LESVOS: APRIL 2004
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Europe Without Baedeker, Edmund Wilson
Lesvos was born of steaming, sulfurous ash from the earth's nether regions. The volcanic origin of the rock and soil of Lesvos is visible in every beach, every river bank, every road cut. If you have any doubt, note the abundance of hot springs, a sure sign of restless activity underground. Earthquakes are common, as along the Pacific Rim.
The older the volcanic ash, the richer and deeper the soil. As the exposed gray rocks age and oxidize, they take on that terra cotta Wilson noted from his plane. The western portion of Lesvos, with its petrified sequoia trunks, was most recently spewed forth. It's rockier, less richly soiled, quicker to lose moisture when the rains stop.
Lesvos terrain is steep, the gradual erosion of eons hasn't yet taken place. Sharp edges abound. Raw rock is especially prevalent on the western half of the island. Slopes rise from the sea level up to three thousand feet atop the island's Mt. Olympus. Valleys are often narrow gorges with a swift rocky little stream at the bottom. Even coastal towns stair-step uphill from the high-tide line. This steepness limits use man makes of this long-farmed island. Ancient stone terraces can keep rows or even individual olive trees on their precarious perches for centuries. Beneath these trees rocky soil supports a wildflowers and sparse grass. In areas too thinly soiled for even olives, wild brush takes over. These parts of Lesvos are often open range for sheep and goats. Some coastal areas have flat, fertile deltas now intensely farmed. Broad-beans, corn, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, almonds, cherries, citrus, chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl are found on farms that claim every inch of arable land. The rhythm of this rural existence has changed little except the motorbike is faster than the aged donkey.
Wilson is certainly right about the vegetation. The dominant domestic plant is the olive. It gives an overall gray-green color to the hillsides. Thousands of antique olive trees cover many valleys and hills on Lesvos. These old beings have alveolate [look this one up, it's a great word] trunks that attest to their centuries of insistent being. They have pulled moisture from ashy soil, withstood a summer sun that seems to never cool, weathered winds and salt fog and sheep urine and occasional decades of neglect. These very trees have outlasted the Roman Empire, and seen the passing of Byzantine armies, Saracen and Venetians raiders, Genoese nobility, Turkish conquerors, Italian and German armies, British bombers, then Greek bureaucrats and now tourists spending Euros. As the redwood and sequoia represent the lasting nature of California, the olive tree is the living soul of this Lesvos.
Not only olives show gray. There are oleander with wan leaves. And spring blooming tamarisk, a wispy, leafless bush of narrow branches and branchlets, the color of evening fog. It crowds the edges of salt marshes and other spots with brackish soil. On richer land there are the pines, a species with smokey green needles and pale gray trunks. In the upper hills of rock with sparse soil, there are deciduous oaks with gray-green leaves and ashen trunks. The native plane tree has bright green leaves which respirate the abundant moisture in the riparian soil where it grows, but the tree's shaggy bark is a palette of grays. The imported giant eucalyptus, found in some towns has shaggy gray bark and aromatic leaves of a smoky hue.
