Monday, 23 July 2012

Dreaming during a heat wave

A colourful street in Agiasos

What are you supposed to do during a heat wave? You’d best stay inside if you don’t have to go out and the beach is too hot. And so it can happen that you find yourself spending long hours in front of your overheated computer, looking at funny things like The 7 longest streets of the world, or The shortest street.

I don’t think that any street from Lesvos will enter this category, nor does it have a restaurant that could compete with The weirdest restaurants of the world. Although you could easily place a table and two chairs in the hollow tree of Karina, or possibly in the one of Liota, thus creating a VIP-room for The Hollow Tree Restaurant (and I guess that it would be a wonderfully cool space).

There are also very strange hotels: in trees or in elephants, made from ice or sand, under water or in the air and many more choices. Lesvos also has some nice hotels, but not like the one in Kenya where the giraffes stick their heads through the windows at breakfast in order to get some bread. But Lesvos still has many donkeys and I am sure these stubborn animals could also learn to stick their heads through a window if it meant that they could get a croissant. So we could create a Donkey Hotel, where the donkeys not only ask for food, but would help out carrying suitcases, help the maids with the hotel linen or even do some gardening. Children could be taking care of them in the afternoon, thus winning a donkey ride around the swimming pool. There would even be a service to rent a donkey instead of a taxi to bring you to the village or the beach.

And then again I mention the idea of a hotel made of salt. One of the rare ones is built in Bolivia: Palacio de Sal. The salt pans of Skala Polichnitos would be ideal for such a project. You could stay in a very original hotel and have a superb view over the sometimes spectacular pink coloured salt pans where flamingos hop around and where other special birds have their habitat. It would be the dream of a bird watcher!

There is also an interesting list of abandoned islands, pieces of land in the sea where once people had great dreams, but where you now only find houses and buildings slowly uniting with nature.
Spinalonga, an island off the coast of Crete, once housing a leper colony and now a major tourist attraction, is not on the list, but it should be there. I could not find a list of islands that were abandoned by tourists. I mean, I don’t need that list for Lesvos, because there still are tourists around; but there are some days that you wonder if the island has been nearly abandoned.

Speaking about islands: there is also the possibility to rent an island and bring it to the place you prefer, see this floating island. Although I wonder what’s the difference between this floating island and a luxurious yacht. You might as well place a tree house, like those built by the company Bauraum - on a huge raft, plant it with flowers and trees and then you could rent it out to whoever wants to have a week on a private island in his favourite spot.

This way you could be king of your own kingdom and you might even figure on the list of micronations of the world. The newest nation figuring on this list is Filettino, a village in Italy whose mayor proclaimed the village independent in 2011, because they don’t agree with the severe economics dictated by Europe. Is this an idea for The Republic of Lesvos?

And then there is a list of most colourful cities of the world. And again no Lesvos on this list, although this island certainly has some very colourful places, like Agiasos, where they have a few such brightly coloured houses (on the way to the sanatorium) that sunglasses are needed to look at them. And there is a very bright and dark pink house along the Bay of Kalloni, going to Nifida, which has such a colour that it brings tears to your eyes, and Asomatos has a building painted in a colour that even from far away hurts your eyes. And if those villages do not compete with the existing list, we will charter the Dutch artists Haas & Hahn to transform a village like Argenos into an explosion of colours. These artists have been working in the favela’s of Rio de Janiero in Brazil, turning part of slums into bright colourful objects, hoping to brighten up not only buildings but also the inhabitants. For the same reasons they now work in a poor part of the American city of Philadelphia. If the Greek crisis carries on much longer, Lesvos also will be ready for a colourful and social refurbishment of this creative duo.

(Thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The rich of Greece

(The harbour of Piraeus)

Greece has two important sources of income: tourism and shipping. Tourism is the visible and newest part, shipping the older and more diffuse one, because however many ships you see crossing the great blue sea, you will seldom know whether the ship disappearing over the horizon belongs to a Greek shipping company.

Greek maritime history started long before Aristotle Onassis fled Smyrna and started to build his shipping empire in Greece. Centuries before Christ, Greeks travelled over the oceans to transport goods, to look for new countries or to fight their wars. Troy was besieged by 1186 ships, Agamemnon of Mycenae commanding 300 of them, and 80 were delivered by the Greek islands.

