Monday, 27 April 2009


If you walk past a Greek church and hear wailing and screaming, don’t worry, it’s probably only a baptism. Or it might be a priest crying over spilt investments. All will be explained.

About 97 - 98% of Greeks are Orthodox and everywhere you will find monasteries, churches and little chapels. Besides well known monasteries (amongst others Limonos in Kaloni, Taxiarchis in Mandamados, Agios Raphael in Thermi, Ypsolo in Eresos) and churches in town and villages (Panagia in Agiasos and Panagia Glikofiloessa in Petra) the Lesvorian landscape is scattered with hundreds of small churches, each dedicated to a single saint, and they aren’t all old, because new ones are always being built, often by private citizens wishing to express their devotion.

There are two reasons for building a church: because you want to make real a vow to a particular saint, or you just have to show off how rich you are. Having a Mercedes in front of your house goes only so far, so why not build a church in the back yard? Of course, some people are more modest and build their churches on the tops of a remote rocky mountain or a lonely beach difficult to reach.

Even monasteries are still being built. Take the monastery of Limonos close to Kaloni. There they are not satisfied with just one church. With donated money they intend to build a church for every saint, and believe me there are many. Already the monastery is surrounded by clusters of jolly little churches and chapels, some of them waiting to be completed.

I will not call the Greek pious, but the church and its representatives make a big part of Greek life. It starts with the birth. Within a year of being born a child is baptized and named (before its baptism it is called just ‘baby’). Only if it’s baptized can a child be registered by the municipality as an official citizen of Greece. A baby who has not been christened will have to travel on a passport only with the names of his parents.

So, nearly all Greeks are baptized and you could say it’s a real life ‘baptism of fire’. It’s a major festivity for family friends and neighbours, which means hell for the mother and an unpleasant hour or so for the infant.

The baptism process begins with the choice of a godparent. He or she has to watch over the godchild and spoil it on its birthdays. At Easter he/she has to give their godchild a candle and according to old tradition a pair of shoes.

Rules are strict. Godchildren of the same godparent aren’t allowed to marry each other and the actual children of a godparent can’t marry their parent’s godchildren either. So, a godchild is real family.

After the choice of a godparent the next challenge is choosing the church where the baptism ceremony takes place. Here on Lesvos there are hundreds of churches which offer the ceremony, but the local population generally prefers a baptism to take place in a big, high profile church. All members of the entire extended family are invited and sometimes the entire village. One of the key ideas is to show off how much money you can spend. As with weddings, the Taxiarchis Monastery in Mandamados is most people’s favourite choice.

The ceremony itself is full of rituals. The child is handed out to the godparent, who announces its name. Then in a series of prayers and blessings, one of the priests banishes the devil. Next, everyone proceeds to the font where one of the child’s grandmothers removes all its clothes. Oil provided by the godparent, is mixed with water and with it the priest anoints the baby. If the baby is not already terrified and yelling, it very soon will be, because the priest then seizes the naked cherub, lifts it high in the air for all to see, and then dunks it quickly, but three times, into the cool water of the font. Mostly it’s a drama, especially as mother isn’t allowed to do anything through the entire ceremony.

There’s more to come, and more reasons to be upset, as baby is then anointed for a second time, after which it has to suffer having three stands of its hair cut off, a chain with a little silver or golden cross placed around its neck, and being paraded around the font. Then grandmother dresses the child in its beautiful baptismal robes and, is at last returned to the anxious arms of waiting mother – but only after she has asked the priest to allow it, by kissing his hand.

There’s even more: for three days after the event the baby can’t be bathed and the first soiled diaper must be burned, and for the first three Sundays after the baptism, the child is expected to be taken to church, together with its baptism candle.

So whenever you pass a church where people linger in their Sunday best clothes and you hear a lot of screaming, do not warn the police because you think there is a killing: it’s a traditional baptismal ceremony, upsetting only mother and child.

Meanwhile in Athens, the national government is trying to cover up a scandal involving a famous religious institution the Mount Athos Vatopedi monastery’s swap of land, whereby it obtained prime real estate in exchange for plots of lower value, with, it’s alleged, ministerial connivance. The opposition PASOK party wants a full investigation, but the Speaker of the house of parliament says he has no power to demand it. So, it looks very much like the powers that be are trying to make sure no more politicians fall from grace, and the church just continues with business as usual which means real estate deals as well as baptisms, weddings and funerals, all of which seem equally lucrative – weddings and funerals costs several hundred euros, paid directly to the priest. So, believe me, if I were the Greek state I would never divorce the church. Such a rich and powerful business partner you will never find again.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Sheep terror

Yesterday it was orthodox Easter. Everywhere you went in Greece you saw lambs turning on a spit, one of the Greek traditional Easter dishes (souvla). Another Greek traditional dish is stuffed lamb from the oven and even though you could not see them cooking, the smell of sweet baked lamb was everywhere in the air.