Our tour leader was a Scottish woman with years of travel in the Greek islands. She'd found the best remote taverna. She called ahead before we arrived so the kitchen could be ready for us. In most taverna she was asked into the kitchen to select our menu from what was on hand. One sunny mid-day, we feasted at a table on a new concrete terrace. It was half-way up the steep western slope of Mt. Lepetimos in the village of Vafios near the northern shore. From our outdoor table we looked down over a couple miles of terraced farms and groves to the town of Molivos on the coast. The grays and bright greens of the spring foliage were punctuated occasionally by dark cylindrical yew trees. A variety of bright yellow wildflowers bloomed beneath the trees. A couple of small stone church domes showed above the trees in the valley near Molivos. A reservoir between hills was a blue mirror reflecting the sun. Barn Swallows and House Martins came and went from the roof overhang of our taverna, finding insect lunch on the wing, carrying the catch back to nestlings. Somewhere a tardy rooster crowed, seven hours after dawn. Guinea fowl made chuck-chuck sounds in the under-brush. Various butterflies of yellow or white or burgundy floated across our view. Some came to test the flavor of olive oil, eggplant spread and yogurt sauce on our table. In my journal are these terse notes:
The mama giving us good-bye kisses was dressed in smart business clothes, had the expected dark hair and eyes of most Greeks. She's about fifty years old, perhaps it's her tall daughter who did the cooking, her grandson who waited on us. Her newly rebuilt taverna in Vafios has an intense summer season, but we are more than a month early and today's only customers. The unordered desert, the surprise jiggers of brandy are all part of the fine craft of hospitality so well and heartily practiced on these islands which have been receiving visitors for millennia. It was welcome and comforting to Americans now living in the cooler, more remote culture of London where keeping one's distance inoculates against the infection of sitting next to the wrong class of person. In every taverna, our Greek driver must sit alone. In some he can't eat until after we're served as the kitchen is overwhelmed by the quantities needed for fourteen tour members. This sunny day, with way too much wine for lunch and then the brandy, we made a mistake. Our guide left behind her necessary sun-hat. Our bus slowly twisted down the mountain road, well-paved but full of hair-pin turns. A mile down the hill, ahead of us in the road is our teenage waiter on his motor scooter. He'd raced straight downhill on rocky paths, carrying the sun-hat forgotten after lunch. Our guide gets her hat and leaves him a kiss on the cheek. He waves cheerfully and heads back up the rocky slope, wheels spinning, pebbles flying.
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Upon First Looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats
One windy afternoon four of us climbed the hillside to Sigri's town dump in hope of finding unusual gulls. To our disappointment the open dump contained a few Yellow-legged Gulls and Jackdaws, birds we'd seen often. The dump didn't attract many birds, the trash being mostly household goods, cardboard and plastic. On an island with many chickens, dogs, cats, goats and even Persian squirrels, there was little chance that food or kitchen scraps would be carried up the hill.
Facing west from the dump we had a full view of Sigri. It is the westernmost town on Lesvos. Sigri itself is terraced on the barren hillside with its business buildings just across the street from the harbor and bay front. It's a few stone buildings and a hundred white stucco house. Beyond its stone jetties and small fishing boat harbor lie two thin islands protecting the Sigri lagoon from the open sea. On a small rocky knoll is the shell of an old eight-sided fort, rebuilt over generations by successive rulers. This version was erected in 1757 on the site of an earlier Venetian tower. An avid tourist can see the whole fort in ten minutes. Inside you can see how the Turks used Roman and Byzantine materials to build the current fort. Old Roman terra cotta brick form more modern arches. An ancient marble column has been laid on its side to form a step.
On the south edge of Sigri is a sheltered beach, itself facing south. Here summer tourists go to worship their sun god. During the winds of April, it lies still and empty.
Sigri has its small stone church. Inside Kate and I saw vividly colored murals that cover walls and columns and ceilings with Biblical images and faces of saints. On top is the usual Byzantine dome of the island churches. On a busy day fifteen people might fit into its little sanctuary. The clear glass windows look across the street to the harbor where blessed fishing boats bob in the light waves, showing their blue, yellow, red and orange paint. You see the bright green fishing nets spread on the twin stone piers which nearly encircle the harbor. On one pier the fish cats gather. A colony of eight yellow and white or black and white cats, well fed by their looks, expertly wait for the next fish cleaning. We saw one fisherman clean a two-foot catch right on the pier nearest the taverna. Then he carried it across the road and into the kitchen. Fresh fish.
One day rain stopped us in Sigri. The rain was so dense you couldn't possibly bird, so we holed up in that taverna. The owner fetched his daughter to do the cooking. We started with coffee. I ordered hot chocolate. The owner walked up to the little grocery and bought the chocolate bar to melt. Sigri's lagoon looked dark and angry beneath black storm clouds. Run-off from the hillside streets rumbled past the café door. Water made miniature geysers through holes in the town's one man-hole cover. We stayed for lunch, and wine, then medicinal Metaxa to fight the chill banes that were feared by all. Playing cards were produced and a couple hours of hard rain passed. We'd eaten enough fresh fish cleaned after we arrived and had enough wine from the dusty barrels against the wall that a lost day didn't seem too bad. Then in mid-afternoon, the rain stopped. Sun. Leaving our bus in Sigri we used the lone taxi to ferry us two miles down narrow dirt roads, north to the creek ford at Faneromeni. Despite the rain only a trickle moved down the rocky streambed. Most rain had soaked into the porous soil. Tall phragmite reeds overhung the streambed and crowded next to taller trees and bushy willows.
