Monday, 2 December 2013

chewing it over

When daylight dawns Gayle is lying in her sleeping bag on her camping mat in front of the bench .  I am stretched out in my bag on the bench.   A couple of old men arrive at the cafe next to us.  It's just after seven in the morning and the traffic has picked up in Chios town.  The Greeks do like their early start.  Our night ferry from Piraeus arrived at 5am so we crashed here to wait for dawn.  It's fairly balmy.  And that's probably what the old geezers are thinking about us as we pack up and roll off on our bikes.  After a spot of breakfast on another park bench and a bit of shopping we head south out of the town.  Away on our left is the Turkish coastline.  The road takes us through a stretch of grand stone houses with high walls and large green gardens.  Everywhere is green.  Gradually we begin to climb into the hills.  The road dips and bends past several hilltop villages perched above deep valleys that descend to the coast.  It's all rather pretty and the green is soothing to the eye.

The island of Chios is relatively wealthy and not dependent on tourism.  Foremost are the two northern villages that have supplied a large number of ship owners.  Shipping is big business in Greece - Piraeus being the largest port in the Mediterranean. The second source of income is mastic - the resin of a small tree which is collected by cutting the tree and allowing it to fall like teardrops to the ground.  It is then gathered, cleaned and sorted.  The unique soil conditions here give the mastic a special quality which was favoured by the Ottoman Sultan.  Under the Turks the mastichochora, the villages in the south of the island where the trees grow, were given special privileges.  When the Turks came to avenge the independence revolt of 1822 by slaughtering many of the residents, these villages were exempted.

We arrive in Pyrgi, one of the mastichochora, and wonder at the peculiar decoration of the houses - each one covered in monochrome geometric and floral patterns etched out of the whitewashed walls.  The narrow streets and winding alleyways give the town a North African feel.  Behind the decorated church in the main square old women sit in the sun and sift through globules of mastic. It's timeless.

After a peaceful night in a green olive grove we move on to Mesta, another memorable village. Here all the houses are built of stone - a rare treat in Greece these days - and surrounded by walls to from a fortress town.  The cobbled streets weave like a maze and it takes us a couple of turns to find a way into the small central square.  Like many places at this time of year it's very quiet and it's unusual to see anyone under forty.  This gives the village a magical air.

We careen down through a gorge and emerge on the west coast before climbing over a headland and stopping at a pebble beach for lunch.  The roads are all but deserted.  It's chilly but sunny and we head back into the hills in search of a monastery marked on our map in the centre of the island.  The ups and downs make for slow cycling but we've become accustomed to this in Greece.  There are signs all around of the fire that ravaged this part of the island in the summer of 2012.  Pine trees stand black against the skyline.  After passing a deserted army camp we pull off the road into an empty field for the night.  The sun is setting just after 5 so our days are not too long now.
ho hum - just another pretty village on Chios

We arrive at the monastery the next afternoon after climbing a high pass and crossing back over to the eastern side of the central mountains.  The monastery closes between 1 and 4 in the afternoon and we get there just at 1.  There are some Greek tourists who pull up in their car just after us and realise their mistake.  We chat a little and then they drive off.  We have nothing to do but sit it out - trying to find a little sunshine to stay warm.  Up on the hill behind the monastery is a small chapel used as an ossuary for the victims of one the Turkish massacres.  About three and a half thousand women and children had sought sanctuary here with the monks.  All were killed and the monastery torched.   The skulls and bones are stacked up against the walls - a grim reminder of the events.  I wonder about the nationalism that we have witnessed both here and in Turkey on a previous visit and about the profusion of national flags flying - something rarely seen in northern Europe.  What is taught in the history lessons in Greece?  Despite the long and bitter struggle with the Ottomans for independence and the catastrophic invasion of Turkey at Smyrna in 1922, the worst casualties in modern Greece resulted from the Civil War in the 1940s. No wonder so many emigrated after that war.

The monastery was built in the 11th century and the mosaics inside are desribed in our guidebook as some of the best examples of Byzantine art in Greece.  It's a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Unfortunately the dome of the monastery collapsed in the 1800s and although the main building has been expertly rebuilt, the remaining mosaics are do not enthrall us.   From the grounds we can look down the valley to Chios town, and beyond the sea to the Turkish coast.  It is incredibly peaceful here.  While we pitch our tent that evening above the monastery we mull over our route.  In the dark we can see the lights of Turkey.  It seems so close now.

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