Thursday, 27 January 2011

Presidential mistakes

Most people know who the premier of Greece is: Yorgos Papandreou. But lots of people forget that Greece also has a president - Karolos Papoulias. Unlike Papandreou he does not appear that often in the news and I must admit I would not recognize him if I bumped into him in the street. And yet he is the first citizen of Greece. Last week the president of Armenia was on an official visit to Athens and naturally he had a meeting with the Greek president. One of the things Papoulias said to him was: ‘We (meaning Greeks and Armenians) were slaughtered by the same barbarians.’

This was of course a totally bad diplomatic move. By ‘barbarians’ he meant neighbouring Turkey, with whom Greece already has a fragile relationship and so there were angry reactions and threats to call a halt to the traffic of Turkish tourist boats visiting the Greek islands of the Aegean.

Nowadays more and more Turks visit the Aegean islands, amongst others Lesvos, to enjoy the peace and quiet, the sun and sea. They are very friendly people who spend quite a bit of money here and a boycott would I am sure be a sad loss of income.

This incident might also damage current plans to organize boat excursions between north Lesvos and Turkey. Trips would depart from Petra harbour and go over the strait to Assos the old ‘twin’ city of Molyvos, which faces our villages of Argenos and Sykaminia.

In summer season there’s are regular boats from Mytilini to Dikili or Ayvalik - cute little towns where you can go shopping. Because Lesvos has no market, the one in Ayvalik is especially popular and even though you are not supposed to bring back fresh produce the boats are always full of Lesviots who have found bargains in Turkey.

A trip to Assos means more than getting a taste of Turkish atmosphere or kebabs. It’s a beautiful little town rather like Molyvos and has plenty of archaeological sites including a Doric temple dedicated to Athena (from 530 BC). The town was founded long before that by the Aeolian people from Mythimna. For a short time it was goverened by a student of Plato - Hermias of Atarneus. He encouraged philosophers to visit Assos, including Aristotle who even married Hermias’ daughter. The Persians conquered the region, only to be chased out by Alexander the Great. For a short time the kings of Pergamum reigned until the Romans came. After the fall of the Roman Empire the region was ruled from Byzantium (Constantinople/Istanbul), until the Ottomans arrived and later the state of Turkey was created.

At the end of the nineteenth century archaeologists found the old temple of Athena and many other treasures which ended up in the Louvre in Paris. As well as the temple there is also a polygonal wall, graves, and an open air theatre.

So as well as a trip to Turkey an excursion to Assos would attract people interested in ancient Greek culture - something that on Lesvos has either disappeared or is buried under the ground.

Maybe this sea traffic would also encourage the Lesviot municipality to restore the old Turkish baths in Molyvos. Then the Turks who come here can see some of their own old culture. The plans for their restoration have been on the table for years, and there was money for it, but up to now these once beautiful baths are just a Turkish ruin.

Fortunately, lots of Turkish travel agents are against the proposed boycott, so let’s hope this diplomatic spat will be quickly forgotten and that next summer will see plenty of Turkish tourists visiting Lesvos again. With a little bit of luck they might even find a newly restored Turkish bath house, and, in the other direction, you might extend your trip to the north of the island with a visit to the remains of Greek culture in Turkey.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

Friday, 21 January 2011


(Photo of Molyvos from the book Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream)

Mithymna, nowadays mostly called Molyvos, has existed since at least a thousand years BC. They say the Aeolians founded this little city, just about the time they built Assos its twin which is still there on the other side of the sea in Turkey.

Mithymna is in the north of Lesvos and now has a medieval character and most of the remains of Aeolian life are buried deep beneath its grounds. It has narrow and steep cobblestone streets lined with old houses many with closed wooden verandas. At sea level there’s a cosy little harbour and a castle towers over everything. Molyvos is one of the major tourist attractions on Lesvos.

Mythimna used to be the second most important city (after the capital Mytilini) but nowadays it’s Kalloni followed by Plomari then Polichnitos. Thucydides (460-400 BC) and Xenophon (ca. 430–354 BC) both mentioned the role played by Mithymna in the Peloponnesian war (about 431–404 BC) and poets of ancient times often praised the quality of its wine.

Now there are no longer any significant vineyards around here and in the last century Mithymna was mostly a poor fishing village. Only since the last few decades did it become a little bit prosperous thanks to tourism; but fishing, sheep and goats and olive growing are still as well sources of income. When in 1462 the Ottoman Turks occupied the island, they renamed it Molyvos, and even after the island became Greek again in 1912, the name stuck. In the Sixties the village became a protected heritage - and still is - and was discovered by its first tourists. The hotel Delphinia was the only one to open in those days, but now there are plenty.

