Wednesday, 27 January 2010


(Picture: a kafenion in Loutronpoli-Thermi)

You will not find the name Epicurus in a list of the best known Greek philosophers like Pythagorion, Socrates, Plato or Aristotle. Although he did found a school of philosophy — best described as the philosophy of happiness. Epicurus lived from 341 – 270 BC, and was born on the island of Samos and later established his teaching school in the garden of his home in Athens.

Epicurus looked for happiness, mental and physical happiness (ataraxia) as the state where all natural needs were satisfied and you were without any fears, or pain or punishment from the gods. However, he did not preach that you could find happiness over-indulging at a lengthy banquet where all the best food was served — a decadent tradition that the Romans later introduced. In fact the message from Epicurus was that enough is as good as a feast. Another element in his philosophy was that having many good friends would also make you happy.

So I can imagine that this Epicurean thinking would be a perfect philosophy for living on Lesvos. People here do eat well and simply and Lesvorians have many friends, you can tell if you notice how many drivers just stop in the middle of the road for a chat with a friend passing the other way. The moderate Lesvorian is happy and does not like to step out of line, another aspect of the Epicurean philosophy.

But the Lesvorians did not like Epicurus at all when he came to Mytilini to teach his philosophy. Most schools were under influence of Plato and Socrates. Epicurus thought Platonists were too much into reason and not interested enough in pursuing personal happiness. No-one knows what happened in the year 306 BC but it’s a fact that Epicurus suddenly left the island in the middle of winter in a hurry – not a good time to travel. He himself said that that mobs were after him and he thought pirates were dangerous people. In other words, he probably got chased off the island because of his subversive ideas. (TB: He wouldn’t be the first, some hundreds of years earlier, Sappho suffered a similar fate)

Judging by the way of life on the island now, however, it’s fair to say that, Epicurus would be happy to see that Lesvorians love the life they live and are close to that feeling of ataraxia. They have some food, a drink and live close to nature. Which brings us to that famous ‘Mediterranean diet’ of simple and fresh ingredients, with lots of vegetables and cereals. And for the Greeks, having dinner doesn’t just mean satisfying the appetite for food and drink, but to share company with friends. Eating is very much a social event. Greeks love to eat together — with as many people as possible.

A way to relieve hunger just a little is partake of the national drink. When you order an ouzo in a kafenion you also get some small plates of food: known as pikilia or mez├Ędes. A kafenion is mostly a badly illuminated space where a few old men take hours to sip their coffees. The traditional small restaurants (mostly illuminated by brighter tubular lighting) may also serve pikilia with the ouzo, even if you do not ask for it, but in modern restaurants ordering an ouzo means that they will bring you the menu as well and, of course, you are expected to order and pay extra for the dishes you eat.

When you want ouzo and pikilia you only have to order the ouzo, and the little snacks can be anything: a plate with some olives, a piece of bread and cheese but in most kafenions here on the island mama the cook will not be satisfied serving you just that, so she will get busy making something out of whatever she has in her kitchen — maybe a few small fish, fried aubergine or paprika, sausages, chickpeas, white beans or fava, fried potatoes, feta, hard goat cheese or ladotiri (goat cheese in oil) and whatever vegetables she has just picked from the land, or what a farmer or fisherman has brought by. And when you want to pay the few euro this will cost you, she will not be finished with her cooking but will seduce you with more dishes for that second glass of ouzo.

This winter we made it a habit when finishing a long walk to take an ouzo in such a picturesque kafenion. And at such places, for sure, we get that ataraxia-feeling. We rest our tired legs at kafenions hidden in the smallest village plaza’s where no tourists ever come. We look for the most traditional one and we are never disappointed. Even if we arrive at 4 or 5 PM – an hour at which any Greek is usually still in the middle of the siesta - we are always welcomed warmly, and the deep-frying oil will be heated, some chairs rearranged and, even in the sleepiest kafenion, the evening can begin.

However the Epicurean habit of enjoying simple food with a drink this way will die out altogether when those old kafenions close down and disappear. Modern cafes don’t have rudimentary (even shabby) little kitchens suitable for preparing tiny meals in the narrow space under the rows of dusty but colourful little bottles of ouzo. The younger generation don’t fancy putting effort into preparing the small dishes that are served with a drink. You might get a handful of peanuts or roasted almonds, with your ouzo, as with your whisky.

