Sunday, 29 June 2008

It never pays to hurry

Greeks can be very loud. Just like the Italians they talk loudy and very wildly. They're not quick to curse, but when they curse, you don't want to be near them. Like yesterday night I wouldn't like to have been on the bridge of the ferry Theofilos that sailed from Mytilini, Chios to Athens and hit a reef near the Oinousses archipelago. The cursing then was probably heard as far away as Lesvos.

The biggest island of the group of nine, Oinousses, is known for its rich shipping families. They more or less rule the island. The island is known as the richest in Greece and because they have enough money they're not keen on tourism. Besides some 1000 inhabitants Oinousses has a navigation school and a marine museum. There's a daily ferry from Chios to the island.

The people of Oinousses will have been wondering why exactly a ferry ran aground in front of their island, while no clouds were in the sky, so no storm or swell could push the ship off course (probably no captain from their navigation school!). Accompanied by a rescue team (helicopters, police and fishing boats), the Theofilos reached the island of Oinousses unassisted. There the 475 passengers in life-vests could board the rescue boats and get safely to shore.

The passengers were accommodated for a few hours in the navigation school of Oinousses, after which they were taken by small tourist boats to Chios to spend the night (Oinousses has only one hotel with 23 beds...).

Maybe it's a little early to talk about what caused the accident. On Saturday night there was no soccer on television, so the crew, and the captain, were probably not watching a match, which is what happened on 26 September 2000, when the ferry Samina Express hit a rocky islet close to Paros and sunk pretty quickly. During this catastrophe 82 of the 500 passengers died. The passengers of the Theofilos all survived without a scratch.

On Sunday on television it was alleged that the second captain thought about taking a quicker route... But I also heard through the grapevine that they did it in order to get the insurance money. The ship needed a face-lift (what trusting people the Greeks are!). This was also going through the grapevine when the cruise ship Sea Diamond hit a reef close to Santorini on the 6th of April 2007 and sank a while later (in this accident 2 passengers died). If it had been proved that they let the Sea Diamond sink, they wouldn't have got hold the 55 million euros insurance money. Later it was prooved that the boat hit the reef because their navigation maps were wrong.

After the disaster with the Samina Express in 2000 a list was published of ships that should have been taken out of ferry service or totally refitted. On this list was the Theofilos, as well as the Taxiarchis and the Mytilini from NEL Lines, who still carry on with their ferry services. I am wondering if they were refitted in the last 8 years...

The Theofilos was built at a shipyard in Rendsburg, Germany. In 1975 she was christened the Nils Holgerson and for the first 10 years she was a ferry between Travemunde (Germany) and Trelleborg (Sweden). Then she was renamed the Abel Tasman and became a ferry in Australia between Devonport (New Zealand) and Melbourne. In 1994 she began her Greek career as the Pollux and for 1 year she sailed between Igoumenitsa (Greece) and Bari (Italy). Then she was bought by a Lesvorian ship broker, she was renamed the Theofilos and she went to work for NEL Lines from Athens, Chios, Lesvos to Thessaloniki and back again. If this stupid navigational error, which left a tear in the ship of some 15 metres, means that it's the end of her career, is still not known. But the people of Lesvos will remember her. Most Greeks prefer to travel by boat and they liked the Theofilos. Seeing her sailing in and out of the harbour in Mytilini was a common sight.

Most of the stranded passengers of the Theofilos were quickly picked up by the Nissos Chios (a brand new ferry from 2007) and brought on to Athens. But many of them without luggage or their car...

It's not a good list of these boat accidents in Greece. But you should remember that there are hundreds of boats sailing between the 1400 islands of Greece. Last year when a group of tourists had to take the ferry to Athens because of a strike at the airport, most of them were very happy with the experience...

The following website gives an overview of all the ships that regularly sailed to Lesvos. It shows that over the centuries old ships were replaced by new ones, in order to keep life going on. Maybe the Theofilos will now be on the list of the ships of the past...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Money makes the world go round

Again there were Wild West images from Crete, the island that's infamous for its feuds. It seems that the Cretans no longer have patriarchs who look after their family. They seem to have become drug lords who think they're in Colombia. Last year in November, when the police raided Zoniana one officer was nearly killed because some heavily armed men were waiting for them. The whole country was upset and the entire region around the mountain village was combed by a huge police force under the scrutiny of the Greek media. They found masses of weapons, proof of bank robberies that took place on Crete earlier that year and millions of euros in the bank accounts of simple sheep farmers.

