Sunday, 24 February 2008


In a single day the ice cold weather was forgotten because, as predicted, the weather was in a hurry to reach for summer temperatures. So only a few days later we were walking in warm spring sunshine. Our walk brought us to Anaxos, a small tourist resort that in the winter should be totally empty, but was now very lively with road building activities.

I mentioned before that here on the island all villages in the mountains near the coast have their own harbour and bathing spot. Kaloni has Skala Kaloni, Eresos has Skala Eresos, Kidonia has Skala Kidonia and even Vasiliko has the little known Skala Vasiliko, a quiet family beach on the Gulf of Kaloni.

Skoutaros is a big mountain village some 8 kilometres from Petra. It is built on the slopes of Skoteino and probably named after this mountain. The inhabitants live from their sheep and goats and the olive trees. The big number of kafenions in the village centre is mainly open only during the winter. The village has a basilica from 1880. The official harbour of Skoutaros is in Anaxos, which is just next to Petra. I have no idea where this harbour is, because the only thing you see is the vast sandy beach, so popular now with the tourists.

Anaxos is not a village but a settlement. It used to be all small gardens going on to the beach with small garden houses of the Skoutarians (and perhaps also a harbour). A Greek bathing place by sea was not meant to cool off in the water, but it was more a complex of allotments to flee the heat of the village. In those green gardens they built little summerhouses and in the summer the whole of the village moved to the seaside.

When in the Eighties the tourist numbers were on the increase, some of these little houses were transformed into tourist apartments. And when the tourists discovered the beautiful beach of Anaxos the Skoutarians found a new way of living: the tourist business.

In no other place on the island is it so obvious what happens when people start building without any planning. Slowly all Skoutarians managed to build an apartment in their vegetable garden, or opened a taverna or a little shop. That's how present day Anaxos is made: a wild growth of little apartment buildings and its boulevard full of restaurants and bars.

Don't immediately think of Faliraki on Rhodes. This is Lesvos and everything, in Anaxos as on the whole of the island, is on a small scale. The large village of Anaxos that still is no village, has three main streets that wander from the concrete Petra ? Skoutaros road towards the sea. Little sandy paths going to the houses further in.

All buildings, not higher than two floors, are enclosed by at least one metre of greenery: bushes, trees, flowers and vegetables. So the streets still have a lovely atmosphere. But when you look more closely, you wonder how they managed to get so many houses into their gardens. And they still find empty square metres to put more up.

But I must admit that Anaxos has a high number of tourists who return (repeaters). It's the ideal bathing place for people who like some company and who still like the spacious beach, even though the sand is full of hundreds of sun beds and parasols.

But Skoutaros has more than just this cozy beach. When you come down the hill from the village you come to Small Tsichranda, nowadays called Ambelia. There are two bad dirt roads that leads to the sea, where the beach is bordered with the same allotments Anaxos used to have. One road starts with a steep slope in the village itself, the other just coming out of Anaxos.

Here in Ambelia you can still meet the real farmers who have their sheep grazing under the olive trees. The small number of houses is centred on the beach, as well as some shabby wooden benches. There is one taverna (only open in the summer) and two showers on the sand. Somebody even started a business with sun beds, but don't worry, with a very small number of beds. In some places the sand gives way to pebbles and in some parts the sea might be coloured a nasty brown because of the seaweed.

Good, because Ambelia is a beach for people who like quietness. I know that people like to have access to all places, but it's better that some of the beaches resist mass tourism. That might be a reason not to tell you about the beautiful path that goes from Anaxos to the beach of Ambelia.

And it's the reason that I don't tell you where this path starts. The beginning is in an area of Anaxos that is still unspoilt by tourism. It winds through lush meadows full of sheep, olive trees and vegetable gardens, where there are also small houses where the Greeks spend their summers. This idyllic path climbs over the mountain that separates the two beaches. On the mountain you will find real cliffs that fall down to a smiling aquamarine sea. Further in the sea you will see Molyvos blinking its eyes in the bright sunlight. The walk over this splendid donkey path that goes close to the cliffs, will be difficult for people who don't like heights, like me, but it can be done. But still I was very glad when we were down again on the beach of Ambelia.

