Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Light Towers

(The lighthouse of Molyvos)

For centuries pirates terrorized the Aegean. And it wasn’t just the sea that was not safe; these sea faring thieves regularly raided the islands. That’s why on Chios the mastic villages like Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympi were built as real forts with thick walls all around. And just like on Lesvos, they were not built at the seaside, but hidden inland so that they were not easy prey for the pirates.

On the east side of Lesvos, just outside of Mytilini, tower houses, or pyrgelia were built, where goods and cattle could be stored and families could have a safe haven there. Originally they were built as watchtowers. With a broad view over the sea they could warn the villagers when foreign ships came into sight.

By the Seventeenth century these pyrgelia became en vogue as houses: with a windowless first floor, but a large entrance that could be securely closed (some houses even had secret hiding places for the women and girls, in order to save them from a pirate raid) and an upper floor which served as the living space where the light flowed in through windows and with a characteristic wooden extension.

Those towers were not built everywhere. Elsewhere they lit fires on the mountaintops along the coast, as a warning of approaching pirates.
Maybe this old warning system can be considered as the precursor of the lighthouse.

One of the eldest and best-known lighthouses from history is the Pharos of Alexandria, built between 297 and 283 BC by Ptlomeus I Soter on the island of Pharos just in front of Alexandria. The town was conquered by Alexander the Great and Ptolemeus was one of his generals. When Alexander died, Ptolemeus proclaimed himself King of Egypt and started building the lighthouse, which became one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. It is said that the tower was 120 – 140 metres tall and that its light could be seen from 50 kilometres away! This was, for ancient times, an unusually tall building; however, it wasn’t resistant to the earthquakes of 926, 1303 and 1323 and after a Sixteenth century Egyptian Sultan built his palace on top of the remains of the tower, nothing is left to be seen of this legendary Greek tower.

Even elder is the Maiden or Leander Tower that can still be visited close to Istanbul, on a small island in the Bosporus. This one was built around 408 BC by an Athenian general. He built it as a watchtower in order to keep a close eye on the movements of the Persian fleet. The Maiden Tower was rebuilt several times and for centuries it served as a lighthouse. Today it’s a restaurant.

There is an ancient Greek myth about this tower: the story of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who lived in a tower in Sestos, a little town on the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli at the entrance of the Dardanelles. At the other side lived the boy Leander who fell in love with Hero and he swum across to her each night. Hero lit a candle so that he could find his way. Leander convinced Hero that she could lose her virginity without insulting Aphrodite; so they made love for a whole summer. Until one day when a big storm blew out Hero’s candle and Leander got lost at sea and drowned. Hero was so distraught that she threw herself from the tower.

Because the Dardanelles and the Bosporus are so close and similar, the ancient Greeks and Byzantines believed that the Maiden Tower was in fact the Leander Tower.

The Turks have another story. It’s about the daughter of a sultan and an oracle had predicted that she would die on her eighteenth birthday from a snakebite. Her father built a tower in the middle of the Bosporus, so that she was far away from the land and the snakes. On her eighteenth birthday, glad that the prediction could not happen, he sent her a huge basket with all kinds of exotic fruits. But amidst the fruit was hidden a viper and, of course, the prediction did come true.

Lighthouses were not built as watchtowers for pirates. In some cases they may even have been extinguished in order that the pirates and their ships would be smashed against the rocks and perish.

There was no need for the ‘lighthouses’ on Lesvos to be put out, because they were not as old and legendary as the lighthouses of Alexandria and Istanbul. The oldest tower is from 1947 and is on the islet Megalonisi (Nissiopi), outside the harbour of Sigri. In fact, it is the replacement of an old iron lighthouse of 19 metres, built in 1861 by a French company, during the Ottoman occupation and destroyed in the Second World War. On the cape (Akra) Korakas, close to Skala Sykaminia, there was a similar tower also built by the French (in 1863). Nowadays you can only see the house of the lighthouse keeper. The sea is now made secure by a modern kind of lighthouse, similar to the one that stands guard on the Cape of Molyvos. The five metre tall lighthouse of Agrelios, at the mouth of the Gulf of Gera, was built in 1930 and has more or less survived history. Mytilini even has two remaining lighthouses: the Fykiotrypa, just in front of the castle, where there once was another tower from 1863 and there is also one in the harbour of Mytilini.

During the Second World War most lighthouses in Greece were destroyed. Before the war there were 206 and after the war only 19 remained. During the Fifties they started to rebuild some of them, others were left to perish or replaced by light beacons. It is only on the island of Ios that a lighthouse has been turned into a museum. Nowadays there are 120 traditional lighthouses in Greece and one of them is the one in Sigri. One hopes that with the forthcoming opening of the Nissiopi to the public, the lighthouse will also attract visitors. And I can imagine that when the tourists tire of viewing all those petrified trees, they will be in need for a drink. So why not turn the lighthouse into a tavern? Finally the Leander Tower has turned into a famous restaurant.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Island for rent!