On Sunday it happened again. When some police officers went to the village of Malades (near Iraklion) to ask about a marihuana field, they were shot at and one officer was seriously wounded. You can bet that now an even bigger police force will go to Crete, because it;s a disgrace to the Greek government, showing that they've get no control over the drug lords of Crete.

Anyhow, the Greek government is in for a hot summer. Not just from the fact that it seems you are reading last years papers when you see the list of wild fires growing. The scandals around Siemens also seem to be at a peak and have caused a crisis in the Pasok party where high placed members got away with nice big bribes. That's not to say that the other big party of Greece, Neo Democratia, will get away with clean hands.

And then there are the soaring high prices. The government just blames the worldwide food crisis. That is very easy. They won't think about taking a closer look at the wholesale business, nor will they put a stop to the increasing prices (you would almost think that they had some interests there...) Meanwhile the tourists can't believe their eyes entering a supermarket, seeing the high prices the Greeks have to live with.

The only people to oppose this crisis are the extreme right and anarchist parties. Last week in Thessaloniki a right wing demonstration against the high prices was attacked by anarchists. Earlier this month there was a more fun protest in Athens by some masked youth who entered a supermarket, took as many basic products as they could from the shelves and went out on the street to distribute these goods with a flyer saying that this was a protest against the high prices.

The government slowly starts to understand that these high prices could be a reason for dropping numbers of tourists. They really have to worry because tourism is still the biggest earner in Greece.

Seeing Molyvos you wouldn't say that there are less tourists. Yesterday night the streets of the village were overcrowded and the hotels are so full that overbookings are a daily hazard. Elsewhere on the island they still complain that there aren't enough tourists or that they have no money to spend. This is easy to explain. Europe subsidised the new European countries such as the Czech Republic to travel a little around Europe and now Lesvos is filled with masses of Czechs that flew at a very low rate to the island, but have problems facing the high prices here.

Therefore it's good that the Greeks start spreading their holidays and visit the seaside more and more before August. The Greeks usually all went for holidays in August, but now you already see them appearing at the beaches at the end of June. And when a Greek saves or borrows the money for a holiday he really goes for it, without thinking of the increasing prices.

Going out for dinner in Greece used to be less expensive than to go to the shop and make your own meal. Today it's the other way round. Five years ago a dinner would cost around 10 to 15 euros. Now, and especially in Molyvos, you have to count on between 20 and 25 euros a dinner per person. I've said it before, the further you go from the tourist centres, the cheaper it becomes. Last week we went to Skamnioudi (close to Lisvori) where we ate amongst other things ray fish and kalamaria and we ended up with a price below 10 euro a person. (It wasn't at the taverna opposite the little harbour, but a little further along the sandy road following the coast in the direction of Skala Polichnitos.)

It's a shame that Greece has became so expensive for many tourists. Lesvos even became more expensive. The island is not known for the quality of its hotels (I sometimes even wonder if the Lesvorians know how a modern hotel should look). However the reason to come here is that the island is still not spoilt by mass tourism. It's still a charming Greek island with a landscape that has many beautiful spots that you only have to share with just a very few people. You have to pay for this small tourism but I'm sure that it'll be worth every eurocent you spend on it.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Sea and Fry Travels

Yesterday night there was a huge silence on the island (and I suppose in the whole of Greece). Greece went down in the football game against Russia and today they wonder what went wrong. The Greeks were probably so obsessed with keeping their European title, that nobody noticed any other news.

It's a shame that the Argo set sail without that any paper in Greece mentioned her launch. An eyewitness in a blog said that the ship left the port of Volos with only ship horns wishing it goodbye.

The project to rebuild the 28.5 metre long boat of the Argonauts based on old technical drawings of war ships took some 3 million euros. The plan to make the original journey, through the Bosporus to Colchis, where Jason stole the Golden Fleece, did not come about because Turkey refused to allow the Argo to sail the Bosporus. According to them the water that separates the European and Asian parts of Turkey, is so busy with tall ships that they cannot guarantee the safety of the Argo that has to row some 3,700 kilometres.

The original voyage of Jason and his Argonauts (it's believed that it took place around 1400 BC) went from Volos, the island of Limnos (which is the northern neigbour of Lesvos), the Bosporus, over the Black Sea to Colchis (nowadays in Georgia) and then back along that same route, over the Danube, crossing what was once Yugoslavia, to Ljubljana (it is said that Jason was the founder of this capital of present day Slovenia), across the Adriatic to Venice, then to the South of France, the Tyrrhen coast, Corfu, Syria, Crete and then back to Volos.

The alternative route of the rebuilt ship that started its journey yesterday will pass Chalkida, Piraeus, Sounion, Galaxidi, Patras, Ithaca, Corfu, Slovenia, Triest and Venice. 50 modern Argonauts will row the Argo in about two months to Italy (22 reservists will follow in another boat).

