Thursday, 30 January 2014

January 29 – An ode to Apollo

(Sunset in the Bay of Kalloni)

I love the winter light here on the island – the Bay of Kalloni in particular has lots of light changes and I think it is the best place to take photographs. The sea views elsewhere on the island can be equally attractive, like at Vatera when angry foam caps roll out of a green sea to attack the beach, their bright white colour detonating against a dark sky far behind it. And what about when bright sunrays shine through massive packs of clouds, illuminating the Lesvorian Mount Olympus or shower faraway rocks on the west coast with a mysterious light. Clouds are just like magic lanterns playing with the light.

The island has finally had some serious rain and during one of those rainy days – there were a few hours without rain – the clouds were so low in the mountains that there was no way to avoid them and you just drove into them. Fog on a busy highway is no fun, but here on the island the roads are quiet so you have a chance to enjoy a foggy mountain landscape: a fairytale landscape was created where trees seemed to float and the pink flowering almond trees became part of the clouds.

During the cloudless summers lots of tourists gather at strategic places to see the sun disappear into the sea. Those people should come in the winter: that is the time when you are regularly confronted with dramatic sunsets, when bright orange lights climb towards heaven and clouds colour red, painting the island with magic lights. Even a colourful rainbow cannot compete with that.

Clouds can take astonishing forms. Zeus also knew that. He created the cloud-nymph Nephele, in the form of his wife Hera, who had complained to him about the unwanted sexual advances of King Ixion. When Zeus sent the Hera ‘look-alike’ cloud Nephele into the sky King Ixion raped the cloud and the myths say that is how centaurs (creatures that were half human – half horse) were born.

There is another myth about this cloud-nymph Nephele. It tells the story of how, when she saw a beautiful palace, she climbed off her cloud, thus meeting King Athamas. They fell in love, married and had two children: Phrixus and Helle. Eventually Nephele became very homesick for her life in the clouds and she left her king and children. King Amathas then married Ino, a princess banned from Thebes.

As soon as Ino had her own children with Amanthas she began to hate Phrixus and Helle. When Amathas announced that Phrixus would be the next king, Ino created a famine and bribed the oracle of Delphi to say that the king had to sacrifice Phrixus in order to end the famine.
On the day of the execution Nephele came on her cloud to save her children. She put them on a golden goat that would fly them to the kingdom of Colchis where they would be received as royalty. During bad weather however Helle fell off the goat into the sea, which even today is called the Hellespont (the link between the sea of Marmara and the Aegean sea, also called the Dardanelles). Phrixus reached Colchis; he offered the goat to Zeus and gave the golden skin to the king, which brought him lots of wealth and power. This was the famous Golden Fleece that later on would be collected by Jason and his Argonauts.

Apollo was one of the many Olympian Gods and he had different tasks (and names). The Oracle of Delphi pronounced his prophesies, he was patron of music, poetry and healing, but at the same time he could distribute pestilence all over the world. He was also the god of light and the sun. And of course he had followers on Lesvos. A myth relates that when the head of Orpheus drifted on the shore of Lesvos at Andissa, the head was taken to a temple of Apollo where it became a popular oracle. I do not know if this temple was close to Andissa; as far as I know there were two temples dedicated to Apollo known on Lesvos: one in Klopedi (the remains can still be visited) and one on Lepetimnos (but this temple is only known from ancient documents).

It was a good location up on this mountain for a temple to Apollo: from its top you have a splendid view across the north of the island, you can look deep into Turkey and very far out to sea (on clear days you can even sea Mount Athos on the mainland) and from the top you have every possibility of experiencing magnificent sunsets. On this highest spot on Lesvos (Olympus is just one metre shorter) I can imagine that Apollo even today is still creating beautiful light-shows while playing with the clouds. He has the shadows of the clouds meandering over the mountain slopes, he has them cosily curling over his mountaintop, has them dancing around other mountains, gives them steam to create huge cauliflower shapes, chases them like volatile nymphs through the heavens, paints them in an ink-black colour in order to announce rain, gives them red, yellow and orange explosive colours in order to say goodbye to the sun or just turns them bright white and sends them off to shuffle like sheep through the sky in small formations.

The few tourists who dare to visit the island out of season become addicted to the Lesvorian winters – and with plenty of reason. In the winter the island is dependent on the mercy of the Gods, with all the pomp and circumstances that usually surrounds them.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Saturday, 18 January 2014

January 15 – All roads lead to... Sigri!