(The salt pans of Skala Polichnitos)

A lot of Greeks were angry after a member of the Parliament, Gerasimos Giakoumatos, suggested that in order to earn some money Greece should rent out his archaeological sites like the Acropolis. It is not such a bad idea when you think about it. Renting is not selling and when such a renter is a private society, the tourist would not risk that often to get confronted with a closed Acropolis, due to strikes of the government workers.

The icon of France, the Eiffel tower, for example is also exploited by a society (SETE: Société de la exploitation de la Tour Eiffel, so why they can do it in France and not in Greece? Do not think that in such a way all people can rent the Acropolis as a fabulous location for a birthday party. SETE for example has as goal that the Eiffel Tower should remain the number one attraction of Paris. Which means a lot of work. They not only maintain the tower and its site, they make sure that they have a good service for the tourists and whenever needed they renew or modernise the site for keeping the Eiffel tower a modern attraction so that Paris can keep counting on it as a major income. To keep the Eiffel Tower attractive they cooperate or organise themselves regularly exhibitions, concerts, festivals and other events.

When you see their costs and earnings in 2009 it is clear that everybody gets better from it: income: 65,7 millions euro; costs: 62,4 million euro, included 8,5 million euro to the city of Paris and 1,3 million euro for taxes to the state. Why is this such a bad idea for the Acropolis?

Imagine that such a society can rent the castle of Molyvos. A clever entrepreneur could besides the regular visits to the castle organise events in the evenings, something that the municipality of Lesvos could nearly afford last summer and I am sure next summer it will be even worse. The castle of Molyvos is a wonderful place for concerts, dance events and other cultural activities.

They could organise spectacular performances, like there used to be those surprising concerts of the French group Urban Sax, who may show up with as many as 200 saxophonists. They can play from all corners of the castle, even play their saxophones hanging on cables from the walls of the castle. They could even have the concert taken place partly in the harbour of Molyvos. Even a concert of the famous Dutch violist Andre Rieu, high above the medieval village of Molyvos could attract thousands of people.

This society can even enlarge his renting area. The SETE is also part of a much bigger company (Snelac) that runs tens of attraction parks like the French Disneyland in France. I do not suggest that Lesvos also should get a Disneyland, but when you use your fantasy you could bring a little bit more activity to the island in order to get more tourists.

They should not only rent the castle of Molyvos, but also the aqueduct of Moria where they could organise picnic-concerts or light shows.

They could rent Old Antissa, restore the ruins, make it a serious archaeological site and include a theme park like Jurassic Park. It is in that region (near Gavathas) that the bones were found from prehistoric animals.

They could rent the saltpans of Skala Polichnitos, open a salt museum and build besides a salt hotel with rooms of salt. When in Kemi (Finland) they can build a hotel out of snow, you should be able to do the same with salt.

They should rent waterfalls and caves and make them accessible to a bigger public. In the caves you can make exciting labyrinths and waterfall sites can be used for bungee jumping.

They should rent the Ypsilo monastery and turn it into a star watching hotel, with a huge stargazer and rooms with glass roofs so that you can fall asleep watching the stars.

They should rent Agiasos and turn it into an openair museum and course centre, having the inhabitants wearing the old costumes, give lessons not only in old handicrafts like wood carving and pottery but also in modern theatre (Agiasos is known for its theatre plays).

They should rent Plomari, restore all those tall buildings and make there a shipping museum. In ancient times Plomari used to live from building ships.

They should rent Mandamados and call it the cheese centre of the island, organising a weekly cheese market and making the cheese factories public. I mean, the Dutch cheese city of Alkmaar is a daily attraction for hundreds of visitors.

They should rent Kalloni and have it transformed into a real Dutch village. This is also very attractive; look at the Orange Country Resort in Antalya, Turkey or to Huis ten Bosch in Japan.

Well, this last suggestion is maybe a little over the top, but imagine that somebody would realise all these proposals. I would not really like Lesvos turned into one huge amusement Park. But the idea to rent out some archaeological sites to private societies is no bad idea. It will not only bring money for the municipalities, it will bring more jobs and tourists.