The storm had forced many northbound migrant birds to land. With the sun out they were feeding along the stream. What birders refer to as a "fall-out." At one moment ten bright Golden Orioles with their black wings perched in a single tree within our view. Flycatchers were abundant and active. On the slow, twisty, narrow road back to our hotel at Skala Kalloni that evening, lunch-time wine and Metaxa took its toll. Most of us slept. But at the hillside town of Agra everybody awoke. It was after sunset and only dim daylight lingered. Surely these streets were narrower than our bus. One switchback required our driver to stop and back-up and maneuver gently with a building on the left, a steep ravine on his right. Then we came along side the town square. Old men in the taverna looked on our huge bus with delight and interest. Would we make it? The square was a small, open, uneven cobblestone plaza. On its corner nearest our street stood a giant plane tree, a bench around its massive, ancient trunk. Scars from previously humbled drivers marked its bark up to a height of eight feet. There was no question the tree had inflicted more damage than it suffered in each prior collision. Electrical wires across the street were inches higher the top of our bus, but ahead, just beyond plaza two venerable stucco buildings, faced one another across the street. When first built they'd easily have allowed two loaded donkeys to pass abreast. Their builders had never seen a motor car. Our driver stopped and visually measured the space. The old men were now on their feet for a moment of sport. Two children and a dog on a side street angled to a viewpoint of where bus would confront the narrow gap. The driver folded in his outside mirror. Then releasing the brake he slowly let the bus roll forward down the hill between the two buildings. On the left side I could have easily leaned out my window and graffitied my name on the building. But we eased through with centimeters to spare.
Applause for our driver, Vasilis Gianaropoul. Then home through increasing dark to another meal, more wine, sleep.
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One day we passed a small field surrounded by leaning stone walls. The field seemed to have only grass and weed, but in the full sunlight three heavily dressed people-two were women-were stooped over with small cutting tools, harvesting something from the field. What? Our guide, Libby, told us "horta," a commonly eaten wild spinach of the Greek islands. That day in a taverna on a sandy beach along the eastern edge of Kalloni Bay we had one of those many-coursed mid-day feasts we came to expect: tomato and feta salad, bread, fish, potatoes, broad-bean dip, fried zucchini blossoms and cheese, French fries, and the steamed, lemony flavored horta,picked on the hillside above the taverna an hour before. If you're in search of a fine meal on Lesvos, go to this taverna, just south of the sunken classical ruins of Pirpa or Pirra, and north of Achladeri. It's Taverna Apxaiattyppa but its salt-eaten sign next to the water is barely legibile and may soon be gone. Heading south you'll pass a pine forest and a stone ridge that juts into Kalloni bay. Then look for a tiny white stucco building about twenty feet from the bay. For birders there's a wall mural inside with a Hoopoe on it. Outside is a painted, round medallion with a pirate ship. Eat, drink, believe.
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The Greek Islands, by Lawrence Durrell
Great names are linker to Lesvos since the beginning of history. According to Homer no less than Menelaus, Diomedes, Odysseus, Achilles and Ajax were here during or after the Trojan War. Later Aristotle taught here and Julius Caesar made his first heroic impression as a young soldier during the Roman conquest of Lesvos. And the great Epicurus taught here, offering the world his positive, life-affirming, joyful philosophy from which we've salvaged little more than the word, epicurean. Alas, another visitor to the island, St. Paul, ended up influencing more converts and helped create the current worldview of such greats as George Bush and John Ashcroft.
Of all the greats, it's Sappho, born in the Lesvos town of Eressos, who is most indentified with the island. She grew up here, married and raised her daughter here. Though forced into political exile more than once, Sappho founded and ran an academy for women here. Most importantly she wrote lyrical poetry here that still attracts admirers as it has for generations.
