Sunday, 30 March 2014

March 25 – The Riviera of Lesvos


When I travel through Lesvos I regularly come across places that are totally distinct from other places on the island. For instance the point at Avlona with its turquoise blue bays. And each time I arrive in Plomari on a sunny day, I get the same feeling: it is like entering a little city on the French Riviera rather than on Lesvos. In some way the sunshine seems more intense with all the white-blue houses reflecting that light. The houses seem to be glued to each other or towering over each other, because built against two mountainsides, and that is why you get the idea of a real city.

Plomari (the second most populated town of the island) is a relative new city by Lesvorian standards: a coastal town, only having been built in the middle of the 19th century. It originally was not situated on the sea, but rather higher up in the mountains in the place we now call Megalochori. In the years 1841 to 1843 several big wild fires left Old Plomari in ashes; the inhabitants fled down the river Sedounda to the coast where they started a settlement that grew into the Plomari of today. Building a city on the coast was then feasable as the pirates had stopped terrorizing the Greek islands. For centuries people lived hidden in villages deep in the mountains, hoping to remain invisible to the buccaneers and only in the middle of the 19th century did this threat came to an end.

For the Plomarians hope was not lost, instead a new life was started: houses and factories were built and by the beginning of the 20th century this little city had 12 soap plants, 10 olive presses and numerous shipyards. In those times the Plomarians were world reknowned for building ships of 20 to 150 tons and their own commercial fleet consisted of far above 100 wooden boats (kaikis).

Now most commercial buildings have fallen down or are on the verge of perishing, as are the numerous huge mansions of the rich Plomarians, many of which have only their façade left standing. The rich people of today do not seem to want to restore the big industrial buildings or old houses: they do not even want to live in the city: on all the hilltops surrounding Plomari you see large modern villas arising.

There is however one industry that has survived and that is the ouzo business (see: ouziotary). In the Capital of Ouzo – as Plomari is called – different plants still produce ouzo according to old family recipes and it is said that the Plomarian ouzo is the best of the world.

Just driving to Plomari is a pleasant trip. All three (main) roads leading to Plomari are something special: the busiest one parallels the Gulf of Yera, going through the village of Papados and before it reaches the Riviera of Lesvos at Agios Isodoros it serpentines through a narrow and spectacular ravine (named after the little church of
Agios Fanourios). Another - wide and quiet - asphalted road leads high over the mountains, just under Olympos, through the charming villages of Ambeliko, Akrasi and Paleochori to the Riviera of Lesvos at Melinda and then continues over the most spectacular coastal road of the island towards Plomari, with high and steep cliffsides falling into the sea. The third route follows the river Sedounda, the lifeline of Plomari, which cuts the town in two parts. This last way might be the most beautiful and, from very high in the mountains, it meanders along the river through an impressive green jungle of trees, climbing plants and flowers. Just before the beginning of Plomari you feel you have entered another century because of the big old houses, connected to the road by wooden bridges. And then suddenly the rich green vegetation stops and you are blinded by the intense sunlight, the white houses and then a little later by the blue sea with its shimmering patches of glittering sunlight.

Now that I have called Plomari and its coast the Riviera of Lesvos, I will mention another paradise-like place with views over this Riviera. High in the mountains above Agiasos on a mountain top between the hamlet of Karionas and the nearly deserted village of Milies, is a place which I love dearly: Toumba, an organic farm with horses, where you also can rent one of the five very charming and neat cottages that are built on the mountain slope. It has a simple café and from everywhere a magnificent view over the Riviera of Lesvos, across the sea to Turkey and to the neighbouring island of Chios and the mountain ranges around Olympos. If you prefer rest and nature to the vigorous life of Plomari, then Toumba is a great base for mountain walks (by foot, horse or mountain bike), or a trip to beautiful Plomari and its surroundings.

I sometimes wonder why I do not live in the south of the island.