I love lamb meat so I always look forward to eating Easter dishes. This year however, I was less enthusiastic about eating sheep meat.

I do not know why, maybe the farmers got an additional subsidy or thanks to the crisis, less sheep are being eaten in general, but the fact is for months now we have been terrorized by sheep. Everywhere around the house they appear. Even in my dreams I keep on hearing their bleating and the tinkling of their bells.

You probably ask yourself how it is possible that you can be “terrorized” by sheep? They are quiet animals that hurt nobody! But they are also stupid animals that are very easily frightened. Maybe you remember that last year I took in two stray dogs: the big black Labrador Black Jack and the nearly starved hunting dog Bambi. I tried to find homes for them but without success. Black Jack is a dream of a good dog, but however much I tried, I could not get Bambi to take any notice of me. The only time she listened to what I said was when I told her ‘Dinner is ready’. Food, it seems, being her only daily concern.

Trouble started when the sheep appeared out of nowhere. Black Jack used to visit a girlfriend a little further along the boulevard and like when the sheep were around he liked to “play” with them too. As I said, sheep are easily scared, even if a dog doesn’t attack them. So, the farmer got Black Jack banned from the area and now he has to be chained, otherwise he will keep going out to see his girlfriend and “play” with the sheep.

As Bambi got stronger and healthier, her hunting instincts came back. She raced through the local landscape — like a hurricane chasing the sheep, leaving a lethal path of destruction behind her. She kept getting away from the chain and after a few more dead sheep we had no choice but to send her to the hunting fields in heaven.

But when the farmers started to accuse our winter dog Albino of chasing sheep, I got angry. First of all Albino cannot be chained up because he gets hysterical and I think he just runs after sheep when he just happens to come across them, by accident. He’s not out there looking for them and I’m sure he would never hurt one on purpose. So we had to come to a deal: when Albino gets caught terrorizing the sheep, there will be a price on his head, but for the moment he still is a free dog.

However, as a result of this is that we cannot take walks close to our home any more because there are sheep everywhere and we are really afraid of when Albino runs into one ...

In other parts of Molyvos there are other dog owners whose trusty hounds are accused by farmers of killing their sheep and it is plain that there is a sharp clash of cultures between dog owners who allow their dogs to run free and farmers who are not always around to watch over their sheep. So now I think I understand why there are so many dogs on chains here on the island...

I find it hard to say who is right. On one side some sheep farmers do not protect their sheep enough (especially from the numerous foxes here, who can’t be chained). On the other side dog owners should bear the responsibility for their dog’s behaviour. So I’ve learned something: I’ll never take in another stray dog! The truth is I am not used to them and don’t really know how to train them. So it’s been a very hard lesson.

But I have a solution, although I’m afraid that the Greeks may not accept it too quickly, because as long as there have been Greeks, sheep and goats have been part of their landscape. However, sheep are not only no good when it comes to getting along with dogs, they are also one of the world’s worst agents of environmental pollution.

Australian scientists say that their burps and farts contain methane gas and so they are responsible for a fair part of the accumulation of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. There are 88 million sheep in Australia and they produce about 11% of the total emissions of methane gas there. Not to mention the 28 million cows. If you want to check it out have a look at this link: climate change methane gas cows & sheep

Just like the Greeks, Australians eat huge amounts of beef and sheep — which they always call lamb — but scientists are now suggesting they should eat kangaroo meat instead, because it will be better for the environment. This seems to me to be a perfect solution for Greece too. Because kangaroos don’t produce methane, and they eat and drink much less than sheep and cattle, they have much less impact on the environment.

Here in Greece sheep (and goats) have, over the centuries eaten and destroyed huge swathes of the landscape and since Greece (like Australia) has regular severe droughts, and as a result of intensive agriculture the ground water level is getting lower and lower and sheep are only making things worse. What’s more, it seems to me that kangaroos are not afraid of dogs — they can certainly use their prowess in leaping to escape any dog that dares chase them. So to me changing sheep for kangaroo seems to be an ideal plan that could suit everybody.

