Sunday, 21 July 2019

May 20 - A missed opportunity

(Photo: internet)

In May for the first time I had my semi-longhaired dog shaved. Other years he unhappily made it through the warm summers, always on the brink of fainting. Now he hops around, as happy as a newborn lamb. Some people say that shaving dogs is unhealthy for them, because their fur is a natural sun protector. My dog thinks otherwise: he now loves sunbathing, not bothered by anything.

It is not because of the heat that sheep are shaved, although I can imagine that wearing a coat of several centimeters of pure wool in the hot sun is no fun. Their coats will be cut because of the sheer weight of it: a sheep bearing meters of wool can just fall over because of the number of kilo's he or she has to carry and risks not being able to get up again. Other reasons are hygienic: shaving can prevent illnesses.

In earlier times sheep might have been shaved for their wool. It was a necessary substance to make cloths and tapestry. Before cheaper synthetic fabrics flooded the markets, lots of women were behind a spinning wheel or a loom instead of in front of the television. Even Irene of Athens, Empress of the Byzantine Empire from 797 to 802, had to spin wool when she was banned to the island of Lesvos, where she spent the last year of her life behind a loom.

Lesvos has never been a wool-island. In the times that the Romans commanded half the world, Lesvos was famous for its wines. Centuries later, around 1900, the island had its Golden Age thanks to commerce in olive oil and soap. Between the olive trees there were fields full of tobacco and corn. These were the years that ouzo was born out of tsipouro, a much older anise drink. On the shores ship yards prospered and until the mid 20th century resin was harvested from the many pine tree woods.

The island now still has a name for great olive oil and the best ouzo. But there are new products to be proud of: visiting a fish shop in Athens with a choice of sardines, the fat ones from the Gulf of Kalloni and those of Gera are the most praised. In the cheese shop you can find a fine choice of cheeses from Lesvos that are the best of their kind: ladotiri, gravièra and myzithra. And Lesvos is the only island that is allowed to produce a cheese named feta. The other regions of this nowadays exclusive Greek cheese are Macedonia, Thrace, Peloponnesos and Epirus.

Thanks to many subsidies the island of Lesvos is full of sheep and goats. You will even find them on the roads and always in the distance you may hear a jingling sheep. In the most deserted places you might run into a sheep or goat farm, if that’s what you can call those derelict buildings constructed from drift wood, old bed springs and other debris. But that still doesn't make Lesvos a wool producing island.

Lesvos may have many more sheep than it has inhabitants, but apart from their milk and sometimes a lamb roasted above a fire, these animals are not well utilized. The island never knew a tapestry industry. In the Sixties they weaved a bit, but made rugs with leftover fabrics. Those merry striped, so called ragrugs did not contain any wool. The bi-products of the shaved sheep were only to be found in the illegal dumping places.

The island has no idea what riches it has: hot springs that are for the most part closed, beaches containing tons of seaweed and truckloads of wool given back to Mother Nature.

Something has changed since last year. A Turkish enterprise came to take the wool of Lesvos. Maybe it is a smart company that profits from the new hype of knitting with fancy wools (knitting is said to be the new yoga). Or it is a building company, active in the building fury that rages through Turkey these days, that badly needs insulation material: wool mutes sounds, regulates the humidity in the air, protects against cold and heat and is not particularly inflammable

There is no building fever on this island, nor has it many new enterprises. However I am happy that the farmers now gather the wool in big white bags, which are waiting at collection points along the main roads for the Turks to come and collect. A lot better than dumping it secretly along a deserted dirt road.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

June 23 – Nomad Beer

(Beer from the Sigri Brewery)

Have you ever heard of grape honey? It is collected on Santorini, where they allow the bees to feast on the grapes that lie in the sun fermenting to make the famous sweet Santorini wine. And what about leaves of the kitron tree? Those come of an old fashioned tree species, with odd looking fruit that taste a bit more intense than lemons. They still grow them on Naxos for Kitron liqueur. Soft spring water, filtered by centuries old lava stones full of local minerals also sounds tempting. What drink do you think is proud enough to contain all these divine ingredients? 

Volkan, Nissiopi, Sedusa, Verginia, Septem, Crazy Donkey, Zeos, B29: all are names of Greek beers from small producers. The Volkan Brewery gives the best description of its brew. Who would think that beer contents grape honey, kitron leaves and lava washed water? 