When the Argo arrives in Venice and Athens they will look out for quite another colourful traveling company: the one of 'Grease to Greece'. This is an alternative rally organized by the Englishman Andy Pag, who already made the papers with his journey to Timbuktu, because his truck was powered by reject chocolate! His latest project, a rally that starts in the middle of August, goes from London to Athens. The cars will have to drive some 2,500 miles on used cooking oil. Only in case of emergency is one allowed to use biodiesel. (see:

The organizer will prove with this rally that you can travel long distances with alternative fuel. And the travelling will be fun. One of the entry requirements is that a participant must know how to explain to an owner of a kebab restaurant in Croatia why he wants his cooking oil. I would love to see the face of a Greek cook, whose kitchen you just enter asking not for calamaria but for the oil he used to fry that calamaria...

When you are looking for adventure closer to Lesvos, I propose a trip to Agios Efstratios, an island that just like the island of Limnos, is part of the Prefecture of Lesvos. When the Argonauts reached Limnos, they only found women. The men had been murdered. Thanks to the Argonauts the population recovered from this tragedy. In Agios Efstratios there is still not so much life: just some 200 people live there. It is a tiny little island.

Its history may be even bigger. In the thirties and seventies the island was used as a prison for political prisoners, amongst them the famous composer Mikis Theodorakis. Last year the island was the subject of a dispute between NATO, Greece and Turkey. NATO planned a big exercise, but a day before Turkey objected, saying Agios Efstratios was a demilitarised zone, so NATO called the exercise off. Then Greece complained that NATO was too quick to believe Turkey.

This year peace was restored and the rocky island with its pristine beaches is a paradise for people who want real peace. The inhabitants are mostly fishermen, so for people who love to eat fish, it will be paradise. There is a daily boat that goes from Limnos to Agios Efstratios. If you take that journey, you may even see the Argonauts passing by...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Greece in shock

The most recent shockwave for Greece was the earthquake on Sunday afternoon. The Peloponnese, the area where last year wild fires caused disaster, was hit with deadly force: the main quake of 6.5 on the Richter scale caused two deaths, some 200 injured and hundreds of houses were badly damaged or destroyed. Many people fled their homes because the quake was long and frightening. Even President Karamanlis came back from his trip to Austria.

The quake was not felt here on the island of Lesvos. Daily life went on as usual. But today Lesvos could cause quite a different shock: today the court will start to hear the case between the Lesvorian Dimitri Lambrou and the 'Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece'. It's about the name lesbian. According to Mr Lambrou women from Lesvos cannot call themselves Lesbian, unless they want to be seen as women who love other women (see: Lesvians against Lesbians).

If Mr Lambrou gets his way, lesbians will not be called lesbian anymore in Greece. Even though the lawyers may agree with Mr Lambrou, I'm sure the international community will never agree to that. They will only make the island llok foolish.

If the organization of homosexuals and lesbians get the right to continue using the name lesbian, this minority group will have won a battle. They have a hard life in Greece because homosexuality is a taboo subject in most families. By protests and fighting for their rights the homosexual and lesbian groups only slowly slowly get more respect in the country where the papas rule the social life.

Last week there was a courageous man that stood up for the rights of homosexuals. In his small Town Hall Tasos Aliferis, Mayor of the little Island of Tilos (near Rhodes), first married two men and then two women. Immediately, representatives of the government and the Church tried to get the marriages annulled. But according to Tasos Aliferas it is written nowhere in the law that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. When Aliferas was summoned by the prosecutor of Rhodes, he refused to come, just as he refused to annul the marriages.

It is mainly the Orthodox Church that keeps the Greeks from becoming a little more modern. They try to keep the country demure and conservative by closing art exhibitions when the art works are too challenging, by removing books from the shops, as they did a few years ago with a comic strip book about the life of Jesus, and by being radically against homosexuality.

99% of Greeks call themselves Orthodox and no politician dares to separate the State and the Church. In this way the Church maintain their great power in Greece, especially in social affairs like the above named case of homosexual marriages and who knows, also about the name lesbian.

Many scandals about Orthodox priests that occasionally make the front pages of the papers do not lead to a diminution of faith in Greeks. And if you think that the Orthodox Church is a peaceful community of priests and monks, you are wrong. In the monastic state of Mount Athos, where thousand year old monasteries are and where for a hundred years no women was allowed, the atmosphere rumbles as much as the earth shook last Sunday in the Peloponnese.