An example to keep on renewing can be found at the Natural History Museum of the Petrified Forest in Sigri. They decided that the island Nissiopi, in front of the harbour of Sigri and full of petrified trees, should be open to public. Next season they will have a glassbottom boat bringing the tourists there. And so you see, one of the tiniest villages of the island, so remote and yet so progressive.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Winter Vegetables Blues

Sometimes I think: I wish it would always be winter. It is the refreshing quietness on the island, the winter sun that’s warm but not hot, nature that is saturated with rain and is shining green, beautiful skies, that for change are not just bright blue but populated with stout clouds. And, yes, whenever there is a storm flying over the island - like last week, when there was a southern storm that blew everything away from our garden, ripped thick branches from the trees and who knows what damage elsewhere - for a change it is nice to sit cozy, dry and warm at the fireplace.

And what is also nice about the winter is the food. Except for some nutritious soups the Greek kitchen (or island kitchen) does not have real winterfood like the stews we know in the north. Just as in summer you order several dishes, only the vegetables are different: cabbages and beans, green salads (marouli), leek, beetroots, celery and spinach. There is a bigger choice of fresh fish (weather permitting) and you can be sure that the calamaria and shrimps are fresh, just like the shellfish. There are huge radishes, there are wild vegetables (horta) and lovely goat or lamb in the oven. And another benefit: no watermelon as a desert, but pieces of cake or halva, fresh oranges or apples.

The vegetables are served very simply: cauliflower, cabbage leaves, broccoli just cooked and seasoned with a little olive oil and some drops of lemon juice. And they taste super, because they are fresh from the fields.

You could say that in the winter you eat the real authentic Greek food. Because whilst tomatoes reign over the Greek kitchen in the summer, the tomato is in fact an intruder. It was only around the Sixteenth century that tomatoes were brought from South-America to Europe by the Spanish conquerors. First the plants were just for decorations, because it was believed that the tomatoes were poisonous, and only about one and a half century later, tomatoes were accepted as an edible vegetable. Aubergines that originate from Asia came also to Europe around the Sixteenth century. A century earlier it was Christopher Colombus who brought seeds of the courgette to Europe, but the courgette that we eat now was only cultivated in Italy in the last century. The cucumbers were a little earlier: Pliny the Elder, a Roman military, writer, naturalist and philosopher, who lived in the first century AD, wrote that the ancient Greeks already grew cucumbers. But the cucumber originally comes from India. It might have been Alexander the Great, who was not only a big conqueror but introduced lots of new products (like the chestnut) to Greece, who brought the cucumber to Europe.

But cabbage is said to come from the Mediterranean. Green cabbage, red cabbage, white cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower ¬— they all came from a wild cabbage plant that loved salted coasts and poor grounds. Did you know that broccoli and cauliflower are the flower buds of the plant? If you don’t harvest these vegetables you’ll see the stems growing and the flowers appearing from their buds.

Beetroots also come from the Mediterranean countries. They come from wild spinach (originally called Sea Beet), a horta you can still find nowadays. The Greeks not only eat the root, but also the leaves. And yes, you guessed it: the leaves have a spinach-like taste. The roots and leaves all served together with a garlic sauce (skordalia) are a delicious Greek dish and if you run out of spinach one day, the leaves of the beetroot is a good replacement.

Celery leaves have been found in the grave of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamon (he died around 1323 BC). The ancient Greeks believed that celery came from the blood of Kadmilos, who was the father of the non-Hellenistic gods the Cabeiri who were originally worshipped in the islands of the North Aegean (Lemnos, Imbros, and Samothrace [and possibly Lesvos]). This cult later spread further afield to the island of Delos and according to Pausiana as far as Thebes on the mainland. The Cabeiri were an odd kind of gods, sometimes father and son, or mother and son, but their lives remain a mystery. According to one of the many Greek myths they may also have been the grandchildren of Hephaestus, a son of Zeus who was worshipped on Lemnos and was the god of technology, blacksmiths, craftsmen, fire and vulcanoes (his Roman name was indeed Vulcan).

So, if I may believe the ancient Greeks I do live in the home of the celery (Lemnos is the neighbouring island of Lesvos) and in the home area of beetroots and cabbages.

I like to experiment with food. I am even writing a cookbook with recipes that are Not Quite Greek, but are made from Greek ingredients (I also count the summer vegetables as Greek). Celery can be more than just a soup ingredient and can accompany more than just pork, cauliflowers and broccoli sometimes require some decoration, and beetroots sometimes can get fed up with just the garlic sauce.