The Greek Gods didn't like beer. In their times beer was associated with the nordic barbarians, even though the yellow juice already flowed abundantly in Iran and China, where - they say – beer was invented. Even the Egyptian Pharaohs gave their permission to drink this fermented brew. However the ancient Greeks preferred wine. As an exception they might have drunk a pint in honour of Demeter, when she had overseen a good harvest. The writer Xenophon mentioned beer in his famous Anabasis, Sophocles warned his readers to stay away from beer. Recent excavations in Greece have proved that indeed in ancient times a drink was brewed out of corn; and that it might have been consumed with a straw!

The Greeks only started to be interested in beer when Otto, the little son of Ludwig I of Bayern, in 1832 was installed as King of Greece. He moved to Athens with his entire German court, including three court brewers who had to make sure that the German soldiers got their beer. One of them was named Herr Fix. His son became in 1864 the founder of one of the Greek beers that – apart from Heineken and Amstel – is the most consumed in the country of the Olympic Gods: Fix. Alfa appeared in the Sixties and now is part of Athenian Brewery, a company owned 98% by Heineken. Mythos was a late baby in 1997, but got successful and is now incorporated into the Danish Carlsberg Brewery (who also has the popular Kaiser beer). How Greek are Alfa and Mythos? 

Greek market leader Athenian Brewery (distributing also Heineken and Amstel) rules the country with iron manners. If you’re selling Amstel, then in most cases you are not allowed to sell a beer that is not from the same brewery. Which is unfair and difficult for the many new small breweries that try to sell their product in a growing beer market. Many islands already have their own beer: you will find Nissos on Tinos, Santorini toasts with Volkan and Crazy Donkey, Crete brews Harma and Chios has Chios beer, just as Corfu has Corfu beer.

The small Greek brewery MTB (Macedonian and Thracian Brewery) has Verginia beer and so much guts that they brought the mighty Dutch beer giant Heineken and his daughter Athenian Brewery to court, accusing them of unfair concurrence. They have done this in Amsterdam, hoping that the Dutch judges – probably better than the Greek judges – will decide in favour of the little companies and judge that Heineken is totally responsible for the unfair deeds of his Hellenic daughter. When the Dutch beer power gets broken in Greece, then all those refreshing little beers could possibly knock ouzo and retsina off their thrones of traditional Greek drinks. 

Lesvos has also had its own beer since last year. The Sigri Brewery however is still 'virtual': it is a nomad brewery that does not own its own cauldrons and brews wherever it can. The result is a blond ale named Nissiopi and a red one called Sedusa. They do not have a smart publicity machine ‘selling’ you the taste of their brew. Will the Sigri Brewery take truck loads of Lesvorian source water that, with a little bit of imagination, still has a smokey touch from the violent volcanic eruptions that once put the island on fire? Will they take truck loads of ouzo herbs with them and boxes of Lesvorian chestnut, thyme, heather and flower honey? For sure the recipes were concocted somewhere in a house in Sigri: the beers have a taste full of fresh secrets. They are top beers for the beach, to be drunk under a scorching sun, at the water’s edge. And if we keep the consumption high, next year Sigri will have its own brewery.

Since June the big ferries to and from the mainland have reappeared in Sigri: the crates with beer can be easily loaded on the boats and shipped all over the world. Sigri is no longer just the village of the Petrified Trees, but also of Nomad Beer!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Friday, 31 May 2019

May 31 – Strange meetings

(A fallow deer on my terrace)

One lovely morning I came eye to eye with a beautiful white speckled fallow deer on my terrace. I rubbed my sleepy eyes in order to wake up, just as the deer was surprised to see another living soul on the terrace. He didn't hurry away but patiently looked me up and down with his sweet, big, dark eyes and then took some perky steps into the garden en route to the pear tree, which apparently has tasty leaves.

Of course it wasn't the first time I have seen a deer. But never on my terrace. Deer officially do not belong to the wildlife of Lesvos. You may find deer on Rhodes; there they have wild fallow deer, called Deer dama dama, a special kind only to be found on Rhodes. At the entrance to the Mandraki harbour, where once the spreading legs of the Colossus of Rhodes stood, you will find the symbol of that Greek island: two deer. It is said that deer were brought to the island by the crusaders, but I really wonder if crusaders had deer tagging along on their risky journeys. Others say that deer had been living there centuries before Christ was born and that the island was then named after deer: Elafousa (island of deers).