Molyvos is beautifully located on its grand promontory, almost encircled by the sea. There are plenty more Greek island villages with similar settings, notably Santorini, but what has surprised me is that we keep meeting people that come back every year - known as ‘repeaters’ - lots of whom have been coming for well over twenty years!

Some even came for the first time forty years ago and they have lovely stories about how Molyvos was then. They know exactly who was also there with them, especially those who stayed for months and months, sleeping on the beach or renting simple rooms or houses. They threw legendary parties, fell in love, painted and wrote poems and novels. It was like one big happening. Some people even talk about those times as if they were mythological. There was no need for a parking lot - there were hardly any cars on the roads which were mostly rough dirt. There was almost no hotel accommodation, transport was by donkey and going to Anaxos was a real adventure.

Of course, Molyvos has changed since then with many more new and restored houses around the village, but the surroundings are still unbelievably beautiful. Most tourists are satisfied and there are few complaints from the repeaters. Only in August can you expect big crowds, in the other summer months there are tourists, but life is still Greek and not overrun by masses of visitors.

People say that the place has something magical. That may be because Molyvos still remains a village where Greeks work and live and where the streets have not become totally touristic. Molyvos is still small scale and, in fact, nowhere on the island will you find the towers of multi-storey hotels.

Around the village there is plenty of nature: one step out of the village and you are in land where sheep and goats roam and quietness rules, especially on the high tops of Mt Lepetymnos and among the many olive groves. From the village you have an astounding view over the northwest coast of the island and behind the village, on the north coast, there are pebbled beaches with crystal clear water, the hot springs of Eftalou, and a brilliant view of Turkey. What else would you want for your holiday setting?

I cannot say exactly why Molyvos has its special appeal, but I know a certain peace reigns here, which is not easy to find in other holiday destinations. It is a friendly and beautiful medieval village where life goes on, untouched by the hectic stress of the big cities like Athens. Greeks like to come here too, strolling through the streets, taking coffee in the harbour while the sun sets amongst the masts of the fishing boats, or dining at one of the many the waterside restaurants. Molyvos is a place where you can enjoy life.

This winter commercial people, all in tourism, came together to talk about how to make Molyvos even more attractive and to aid them they have created an online survey asking for comments and opinions - it’s at As well as wanting to know why Molyvos is such a magical place, they want to know the dislikes too and what you think can be improved. Well, those are big questions.

I for instance hate the way garbage is burned in autumn and which sometimes goes on throughout winter. And a veterinarian would be an addition to the community to bring in a decent sterilisation program for all stray dogs and cats, which for years now has been done only by residents.

Maybe you can describe the beauty of Molyvos in one sentence, or you have things you dislike about the village. Now you have a chance to write your opinion so that Molyvos can become more like you want it.

I hesitated a bit to mention this survey. I want Molyvos to stay this friendly and quiet, and not be changed into a tourist fair by the arrival of thousands more people - especially those who prefer to stay in all-included hotels. Those who want more fish & chips shops, discos and bigger hotels, please don’t bother to fill in this survey!

Survey about Molyvos (

Friday, 14 January 2011

Winter sun

When in summer the sky is bright blue and temperatures warm, there is no reason to cheer about it because we have that kind of weather for months here in Greece. But as soon as summer is over every blue sky day is cherished as if it were the last.

There are some real differences between nice days in summer and those in autumn, winter and spring. In colder months the landscape is quite different and the light seems warmer. In fact, even at the end of August there’s a bit of moisture in the air that gives the light its rosy tinge and affects nature’s autumnal colours..

In contrast, during the winter the island is bright green and on sunny days it’s quite a sight. I assume it’s the angle of the sun as it’s lower in the sky that makes the light seem warmer. This is why you can’t get enough of the way winter sun brings out the island’s green colours and the blue of the sea.

The prime times are the Alkyonides days: the warm period in January, when the sky is clear and there is no wind. These are best winter days in Greece. They feel like summer, or spring, and even bring wild flowers into bloom.

I thought the Alkyonides Days were named after the myth of Alcyone, daughter of the wind god Aeolus (see: Alkyonides Days). But there is another legend to explain them: Alcyoneus was one of the Titans of Thrace, mythical men-gods who tried to revolt against the gods of Olympos. They were led by Alcyoneus who would be an immortal only as long as he stayed in his own country of Pallene. The tenth labour set for Heracles was to steal the cattle of another giant, Geryonos. To defend him Alcyoneus fought with Heracles who wounded him, then secreted him out of his home country, which is why he died. His seven daughters - the Alcyonides - were so saddened they threw themselves into the sea and drowned. However, Amphitrite the wife of Poseidon took pity and changed them into kingfishers.