(The Eftalou Boulevard)

Was it three or four years ago that the road in Eftalou was badly damaged by the winter storms? There was and still is no money to repair Eftalou Boulevard as I call it. It’s a big word for what is essentially just a dangerous street: half concrete with deep holes along the seawall and a willing future victim for the storms to come — if they do come this winter (apart from one ice-cold week in the middle of December, we have only had summery weather and the island is mostly dry).

The Eftalou Boulevard leads to the Hot Springs of Eftalou, where it becomes a dirt road, and then goes all the way over the mountains along the coast to Skala Sykaminia and it is no busy road. In the winter you can take endless strolls without seeing one car (or person) and in the summer, even on the part where only one car can pass, its dangerous state has never caused problems. So I don’t mind that the road has not been repaired; this way the fast driving devils have no other choice than to slow down.

For years there has been talk of a new road from Petra to Mytilini, the busiest road on the island (although nothing compared to roads around the large European cities: in winter, driving this road in the early evening you’d be lucky to see more cars than fingers on your hand). The intention is to make a road bypassing Kalloni. Villages like Stipsi and Skalochori have had enough of the ‘dense’ traffic through their narrow streets, of cars just missing the toes of the visitors of their cafenions. Those villages already made a bypass road, but Kalloni: no way! They enjoy the busy congestion, the frequent jam traffics and the danger of pedestrians being kicked off the pavements. It is said that it is the middle class who is against such a bypass. Imagine if you could no longer drive bumper to bumper through Kalloni, if you could no longer see what the shops had to offer and you if couldn’t get out of the car to shop. So up until now the new road from Mytilini has found a dead end in Kalloni. If you actually survive the hurdles of the second city of the island and you want to go on to Petra, you still have to cross a mountain range.

It may be that it will be difficult to find an easier way through the mountains between Kalloni and Petra. The existing road is okay, but when the salt vans or the tourist buses in high season dominate the road, it is no fun to drive up and down the mountains via the hundreds of sharp bends and curves. But as far as I know, nothing will change there. The road builders must be having a rough time: what to do next?

The municipality came up with a solution: a new road from Kalloni to Sigri. There is nothing wrong with the concrete road to Sigri. While it passes through several big villages like Filia, Skalochori, Vatoussa and Andissa you rarely meet other traffic. But somewhere they have found money to replace this perfectly good road, and they have already started building it.

Off course there are smaller villages than Sigri on the island, but this tiny white village that revived a little, thanks to the building of its castle in 1757, has in the summer only a few shops and restaurants open. Its having no cash dispenser or petrol station, are two things that have led to problems for people who do not know this. But it does have the beautiful Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest, but is this sufficient reason to build a new road in times of crisis?

Is this just about provision of work? Or is the road too dangerous for the buses transporting the tourists to the Petrified Forest? Has some official simply sniffed out money, some of which he can put into his pocket or has the Natural History Museum of Sigri asked for a new road?

Building in Greece, especially on this island, can simply be asking for trouble. When you dig into the ground in the north of the island, you could encounter ancient buildings and then the archaeological service might stop the building. Digging into the ground in the West might bring to light petrified trees and that is exactly what happened with the new Kalloni to Sigri road, which they started to build at Sigri. They found huge petrified sequoia trees, fruit trees, plants and petrified roots. These treasures now have to be secured by the Natural History Museum of Sigri before the building can continue.

There may be another reason for building this new road from Kalloni to Sigri. Doesn’t this road go through the area that the Spanish company Iberdrola wants to use to install an enormous windmill park? Is this not the area where they have to build some hundred kilometres of roads for the sole purpose of installing those wind turbines (see: No Windmill Park in a Geo Park!) 

Maybe, just like Don Quixote, I see ghosts on the road, but I do question the idea of building a new road in a very quiet area, when on the old road you barely pass other cars. There are other roads that more urgently need repair or replacement. So I do ask myself if priorities are well handled.

Here in the North - the most popular place for tourists - we wait for the new water route to Turkey. For years there were only rumours but now it finally seems it will happen: in the harbour of Petra the Customs House buildings are nearly ready and now we just have to wait for the customs officials and the boat. And of course the destination (it is said that last year they had a trial run, but nobody can tell me exactly where they went).