Yet on the small island Elafonisi, also named after deer, just alongside Crete, there are no deer but only pink beaches. It is on the island of Lemnos where you can also find deer, but they were brought over from Rhodes. To protect the Dama dama for extinction, some of them were taken to other Greek regions. On Lemnos, with its famous sand dunes and just a few woods, these deer can only survive when their food is topped up by the municipality.

The deer you may meet on Lesvos, hop behind fences on the grounds of monasteries (Limenas) or garden restaurants like Eden of Bey and even not far from Akrasi, close to the junction to Drotta, is a kind of deer farm. I suspect that the deer on my terrace (maybe also a Dama dama) escaped from a garden of a deer lover, somewhere above Eftalou, just past the garbage dump where, enclosed by lots of junk, a handful of deer meditate. The beautiful animal on my terrace didn't eat from my hand but I could easily do some sweet talking, while he patiently listened at two meters distance.

This Bambi, who has for two months now roamed the area, seems to have set his shyness aside, made friends with my dogs and regularly visited our fields. I did however worry: what if he went to the road, or what if he comes daily to drastically prune my garden? Such a deer is a lovely sight, but it also must eat and according to the traces I have found of his misbehaving, he loves rosebuds and the leaves of fruit trees.

Eden of Bey, not far from Aya Paraskevi, with a kind of little ZOO, lovely gardens and a good restaurant, would like to have the Dama dama. But how to catch a deer? I consulted different people, but that didn't bring a solution. Afterwards I wondered if I'd better not make it public that there was a deer running around in Eftalou: that could attract hunters who would not miss such a tasty opportunity. One day I heard rifle shots in the not too far distance. Bambi has not been seen since and I am afraid that there are some people who have had a delicious venison dinner.

It hashowever solved the problem of the garden. Shortly afterwards while managing the damaged roses, a monster appeared in my sight: an enormous wasp! The colossus nestled a bit on a rose just in front of me, it gave me some minutes to have a good look at him: he was quite a bit bigger than a hornet (Vespa cabro), it had surprisingly blue wings and two remarkable yellow spots on his lower body. After viewing lots of horror pictures of wasps on the internet, I could identify it: a Blue Winged Wasp or Digger Wasp (Scolia dubia). I was happy to read about his strange diet: he loves beetles! Now that the deer no longer touches my roses, another pest had settled on the flowers: white striped black beetles feast upon the delicate rose leaves. I have no idea from which ZOO the Blue Winged Wasp escaped, but I bet it’s better to have a Blue Winged Wasp in your garden than a Dama dama. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2019

Sunday, 12 May 2019

May 11, A beautiful, dangerous spring

(pine fruit)

Some people who, in spring, praise the abundance of nature on Lesvos, have runny noses, sore throats or watery eyes. Spring in fact can be pretty dangerous — for people with pollen allergies. 

Driving through one of the island’s many pinewoods, I noted that the ground was covered with dirty yellow pollen. It is an interesting phenomenon how gusts of wind whirl the yellow pollen off the pine trees into the sky. The first time I saw that, I seriously thought there was a wildfire. Pine pollen however are not that bad, it even can be very healthy.

Food guru’s have impressive lists of things that can be cured or benefit from pine pollen — like the heart, liver, brains, vitality or growing older: it can be the medicine helping you to reach the age of 1000! These yellow fruits that make the pollen, can be eaten. According to pollen collectors, they have a crispy, juicy taste, just like a Christmas tree. I have never tasted a Christmas tree, and I’ve also not yet had the courage to taste these pine fruits, although I love pine nuts, but they don’t taste like a Christmas tree.

I now regret, that after such a cloud of pollen passed the house and I had to clean garden furniture, terraces and steps, I didn’t collect the yellow powder: I could have collected kilo’s of this magic dust and could have sprinkled breads and cakes with it. You could even make yellow rice with it, or a pine-apple-cake: super healthy! If I ever find the spare time I’ll have a look at the culinary benefits of pine pollen. 