So we have two nice stories to explain these lovely annual Alkyonides days (it’s rare but in some years we don’t get them). People also know such days after an old name for kingfisher - halcyon days. Halcyon is the family name of the kingfisher strain which includes Halcyon albiventris (brown-hooded kingfisher), the Halcyon coromanda (ruddy kingfisher) and even a Halcyon Smyrnensis (white-throated kingfisher).

I have not found a mythological story to explain eclipses of the sun -although fighting armies are thought to have ceased hostilities during an eclipse because they thought it was a sign of a god. Herodotus wrote that the long running war between the Lydians and Medes was ended in 585 BC because of an eclipse. But that is actual history and no myth.

A partial eclipse occurred a few days ago. This was before the cloudless Alkyonides days had arrived, so spectators couldn’t get a good clear view of it. Jan went on the road really early - even before the sun was up - but was lucky. He drove to Sarakina (the region around Palios) and there the clouds parted enough for him to take some beautiful pictures of the sun being eaten by the moon.

According to Theophrastus (371–287 BC) in his lifetime the astronomer Matriketas had an observatory on Mt Lepetymnos where he studied the sun. Not much is known about him but I can imagine during the Alkyonides Days he would have been glued to his telescope. Normally, there are a few clouds up there, but these days the tops reach into a clear blue sky.

Last Thursday - January 6th - most Greeks were able to enjoy some really beautiful Alkyonides weather because it was the holiday of Epiphany, the day on which it is believed Christ was revealed to be the son of God. It is the day the three wise men (or kings) from the east arrived to honour the baby Jesus (in other countries they celebrate it as Three Kings day).

But why is it in Greece that water is blessed at Epiphany? Perhaps because the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan is also celebrated at this time. Everywhere in Greece on this day there will be extended church celebrations followed by processions through the villages to anywhere there is water. The priests lead the way, then the officials with power, then the ordinary folk. And if there is no water to go to, they will visit a baptistry. The priests bless the water and everything floating on it. They then throw a cross into it - which is supposed to be retrieved by a brave diver who is not afraid of the cold. I do not know if a cross is ever thrown into the baptistry, but I guess if it is, the priest can easily fish it out for himself.

So, you can see it’s a busy time for photographers: the beautiful light of the Alkyonides days, the solar eclipse and Greeks parading through the streets in their very best clothes. We are on our way to summer, but even though it might seem like spring, it’s really still winter.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Seal island

On New Years Eve I always think back to the nights I spent in Amsterdam when there were fireworks and lots of people on the streets celebrating. But there’s nothing better than to wake up on new years morning on this Greek island. On the last day of the old year the weather was beautiful, and so it was on January 1, 2011- clear with a bright blue sky and a warm sun shedding a light I wished could stay forever. All trace of summer heat waves long forgotten and thanks to a dose of flu, I did not have a champagne hangover.

Amongst all the dark news about political tension, tax assessments, trouble during New Years Eve and other cheerless messages there was one bit story which shone out like a ray of sunshine offering hope for the new year: researchers have found a new colony of seals, not hiding away in caves as is the usual case in southern Europe, but living openly on an island (kept secret). These carefree seals were found sunbathing as they once all did before they learned to be afraid of people. The scientists are very happy with this discovery.

I too was sunbathing in a chair on the January 1 and can imagine how those seals might feel on their remote (and secret) beach, lolling around on the warm sand enjoying the sun just like me and no doubt dreaming about a year with plenty of fish.

The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) is a threatened species that survives along some shores of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and parts of Africa’s Atlantic coast. Altogether between four and six hundred are left of what was once an abundant species.

In Roman and medieval times they were hunted for their skins and fat (for lamp oil) but luckily not to the point of extinction. That happened in more modern times - they were so curious they were easy to hunt. So nowadays you seldom get a glimpse of them.

You occasionally do meet to people on this island who say they have come across one of these monk seals, or even bumped into one in the water, an encounter which I imagine might give anyone a bit of a fright.

Across from Lesvos in Turkey the little city of Fo├ža was once a Greek settlement called Phokaia, named after the Greek word for seal. There are still some of these seals around there and Foca is now is the base for Turkey’s organisation for the protection of the Mediterranean monk seal.

The seals used to be protected by Apollo and Poseidon, because they loved to sunbathe and swim and whenever you saw a seal it was supposed to bring you luck, but there’s not much chance of that today. So let’s look on the find of the unknown colony as a token of luck for the new year. Greece has well over six thousand islands, some 227 inhabited by people, and so the big mystery is: on which one are these seals hiding? I do not think it can be Lesvos, but might be near here because we are just across the water from Foca. So, if you do have the rare opportunity of seeing seals casually sunbathing on a remote island or a faraway beach around here - don’t say a word to anyone!

A HAPPY 2011!

Don’t forget to take a look at my new book: Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011