Not only was the monastic community recently shaken by the arrival of 5 refugee women who landed on their Male Empire, last week the Church also sought assistance from the government in a row between monks that started nearly a hundred years ago.

Rebellious monks live in one of the oldest monasteries of Mount Athos, the Esphigmenou monastery, and they don't accept the 'modern' Orthodox Church and keep on demanding changes. They believe that there is only one and true belief, the one of the Orthodox Church, while the Greek Orthodox Church recognize other religions and is part of the World Council of Churches.

According to the prosecutor in Thessaloniki, there is only one way to stop these rebels: throw them out of their monastery. And therefore he asked the government for manpower... (see:

The Orthodox Church doesn't tolerate homosexuals and lesbians, nor rebellious monks. I wonder if they will use their power to help mister Lambrou, a man so conservative, that he ought to go and fight with the rebelling monks in the Esphigmenou monastery...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Through other eyes

Last week in Florina (Western Greece) there was a conference about the local flora of Greece. According to professor Constantinos Papanikolaou Greece has at least 400 varieties of herbs that are used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. According to the professor it would be very profitable to cultivate these herbs. Greek farmers don't grow enough of them because they usually only grow traditional crops. They stick to growing tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes and watermelons and their sheep and goats. If you give a farmer some seeds to grow Brussels sprouts, they thank you profusely, but we've never seen a single Brussels sprout growing. There's a Dutch saying: what a farmer doesn't know, he doesn't eat. In Greece he doesn't grow it either.

Greece once used to be a centre of revolutionary thinking, which led to great knowledge. The father of modern medical thinking, Hippocrates, was born around 460 BC on the island of Kos (just above Rhodes). There he taught that illness is not a punishment by the Gods, but the result of an unbalanced body. Through exercise and diet the body can regain its balance.

The foundation of botanical knowledge comes from the Greek philosopher (and first botanist) Theophrastus, who was born around 372 on the island of Lesvos. Along with others, he wrote about peoples characters, about stones and natural phenomena. But his books about plants, ('De causis plantarum' and 'De historia plantarum'), are seen as his most important works.

Lesvos, as the birthplace of the Father of botany, still honours this fact by being a green island. In Greece there are about 6000 varieties of plants, on Lesvos there are still some 1450-1500. This makes Lesvos the second richest island of Greece for flowers (after Crete).

Elder Lesvorians especially, know what grows in their environment. Only a few decades ago there was great poverty on the island and the poor had to find their food in the wild. Many an old Greek still remembers how they gathered wild vegetables and mushrooms on their way to work in the olive harvest.

Today wild vegetables (chorta) are still on the menu of many a restaurant. Not because people are still so poor, but because they wholeheartedly believe in the medical benefits of wild vegetables. I'm not sure what plants are good for what, but the old Greeks know what to use to deal with stomach pains, headaches or kidney problems.

Even though the old people know a lot about wild vegetables, the lore on wild vegetables and other flowers will soon perish, because the younger generation only goes to the supermarket. All plants have their special qualities. Do you know for example that the roots of hollyhocks used to be used to make marshmallows, that the seeds of lupins work like a drug that in ancient times people took to communicate with the dead, or that a tea made from oregano is good for a cough, asthma or nervous headaches?

The young Greeks and the tourists (except for the botanists off course) don't even know what plants they see. Do you know what a Prickly Asparagus looks like, or the Caper Plant, the Wild Root, a Shaggy Cistus or a Common Mallow?

Jan van Lent, photographer and moviemaker from Holland, has now lived for some years on Lesvos and through his photography he became fascinated by the flowers here on the island and what these plants can mean for our health. He runs an excursion, only in Dutch, and has now published a booklet about the flowers that can be found on this excursion: 'Through other eyes' (met andere ogen). I am sorry, but again: only in Dutch. (When the book is a success next year a German and English translation will follow).

In a booklet that slips easily into your pocket, with breathtaking pictures, he describes 27 plants with short passages about their history and their culinary and medicinal powers. Not only for people who want to know what a Squirting Cucumber looks like, how the Chaste Tree got its name, what can save you when you are bitten by a snake or when you want to lose weight, but also for people who want to know more about figs, olives or capers.

What this booklet doesn't tell you is the secret of the high quality of the olive oil from Lesvos. Recently the olive oil of Andriotellis from Plomari was awarded first prize from the German culinary magazine 'Der feinschmecker'. Ou of 800 different olive oils they choose the best 250, the one from Plomari was chosen as the best.

And also not mentioned in the booklet is that the best cook in the north of Lesvos, Angelo from restaurant Anatoli in Eftalou, will be cooking this summer in the new restaurant Filoxenia in Molyvos, just next to the town hall.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008