But first I have to survive the spring, because these months were not easy. Before the pine trees showered the house, there were days with clouds full of Saharan dust, that veiled the sun and as soon as there was a bit of rain, everything got painted pink. That’s when the throat started to itch. After the pink Saharan sand came the yellow pollen rain and now I am waiting for the olive trees. Thanks to the wet winter they are so happy that they’ve covered themselves with masses of cream blossoms, hiding their usual green colour. Olive pollen is much smaller than pine pollen andmore dangerous to pollen-allergic people. So whenever your nose starts crying or you sneeze the clouds out of the sky, you know who to blame. I wonder if their pollen will also descend upon the house, car and garden in a cream cloud and provoke the umpteenth spring cleaning

The oceans of flowers all over the island might be nice; but around my house there is also a wild growing of different plants, these are called weeds. Getting rid of the weeds is another spring duty and after so much winter rain it is a pretty heavy burden because all the seeds have decided to grow. It can hurt your back and knees. Pulling out all that greenery, to make the roses visible, I encountered hundreds of snails. So much that I wondered if somebody had secretly started a snail farm in my garden. I have never seen so many. I could have made hundreds of dinners out of them. I could have preserved them in tins, but the rulesin Greece are that you only collect snails after the first rain áfterthe summer. I wonder why. I could have made so many jars with preserved cooked snails on pine pollen juice. 

Now that the abundant rainwater is finally starting to dry up, Asian Tiger Mosquitoes (AedesofStegomyiaalbopictus)have suddenly appeared. I couldn’t believe that there were Tiger Mosquitoes in Greece. I thought these white and black striped insects were other flying wild creatures. But no, the Tiger Mosquito has reached the island and taken advantage of the wet winter: in the night, clouds of them now attack the lit windows. As long as there are no tropical diseases like dengue carried by those striped attackers they are not really dangerous. Their sting might only hurt a bit.

They prefer to live close to water and lay their eggs in even the tiniest bit of stagnant water, and there’s plenty to find due to all the water that flooded the island. The females only fly 200 m away from their birthplace and all Tiger Mosquitoes live only 1 to 2 months, so you can make their lives difficult by getting rid of all those water pools around the house. But then Spring also has to cooperate. Until now, just like the winter, she has taken her time and only brought cold evenings and clouds that kept on besieging the sun and now and then some rain. As yet, there has been no night warm enough to sit outside amidst the pollen and Tiger Mosquitoes. I’ve had it with the capricious weather, stinging insects and emerging weeds: I want a summer to scorch all the Tiger Mosquitoes, snails and weeds until only some grey pest-dust is left. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Saturday, 20 April 2019

April 18 – The tulip fields of Chios

(Tulips on Lesvos)

Lesvos is part of the birth region of tulips (Turkey and surroundings). These perky flowers are my favourites and each spring I miss them. In Holland in spring, long stretched fields are filled with rows of colourful tulips and on nearly each street corner there is a flower seller seducing you with buckets full of various, cultivated tulips. However on Lesvos wild tulips are mainly hidden away in faraway places. It is only at Lidl that you sometimes might find a miserable bunch of tulips. 

Chios has been called the island of the tulips. To find them I took the ferry to that neighboring island (only a 3 hours journey). My companion was an orchid hunter, which was a mistake, because Chios was overpopulated with orchids. Fields full of naked men (Orchis italica), belly buttons (Ophrys umbilicata) and Big Robert orchids (Himantoglossum robertianum) were difficult to avoid. Of course, not a sign of any tulip. 

It was soon clear that the quest for tulips was a problem for the few days we were on Chios. The tulips were said to be around Kallimasia, while we had rented a charming house near Volissos. There you could fall out of your bed, immediately into the fields with orchids. From this place it was not far to the Cave of Holy Milk, Anavatos, Pirgi, Mesta, all places on our to-do list.

It was 20 years ago that I last visited Chios, so I was looking forwards to my return to Pirgi. This little medieval town with its black and white mosaic-type walls looked a bit neglected and the few tourists wandering around were being pestered by desperate souvenir sellers. While the little fortified town of Mesta with its decorative alleys and many arches made a far better impression, just like Anavatos, the impregnable little town high on a rock, with its sad history.