The weather was so warm and the sea was working so hard trying to seduce me with its blue and calm water, that I wanted to swim. But I will have to wait another two months until the summer really starts. They say this summer that a lot more tourists will come to the island. The building fever in Anaxos is still growing.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Snow line

It's often said that the Dutch like to talk about the weather. Well, nowhere else than here on the island of Lesvos, weather is the talk of the day. And unlike in Holland, the weather here has some influence on daily life.

Take that North eastern storm that ended at the end of last week, after pounding at the waves for days. No boats went to and from Athens, so there were no deliveries. If you went to Lidl, you were in for a big disappointment, because half the shop was empty. After the storm there was a strike which particularly disrupted life in Athens, and was the reason that there were no flights that day.

For days heating oil couldn't be distributed to the island. And when after the storm the boats finally could go the oil distributors got in a fight with the government about new taxes and refused to distribute heating oil. Not a nice threat when everybody is forecasting cold weather.

However nobody worried about that on Valentines Day. The sun provided so much warmth that we went for a picnic amongst the anemones, where we had a marvellous view of the white powdered tops of Lepetimnos.

It was also on Valentine Day that the Peloponnesos was rocked by two serious earthquakes. People fled their houses and schools were evacuated: they got a bad fright. Damages were only some cracks in the walls and some plaster that came off walls. Here on Lesvos we felt nothing of the quake. It was only family and friends that telephoned or e-mailed in order to ask if we were okay.

The next day everybody kept on talking about the approaching bad weather: cold and snow. The Greek media did a good job in scaring everybody. You got the feeling that Greece would turn into the North Pole.

Although people on Lesvos do forget where they live. I spoke to a few people that really were afraid of getting snowed in. And of course the winter did strike the mainland, where roads got snowed in and reporters in Eskimo clothing stood in the middle of snow flakes whirling down, telling how some cars came off the road. More than one village was cut off and stranded drivers had to be freed from their cars. Everywhere in the country had plenty of snow, even on Crete.

But Lesvos is an island that mostly has mild winters. In the cold months you only have to be careful of dangerous weather when you drive through the mountains. That's where some snow fell on Saturday morning. The snow line slowly came down as far as Vafios. In the lower areas we just had some threatening clouds, a falling temperature and an increasing wind.

The wind kept on getting stronger. Until it was a merciless storm with a gale force of 9 to 10 Beaufort. Then it's nice to remember how just two days ago you were enjoying the sun outside. The wind was tearing at the house with a scary force, but the cold was worse. It sneaked inside through all the crevices of the house.

This weekend again there were no boats braving the Aegean Sea, also most of the flights between Mytilini and Athens were cancelled. I do like a good winter. The times I really feel homesick are when Holland is covered with snow. But I think that whenever you have to endure cold weather, they should send some snow along.

While the rest of Greece is enjoying a feel of wintersport, here in the north of Lesvos it is grey, ice cold with a few snowflakes whirling down. But the actual snow line still doesn't reach below Vafios. Even Turkey is getting more and more white by the minute. The sea this morning was furious, its high waves spewing steam into the cold air.

Now the waves have calmed down, although they still spit steam to the arctic cold from the North East. The weather forecast predicts another cold day and then the winter is over. Temperatures are forecast to be close to 20°C by the end of the week. So I can forget my dreams about a Molyovos covered with snow. I forgot that I live on Lesvos, where the weather makes it a game to yoyo with the temperatures.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Fairy Tale of Lesvos

Sappho lived a few centuries BC and is now considered as one of the greatest poetesses of ancient times. Lesvos is well known for Sappho. But Lesvos also produced the first pastoral romance of world literature. A pastoral romance (also called a shepherd romance) glorifies the countryside and nature.

