Monday, 10 November 2008

Autumn colours

I think most tourists leave Lesvos far too early. Especially for hiking enthusiasts, October and November are wonderful months here on the island. I don't know whether it's because of the drought, but this autumn the trees and bushes are showing unprecedented bright autumn colours, so that the island this year can easily compete with the famous autumn colours familiar in the woods of somewhat wetter countries.

The walk from Anemotia, among the famous yellow rhododendrons (for obscure reasons these azaleas are called rhododendrons on the island) takes you amongst trees that are so bright orange, cherry red or sparkling yellow that it hurts your eyes. In the quiet forest, where you only hear the rustle of leaves and the wind gusts that announce themselves from kilometres away from the mountain peaks before they sweep down through the tree tops, even the rhododendrons that creep like garlands down the mountain slopes in the dark pine forest, aren't lit up with their flowers, but with their yellow leaves.

On the margin, where the pine trees stop and the cultivated fields of olive trees begin, there is another party. There you find dark green strawberry trees that sparkle like Christmas trees with their red, bulbous fruit. Yes, you read it right: a tree with strawberries. Arbutus unedo, the scientific name of the strawberry tree (in Latin unedo means: 'Eat only one'), is to be found in many Mediterranean countries. The fruit, which looks like round strawberries, colour from yellow, orange to bright red. They have a slight strawberry flavor with a slightly bitter aftertaste. You get a bit of a dry mouth from eating them raw, but you can make an excellent jam with them and in many countries they also make liqueur with this fruit.

The beauty that the Mediterranean climate brings is that many trees remain green in winter: the pines which cover the heart of the island, the millions of olive trees, cypress trees, laurel trees, strawberry trees and nameless other trees that keep the island green during winter. But nevertheless, you occasionally can get homesick, missing the falling leaves that crackle so nicely under your feet and the smell of rotting leaves, mushrooms and wet earth. When you really get homesick for falling leaves, then you should go to Agia Anagyri, a scenic spot in a valley next to Asomatos, with a church and a taverna with extensive terraces (only open on summer holidays), all under sky-high plane trees where in the autumn you can be sure to find a centimetres thick blanket of yellow gold leaves where you can run through and have fun with as much as you like.

From the road from Agia Anagyri to Asomatos, on foot or by car you can take a path to the sanatorium above Agiasos. The road goes high through the mountains and the steep slopes on the other side of the valley are like bright green masses coloured with the yellow speckles of the chestnut and other deciduous trees. They make an incredibly nice picture. Even the orange-yellow glow that is found this time of year in the golden chestnut forest (the chestnut forest is on the road from Agiasos to the sanatorium, a little after the sanatorium), pales against these breathtaking views.

The huge chestnut trees had already shaken off tons of chestnuts and the leaves were partly cleaned away. Probably for the Chestnut festival that took place last weekend in Agiasos. An annual event visited by people from all over the island who come to taste the chestnuts and enjoy food and music. A few weeks ago there was still a question if the festival could take place. The municipality could not pay the 3000 euros that the festivities cost. Two weeks ago fortunately they found the money, so as in previous years people strolled through the narrow streets of this mountain town, greeting their many friends and enjoying a good meal in the local tavernas.

In the capital of the island, Mytilini, they celebrated quite another party, but I wonder if that was as exuberant as in Agiasos. The liberation of the capital was celebrated (November 8, 1912) with military parades and schoolchildren marching. This year even the president of Greece, Karolos Papoelias, visited the celebration and he was promptly made an honoured citizen of Mytilini.

He was not the only exalted visitor that weekend. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dora Bakoyannis, was also visiting Lesvos among others for a conference on the flow of refugees that still reach the island in abundance (like elsewhere in the country). While the Minister and notables debated on how they can improve the reception of the refugees, the coastguard again had to sail out in order to save a group of 40 men, women and children from a shaky boat that nearly perished.

Some of the refugees are lucky if they get placed in the sanatorium at Agiasos, which now serves as an asylum centre. There they can rest in the middle of chestnut woods and golden-coloured mountain slopes, a twenty minute walk from the picturesque town of Agiasos. But I wonder whether they equally enjoy this beautiful nature as we do. I saw them strolling on the road, clearly feeling much better than when they shuffled over the Eftalou boulevard when they'd just arrived wet and exhausted. But I do believe that if you are fleeing from gunshots and exploding bombs, the forests around Agiasos, where only the thuds of falling chestnuts can be heard, will be the first relief on a long road to a better life...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

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