(with thanks to Maty Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

March 15 – Old and new Lesvos

(The old olive press of Millelia, now transferred to Agi Anargiri)

It is fascinating how archaeologists and historians piece together history. On July 18 in 1858, German historian and archaeologist Alexander Christian L. Conze arrived in the harbour of Mytilini. Not only did he research the capital of Lesvos, he also made an island tour from Thermi to Mandamados, Napi, Molyvos, Petra, Old-Andissa, Sigri, Eresos, the Gulf of Kalloni, Agiasos and the Gulf of Yera. Of course this wasn’t a tourist outing: Conze was armed with a pencil in order to transcribe old inscriptions, using them to distillate new facts for history. His travels were determined by the stories of the locals who showed him churches and houses where old stones with Roman or Greek inscriptions had been used, as well as areas where ancient artefacts could be found.

More than a century before, Englishman Richard Pococke had also toured Lesvos. This globetrotter travelled through the East in the years 1737-1741 and wrote that he had been told that the castle of Mytilini contained the stone tomb of Sappho (He was not allowed in the castle, where the Turkish Aga and his soldiers resided). His travel notes - published in A Description of the East and some other countries in 1747 are a little meagre. The story of Conze, written down in Reise auf der Insel Lesbos and published in 1865, is much more exciting and precise. Pococke travelled by boat, while Conze travelled on a horse and made lots of interesting discoveries. It would appear that, even in those times, much was already gone of the ancient Greek world. It was probably the Romans who destroyed temples and other large buildings, using the remains to build their own monuments, a tradition that only came to a stop in recent times. Rather than digging in the earth you would be better to search the walls of domestic buildings for treasuries of ancient times. Although the famous theatre of Mytilini, reknowned in those times for its greatness and beauty, did survive Roman times. It even served as a model for the building of a theatre in Rome. The few remains of the Mytilinian theatre can still to be visited in Mytilini.

It was Conze who described the locations of some of the ancient Greek towns that had disappeared, like Andissa, Eresos, Arisve (next to Kalloni) and Pyrrha. He was not sure about one place: the old town of Hiera, which was described by Plinius as a big and lively city. It must have been a beautiful town at the Gulf of Yera (which was named after this old place Hiera). It either perished by disappearing into the Gulf after an earthquake or was totally destroyed by the citystate Mytilini (who did not tolerate a competitor nearby).

Robert Koldewey, another German archaeologist excavated most of the treasures from ancient times in Lesvos (Die Antiken Baureste der Insel Lesbos); even he never found traces of where Hiera may have been. Both Conze and Koldewey think this old city might have been just above Perama, in a region called Chalakai. Or is Perama build on the remains of this disappeared Hiera? Until the beginning of the last century Perama was a booming industrial town; it once had the biggest tanneries in the Levant, as well as a thriving olive industry producing oil and soap. Now the place consists of huge empty buildings, most of them ready to fall down.

When you pass these faded glorious buildings, it gives you a certain melancholic feeling for older times. So many cities and buildings, once beautiful and rich, have disappeared on Lesvos. Will this also happen to Perama?

All over the island, lots of old (olive oil) factories, hotels (Sarlitza) and other milestones (Ancient Andissa) of Lesvos’ history stand or lie in ruin (when the stones have not already been recycled) slowly becoming one with nature. But in Perama there seems to be a rescue plan: more and more buildings are being repaired and rebuilt as cafés or discos. More than one of the tall and square buildings, that cast sharp shadows across the narrow streets, offer space to a small super market, a kafenion or a bar. It is fascinating to stroll through this town, hidden in shadows.

In these times of crisis, the only project Molyvos can come up with is to make a park under the impressive rock wall above which the medieval town was built. Another townpark, next to the old olive press, which was ‘renewed’ is already deteriorating because nobody cares about maintaining it. But elsewhere on the island – where fewer tourists go – residents do care for their history. Not far from Perama – just before Asomatos and Agiasos - is the fairytale oasis of Agi Anargiri: an open space, deep in a valley, skirted by huge trees where lots of water streams sing a watersong all year long. In this beloved Lesvorian picnic place there is also a church and a little tavern, now open all year round. Since last year they also moved the old olive mill of Ta Millelia to this beautiful spot and there is a watermill under construction.

Molyvos should reread its history and try to reconstruct some of it   like the old aquaducts, a Roman project that provided Molyvos with water. The remains of these impressed Conze so much that, in his book, he wrote about little else of Molyvos. So, making a park in a little town that is already situated in a natural park? I think I’d rather go and enjoy the proud old buildings of Perama and have a coffee in the lovely green Agi Anargiri.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Sunday, 2 March 2014

March 1 – Yammy, Lent is coming!

