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