I do understand why youngsters don’t like these traditional kafenions where time seems to have stopped and where you only find the old folks, simmering at their table behind a paper, a coffee or an ouzo. But there will come a time that they will realize that together with these old kafenions a valuable and healthy tradition will have vanished. A kafenion is not only a safe heaven for old and lonely people but as well a place where you can pop in to satisfy a hunger or thirst and where the traditional dishes from grandma’s cooking pots are like angels on your tongue: a place where you can taste the essence of Epicurean happiness.

(It is good that many of these places already have been saved on film by the Lesvorian photographer Tzeli Hadjidimitriou in her book ‘39 Coffee houses and a barber’s shop (of Lesvos)’. Look at her website Odoiporikon

(Thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 20 January 2010


(Picture: one of the baths of Lisvori)

Nowadays people fly all over the world to find a beautiful beach where they can enjoy the sun and the sea. On warm days in summer thousands of day trippers gather together on the beaches closest to their homes. Most people take a bath to cool off or just to swim a little.

Not many people say they take a swim in the sea for their health. But the beginnings of our beach culture came about two centuries ago when the medical world decided swimming in the sea was very healthy. The salt water was supposed to be good for people suffering from asthma, rheumatism and hernias. Even drinking sea water was said to be a good to rinse out your bowels!

That is how in the 19th century quiet coastal places were discovered for recreation, and in small fishing spots like the Dutch village of Zandvoort people found another way to make money: from seaside holidaymakers.

It was as well into the 19th century before governments realized bathing was good for the health. After two serious cholera outbreaks in England (in 1832 and 1849) the government decided to build public bath houses so people could keep clean, and this initiative was soon followed by other European countries and public bath houses continued to be used well into the 20th century - until more and more houses came to be fitted with private bathrooms. Nowadays a house without a bathroom is not considered as a civilized space to live.

The first people to visit the seaside for fun and health were the rich who could afford to travel. Later on, when bathing spots were connected to public transport, the masses were also able to take advantage of a health-giving dip in the briny (TB: nice colloquial English word for sea). The rich, however, already knew about the curative properties of a spell at a thermal bath resort, and had been taking the waters at spas for centuries.

Most people think that the Romans invented these resorts, but already in Greek antiquity people took thermal baths for their health and some people even had the wealth to have the luxury of a bath installed in their home. One of the most famous exclamations ever came from someone thinking in the bath; when the Greek scientist Archimedes (287- 212 BC) supposedly shouted out “Eureka!” when “he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged.” (citation from Wikipedia). It was said he then jumped out of the bath and ran into the streets of Syracruse, the city he lived, stark naked.

Taking a bath was as well known to the ancient Egyptians. It is said that Cleopatra bathed herself in the milk from donkeys, in order to keep her lustrous beauty.

Bathing was done for health or for a religious cleansing but the Romans made bathing an act of fun. Thanks to aqueducts that could transport large quantities of water for big baths, they were able to build really large bath houses. Each successive emperor outdid the work of his predecessor. The building of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome was finished in 216 AD and the entire complex covered 25 acres, and besides baths that could accommodate 2,000 bathers there was space for 1,600 people who were just spectators watching the bathers; and there were two libraries, shops, gymnasiums and cafes. In 302 the Baths built by the emperor Diocletian were opened with room for 18.000 bathers!

Later on the Roman bath got a bad name. It was a place for secret meetings and rendezvous, for women and men of course but also for conspiring politicians. When the Christians more or less took over Europe, public baths were banned. You could not wash off your sins in a bath, for that you had to pray to God. It was at the end of the Middle Ages that the thermal baths were rediscovered. Then in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century thermal resorts like Baden-Baden in Germany became popular spots for the European royalty and the aristocracy. The Catholic church then decreed that if they were places of debauchery they better be separate baths for women and men.

Lots of European cities, like Bath in England or Budapest in Hungary, are now still the proud owners of Roman baths and when you swim in its curative water you can imagine how luxurious they would have been in Roman times.

Lesvos has several hot springs but no big thermal resort. The remains of the Sarlitza Palace built at the beginning of the 20th century - the ruins of a hotel now known as the Old Turkish Bath Hotel - shows that Thermi was once a fashionable thermal resort. The many archaeological findings from Roman and older times prove this as well. (TB:The Ottomans were also keen on water and as well as fountains and taps in most of our villages they built a few public bath houses too. Molyvos had one in the centre of town, but when the water heating system broke down nobody could find the money to repair it, so it’s a gently decaying ruin. TB remembers using it several times in 1972)

Naturally occurring hot springs on Lesvos are small and simple and run by the municipalities. But they do give you a really romantic feeling. But none of these places have the grandeur of bathing places like Spa in Belgium or Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic.