How is it possible, having visited Chios so often, I hadnever heard of the spectacular Caves of the Holy Milk? Just like Anavatos, the old village of Agia Gala sits on top of a rocky mountain, that houses the caves. On the lower slopes of the mountain there is a kind of park to welcome the visitors for the caves, however only during the summer. In the other months the caves get to hibernate. Our disappointment was mild due to the magnificent surroundings of rough mountains and huge birds of prey sailing through the air, keeping an eye on us. The ride through endless fields full of spring flowers, hoopoes (birds) and interesting little villages was really memorable.

I wondered why there is so little tourism on this handsome island full of interesting places. The dramatically beautiful steep west coast with plenty of romantic beaches; the old proud watchtowers along the coastlines, many of them still looking out over the blue Aegean sea; all those villages with plenty of houses that should be in a museum; two impressive caves open to the public: why do so few holidaymakers visit Chios?

Lesvos craves tourism, Samos' beaches are over-crowded in the summer, but Chios keeps the island for itself. They have their mastic trees and lots of ship owners and sea captains, who probably keep the island alive. They do want to share their island with just a small number of tourists, but making all their jewels of beaches more accessible to foreigners (like on Samos), covering the silt sand with sun beds and umbrellas, is for them not necessary.

Of the few faithful visitors many did not return after the big wildfires in 2012 and 2016. The fires destroyed huge parts of mainly the mastica region. Black scorched trees mark the borders of these disasters. Meanwhile a colourful vegetation is working hard to erase all traces.

Volissos, one of the villages that is said to be the birthplace of Homer, was another surprise. The top of the village, dominated by the remains of an ancient stronghold, can even compete with Mesta. Its population is very friendly and it’s a centre of a rich region full of empty beaches and viticulture.

The day of the tulips was cloudy and rainy. It was difficult to search for them in the misty humidity that hung over the many green hills surrounding Kallimasia. We should have hired a tulip guide, because all we found was a reservoir, lots of orchids, many other flowers, but just a few tulips.

To satisfy my yearly craving to see tulips, yesterday I went to Vrisa to visit a tulip field in Lesvos - which in fact is a pine forest with tulips. There they were: an ocean of red flower heads amidst soft green leaves. Around Easter and before the first of May Greeks traditionally will set out to pick masses of flowers. They certainly know where the tulips are. If anyone is lookingfor ten or so missingtulips from the woods above Vrisa- they are at my house - compensating for the pain of the failed search for the tulip fields on Chios. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Saturday, 13 April 2019

April 11 – Greetings from Africa

(Painted Lady)

The spring ball has been begun: millions of flowers have opened their tender petals and are winking at the sun, insects have been awakened and are buzzing happily in the sunlight. The sun however is not always present. Regularly low flying clouds veil the bright green mountains and showers make sure that the rivers (totally dry in summer) keep on streaming. I wonder if it’s this past wet winter and the unusual April weather that has caused the phenomenon I have never before seen on Lesvos?

Since yesterday, as soon as the sun shone, the fields of flowers were veiled by a flying cloud of thousands, maybe millions, of graceful butterflies, slowly moving north. It looked like a snow storm of whirling flakes. The flowers could not complain of a lack of attention: one butterfly after the other landed on them. It must have been a bit frustrating, traveling in such big numbers: to set yourself, tired and thirsty, on a flower in order to drink from the nectar, but ooops, its heart is empty, too many got there before you! So thousands of these butterflies fluttered excitedly above the flowers, looking for a snack.

It felt as though I was visiting the Butterfly Valley in Rhodes, a valley where masses of Jersey tigers (Callimorpha quadripunctaria)celebrate their summer holidays around the OrientalSweetgum trees. Here on Lesvos, twodays running, it has been the Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui)that have flown all over the fields. The points of their wings have a black and white mosaic and elsewhere they are orange with black. Upon closer inspection of these tender beings, you cannot believe that their frail wings have brought them thousands of miles. Just like the sand of the Sahara that often comes with rains, these fluttering souls have crossed the desert to come to a cooler north. I thought butterflies lasted only a summer, but no: in spring they make a long journey and some of them even make it back to Africa in autumn.