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Ode to a Grecian Urn by John Keats
We were in Lesvos for a week of April. Rain, sun, breezes, salt air, and countless blossoms. Pendant wisteria draped over trellises that in turn surround doorways. The ground beneath pine and olive was often covered with asphodel. This wild lily sends up numerous thin spikes that are covered with dainty white flowers, giving the sun brightened groves a frosted look. We found elusive orchids deep inside the pine forest, lilacs around farm house doors, wild radish and rampant fennel and blooming redbud trees and oleander, and wild rock rose flourishing here in its native rocks. There were fields of wild mustard and orchards of plum and cherry and almond and fig. One old stone wall six feet high was topped by a huge blooming rosemary bush of equal antiquity. There were wild grape hyacinth and wild euphorbia so prized by horticulturists. Lavenders were abundant and clearly at home. The widespread and truest show afforded by nature this spring on Lesvos were the red poppies. Their tissue-thin, dark red-petals formed a soft cup. These wild poppies were often in such dense profusion that a field full of green grass seemed to be wearing a dark red blush.
The wooden boxes of the numerous apiaries were often brightly painted and we'd encounter their residents buzzing about the asphodel or orchards, braving the many hunters out to get them. And the hunters were myriad - thousands of migrating swallows en route north from Africa. Also there were many shrike and Wheatears and even a flock of aptly named Bee-eaters. Yet the island produces large quantities of wildly flavored honey, so evidently the spring hunt is not too harmful to the beehives. It was not the buzzing of bees nor even the calls of crow or gull or tern that was the sound of this season. It was a chorus we heard each night.
Sappho, translation by William Appleton
There was a small marsh across the narrow road in front of our hotel, The Kalloni II. In that marsh each morning would appear about 24 Glossy Ibis, their dark feathers and down-curved beaks making them unmistakable. At least twenty spindly-legged Black-winged Stilts paraded daintily through the grass, a handful of noisy Moorhen, two very secretive Coots with a nest to hide, some shorebirds, staccato blasts from mostly unseen Cetti's Warbler, and one night a little Scops Owl hunting from a nearby electrical wire. In all the little marsh was hardly a quiet place, but at night the frog population, or at least the male part, was in full voice. The dee-deep, dee-deep, dee-deep of hundreds, or was it millions, of frogs in simultaneous rutting madness-well, you've no doubt heard its like elsewhere. For me it could have been an Ozark farm pond, or Lake Wente in the hills above Willits where our family has camped or even woodsy Lake Becket in the Berkshires where I worked in a summer camp years ago. The frogs were the sound of the Lesvos evening.
At the river ford at Faneromeni we had seen the result of all this lusty crooning-scads of dark tadpoles. The stream there was full of tadpoles, not yet at the leg-growing stage. There were many in the deeper pool but hundreds of tadpoles that been washed into shallow dead-end puddles, now dried or drying. Their bodies were dead or dying. The sun was an enemy, drying up the stream, baking the soft little pre-frog bodies. Birders scooped up trapped tadpoles and dumped the live ones back into the stream. But not all would heed this rescue, nor understand the rules of the game being played. Some tadpoles seemed determined to head downstream whence the current nudged them. That way lay a drying stream and worse yet, a mile further on, salty extermination at sea. Nature is profligate. Nature is heedless. Yet, the frogs do carry on and the loud evening chorus of adult frogs will continue each spring on Lesvos if we humans can curb our earthly destruction.
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There were some colorful sunsets on Lesvos but those are possible in any seaview location in the Greek isles as they are along the California coast or Hawaii. The true Lesvos evening view, not easily duplicated, was looking across shallow Kalloni Bay from east shore to the west. In the evening the water would be a flat sheet of dark blue. The western shore would show a few pale stucco buildings and behind them rose the brown and drab green of the hills and the olive groves. Etched against that dark background, floating on the far edge of the blue sheet was a white pyramid. In the evening angle of the sun rays the pyramid was pure white on its sunny side, a pale gray on the shaded side. It could be the sail of some low-lying mystery ship. In fact, it was the huge salt mountain on the watery edge of the salt pans. These salt pans were ancient when Julius Caesar came to fight on Lesvos as a young soldier.
