this, because thanks to the latest political scandals (see the previous Lesvos News), they no longer trust their politicians or the media.

Residents of an area in Athens discovered that the trees in a little park were being poisoned, (yes, they discovered an alternative for arson) so that a parking garage could be built. The residents went to a high court to get these plans overturned, because they no longer trust their local politicians.

But on a nice Sunday during the Alcionides days, all cares are forgotten. Then the Greeks go out with their whole family. They go to picturesque places like Molyvos, to take a little stroll and no political scandal can stop them from flocking to the restaurants by the sea.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Land grabbing

When it's really clear weather on Lesvos, from some heights in the north, like Vafios or Lepetimnos, you can see a kind of pyramid sticking out of the sea: Mount Athos.

As a woman you can only look at Mount Athos. It lies on a spit of land in the region of Macedonia (Northern Greece). Only men, most of them monks, live there in about twenty orthodox monasteries. It's also called the Autonomous Monastery State of the Holy Mountain, because it's a little independent state within Greece.

For nearly 1,000 years only male visitors are allowed to enter this magnificent mountain state, with its old and beautifully situated monasteries. Women who try to enter this land of monks risk a prison sentence of 1 or 2 years.

Sometimes there are campaigns to allow women to enter. Mount Athos is in Europe, where men and women have equal rights. And even though the monks consider Athos an autonomous state, they accept money from Europe to modernise their monasteries. See: 'Should women get access to Mount Athos' on YouTube.

Last week a group of women forced access to the monastery state. With their action they wanted to not only make a statement that they were against the ban, but also they wanted to underline the fact that they'd had enough of the land grabbing of Mount Athos. Mount Athos is claiming land in Halkidiki, a land spit not far from Athos, where more and more people are losing land and houses. The monks of Mount Athos justify their claims from old books, dating from the period when the Ottomans occupied the land and from as long ago as Byzantine times.

Mount Athos has money enough to pay fancy lawyers and the poor inhabitants can't do anything, because they can't afford such lawyers in order to prove that the land is theirs and not the church's.

The only countries in Europe that don't have a land registry are Albania and Greece. In Greece they started doing this job (worthy of a monk) in the nineties, but the work is still unfinished.

When the big wild fires occurred last summer it was clear the problems this could cause. Many clever businessmen saw an opportunity to get land to build on, whenever the woods on it were burned down. There was no law in the country that could prove on which land they could not build.

Many see not having a proper land registry as one of the causes of the wild fires. But now this fact is also affecting the victims. Of the 162 million euros that were collected for the victims, only 2.7 have been spent, on emergency assistance for farmers and building the flood works in Olympia, the cultural site that already got too much attention when it was besieged by the flames.

But the people who want to rebuild their homes have to do it the Greek way: gathering all the permits, which can take ages, even though you are homeless. There are people who had a house built illegally. For them there is no help. But there are also people that cannot clearly prove that the house and the land were theirs. Because there is no land registry! More than 4,000 houses were destroyed, but only a little rebuilding has been started. Only the two villages of Artemida and Makisto have been rebuilt, thanks to financial help from Cyprus and a wealthy shipping family.

So you have to be careful when buying land in Greece. Until about than ten years ago foreigners were not allowed to own land close to the Greek borders. In 1960, Anthony Quinn, famous from the movie Zorba the Greek, bought a piece of land on Rhodes by the sea. In 1984 the deal was judged illegal and cancelled by the Court of Rhodes, based on the above law. Last year, when Quinn's widow went to Rhodes to claim her land, there still wasn't a solution.

In the north of Cyprus you have to take care as well. There you can buy beautiful villas for very little money. But chances are that you'll lose it quickly, when Greek Cypriots can prove that you bought their land which was occupied by the Turks.

But the best story is still that of a smart Greek who sold part of the Akropolis Hill to an American. When the American wanted to fence his land he realised that they'd cheated him: cultural sites belong to the State and no Greek can sell it!

The Greek government also provides good examples: in December the Minister of Work resigned, after it was found that not only did he have illegal people working for him in his country house, but his large country house was built with only a permit for a garden shed!

At the end of December the general secretary of the Ministry of Culture resigned and attemted suicide a few days later. When they searched his house a compromising sex video proved that he had been blackmailed. And then all the dirty news came out such as that Christos Zacharapoulos was bribed to allow building projects on archeological sites.

On Lesvos we don't have any such juicy stories. Here life goes on between the olive trees and the orange trees, the quiet sea used by the refugees and the local fishermen looking for fish. It's good that there's more to Greece than just Lesvos, otherwise the papers would be really dull...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 6 January 2008


It's a strange sensation, waking up in the morning, opening the paper on the internet and reading the headline: 'Greece struck by a large earthquake'. I slept well and looked around: everything normal. Here there was no earthquake. It wouldn't have been the first time that I woke up from my sleep because of an earthquake. That feels like somebody's rocking your bed. Then I mostly turn over and think: it can't be that bad...

But this quake seems to have been somewhat stronger, because many people fled their homes, especially in Athens where in 1999 more than a hundred people died during the last big earthquake (in Turkey thousands of people lost their lives). The quake this morning occured in the south of Greece, at Leonido in the Pelopponesus. It measured 6.5 on the Richter Scale and it was probably strong enough to cause some damage on islands like Karpathos, Kythira and Crete. A couple that fled from their home on Crete looked back and saw an enormous rock coming down the mountain, destroying their house (source: BBC news). That's not a nice way to wake up. You would almost think that it was the Kallikanzaris at work, those little monsters that harass people between Christmas and January 6.