Migrating butterflies. I’ve never heard of them. There is little research about them. The best known migration takes place in America, where a huge number of Monarch butterflies fly from Central Mexico and California to North America and Canada. The Painted Lady Migration in Europe, from Central Africa to Middle and North Europe is little known. According to researcher Gerard Talavera, in his National Geographic article, these butterflies are the world champions in the longest flights. He followed them deep into Africa, because previously their traces disappeared in the Sahara. Talavera now found enormous communities of Painted Ladies in Chad, Benin and Nigeria, where, after having crossed the Mediterranean, African mountains and the Sahara, they can quietly hibernate, in some places as many as 20,000 per hectare. No wonder that in spring they long for the luxuriant, cool green of Europe.

Not all butterflies make it up and down to Africa. During the migration they will have off-spring, that continue the travel north or southwards.Don’t ask me for details: I already find it difficult to believe that I suddenly have a garden full of butterflies from Africa. I do understand that Sahara sand can get a ride with the wind, but that these tender butterfly-wings can travel so far is a small miracle of nature.

The migration doesn’t start on the same day each year, nor is the route always the same. Those decisions depend on the weather. Normally they travel pretty high through the sky, a reason I might not have seen their migration party before. Maybe this year, because of the unusual abundance of flowers and nectar on Lesvos and other Greek islands, they organized an island hopping in the Aegean. In a few weeks they will arrive at their North European destination with their little bellies full of Greek nectar. Greetings from Lesvos, they will whisper. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Sunday, 31 March 2019



The name of the most ugly town of Lesvos is Beauty: Kalloni. Better for it still to be named Arisvi, a very old city now absorbed by the much newer Kalloni. Arisvi was once an independent state and was named after one of the daughters of the legendary Lesvorian King Makara. The other four daughters also were given namesakes: Mytilene, Mythimna, Andissa and Issa. That last name is uncertain. It could have been Eresos, although historians say that Eresos was one of the sons of Makara.

Some will wonder where you can find Mythimna or Issa. Issa is far from Lesvos, in the Adriatic Sea. Nowadays a Croatian island called Lissa. It was the Greek tyrant Dionysius the Elder who, in the 4thcentury BC, founded a colony on the island, called Issa. The only thing left of Issa on Lesvos is a mysterious portrait in rocks, not too far from Kalloni.

Greeks do not like to use foreign names – Istanbul is still called Constantinopel – but they cannot get rid of one Turkish name: Molyvos (city of lead), the Turkish name for Mythimna. This Greek name you will only still see on road signs, leaving uniformed tourists lost and confused.

That won't happen with Ayvalik, because that little town is at the other side of the sea, in Turkey. When it was still mainly populated by Greeks it was called Kydonies. After the Greek-Turkish war in 1922 Greek refugees from Turkey built a new village on Lesvos: New Ayvalik or Nees Kydonies: a boring little village with relatively new houses and straight roads. Below, at the sea, is Skala Nees Kydonia, a much prettier harbour hamlet. Skala means stairs in Greek, making it easy to remember that all Skala’s are down at the sea: Skala Eresos, Skala Sykaminias, Skala Loutron and so on.

Up until the 19thcentury, villages preferred to keep themselves hidden high in the mountains. At the coast you would find some humble fishermen’s huts, but it was not safe there. The sea was a popular place for pirates who came ashore regularly to get provisions and women. That did not happen in a nice way and often entire villages were put to the torch. The coastal village of Petra (rock) has been named after the monolith on which a little church with an icon of Maria is settled. This Maria could not prevent the village from regularly being raided and burnt to ashes. 

Once, on a beautiful day, pirates disturbed a wedding. The party was just beginning when the barbarians came onshore. The bride had a narrow escape with her groom. They fled into the mountains on horseback and even though the bride lost first a shoe and then a sleeve left hanging at a tree, they only stopped when they thought they were safe. This is how the long stretched-out village along a sandy beach at the very end of the Bay of Kalloni got its name: Nifida (bridal). The story goes that areas in the vicinity were named after the lost shoe (Papouzia) and the sleeve (Maniki).

On each Greek island you may find a village whose name ends with chorio (village). In ancient times the capital of Lesvos was above Plomari (although that didn't yet exist): Most chorio’s are found around there: Megalochori (big village), Kato Chorio (under the village), Neochori (new village) and Paleochori (old village). Only the village Skalochori (stair village) is in the north of the island. After Megalochori was destroyed by wildfires and piracy was under control, the city of Plomari was founded (its name a derivative of flomos, a plant you can find in its surroundings).