('Bread and beans', designed by Sylvia Weve for the cookbook Almost Greek)

The colourful carnival days – in Greece called Apokriés – began a while ago and will end this weekend. Apokriés, like the Latin word carnival – means a farewell to meat. During the three weeks of carnival you may eat whatever you want, before the forty days of Lent. In the second week (Kreatini), the highlight is Tsiknopempti, also called Grill-Thursday, the Thursday when the air will be full of the scent of all the roasting meat. In the third week (Tiriní) lots of cheese is eaten, because dairy products are also banned during Lent.

It could have been that Dionysus invented carnival. This god of wine and parties celebrated the beginning of new life in spring. Another explanation may be that someone once thought: let’s help the spring and chase the evil spirits away by dancing and making music, thus celebrating their expectations for a rich harvest. Whatever the explanation for carnival, lots of cultures now celebrate it with great and colourful festivities, full of dance, music and disguises.

In Greece it’s the city of Patras that is reknowned for its carnival festivities, as is the small town of Tyrnavos which is reputed for a very special carnival tradition. When you want to celebrate on Lesvos, the best place to go is Agiasos, where music, dance and theatre together have a long history.

The transition between the carefree carnival days and the sober Lent period takes place on Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday), a day when there is still some carnival celebration, a day when families have picnics and fly kites, but also a day when the fasting starts: when animal products, fish and meat, give way to shellfish and lots of vegetables.

There are vegetarians who ask if restaurants in Greece have vegetarian menus. Then I have to laugh a little because if there is a country where a vegetarian can be a king –  it is Greece. Greeks love varied dinners and usually eat more than one kind of vegetable a meal. They are masters of cooking vegetables: from salads to cooked cabbages.

That’s why the period of Lent is not such a burden: salads, pulses and shellfish, they form great meals! Beans are an especial favourite (and chick peas). In all forms and colours, they find their way to the dinner tables: gigantès (butter beans), black-eyed beans (mavromatiki), white beans in tomato sauce, fava  (creamed peas or broad beans) or fresh green beans. You will be amazed how well Greeks can prepare beans. In ancient times they even had a God for beans: Kyamites. This somewhat mysterious god who was responsible for the growing of beans had his own temple in Attica, on the road from Athens to Eleusis, where parties were thrown for the goddess of the harvest, Demeter.

Some Greeks even thought beans were holy. The famous mathematician Pythagoras (570 - 495 BC) who came from Samos, was also a philosopher, a sage and a reformer with many followers. Possibly in his time his group was seen as a sect: these Pythagorians lived according to strict rules: not wearing clothing made from animals, anything that fell from the table was not allowed to be retrieved and they were forbidden to eat beans. Pythagoras believed that our ancestors lived in beans (a belief that he may have learned in Egypt where it was believed that the dead travelled through the stems of the beans to the afterworld). At the end of his life Pythagoras lived in Crotone (nowadays in Italy) and when the locals, in revolt against the strange ideas of the mysterious Pythagorians, attacked their school, Pythagoras had to flee into a bean field where he died. Scientists disagree about the cause of his death: he may have been caught and murdered because he run too slowly through the bean field (afraid to step on a bean), or he may have taken refuge in a temple, where he died from starvation.

I take it that there are no longer any Greeks who believe in this philosophy: especially during Lent when mountains of beans are consumed. Other favoured dishes are wine and cabbage leaves filled with seasoned rice (dolmadès and lachanodolmadès), wild vegetables (chorta), and of course squids, calamari and cuttlefish, sometimes cooked with vegetables or stuffed with seasoned rice. Plenty of shrimp is used for garides saganaki (shrimps with tomatoes and feta from the oven). And there are shellfish, here on Lesvos, from the bays of Gera and Kalloni, which are especially popular on Kathara Deftera. Do not be offended when they serve you not only raw oysters but also raw mussels and scallops: Greeks eat all shellfish raw.

Another traditional dish for Lent is taramosalata: a tasty puree of fish roe, bread or potatoes with some lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil. A little strange because you are not supposed to eat fish during Lent, but the roe probably does not count as a fish, so we can enjoy this kind of Greek caviar.

Fast during Lent?! It is more feasting during the Greek Lent.

(part of the text comes from my cook book Almost Greek