Wednesday September 14, 2010
I am sitting on my veranda, sipping retsina. In front of the veranda is an expanse of mandarin orchard. It is uncommonly cool tonight. For the past many days we have wandered about town in the evening in our shorts and t-shirts. Tonight is the first night that I have felt the need to put on my pants. There did seem to be a slight change in the weather when we arrived back at our hotel this evening. It seemed slightly muggy, a humidity we haven’t probably felt since Dusseldorf.
The Hotel Voluoumandis is named, I believe, after its owner Michalos. My spelling may not be authentic Greek, but he is happy to go by “Mike”. He is an excellent fellow, very thoughtful and helpful, always ready to talk about his island of Chios, which he seems to know very well. The hotel, by the way, is really neat, with the pool and the orange groves and everything. We are staying in a little cabin that reminds us all of cabin 4 at Green Acres Resort on Salt Spring. The kids love it. The main building in the hotel dates from about 1750, and was built by the Genoese around that time, together with the mandarin orchard and well that supplies the water for the orchard. A piece of marble on the former irrigation reservoir, now swimming pool (we all took a refreshing dip this early afternoon, following Alison’s incessant prompting), reads “1742.” The main house, where most of the hotel’s rooms are, is from the same era. The island was part of the Genoese empire at that time. Interestingly, local historians make the case that Christopher Columbus may indeed have been from Chios, rather than Genoa as is commonly believed. His Genoan provenance has apparently proven somewhat unreliable. His surname is quite common on the island, and many of the Columbus families date back to that time. Columbus kept two ship’s logs. The Latin log was the official version, but contained incorrect data and coordinates. His secret log, with the correct coordinates, was written in Greek. And in those days, the coordinates of voyages were important secrets. His signature included Greek characters. Also, apparently Columbus referred to himself by the name “Columbus of the Red Earth”, or some such translation, and Chios is known for its very red soil, which we have seen lots of this visit. The houses and walls of the area are all made of it. Why would Columbus have claimed to be Genoan if he were actually from Greece? Well, as a Greek he would have been a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and as such he would have been unlikely to have gained support for his endeavours from a Catholic king. In any case, in Greek my retsina is actually titled something that looks more like “PeToiVa”.
Yesterday, after arriving at our hotel (via a bus from Chios town to the village of Thymiana, and then a ride from the tavern owner next to the bus stop’s son, after she took pity on our helplessness and utter incomprehension of the language and offered to have him take us to the hotel) , we went in search of the Thymiana town centre and a grocery store to supply our dinner. We managed to make it back to the restaurant where the bus had dropped us off. Did I mention that all the properties in the area are surrounded by high red walls that all look exactly the same? There was a small grocery store nearby the bus stop and taverna, with half of its space queerly devoted to trinkets, toys, and household goods. There were six packages of cereal placed high on a shelf, well out of the reach of the ubiquitous old ladies we see sitting in doorways, much like in Turkey. There was a case of retsina on the floor, making it difficult to reach the cans of dolmades, and everything in the store seemed strangely misplaced. The store was not well provisioned, and far too small for our liking, so we continued our search for the town center. We never found it. After another one kilometre of narrow streets, walking single file and dodging motos and cars, we finally gave up our search outside a pet food store. We returned to the unusual grocery store, our spirits dampened, and purchased 13 Euros worth of dinner.
Today, we took the unusual and, for us, daring step of renting a car. Now, understand that we have been advised by Arden that driving on the Greek islands is relatively easy, and that it is a good way to get around, and that is fairly cheap. Also keep in mind that our experience of walking around Chios is that the streets are crazy narrow, and that cars drive past with excess speed and a careless disregard for normal behaviour. However, Mike assured us that he could get us a car for less than the 30 to 40 Euros we had been quoted in the port upon our arrival.
Our car is small, white, and cost 25 Euros. We drove to the town of Mesta, about 25km away, and we were pleasantly surprised when the narrow village roads around Thymiana soon turned to normal roads that were quite driveable. Given that we are on an island, the steep, curvy nature of the roads was not particularly surprising. We were also pleased that the route was extremely well sign posted, both in Greek and the equivalent Latin alphabet.
Mesta is a medieval town, built to protect the Genoese Mastic producers from attack. Mastic, you ask? Yes, mastic. Mastic is a product derived from a bush, or a tree, or some sort of plant, anyways. It can be used for many things, including gum. The Sultan of Turkey loved mastic gum so much that he ordered the inhabitants of the mastic villages to be spared while the other inhabitants of the island were being slaughtered in 1822, as part of the ongoing strife between the Greek and Turkish peoples. Well, Mastic was such a valuable product that the villagers cleverly built their town so that the house essentially created a fortress. The houses on the outside of the village are all joined together, their backs creating what was probably in those days a virtually impenetrable wall. These days, of course, everyone has windows and doors, but the effect is still quite evident. Inside, the entire village looks like the inside of a castle. There are arches and tunnels connecting buildings, and the streets are narrow and twisted. The inside of the village was built like a maze, to confuse and discourage pirates.
The village seemed weirdly deserted when we were there, as if it were built entirely around tourism, but the tourist season has died down significantly (except, apparently, in our hotel, which is heavily populated by Germans), or was really nothing but a museum or something. However, when we returned to our hotel, Mike surmised that most of the inhabitants were likely out tending their mastic plantations.
Our exploration of Mesta went like this: we entered through an arch in the walls, and wandered around the deserted little streets and walkways, hitting a few dead ends and passing by the same stoop ladies multiple times. Then, one wrong turn found us back outside the walls, even though we hadn’t intended to leave. Those crafty Genoese! That’s just how they dealt with the pirates! Undaunted, and looking for another way in to see all the great stuff that must be inside the town, we re-entered, but after wandering around a bit thoroughly lost, we found ourselves back where we started. We finally came to the conclusion that it’s a much smaller town than we thought but, just to be sure, we walked all the way around it on the outside. That’s how the Karims explore a town – no half-assed attempts for us.
After seeing Mesta, we made a brief stop at a local beach, of which the island has many. The beach is unusual for this area in that instead of sand, the entire beach is made of black, rounded volcanic stones. The tourist booklet called them “pebbles”, but clearly the distinction between pebbles and stones requires the insight of someone with English as a first language. We had kinda hoped that black volcanic pebbles would be really neat, but they turned out to be just like the rocks on the beach at home, except with no sand between them, which made the water super clear. Alison went for a swim, and Susan and I stood in the water enjoying its not-coldness. The sun went down soon, however, and we rushed back to our town before darkness arrived. By the way, we discovered that fifty feet down the road from where we had given up our search for a grocery store the day before, there was a large, well provisioned, immaculately organised “B”, a popular Greek supermarket. Having found this oasis of groceries, we went inside and purchased dinner supplies, including a surprisingly well priced (5 Euros) 850g “you bake it” spanakopita, and the aforementioned retsina, 1L for just a touch over 2 Euros.
Old men in cafe in Chios Town