It is said that Lisvori (named after Lesvos) was built on the ruins of the old city of Lesvos (that gave its name to the island). Archaeological finds prove that this region was already populated in 2000 BC, making it possible that once Lisvori was the capital of the island.

Another popular name for villages is Pigi: water well. On Lesvos you will find Pigi close to Komi (city). I would have called these two villages Kalloni and Kato Kalloni: they are beautiful! At the Gulf of Geras you will find an even smaller village called Pigadakia (plural and diminutive for pigi). At the other side of the Gulf is Pirgi (one character more), meaning a fortress. But there is no castle to be found in the neighbourhood, nor when you drive down from Pigadakia to another Pirgi.

Vafios, where they used to paint fabrics, Ypsolometopo, situated up high and offering splendid views, Thermi, named after its healing hot springs, Sigri, known for its safe harbour. Driving around Lesvos means driving through history. You can also just look at the map and dream away about how life once used to be on Lesvos. Kounouroudi, Faneromeni, Lapsarna, Tzythra, Mystegna, exciting names that all can tell fascinating stories.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

February 25 - The village of Djam

(Skala Loutron)

You can wake me up for rebetiko music. I love the melancholic tunes. It does not make me homesick for my country, it makes me long for the days in Greece before the crisis, when everybody seems to be happy and lots of live music sounded in the kafenions. 

But this music has its origins in expatriation. It came with the more than one million refugees after the Greek-Turkish war, that ended in 1922, followed a year later by a huge exchange of people. The oriental tunes and the swollen singing are clearly of Arabian roots. The words speak of homesickness, longing, love and later revolution. The first rebetiko songs were about a happy world the Greeks had to leave and about the horrors they lived through during the last days in the Ottoman empire, like in Smyrna (Izmir). Later some songs were about the wine and drugs that could soften their unhappiness.

I liked the movie Djam immediately upon seeing the first scene: a girl on a mountain dancing along a gate, singing a beautiful rebetiko song, her movements nearly unorthodox. It gave away what the movie would be about: a pretty crazy girl (her mother a well known rebetiko singer who lived and died in Paris) living with her uncle on Lesvos, in Skala Loutron on the Gulf of Yera. The uncle sends Djam to Istanbul to get an important motor part for his boat. It is a kind of road movie where Djam dances and sings rebetiko whenever it suits her, just to forget, to celebrate, to please or to comfort.

There might be two reasons why the French director, Tony Gatlif, chose to begin and end in Skala Loutron. This little hamlet has one of the very few shipyards left on the island. Its old wooden docks clearly remembrances of another world, when rebetiko still could be heard on each corner of the street.
The other reason could be because the village has a little museum about the Greek refugees who last century poured into the island from Turkey. Many of them settled in Skala Loutron, but also elsewhere on the island. In the museum you will find a treasure of photographs, documents and objects of these Ottoman Greeks, giving an excellent image of how they lived and what they lost. No wonder they needed music to comfort their souls.

Gatlif could not have foreseen that when he shot the movie on Lesvos, it was the time when the refugee crisis was at its highest point on the island. And he could not ignore it. So he wove that actual situation through his movie about refugee music and the current Greek crisis. More than once Djam sees signs of the refugees on her way back over the Turkish mainland to Greece, with as a giant climax images of the most sad monument of Lesvos: the big mountain of life vests at Eftalou. 

Djamis a modern rebetiko movie: not a historical document but a movie that shows in an original way the Turkish roots of the music and the actual problems of Greece.

Last week I was in Skala Loutron, enjoying a rare spring day with sun and I sat at the terrace of one of the kafenions, looking out over the water. At the end of the shipyards there was a white boat, I thought it was the boat that plays such a beautiful role in Djam (it was not, I later realized). I thought about this splendid movie I enjoyed so much, saw the crazy Djam singing and dancing. And I thought about the refugees who still come daily. I wonder if they also carry their music with them and if, when they settle, they will create a new music style.

The popularity of the Greek blues, the old rebetiko music, reached its peak during the Second World War and the Greek civil war, when they also became protest songs. In the Fifties and Sixties they lost a bit of power but remained popular. Nowadays the old rebetiko songs pop up again, because of this new crisis. They haunt us with their melancholy and touch the heart.

