Thursday, 4 March 2010
The wonder of a crisis
Already too much has been written about the financial crisis in Greece. I better not add any more but I will tell you about another crisis that resulted in something very beautiful. It is the story of the ancient capital of the south of Lesvos: Megalochori.
Hundreds of years ago the southern part of Lesvos was quite a wild area. It was a good place for people to retreat and hide. That is how small communities came and settled around a church. Then they built an olive press and that is how some of the villages in the south were founded. The biggest village became Megalochori and ruled the region for some time. These villages were hidden high in the mountains, far from the sea where the pirates regularly used to come to the island to steal, murder and destroy villages.
By the 19th century the pirates had gone, but the villages on the southern slopes of the Olympus found a new enemy, as dangerous and evil as the pirates: in the summers of 1841, 1842 and 1843 huge fires raged through the mountains of Olympus, burning entire villages and their orchards. Then in 1850 the Big Cold destroyed what was left, and most of the inhabitants moved down to the coast, to live at the seaside where fishermen and their families were making a living.
That is why houses were built around the mouth of the river Sedounda, as well as soap plants, olive presses, flour mills, ouzo factories and even ships were built to carry the trade further. Lots of seamen from all over Greece, like the Cyclads, Kythira, Psara and the Greek mainland were attracted to this new place. It was a good time to make a new start - the coast was safe again and the economy on the island was growing, thanks to the booming commerce with the Ottoman Empire, from Thessaloniki, Odessa to Antalya, which is why this new city called ‘River’ (potami in Greek, Flumare in Genuese*) had such a quick start.
When around 1922 the Lesvorian economy collapsed (together with the Ottoman Empire) Plomari was hit hard by the crisis. Most industries were closed and even now parts of modern Plomari seem to have been frozen in time: big patrician houses, mills and factories in ruins dominate the look of the city, silent witnesses of those good old times.
Even though times were bad, the harbour of Plomari as it is today, was opened in 1928 which meant fishing boats could continue their business and – more important - the ship yards from whence many famous sailing boats were launched.
Plomari always has been something of an exception on the island because for many years there were no good roads and it was difficult to get to. The port town led a more or less isolated life at the feet of the southern slopes of Olympus, depending on the sea for its communication with the outside world.
Nowadays Plomari is called the capital of ouzo, thanks to the excellent – and somewhat spicy – ouzo distilled by old Plomarian families like Varvayannis, Arvanitis and Pitsiladi who survived the crisis. So too did the olive oil which came from the new trees planted in the orchards after the terrible destruction wrought by the Big Cold. Recently more than one olive oil from Plomari won prices in international contests.
Thanks to modern roads a trip to the second biggest town of the island and the new capital of the south of Lesvos is not such an adventure these days, but still it’s a breathtaking tour around a landscape that used to be called the Switzerland of Lesvos. Hidden on the mountain slopes you still find idyllic villages that did not quite disappear after the fires, the Big Cold, the emigration to Plomari (or far away over sea). You will find the well hidden Neochori with its old olive press; Ambelico built into a steep slope, with its medieval quadrilateral tower in the middle, and at the bottom of the village, a church with a wonderful small museum of folkloric and religious artifacts. Then there is Akrasi built around a main square with a fabulous view of a deep ravine leading to the hamlet of Drota on the sea below, and the lively village of Paleochori where the baker still bakes his bread in a wood stove. Only the villages Milies and Kournella are nearly deserted.
So thanks to the crisis in the 19th century, caused by fires and a burst of extreme cold, Lesvos now has this wonderful Italian-like little town, built against the mountain with houses that tower higher and higher, as if trying to get a glimpse of the sea. In the labyrinth of small steep streets and stairs you will find old neo-classical houses in ruins, next to merry coloured restored houses that also climb towards the sky to prove Plomari managed to overcome the crisis. In the lower part of the town, along the Sedounda river, you will find old white chalked soap factories and the square under an enormous plane tree is a good place to have a coffee, unless you prefer to watch the Plomarians coming and going along the many terraces along the sea front.
And so you see that not only can you surive a crisis it can even bring new and beautiful things. Plomari has still not been discovered by masses of tourists and so it is a pearl of the south coast, where the Greeks will no doubt put their shoulders to the umpteenth crisis.
• Others say that the name of Plomari comes from the plant Euphorbia Charasias that grows in abundance around Plomari. The Greek word for this plant is Flomos. Old Plomarians remember that the little town used to be called Flomari, named after this plant, and which later became Plomari.
(with thanks to Tony Barrell)
@ Smitaki 2010