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There were so many small pleasures provided by Lesvos and its various inhabitants. There was Skala Kalloni's pet Dalmatian Pelican who resided happily in the town square by the fishing pier, well-fed and clearly the scourge of the village dogs who left him alone. The dogs were abundant, sociable, eager but never greedy around food, almost polite in their dealings with one another and with the upright bipeds. The Sigri café had a large lounging collie. Our hotel had a pair of smaller dogs who came by regularly to patrol and accept hand-outs or stick throwing on the beach across the road. Donkeys were infrequently seen but were much better treated than the ones we'd seen in Morocco.
Rural roads of Lesvos had little traffic. We saw many buses from the island bus line, but they were all parked. My college friend, Yani Sinaglou, tells me on most islands the bus season is June-September. In Kalloni there were trucks and vans with loud-speakers on the front, peddling their wares. As we lunched in the mountain town of Agiassos with its thin air and amazing old stone church we were regaled by a nearby truck full of women's purses. Its loudspeaker was telling us in modern Greek how great were the deals on the fine hand-tooled leather. We comprised fourteen of the eighteen total tourists in town that sleepy Saturday afternoon. Agiassos has one of the best bakeries in the Greek Islands, we were told by Libby who's conducted a long-term survey. I can tell you the bakery was superb and its provender came in dozens of shapes and flavors, heavy on honey from Lesvos bees.
The taverna were different in each town and served us tasty, fresh, hearty meals and too much wine. There are several monasteries quietly functioning in moldering direpair, with reduced enrollment of elderly inmates. Our bus driver's wool sweater had been made in one.
The greatest free pleasure, unplanned and unpredictable, were the sheep and goat jams. Each day we would encounter flocks on narrow roads or even in small villages. Our wide bus would stop until the flock had passed. Each flock would be with its herder, some in trucks or on scooters, most on foot. The sheep came in widely varying colors, not simply the dirty white or white with black faces of the western United States. We saw white, black, brown, gray, long-wooled, short-wooled, shaggy-wooled, spotted, streaked, variegated. Best of all were the goats which added rusty and reddish hues to the variety of sheep colors. Finest were the shaggy haired goats with knobbly horns that curled back over their heads and black fringes on the hair that looked as if it had been treated with henna. All that and feta, too.
Visually attractive, the sheep and goats provided the music of the countryside. Each flock had belled lead ewes or nannies. The bells came in varied sizes and tones. The beaten oval brass bells from Turkey made a soft ringing sound. The thicker cast brass bells made in Greece gave a richer, heavier ring. The bigger the bell the lower the note it sounded. The sound that will forever recall Lesvos: ringing bells from rocky hillsides or through the trees, often from flocks unseen. Sheep bellsthe sound track of a wonderful week. For three euros each we brought some home.
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My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: 'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness, - That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
The Nightingales were in voice when we were on Lesvos. One of the little brown creatures serenaded an empty pasture from high up in a eucalyptus tree near our hotel. The finest of the thrush songsters was one our entire group got hear. He was in a densely leaved tree along a streambed east of Kalloni. Hidden in the foliage, he sang his trills and whistles and slurred passages with the gusto of operatic soloist. We listened entranced, and tried unsuccessfully to spot him. Only when he flew across the stream to resume his concert from the other side did he catch a glimpse of the little dark brown singer. My wife reminded me that the head of that mythical master of music, Orpheus, washed ashore on Lesvos. This is the reason the bird song here is said to be sweeter
We heard many other fine birds during our week on Lesvos. The exotic looking Hoopoe with his black and white crest and salmon colored body could be heard "hoo-poo, hoo-poo, hoo-poo" in two clear, throaty notes. There was the high-pitched five-note cascade of the Short-toed Treecreeper. And the nasal "anh-anh-anh" on a single note, that was the call of the Kruper's Nuthatch. There were screams from various Terns as they hunted over the lagoons and salt ponds. There was sweet, rapid song of many quick notes from the Crested Lark that seemed to inhabit every field or roadside clearing. There was mournful two-note name of an unseen Cuckoo from far off in the woods, "coo-coo, coo-coo." The Reed and Cetti's Warbler gave their distinctive calls from their hiding places in the marsh-side reed beds. There were singing buntings in the rocky hills, Chaffinches and Great Tits calling in the pines, the worried yipping of the Black-winged Stilts wading in the marsh by our hotel. All were background sound, all were accompaniment, all were noted but not remarkable. For we had heard the Nightingale as had John Keats two hundred years ago.
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