No story goes better with Lesvos, because the countryside is still pretty idyllic. Now that the wind roars around the house and the temperatures tries to go down to 0°C, nothing's better than to sit by the fire and read a very romantic shepherd story.

The Lesvorian writer Longus wrote 'Daphnis and Chloe' in the second century AD. It is set near Mytilini and is the story of two shepherd children who fall in love with each other. Not only had they to find out how to make love, the couple as were also more than once bothered by jealous admirers.

The country was beautiful, but also in those times dangerous: Daphnis was taken by pirates from Pyrrha (that little town must lay sunk in the Gulf of Kalloni), later he was attacked by angry young men from Molyvos, which at that time was called Mithymna (which still remains its official name). More than once Mytilini and Mythimna declared war on each other, which was not always such a big deal. One time the war only consisted of one raid, the other time Mytilini sent an army to attack Molyvos, but before Mithymna had a chance to defend itself, peace was restored.

The Gods also come into this story, although they don't get as much space as is usual in these myths. Especially Pan, god of the woods and shepherds, plays a fancy role. He saved Chloe from the people of Mithymna, who returned from a fight with Daphnis to take revenge and made a raid from their ship and took Chloe and her sheep.

'Daphnis and Chloe' is an enchanting story, especially when you try to imagine how life on Lesvos was at that time. The four seasons are extensively described. If we believe Longus they're not much changed. Already at that time winter could be pretty cold. Because in the story of Daphnis and Chloe snow kept all the people in their houses, as well as the shepherds. So Daphnis had to find another way to see his beloved Chloe. In the spring the couple wandered through the flowering green meadows. That's very easy for me to imagine because, even this early the meadows here are coloured by an amazing amount of big anemones.

'Daphnis and Chloe' inspired many a love story, as well as ballets like that by Maurice Ravel. More famous however are the lithographs of the French painter Marc Chagall. The Myhtilinean art critic and publisher Stratis Elefteriades (Teriade) invited Chagall to illustrate the story of Daphnis and Chloe. So it came that Chagall travelled to Greece, where he fell in love with the sea, the Greek landscape and the light. Especially for this work he developed new shades of green and blue, in order to be able to express his Greek impressions. It's strange that Chagall never visited Lesvos (he only saw Athens, Delphi, Nafplio and Poros). Had he been to the island I'm sure he would have developed far more shades, because those crazy anemones come in such a wide range of colours between white and red, including a very bright pink.

The book produced by Marc Chagall, with the lithographs of Daphnis and Chloe, can be seen at the Teriade Museum in Varia, just outside Mytilini. When you look at the merry images, you will definitely be moved by the love between these young shepherds Daphnis and Chloe. The story is like a fairy tale, because Daphnis and Chloe were foundlings and were raised as poor shepherds. At the end of the story they discover that they come from wealthy houses. In any other fairy tale, it is the pauper who marries a prince or princess. In the case of Daphnis and Chloe, because they are both rich, they can marry each other. Their marriage was as beautiful as it could be in that time.

These days shepherds don't find so many foundlings. Nor do slaves or serfs work the fields. (Although in some parts of the country land workers are treated the same). However I was strongly reminded of pirates when reading an article in the Turkish Daily News of 10 February 2008. Two vessels with a Greek flag stopped a group of Afghan people, trying to cross from Turkey to Lesvos. Some of the uniformed men were hooded. The Afghans were beaten, money and mobiles were stolen and they were put in rubber boats that were pierced and were sent back to Turkey, where in Ayvalik they recounted their story.

This sounds like pirates, but it's also a scandalous affront of human rights. Amnesty International demanded Greece make a serious investigation. I am deeply disappointed that Greek people, who took too seriously their duty, probably did this and that it happened so close to this island. The island where Longus wrote his romantic story of Daphnis and Chloe. But those times were also dangerous. So nothing's changed on this idyllic shepherds island.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The death of a bishop

Last week the biggest news in Greece was the death of archbishop Christodoulos. The 'pope' of the Greek Orthodox church had for months fought for his life because of cancer. He even flew to America, but they could do nothing, he died on 28th January.