The question is how could kangaroo meat replace the traditional lamb souvla? In Australia consumers are now being advised to switch to kangaroo because it has less dangerous fat content but here in Greece it probably won’t catch on. Greeks love their traditional lamb dishes too much to change. But if every farmer got a special subsidy for every kangaroo that replaced a sheep I am sure that in a few years we would see and smell the delicious scent of baking kangaroo emerging from the ovens here at Easter time.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Hidden treasures

One of the less known municipalities of the island is Evergetoula, named after the river that flows down from the Olympos and ends in the Gulf of Gera. Everybody going north passes this municipality, because the small village of Lambou Mili that is divided into two parts by the national ‘highway’ Mytilini – Kaloni, is part of this municipality. The other villages are: Asomatos, Ippeios, Kato Tritos, Michoe en Sikoundas.

You can find Asomatos, the smallest village of the municipality, besides the most beautiful mountain village of Lesvos, Agiasos. In the summer Agiasos is filled with lots of tourists, however Asomatos does not look as if modern times reached it: there are no souvenir shops and the village is always quiet, many people still travel by donkey and the cafenions can all be put on the list of monuments. It is the most beautiful village of Evergetoula.

It is difficult to say exactly which spot of Evergetoula is the most beautiful. The walks that are described in this area (like by the famous Andersons in their walking book ‘Lesvos, car drives and walks’) bring you over centuries old monopatia (small donkey roads) and are of an astonishing beauty. Everywhere water finds its way down from the mountains, the forest parts sometimes are like a real jungle and the olive groves with their small round little walls against erosion of the soil seem to have kept their century old peace.

Except for some walking guides no tourist guide mentions the area. Even the thick guide about Lesvos ‘Anexerefniti Lesvos’ (‘the unknown Lesvos’ sadly enough is only available in Greek), with the amazing pictures of Tzeli Chatzidimitriou only brings you by car to Asomatos, the watermill of Milellia and to the aquaduct of Lambou Mili.

The old watermill of Milellia was restored in 1994 and now produces flour in a way they did in the old times. With the flour tasteful pasta’s and bread are made and are for sale in the arty shop that belongs to the mill. On the same property you will find as well an olive press, one which used to be driven by donkeys in the earlier times.

But Evergetoula has some other very nice spots that are worth visiting. First of all there is the lovely park of Anargiri. With its high trees, the small chapel that was built in 1881 and the water that always flows this is a real cool oasis full of shadows in the heart of the island. From this paradise it is a must to take the little path that follows the river in order to taste all the greenery, and to listen to the bees that give a loud concert, and to sniff the smell that emanates from the plants and the soil and are like a jungle perfume with the running water and frogs plunging in when you come along.

Between Anargiri and the Gulf of Gera there is a mountain ridge with the tableland of ‘Pláti’. The soil rich of lime is shattered with stones and in the spring as well it is shattered with orchids. When we went there last week on a flower hunt we could not choose between looking down at the colorful orchids or looking over the grey-green olive groves where in between the trees it was full of little towers made of stones. We thought we were at a sacred spot where the towers filled up with stones had a mysterious meaning. Of course no sign with information was to be found. Are these towers just the result of farmers picking up the stones from their land so that they can more easily plough it or do the towers of Pláti have a story?

There are very few people who can tell you about your findings like the old graves in Palios, the old churches or these towers. On the internet where you will find just a little information when you look hard and long. In whatever way I typed the name of Michou in the search machine, no towers of Pláti came up, they only were signed on one tourist map of Lesvos.

The village of Michou is reasonable well described on the website of the municipality of Evergetoula. I was surprised to find as well the description of a cave that you should pass walking walk number 14 of the Andersons: Michou and Pláti: it is there I remember to have seen a sign saying ‘Cave’. However I never found the cave, nor have I been inside. It is the cavern of Foussa and when we have to believe the website of the municipality of Evergetoula, it is the most beautiful one of Lesvos. The cave was discovered in 1981 and following some low corridors you get access to chambers of 20 meters high...