Here is a foretaste for a dish from Just Not Greek:

Beet salad with marinated anchovy (gavros)
(side dish for 4 persons)

500 g beetroot
1 bay leaf
1 tsp sugar
a dash of vinegar
100 g marinated anchovy (or salted herring)

For the seasoning:
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp Greek yoghurt
1 tsp mustard
½ tsp dill weed
½ tsp thyme

Wash the beetroots, remove the leaves (leaving 1 cm of the stem) but do not remove the root. Put them in a pan with the bay leaf, salt, sugar and vinegar and add water until everything is covered. Cook for about 1/2 hour. When they are soft, cut the small root and peel them. Dice them into small pieces (about 1 – 1.5 cm). Put 4 of the anchovies aside and add the rest to the beetroots. Mix all ingredients for the sauce and add to the beetroot. Serve on a green salad and garnish each portion with an anchovy.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Molyvos in the dark

(colouring sky in Eftalou)

The beginning of a new year is not only marked by people’s new year’s resolutions and the fact that it is a new year on the calendar. In Nature’s way here in Europe it also means that the dark days are over: the sun starts climbing and the days are getting longer.

Greece however will politically still remain in its dark days. Take Molyvos for example; in the month of December this medieval village was very dark, because the municipality could not afford a single bulb for festivity lights, in contrast to the neighbouring village of Petra that belongs oddly enough to the same municipality. It is one year since Lesvos became one huge municipality. The streets were dark and only thanks to some cheerful lights from some residents would one knew that it was a month of festivities. Even the big nativity crèche that was placed for years on the parking lot on the lower road to the harbour has now been absent for two years. Will it cost too much money to get it out of its hiding place?

Yes, Molyvos is economizing. For example the castle lighting is turned off at midnight. Which is not too bad, because not many people roam the streets after that time: the village seems to be empty. But it’s a real shame that on New Years Eve at midnight the castle remained in the dark. Nor was there money for even a small New Years Eve celebration on the square in the village. The only lights in the darkness were some sparkling rockets welcoming 2012 in Turkey.

Of course there are plenty of rumours and one of them is that since Lesvos became one municipality - all the money stays in Mytilini. The capital of the island was indeed sparkling with Christmas lights in December. And even if the money finds a way out of town, it probably gets stuck on the new highway from Mytilini to Kalloni. For almost two years people have been wondering how this new road will look: while big parts seem to be ready, hundreds of signs keep on telling you to go alternately to the right or the left, as if you were taking your driving test. And by the time the signs become redundant, I bet they’ll start all over again building a new road because this one will be worn out.

And not only is the money divided differently over the former 13 municipalities of the island; the telephone company and various municipal offices have all retreated to the capital. All sub offices are closed: go to Mytilini when you need something! Which is not easy for those not living close to the big city. Travel time from the north or south of the island can easily be one to two hours (unless of course you are driving a Ferrari and want to show how fast you can go). So people living far away will lose half a day going to Mytilini and that is not even the worst part. Most of the officials here have no idea how to be civil to their customers nor how to stamp papers, to give licences or provide a social payment or anything else required from the municipality. The most popular sentence is: “Come back tomorrow!” (as if you live around the corner) and then you have to ask your other neighbour to drive you to the city. If you are not blessed with living in Mytilini, you had better give yourself plenty of time if you need any licences, or to make a payment or arrange internet and you must also have made sure to have taken a rapid course in ‘how not to attack an official’.

So it seems that the rest of the island has been shunted back to the middle ages and, as far as I know, it was only the people of Plomari who last year made some serious protests against this stupid reorganization of melting so many municipalities into one. You might know that in ancient times Lesvos was divided into different city-states and that Mytilini and Mythimna (Molyvos) were the worst of enemies. Well, we are getting back to that time.

But, enough of those dark times, because the sun keeps on shining and thanks to the sun we have the light. The ancient Greeks thought that light emanated from the people, that our eyes were giving the light. Only at about a thousand AD the Arabian scientist Al-Haytham thought the light came into our eyes through outside sources. His books were not well read in Europe and it took until the end of the seventeenth century before the German astrologer and mathematician Johannes Kepler could describe how the eyes actually worked.

And you do need eyes in Greece. The country of the gods is known for its beautiful light. When the French painter Marc Chagall was invited to illustrate the Lesviot novel Daphne and Chloe written by Longus, he travelled to Greece where he discovered a completely new range of colours thanks to the Greek light. And that light is not only here in the summer. In the winter days without a ray of sunshine are rare. Nearly each day the sun lets her light shine on the landscape. Because the sun is so low in winter it creates even more colours in the air and when there are clouds travelling through the sky it really is party time. Just imagine a near black sky where stout white clouds pass along, their edges coloured bright orange, or even purple. The sea is like a magic ball, changing its colours from blue to all kinds of grey and when the coloured clouds mirror themselves you find rainbow colours all over the water. Spectacular sunsets, like we have in the winter in the north so often, cannot be recalled to Mytilini, nor can they be put out to economise.

A very happy 2012

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012