When you walk around in the little village of Skala Loutron, you might think it is boring there. But it has more history than you see at first sight and it has made it all the way to the famous film festival in Cannes, where Djamgot its premiere in 2017. It did not win any golden calves, but it did receive good reviews. However, the kafenion of the uncle of Djam could not be saved by this beautiful movie. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2019

Monday, 11 February 2019

February 10 – On the road again

(The road between Eftalou and Skala Sykaminia)

A few millions of euro for the beautification of the street around the castle in Mytilini. It will get a lane for pedestrians and a strawberry-red-lane for cyclists. The municipality of Lesvos is proud on this decision and sees it as a visiting card of the island. I think it a strange choice: not far from the castle is the most miserable refugee camp of Europe. Camp Moria is more in the international news than the medieval castle, so you'd better pave Moria's muddy streets as a visiting card.

Many roads on the island need renewing. Especially after this winter with extreme rain fall. Lesvos got only 300.000 euro's from the country to repair its damaged streets. It seems that for other roads there are other and better filled pots of money. Like for the asphalt road between Skala Polichnitos and Nifida. No idea what is wrong with that road. It is a bit a narrow road, but when you meet five cars in oncoming traffic it is much. Okay, in high season the double amount. Nifida is packed with summer residences, part of them languish in paradise-like gardens full of fruit trees. It has one of the few sandy beaches on the island and is popular among the locals. Would a new layer of asphalt make this summer-house-village more lively?

Asphalt is older than the road to Rome: the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and also the old Greeks used it to make waterproof baths, reservoirs and even ships. Babylon had the first asphalted road, but only with the invention of asphalt concrete, at the end of the 19thcentury, the real asphalting of the roads started. People loved it, or hated it.

Take the road from Eftalou to Skala Sykaminia. This bumpy, sandy street, along cliffs, steep hills and roaming cattle, crossed by rivers and sheep stables, is the most popular hiking route of the island. I thought that the idyllic Skala Sykaminia had not to complain about its number of visitors: in the summer it may look like an over-touristic Santorini. But rumors again started about asphalting this road. I understand the car renters, who forbid their customers to take dirt roads and get back damaged cars because people seem not to understand what is a dirt road. The street between Eftalou and Skala Sykaminia is notorious for this sin. Will you throw a thick layer of asphalt over it, the island will miss another one of its attractions. Just like the road from the reservoir of Molyvos to Petra used to be a very popular hike route, but since asphalting it, no pedestrian is ever seen there anymore.

Lesvos is anyhow always troubled by its roads. The new road between Kalloni and Sigri is a real nightmare. Every few years a new part is delivered. I imagine that on a big table there are still thousands of puzzle pieces, that have to find its place to connect with the parts already in use. When you drive from Filia to Kalloni, just before Dafia, there is a piece of 'new' road with no beginning nor an end. Looking over the rolling hills you will wonder where did they plan the continuation of this road. Part of the delay is due to the petrified trees that keep on coming up while digging. The Natural History Museum of Sigri, that because of lack of money keep the Petrified Forest Park closed, keep a close look on the building of the new road. Not on the building of the new harbour in Sigri. That has to welcome the first ferries coming June. Even that they worked miraculously quick during 18 months, will they keep their deadline? When they would have put all that energy in building the road, then we now would need only ten minutes to drive from Kalloni to Sigri.

I keep on believing that the municipality of Lesvos does not have priorities. Why there is nobody who can find a pot of money to restore Vrisa, the village that got swept away by an earthquake in the summer of 2017. Who is going to help Plomari, where recently half a district of the little town got destroyed by landslides and where the bad weather threw rocks all over the road of Plomari to Melina. That bad that there is no safe passage guarantied. Now all inhabitants of Melinda and Megalochori need a long detour to reach Plomari and tourists cannot enjoy anymore one of Lesvos' most beautiful roads.

No matter if you arrive by boat or by airplane on the island, you will first see Mytilini, the proud capital of Lesvos with, in the future, this beautiful street rounding the castle. The moment Mytilini is out of sight, you might see some misery. Not everybody gets the best parts of the cake, also on Lesvos.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2019