There are many books about the plants on the Aegean islands. There are some walking guides for Lesvos, there is a famous book about the birds on Lesvos (Richard Brooks - Birding on Lesvos) and I even found a (Greek) cooking book with recipes from Lesvos. But why is there no good guide (in English) where all archeological treasures are mentioned, like old Andissa, or all byzantine churches like that in Ypsilometopo (the palioxristian church is from 323 AD in valley) or the graves at Palios? Why nobody ever traced all the old watermills, why can’t I find anything about the towers of Michou, why is the old Roman aquaduct of Lambou Mili no tourist attraction? It really is time that archeologists and historians get together and do something about this forgotten island…

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Messy Petra

Petra is a small village in the north of the island close to Molyvos. It is situated in a plain area and built around a big monolith. On this big rock you will find the most famous building of the village: the Panagia Glikofilousa Church, which attracts thousands of pilgrims around the 15th of August, who haul themselves up the 114 steps of the stairway leading to the church in order to honor Maria.

The history of Petra is kind of dull. It is said that Homer before going to Troy anchored there to take provisions and than nothing but tragic events took place: in 1462 Petra was taken by the Turkish, in 1878 it was ransacked by the pirate Hugo de Crevelier who took as well 500 young villagers with him, in 1865 it was looted by Turkish troops and just before the village got freed from the Turkish in 1912, they set the houses on fire.

Petra did restore itself and from a little fishing town it became a nice and popular little tourist village. However, the year 2009 can be added to the years of disaster in the history of Petra. Although the worldwide crisis will help this disaster, the tourism in Petra will go down mainly due to incapable municipality people that have no vision and a lack of organization that has turned Petra into an ugly mess

I always say that Argenos (municipality of Molyvos) gets the first prize for the ugliest village of the island, mainly due to the building material business, that seems to be the visiting card of the village, having its mess right in front of the village when you pass it (these building material businesses that everywhere grow like mushrooms are a serious plague in the landscape pollution). But now it is Petra that passed Argenos on the list because Petra now looks like Hugo de Crevelier did pass again and took all the beauty with him.

Already for two winters the villagers of Petra (and everybody that visits the village to shop) are at the mercy of the street builders and other so-called specialists that have to put sewer pipes and other modern cables under the road. A winter ago they started with the main road (from Kaloni to Molyvos). Two years later and the road never recovered from this operation. Holes and puts form dangerous obstacles in the road, especially for the fast drivers and the motor riders. Do not think that somebody has drunk too much ouzo when he slaloms his car or drives at the wrong side of the road. People do this just to keep from damaging their cars too much.

This winter the works included as well the little village streets and the main road along the beach. So you could not get anywhere and even as a pedestrian you risked your life. Now the main street at the beach has been finished with a paving of nice cobblestones and that is the only thing the municipality of Petra can be proud of.

Petra is situated low, so many lands and gardens get flooded during wet seasons like this past winter. That is why many a villager thought: let’s get the debris that came free with opening the streets in order to make our land a little higher. The result is that when you pass Petra all fields that normally are full of colorful wild flowers are now filled with heaps of rubble. Welcome to Petra! Do these people really think that the tourists come to see there rubbish that not only pollutes nature but has now entered the village as well?!

Travel agents in Molyvos will not allow that their walks to pass the refuse dump above Eftalou, so the tourists cannot see it. But there is no way you can skip Petra coming to and from Molyvos and I feel a pity with the tourists that booked a room in the middle of this rubbish heap.

These rubbish heaps and very bad roads are not the only disasters that struck Petra. The tourist as well will arrive in quite an empty village. Many stores and cafes will not open again their doors because of different reasons. Two big cafes on the main square, one of the two is Cantina, has been closed down and the shop of Tsalikis has been moved to Agios Tsalikis (more about that further down), the two beach bars on the beach next to the harbor and according to the grapevine the café in the corner opposed the harbor will not open as well. Some owners thought they could get away with for years not paying the rent or their electricity bills, other ones did not have the right licenses or made too much noise.

Some Petra lovers will be very glad to hear this news. Many people who came for a quiet area were not at all amused by the loud music they had in Bay Watch. But I must admit that these trendy businesses made Petra into an attractive modern little seaside town for the young people. Now the beach is set up with the mess what was once a lively business. That now perfectly links well with the rest of Petra.

To have a good view over this messy village you can go up now to the new place of Tsalikis, built just next to the open air disco that closed it doors years ago on the road between Petra and Molyvos (and links now as well perfectly well with the rest of Petra). At night Tsalikis has that many lights that you think they built a new village. That is the reason why I call it Agios Tsalikis.

Tsalikis is known for the best cakes and pies of the island. You can see that with their prices. You pay a fortune, not only for the cakes and pies, but as well for a coffee and other consumptions. For this amount of money you can enjoy a marvelous view over the Bay of Petra and the mountainous coastline that goes west. When you bring your binoculars you can even map all the messy heaps of Petra.