In a few years’ time you won’t recognize the island: the new road leading through the windmill park will bring you in no time to the Petrified Forest. Sigri will be the most popular bathing place of the island. The old road from Petra to Kalloni will be in decay and you’ll need to travel to Kalloni via Sigri. The, by then ‘mythical’, Eftalou Boulevard will be in the sea and the surviving hotels in Eftalou will be only open to walkers. The harbour of Petra will be a cosy and busy place with plenty of cafés, terraces and tourists wanting to go to Turkey and Turks visiting Lesvos. And Kalloni? Nobody will go there anymore because of the persistant and awful traffic jams.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2014

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

January 3 – Ottoman treasures

(The dome of the hamam of Molyvos)

For about four and a half centuries the Turks ruled Lesvos. This domination has of course left its traces, despite the Lesvorian people doing a lot to get rid of them. In 1912 the island was freed from its Ottoman usurpers and more than a century later there remain few traces of the occupation.

In many little towns or villages on the island you will find Ottoman fountains: small and elegant stone constructions against a wall with a water tap. Also the castle of Sigri belongs to the Ottoman monuments of the island. The admiral of the Ottoman fleet Karabağlı Süleyman Pasa, ordered it built in 1757 in order to protect the region from pirates and to keep an eye on the maritime traffic. Nowadays this fortress does look a bit small but a century ago the view of this small village was still dominated by its castle and the mosque (see the photograph of Sigri from 1900), which was later transformed into the Agia Triada church, that can still be visited today. The village of Sigri that we now know exists thanks to the castle. In 1581 the village was totally deserted, to be filled anew with life when the castle was built.

Mytilini had several mosques: The Johan the Baptizer church (presumably built by the Genoese) was soon after the occupation transformed into a mosque named after Mehmed the Conqueror. This mosque was destroyed by an earthquake in 1867 and rebuilt as the Yeni Cami (Yeni mosque).
The Yali Cami, now a warehouse for vegetables and fruit, was built on the remains of an earlier  mosque built in 1738. The Vigla Cami, now known as the Saint Nicolas Church, was also a mosque rebuilt after the disastrous earthquake of 1867. Its minaret was torn down in 1929, like many other minarets on the island.

Was it just through laziness or some remaining respect for a house of God that four minarets still reach into the sky of the island? You will find them in Filia, Mesagros, Skalachori and in Parakila. The one in Parakila stands like a dusty rocket in an agrarian landscape, next to a ruin that used to be the mosque. It is a beautiful building of small bricks artfully put together. I am wondering how long it will remain standing, because it looks lost and fragile, with holes in its elegant forms.

Parakila, at the Gulf of Kalloni, is known for this minaret and an old bridge, just called Old Bridge but I could not find in which period it was built. There are not many tourists around in the winter so only a few people will realise that Parakila also is a region with lots of oranges. When you walk in the winter through the olive grows and fields down from the village, over the Old Bridge, along the minaret, colourful oranges will brightly greet you with a joyful welcome.

The other region on Lesvos known for its oranges is Thermi, a little above Mytilini, which is also known for its Ottoman history. In Loutropoli Thermi you will find maybe the biggest Ottoman monument of the island: the Sarlitza Palace. Commisioned by Hasan Mola Moustafa this luxurious thermal spa hotel was built in 1909 by French architects, but closed forty years later even though heads of states and other dignitaries were regular guests. Since then it has fallen into ruins and is a very popular place for photographers. Rumours keep on popping up that it might be restored, but until now the hotel and its thermal baths sink deeper and deeper into a ruinous state.

Next to the hotel however is another thermal bathhouse where you can still enjoy splashing around in mineral water: a century long tradition for people believing in its healing qualities. The Turkish brought their own tradition: the hamam, a place for cleaning. The thermal baths are known for their high temperatures, but the baths are in spaces that are clear. In the hamam you will find a steamy atmosphere, where you can relax after cleaning, shaving or having a massage. The normal water is heated by a fire and thus is a hamam not dependent from a hot spring.

The elegant buildings of a hamam are dominated by one or more domes, that have holes in an artful pattern to let the light come in and the steam go out. Several of such domes, resting on the old ruins, can still be find on the island: in Klapados, Sigri, Ypsolometopo, Molyvos and even in Parakila you could find a hamam. The one of Molyvos is to be restored, but the rebuilding takes ages and when it is finished you may even not be able to bathe, because it is said that it is going to be a museum. In Mytilini you had several hamams, from which the Carsi hamam has been restored, serving however as a cultural centre now. There is just one hamam on the island that has been restored into a modern centre for bathing and where you can be spoiled in Ottoman ways: in Mesagros, a village between Pappados and Skopelos. If you have never had a foamy soap massage you have a perfect reason to go to Mesagros.

Looking for traces of the Ottoman culture on the island may result in wonderful walks, like the one around Parakila with its bright coloured oranges. Lesvos has so many beautiful and historical places that even this new year will not allow you enough time to explore all of it. I wish you a very happy 2014, with lots of new challenges.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014