Monday, 17 October 2011

Crocodiles on Lesvos

(Kafenion in Agios Dimitrios; Photo: Fenna Westerdiep)

Lesvos is a rather big island: 1650 km2. Crete, the largest island of Greece is 8336 km2 and Evia, the second largest is 3584 km2. Lesbos is not overly populated; according to a count this year, 85.000 people live on it, while on Crete some 621.000 and on the smaller island of Rhodes (1398 km2) 119.000. Even fewer people live on Lesvos now than ten years ago. In 2001, 90.643 living souls were counted on Lesvos.

I have no idea how long it would take you to drive around the island by car, nor do I know how much time it would take you to walk it. Roads don’t always follow the coast and the main roads cut right through the heart of the island. But I do know now how long it takes to paddle with a kayak around the island: 5 days.

At the beginning of October Nektarios Paraskevidis from Mandamados proved that the journey along the 320 km long coastline of Lesvos was not that difficult. He departed from Mytilini, having loaded his kayak with food, drinks and a tent to sleep in. He peddled around 10 hours each day and slept overnight on the beaches of Plomari, Tavari, Lapsarna and Tsonia. The only problem he encountered was peddling against the wind. So now you know how much time you will need to circumnavigate the island by kayak.

Lesvos is a pretty old island. It was once part of the Asian landmass and maybe that was the case when millions of years ago the southwest part of Lesvos was a huge lake. The lake was more or less filled up and disappeared when two vulcanoes spewed their fire and lava over the island. This is what created the petrified trees that are now found mainly in the west of the island.

Those trees that were changed into stone, as if by magic, can be seen in the Petrified Forest and the Natural History Museum in Sigri, where you can also learn lots about the natural changes that took place on the island. But what was living on the island when the sequoias towered to heaven and there was a lake that now is just barren land?

Some years ago near Gavathas they found evidences of a huge prehistoric elephant: the Prodeinotherium bavaricum. But there had been no further knowledge about what animals dwelled in the woods or lived in the lake; until last June, when professor Katarina Vassiliadou revealed her discoveries at the 9th congress of the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists on Crete.

In the sediments of the old lake, Katarina found traces of snails, lake fish, reptiles and even prehistoric crocodiles! We are of course speaking about a time some twenty million years ago; so when visiting the turtles that still live here in the small lakes and rivers, don’t be afraid, that a large head with a giant jaw and sharp teeth will suddenly appear out of the water and snap at your hand as you attempt to pat a turtle.

Wildlife on Lesvos has not done well since those ancient times. There remain now are only lots of foxes, some wild boar and a single variety of deer. So when you participate in a safari it won’t be like in Africa, where you can meet giraffes, elephants and crocodiles. Here you will only cross paths with some wild cats, dogs, cows and horses.

Nor has Lesvos that many thousands-of-year-old buildings or temples. Close to Klopedi and Messa (near Agia Paraskevi) there remain some standing pillars from an Aeolian and Ionian temple. Mostly Lesvos has to do with the remains of centuries-old little churches from Byzantium and the Middle Ages and a few old castles.

Nonetheless tourists still say that the island is unique and authentic, more so than the popular Greek islands like Rhodes or Crete. Lesvos does not have famous temples, but beside its hundreds of little churches and tens of monasteries, it is rich with very old kafenions.

Those are, of course, not hundreds-of-years-old, but I bet that some can celebrate their hundredth birthday. When you travel through the sleepy villages of Lesvos you’ll find more than one old kafenion per village, where, behind the counter, the grandmother prepares mez├Ędes (little snacks) to be served with the ouzo.

The hamlet Agios Dimitrios, famous for its springs, seems only to exist of two kafenions and one real Loungebar. You can find it – just before Agiasos, along a byroad ‘The old road’, a kind of bypass off the new road from Polichnitos to Agiasos. Since the kafenions no longer face the main road they tend to look almost forlorn; but their environment is breathtaking: they are surrounded by old chestnut and walnut trees. Within the interiors, on their huge verandas, that seem not to have been changed since the Fifties, they serve you coffee and other drinks with a Spoon Sweet (sweet preserved fruit and vegetables), for which they are famous.

Young Greeks, however, want something different from those dusty kafenions of their grandparents’ time – so they have their Loungebar opposite. Even so, the entrance door of the Loungebar is kept in a beautiful and colourful old style.

Just like the crocodiles, elephants and old Greek temples, those old kafenions with their interiors, worthy of museum status, are doomed to disappear. But for the time being, Lesvos still is like an open air museum, full of little churches and kafenios in a gorgeous natural setting, that – if the vulcanoes keep guiet – will remain so for many more years.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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