In Dorian Times, islands like Samos and Chios built their own fleets. Their ships went as far as Cyprus and Syria and to the Black Sea in Russia.

The Romans obviously didn’t have such good sea legs, because even though they conquered half the world, they left it to the Greeks in their boats to travel the seas. The Greeks transported goods but also soldiers, merchants and the first tourists, who travelled amongst other places to Lesvos to relax and see a new culture.

In 803 the first maritime bank was founded by the Byzantine emperor Nikiforos to lend money to shipowners. It did not bring fortune, because the Greeks were losing more and more commerce to Italian city states like Genoa and Venice, who eventually took over all sea commerce. This lasted until the 16th century when the Ottoman Empire spread like an inkblot over Europe. It was then that the fortune of the Greeks returned, because, like the Romans, the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire weren’t too keen on venturing out on the seas and left the shipping to the Greeks, who were by then known as the best seafaring people. The Greeks made huge profits and gained privileges, using the Ottoman protection to reinstall their power over the European seas. It is claimed that it was these free seafarers that encouraged the Greece people to get rid of their Ottoman occupiers, which they succeeded in doing in 1829 (Lesvos was only freed in 1912).

Now we come to modern Greek shipping history, best known because of Aristotle Onassis, not only because he became so wealthy, but also because of his affair with the opera singer Maria Callas and his marriage to Jacky, the widow of John F. Kennedy. His first marriage was to Athina Maria Livanos, daughter of the shipping magnate Stavros G. Livanos. Livanos’ other daughter, Eugenia, married Stavros Niarchos, a man who also built a large shipping empire like that of his father-in-law and of Onassis.

The Greek/American writer Nicholas Gage wrote the fictitious story The Bourlotos Fortune, based on the lives of these three shipping giants. In this novel you can read how they built up their wealth, lost it and built it up again into a huge empire; and you can also learn how they ruled over their businesses from London and America, fleeing wars and crisis in Europe, leaving their homeland Greece in distress.

Now Greece again is severely in crisis, even though the Greek shipping business is as rich as ever. Nowadays you do not hear much about shipping owners, as you did in the times of Onassis when he was always in the news; you will now only hear about them when they, for example, marry a famous model. And they not only build ships nowadays, but also museums, tourist resorts, hospitals and scientific research centres.

Inousses, a small archipelago next to Chios, is best known for its shipping families and whilst inhabited by about only 800 people, possesses a maritime academy, a boarding school for boys, a modern stadium and a maritime museum. Chios is the region reknowned for having delivered the most successful shippers, for example Stavros Livanos. There are even people who believe that the famous explorer Christoffel Columbus comes from Chios.

Lesvos is rarely mentioned in Greek maritime history. The only famous seamen she produced were the pirate brothers Barbarossa. For centuries piracy made the South European seas unsafe, and in the 16th century is was not uncommon for regular traders to cooperate with pirates. Islands like Mykonos and Milos even became wealthy thanks to piracy.

Maybe that’s what also happened in Lesvos and the reason why Lesvos has no significant place in Greek maritime history. It was only in 1972 that a shipping business was founded on Lesvos, and by the island itself: Nel Lines, now known for the ferries that go between the mainland and different islands.

Real shipping magnates live where they pay lowest tax rates, not unknown for international traders. If all the Greek shipping companies would come back to Greece and pay taxes, the country would not have been so deeply buried in debt.

I take it that Nel Lines are still somewhere in Greece. This summer they extended a hand to the Greek people by reducing prices for the fares to the islands (although they might be doing this because of a competitive fight with other shipping companies). Airline companies should look to this example. Last week the neighbouring island of Lemnos complained to the government that flights to the island were far too expensive (from Athens 300 – 500 euro): how can you encourage tourism when travelling in Greece is so expensive? And what about the inhabitants who are regularly forced by medical reasons to travel to the capital?