Because today is such a day you can write about each year. In many countries the 6th of January is Three Kings Day, in Greece this day is called Epiphany, the day of Cross-throwing, the day that the priests go through the villages and cities, followed by everybody who is important in the municipalities. The priest holds a cross and a bunch of basil, which he uses to bless everything he encounters. The procession ends up at the waterside, where boats and water are blessed as well.

This is the most sensational part of the day, because the pappas throws the cross into the water and some stout young men will dive into the freezing water in order to get the cross back. The one who finds the cross will win some money.

Epiphany is also the day when the Kallikanzaris will disappear until the next Christmas. I already wrote about those little creatures (see Boulevard News 18 December 2006) that during the twelve days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, will tease the people by destroying their food or climbing on somebody's back. Epiphany, the day when Greeks will go in procession through their villages after which they will enjoy a large meal, is finally the end of all those celebration days.

The so-called Three Kings Cake is then already long gone. The Greeks eat this cake, the vasilopita, in which they hide a bean or a coin, on New Years Eve. And although those Three Wise Men have a place at the Greek crib, they have no day of honour. They do participate in some processions, as do the Kallikanzaris that are represented as hairy trolls, apes or angry looking dwarfs. In some Greek areas these processions look like a merry carnival.

In Molyvos it's only the priest followed by the notables dressed up in their Sunday best and spiky heels, that parade through the village. A little sun tries to give the day more feel of celebration. The strong cold has left the air, so the people don't have to suffer from the cold during their village procession and the cross-throwing.

Tomorrow there will be another celebration day. It will be the Name Day of Yannis, a name which is given to all too many Greeks. That will be another day of festive meals. Then we will have to wait for the Carnival, after which Lent begins. And then, yes, then summer will start again with Easter.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

A sad outcome

The sky above Lesvos is grey. For about two weeks the sun did its best, but now the weather will change again into rainy and cold conditions. The wind takes it easy during the daytime, but blows during the night. Not a happy situation for the refugees who like to travel during the night across the sea.

Looking at the numbers of refugees that arrived last year on the Eastern Aegean islands of Samos, Chios and Lesvos, makes you sad. About 10,000 people, mainly from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Eritrea, Palestine and Iran managed to reach these Greek islands alive. About 100 people drowned or are missing during the journey across the sea. Even then, the 50 people that drowned last month during the start of their trip, in bad weather in the sea near Turkey, aren't included in this number.

On the first of December the new asylum centre on Samos was finally opened. Last year over 4,000 refugees reached this island, which is a lot because there are only 35,000 inhabitants. But Samos, of all the Greek islands, is closest to Turkey. A refugee was proud to tell that he made the sea trip from Turkey to Samos in only 40 minutes. The cost of this short trip, including a place in an inflatable boat, is between 600 and 900 dollars.

The arrival of refugees here on the islands is now in the national and often the international news on a daily basis. Which means that finally there's a reaction from Athens. They will send more police to the islands, specialists in dealing with asylum seekers, and they will make sure that these people are treated correctly.

We didn't see as large a number of refugees arrive as on Samos, but also here on Lesvos you could see that their numbers more than doubled. The nearly daily groups of strangers lounging at the bus stop have become a familiar sight.

The stranded inflatable dinghys have become part of the beach landscape. There are no heaps of seaweed without such a green or yellow dinghy sticking out. If the refugees weren't so afraid of being sent back in these little boats, which is why they slash them on arrival, everybody in Molyvos would now own a little rubber dinghy.

Before Christmas there were campaigns to collect clothes for the refugees. Well, there shouldn't be such a collection, it would be enough if one person would be responsible for gathering all the clothes the refugees leave behind. This person could clean them and bring them to the asylum centre. Nowadays you not only find Greek rubbish everywhere in the countryside, but also refugees clothes in the strangest places. They say that they come empty handed, but they just leave their wet clothes behind. I understand that when they arrive in Europe, they like to change into dry clothes, but I don't understand why they leave behind valuable possessions like good jeans, jackets and backpacks.

Mister George Selimis, a resident of Athens, but originally from Mytilini, had two things: cancer what made him die recently and an extreme love of buying clothes. He bought jackets, t-shirts, shoes and trousers in the most expensive shops, but never wore them. After his death it was decided that his clothes should be donated to the asylum centre in Mytilini. I'm wondering what they'll think when they receive their brand new clothes from the finest shops, something like 150 jackets, 58 pair of shoes and an unknown number of shirts and trousers...

50 years ago Greece was itself a country from which its inhabitants fled to look for a better life elsewhere. Now they have became a country for refugees, a situation they are not really ready for. I don't know if there were people fleeing over the sea during the turn of the year, if so they would have been received by the fireworks of Molyvos. They probably wouldn't have been noticed that night. The New Year was celebrated in full swing at the Bazaar nightclub and the other inhabitants were nearly all deep asleep by one o'clock.

So the New Year here had a quiet start. I wish the world a peaceful year, so that not too many people wish to leave their homes and families in order to look for a better life... Kali Chronia!

Copyright © Smitaki 2008