Thursday, 8 July 2010

Toc toc, who is knocking?

One day I heard an anguished mewing coming from somewhere in the bushes. I love cats so I immediately thought it was a kitty in distress. So for hours I talked sweet words into those bushes, hoping it would come out. But nothing did.

I could not forget it, and when I heard the mewing again I went right into these impenetrable and prickly bushes still hoping to find this cat. There was no cat to at all, and the only animal that was there, was a tortoise who looked at me suspiciously. Tortoises make a mewing sound and when they are after females, males might even fight with each other and if you hear a ‘toc toc toc’ sound it’s caused when their shells bounce against each other. When they climb on a female and are making love, their tongue comes way out of their mouth and they puff away as if they are climbing Mt Lepetimnos.

A dull ‘ploink’ would probably have been the sound heard when a tortoise landed upon the head of the Greek writer Aeschylos (ca. 525 BC – ca. 456 BC), probably dropped by an eagle. The story goes that an oracle prophecied that Aeschylos would die that day when his home collapsed on him, so knowing that prediction, Aeschylos spent the day out of the house in nature. But the oracle got it right: Aeschylos got killed by the ‘house’ of a tortoise.

Hermes, the Greek god of commerce and messengers of the rest of the gods, extracted yet more sounds from a tortoise. It is said that he made the first lyre out of the shield of a tortoise which he spanned with strings and after he had pilfered some cattle belonging to Apollo, the wonderful sound of the lyre so beguiled the great god that he let Hermes keep the cows - in exchange for the lyre.

The Greek poet Aesopos (aka Aesop ca. 620 BC – ca. 560 BC) was mostly known for his fables, which later inspired writers like Jean de La Fontaine. One of these fables is of course ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’. When you drive over Lesvorian roads and you suddenly see a tortoise shuffling across your path, you cannot not believe it could beat a hare in a running race. However in the fable, according to Aesopos, the hare was so arrogant he thought he could afford to take a cat nap (which in Dutch is actually a ‘hare nap’), while the tortoise struggled slowly behind, but he felt into a deep sleep and the tortoise was easily first over the finishing line.

It’s not too well known that tortoises and turtles are both part of Lesvorian fauna, but they are really very common. On land you might easily come across a Spur-thighed tortoise. A Marginate tortoise is more rare, and you can only tell it apart from the Spur-thighed tortoise by the dark triangles on the shield that protects its belly. Scientists however dispute whether or not the Marginate tortoise is indigenous to Lesvos.

The tortoise can not only be very slow (although they know how to run when they have to) they are also pretty lazy. Besides their extended winter hibernation, they relax in summer too, often taking long deep sleeps under shady bushes. So spring is the time you are most likely to spot them.

However there are easier ways to meet turtles or terrapins on the island, even when summer has already started. You just have to find a pond or slow flowing river and there’s a big chance that you will hear little puffing sounds made by the terrapins as they slide into the water. With their necks like extended telescopes stretching out above the surface they come to see who is disturbing them. Most likely these will be Caspian turtles, because the European Pond terrapin does not show itself so often. These turtles are also a bit lazy: they love to sun themselves and relax for hours just next to the water.

Looking at turtles has even become a tourist attraction here on Lesvos and these water creatures have become fond of bread-feeding spectators. When you come on the road from Kalloni to Polichnitos and you cross a bridge just before Achladerie, if you stop, get out and stand on the bridge, turtles will race through the water from all directions towards you, as if they are screaming: we want bread, we want bread! Brave ones even climb out of the water and when one succeeds others follow, scrambling over each other, all trying to be first in line for the food they think you have brought.

The pond along the road from Skoutaros to Vatoussa, just a little before Skalochori, also has these curious turtles that come and beg for bread. But they have to share the place with cats, that for some reason also like to spend the summer around this pond. You think maybe they like turtle soup?

At Lambou Mili when you take the road towards Agiasos you will find another great viewing spot on a bridge over a river where you will discover not only turtles in the water but fish that are coloured like trout, and as big too, and you wonder if maybe they are trout. Every time we pass this place, I certainly get an appetite for trout. And even though the local Greeks say these fish are not edible, I still think they might be trout, because often Greeks will say such things even though they don’t really know. But we have never tried to catch one of these fish to see whether or not they really are trout. I would never eat turtle soup but a nice trout, wrapped up in foil and popped on the grill might inspire me to invent a lyre, just from the sheer joy of having one on my plate.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ 2010 Smitaki


  1. Alas! The Greeks think they know everything. Why is it so important for you to comment even on that. Let it be! It has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of your post and diminishes greatly the interest of it. A reader may feel that, despite the affection you show towards Greeks, in the end you just flip drops of venomous poison.
    The Dutch do think they know EVERYTHING.Well, they are tragically wrong!

  2. Dear Eftaliotis. I did not write that the Greeks, nor the Dutch, know everything. All I wanted to refer to are the Greeks who say something is not edible when they do not know it from their own kitchen, like with mushrooms. And that I for myself never went through the efforts in proving that they are indeed trout. So it is still not sure that there are trout swimming in the Lesvorian rivers. I am sorry that you interpreted my writing the wrong way. I certainly do not want to offend the Greeks, I will take more care about my translations from Dutch into English.