The two baths of Lisvori are also very simple and small. You use one by yourself (or with your own company). The municipality of Lisvori decided it needed restoration, to make it a more attractive place. The hotel rooms were renovated and the workers started to work on the oldest bath (from the 14th century). When the head of the island’s archaeological service came to inspect the project she went crazy when she saw workers rebuilding the bath with concrete! The work was also halted because the municipality actually did not have permission from the archaeological service to make the restoration.

Now the fights are over and the work has started again. There’s a new big concrete parking lot already finished to welcome you! The mayor however has promised that it will eventually be paved with nice old stones and trees will be planted to give the place some greenery and shade. He also promised that the baths will be ready to reopen in March. But this is a Greek promise (meaning that it can take much more time). Lisvori will never be as big as the Roman Baths of Caracalla but the renovation is definitely progress; a little thermal resort in beautiful surroundings where you can find hotel rooms and some titbits to eat.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The salt of the earth

(Picture: the sea at Eftalou)

Most countries north and west of Greece are suffering a real winter. On the Dutch news there is much talk about the impending shortage of salt they need to sprinkle on slippery roads — they’ve already used up all the salt that was stored for that purpose.

Here on the island our white salt mountains around the gulf of Kalloni bathe themselves in the shiny sun. There is salt enough on the island (see ‘Pretty salt’) but there are no slippery roads which need it, during what is really quite a warm winter. What salt is on the roads has been blown there by the unusual southwesterly wind that keeps coming back and hurls waves over the waterfront roads where in summer tourists take their strolls. When that seawater disappears from the roads we might start using the roads as salt pans. In fact it could be a gold mine for Greece if the rest of Europe continues with its serious shortage. A smart Greek could sell our salt mountains for double the price!

The Greeks need money very badly, because the country is nearly bankrupt. Lots of taxes have risen like for cars (there is a new ‘eco’ tax on old vehicles), on pure alcohol (from 11,4 euro a litre to 13,7 euro) and on cigarettes (from 57,5 % to 70 %). Locally, the municipalities of Molyvos and Petra are also in trouble because of the devastating damage down by these storms from the south-west. They have been asking for money from Athens to make repairs, but the national treasury is empty which means we probably won’t get help from the government. And really, the winter has not really started here on Lesvos.

In the north of the island the salty sea is undermining roads, in Holland they prefer to undermine the land itself by extracting extra salt in the northern province of Friesland. As if we weren’t in the EU and they couldn’t get the extra salt from other parts of the community, like Greece.

European governments probably shouldn’t have been listening to the pharmaceutical industries who advised in favour of mass vaccinations against the Mexican (or swine) flu. A lot was spent on those jabs, whereas it might have been wiser to buy more salt to be ready for winter; so now the governments’ worst fears have been realised: business in Europe has come to a standstill, not because of the flu but because of the weather and the salt shortage. They could have got plenty from Greece, which as well as fixing the problem would have helped this country out of its financial mess.

In the region of Polychnitos and Lisvori, around the Gulf of Kaloni they have found the ruins of very old settlements. Along the coast north from Skamnioudi they include traces of a big ancient port. Now the waves have been gradually wearing down the earthen walls where you can see different layers of historical settlement. They also found coins from Mycenean times and even skeletons are rising out of the earth. They say this coast used to be named the ‘White Coast’. So probably the wealth of castles, villages and the big harbour came from salt making. Certainly there was a time that salt was as valuable as gold and possession of the salt mountain at Skala Polychnitos could have been a reason to fight a war. Nowadays white gold is strew over our roads.

The price of salt will rise a little after this long and cold winter but the times when you could buy or sell a slave for a hand full of salt are definitely not coming back. Maybe we will quarrel over salt, like they do over the salt fields in Friesland, but we wouldn’t take up arms to settle the dispute. The salt mountain in Skala Polychnitos will soon be forgotten by traders and tourists.

Even though that there is no snow in Eftalou, if they do not quickly repair the road, our little part of the economy will come to a standstill too. If the road becomes totally impassable for cars and the local bus which runs in summer (now only small cars can pass, at their own risk) part of Eftalou will be cut off. It won’t harm the world economy, but still... At least we are not suffering from the flying snow of blizzards, only from the flying salt from the sea!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Monday, 4 January 2010

Archaeological recycling

(Picture: Plati and a tower of Castro Kydonies)

The south-west storm that pestered our coast from the beginning of the new year damaged boats, trees, buildings and roads but now seems to have calmed down. The waves that struck the boulevard of Eftalou and made meters high fountains have now lost their foam. But like the coastal road in Petra, the boulevard has partly fallen into the sea and will have to be repaired. The same happened at the Olive Press Hotel on the beach at Molivos, where the waves entered and destroyed at least two rooms and the roof. Now the sky is heavenly blue: the new year really can begin.