Rich Greeks like to build a little church when they are thankful for their good fortune. And they continue building them during the crisis. There are so many on Lesvos that there might be one little church for each inhabitant. Building a small church creates just a little employment: can’t they use their money for better purposes? If the Greek shipping magnates don’t help the Greek government to reduce their debts, they should at least help to lighten the lives of the Greek people and, for example, offer free fares to the islands where life, in comparison with the city, is easier, cooler and better.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Tour de Lesvos

The poster for the Greek Brevets

The newest form of transport in Greece is the bicycle! Although I have to admit that the bicycle is not the most suitable transport for this country, and certainly not for mountainous Lesvos. A donkey or a car seem more suitable to me for the along the meandering mountain roads. However cycling is gaining more and more popularity.

The very first bicycle was a kind of wooden walking bike, without pedals; this vélocipède was built in 1817 by the German baron Karl Drais. In 1865 a French father and son constructed an improved version: their vélocipède had an iron frame, iron wheels and pedals. Three years later a bike with a chain drive appeared on the market and when, twenty years later, rubber bands were wrapped around the wheels we had arrived at the bicycle that we ride these days. Now, a century later, our modern e-times bring another novelty: the e-bike or the electric bicycle, a bike with a small electric engine that you can use when you have to climb up a steep hill. In other words, an ideal bike for this island.

Real cyclists will not agree: their sport is to climb those mountains on two wheels without any electric help, exemplified by the Tour the France where several mountaintops form the highlight of this most popular race.

So cycling in Greece, a country full of mountains and valleys, is not such a bad idea and these days you see more than one cycling club appearing. Maybe serious cycling in Greece started in 2008, when a Costas Simelidis (The man who brought the bicycle to Greece) founded the group Bicycle Respect and made sure that, especially around Thessaloniki, cyclists were no longer a curiosity on the roads. Greeks were never too keen on bicycles: they thought the two-wheelers a danger on the roads and something for poor people who could not afford another road transport. Now bicycles appear more and more on the roads and Greeks will realize that cycling has become fashion.

In the past you occasionally saw some lonely cyclists labouring through the Lesvorian landscape, their luggage piled high on their frames: typical tourists who, for idealistic reasons, preferred the iron horse above a rental car. Now you more often see cyclists dressed in colourful and streamlined clothes bursting around bends on their racing bikes and more and more bicycles are rented to tourists, especially in the region of Kalloni where the absence of hills or mountains makes it an ideal area to bike.

Because of the crisis more than one Greek would now prefer a bicycle, because it’s a cheap form of transport. But cycling nowadays also means that you care about the environment and in cities where polluting cars are the leading transport, bicycles can provide a solution to the traffic jams.

To get the Greeks acquainted with the new status of the bicycle, more and more cyclists’ days are organized in the big cities. On May 13th in Mytilini hundreds of cyclists meandered through the city and their large number gave the impression that each Lesviot must own a bike.

The tour which is organized on Lesvos for this coming Monday July 9th will probably not have that many participants because the trail will go over most of the island: Brevet Lesvos 2012 is part of a series of brevet tours that are organized through the whole of Greece. On Saturday July 7th is the Brevet Chios and on this neighbouring island the trail will also cover most of the island. Let’s hope that the participants on Chios will reach in time Lesvos, to take up the next challenge on July 9th: 217 and a half kilometres, with plenty of ‘cols’ (mountain tops).

The Lesvos Tour will depart on Monday morning at 08.00 from Molyvos and go through Vafios, Argenos and Mandamados to Mytilini, from there it goes along the Gulf of Yera to Plomari, and along the beautiful road to Melinda – Ambeliko – Kalloni, and then back over the mountains to Molyvos. Only the bare mountains of the west will be skipped. The tour is organized by PEPA (Greek veteran bikers club) and according to the rules of l’Audax Parisien zullen strikt worden gehanteerd.

I presume that all other road users will be prepared for meeting the platoon of cyclists (amongst them some professionals) and that the donkeys who are used to taking their siesta in the middle of the road will change their pattern. The roads of Lesvos are for everybody including those quadrupeds and now also the two-wheelers.

I wish the organisation and the participants success and I hope that this event will grow into an international cycling event. The amateur cyclists who are fed up with the Belgium Ardennes and the French roads will find a super alternative by cycling through Greece, full of astonishing nature, superb views and challenging mountain tops.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012