I'm not so keen on church men, and certainly not on those here in Greece. Some local papas are like a folkloric attraction, such as the previous papas in Petra. You could regularly see him drunk, he was always chasing women, later became a pimp and he stole icons from the church, until finally he was was thrown out of his ministry (which means that you really have been doing bad things).

On television I saw the senior papas with their grey beards and their fancy clothing behaving like serene priests. But whenever you opened the papers and read about what really kept them busy besides saying masses, you would be more than disgusted. 2005 was the most negative year for the Greek Church and Christodoulos. There were scandals with drugs and sex involved, huge sums of money disappeared and there were dirty tricks played in the election of the new bishop in Jerusalem.

The Dutch paper 'Volkskrant' called Christodoulos a flamboyant man. I wouldn't call him this. As a powerful man of the Church he meddled in too many things that should only be handled by the government. In Greece state and religion are not separated. And so you get situations such as that Christodoulos was very angry when the Greek law was changed which said that your religion must be stated in your passport. The Greek Church interferes in art exhibitions, in the publication of new schoolbooks, they are against Turkey joining the European Union and so on. It's difficult to make Greece a modern country, when the Church still has so much power.

There were four days of national mourning and last Thursday Christodoulos was buried. That day all officials had a day off to mourn. Only on the island of Ikaria did they think otherwise. There the officials did not take a day off. Why would you stop public work when a member of the Church died and why should only the officials get time to mourn? I'm sure that whenever somebody has the power to separate the Church and the State in Greece, the Ikarians will be first to vote for this change in the law.

After some icy cold days, warm days returned and still the olives are being harvested. Funeral or not, on Thursday the children were dragged into the olive groves. Except that all the children were about, nothing else on Lesvos gave you the idea that in Athens a big funeral was taking place.

A lot of foreigners take the opportunity of the winter months to visit their families abroad. When they come back they always ask the same question: "What happened while I was away?" And then you think and think, but you can't come up with anything. Yes, a friend got pregnant, but you promised you wouldn't tell, even though the whole village knows it. And while in the rest of Greece storms caused damage, here on Lesvos maybe only some pottery flew off balconies and the heavy rains and snow that made daily life difficult in many parts of Greece, on Lesvos only came to one heavy shower.

The only disruptions in the north of Lesvos are caused by the road builders who are installing new sewage pipes. So the road to Petra and Anaxos is blocked many times a day by trucks and bulldozers. The harbour of Molyvos is a no go area because of the same works. Even Tsonia (beneath Clio) is hard to reach because of road works. And the works at Molyvos castle, that have been going on for some 2 years, are still not finished. So nothing new is happening here.

You see everybody making bets: will the roads be open by the beginning of the coming season? In this chaos that Greeks always like to create you can find your way because the traffic is light. What about when the tourist season starts, with all the touring cars and the tourists that rent a car? Then the chaos can lead to more problems than only waiting 5 minutes until the bulldozer stops his shovel.

Well, the church doesn't interfere with road building. That's not necessary, because they do it in the typical old fashioned slow Greek way. And there's no modern planner who can hurry things up or has the right overview so that not all roads are opened at the same time.

Modernisation anyhow is not in the lexicon of the Orthodox Church. They may even consider it as one of the bad things they have to fight against. They are against globalisation, abortion (they have a pretty high rate of abortions in Greece), human rights organisations, euthanasia, or Turkey entering the European Union. So the Greek people, 98% of whom are Greek Orthodox, remain a ball played between the Church, corrupt politicians and a handful of enlightened politicians who have modern ideas. On the 7th February they will choose a new archbishop. Not much chance that he'll be a modern bishop, because the Greek Church is so conservative that a modern papas has no chance at all of promotion...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008