A happy 2010!

For us the new year will be another one full of revelations about the island. At the end of last year we made an important discovery: ‘A Gazeteer of Archaeological Sites in Lesvos’ written by Nigel Spencer (ed. Tempvs Reparatvm, Oxford, England). This work has at last listed all the archaeological finds on Lesvos and now we are sure that our Lesvorian earth is still full of historical treasures. The old kalderimes and monopati, the paths that formed the road-system in earlier times are known to be centuries old. Most of them lost their function as a link from one place to another simply because villages, castles and harbors have disappeared. And over the centuries many of the ancient roads of the island have also been lost, but over centuries rather than overnight as in the recent storms.

A kalderimi was not just a path made of stones used by travelers and farmers and their donkeys. A kalderimi is a path that in earlier times connected places that were important. Not all kalderimes are preserved and some have completely vanished, or are overgrown, taken over by land use or just turned into modern roads and covered with asphalt. Most of these old paths now seem to go nowhere. And yet they will take you to the archaeological sites and with the help of this ‘Gazeteer’ by Nigel Spencer, walking on Lesvos can become like walking along the archaeological treasures of the island, leading you to perished castles, villages that have completely disappeared or old graveyards.

The three castles in Mytilini, Molyvos and Sigri that have survived history used to have serious competitors. It appears that on the northeastern coast there were many castles. Some you can still see from the traces of their walls in the ground, some rising up to a meter. Take a good walk southeast of Klio and you can find the footings of a big castle. There is also one at Plati, above Nees Kydonies, which can be reached by walking these scenic kalderimes. On the plateau there once was the famous Kastro Kydonies. Among the ruins they found shards from ancient Troy and a tower that still keeps watch.

It is said that the old village of Kydonies was next to the castle on the plateau. At the end of the 16th century or the beginning of the 17th century both village and castle were probably destroyed by a major earthquake. After this catastrophe survivors fled across the sea to what is now Turkey where they founded New Kydonies which in Turkish is Ayvalik. Ayvalik is now a little Turkish seaport town where lots of Lesvorians go by boat to do a bit of shopping.

You do not have to dig into the ground much to discover signs and evidence of these old settlements. You just have to look at old walls and houses. Because many of them – and the terrace walls that run all over the island - are made by stones that once were part of a castle or an ancient house.

Plati in its region is known as the place where you can find plenty of building stones, and not only old ones but new ones that seem to sprout out of the ground like watermelons, already ripe for a good harvest.

Sometimes I get mad at those Lesvorians who do not care about their history and let it simply disappear. Not many Greeks have sleepless nights worrying about using archaeological materials to make new buildings. Sometimes you even see parts of ancient arty style sculptured pillars integrated into the wall of a brand new house. And if earthquakes don’t do the job by bringing down an old house into a heap of stones, wait long enough and time will do it. You can see the once-cherished Turkish bath Hotel at Thermi slowly turning into heaps of debris. (TB visited it when it was still a working school for the catering industry in 1972!) And yet I do understand why Lesvorians reuse old stones. Their island is so full of deserted houses and other buildings.

Lesvos was a very poor island in the middle of the last century. People worked to survive. When you lived off your sheep, goats and a vegetable garden, you had no money to buy stones to build a house, or a shed, and so you used what you found around you. It was just archaeological recycling. In the future it will provide a nice puzzle for archaeologists who discover a Lesvorian house of the 21st century built with stones that were shaped in Byzantine times.

But in the nineteenth century Lesvos was still part of an important commercial trade route, connecting the southern Mediterranean Sea with the Black Sea. Lesvos island was a bridge between the Aegean and Anatolia (in what was still Asia Minor now Turkey). It was prosperous enough so no-one needed to build with old stones and they ordered their building materials from everywhere.

Given that there are so many castle ruins it is curious that archaeologists are so seldom seen on the island. Nigel Spencer wrote his ‘Gazeteer’ hoping he would attract more of them to dig up the history that is still hidden in the earth of Lesvos. I have the same hope, so that the Lesvorian people can discover more about their history and learn to leave all those old stones where they belong.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010