Thursday, June 22, 2017

In the Middle of the Aegean Sea: Chios Island

Never take anything for granted: Even the summer! My gorgeous holiday by the Aegean Sea is over and now I am in Helsinki. True, I had missed Finland a lot. Yet, I sure will miss the summer too. Helsinki is kinda sorta in spring: green, rainy and sometimes sweet. 

More on Finland later, I want to share some last bits of my holiday. Close to end of my holiday, my sister from Netherlands paid a visit to me and thanks to her, I got a chance to have a tour around where I have grown. It was a wonderful time with her because we are so compatible to each other: We are partners in crime, yet everyone is free to act upon her wishes. 

We ended our vacation together at a place we both have never been: Chios, Greece. Although this island is 20-40 minutes by ferry from Izmir shore, I had never have a chance to go there. Again because I took it for granted, since it is so close! I always bicker about this is "taking for granted" issue; now it appears I am not perfect about it. I better work more on this.

It is really practical to go to this island from Izmir. We simply drove to Cesme, a holiday spot in Izmir, and then took a ferry from there to Chios. Prices for the ferry are cheap, cheaper than having lunch in Helsinki,  and since we both had EU documents, we didn't need any visas. If you don't have a special passport, an EU document or a visa; don't worry about it. It is still easy since you can get short-term visa from the customs during your travel to some Greek islands.

*D had a flight back to Netherlands on Friday, so we only had one day and one night on the island. To get it easier, we booked a hostel room and a guided tour to discover the southern part of the island. We had seen a lot but definitely one day wasn't enough to see it all! Maybe 3 days would have been better.

Prior to our tour, we had some time to roam around the city center which is a classic, old Aegean town. Small local shops and souvenirs, narrow streets, stray cats, old castle walls next to houses and that mixture of the sea breeze and the smell of honeysuckle... Between two shores, two differences stroked the most for me: Firstly, this is an Orthodox country and you can hear the relaxing sound of church bells echoing the streets. And secondly, Greek cats are not docile, loving Turkish cats; they are wild tigers which won't show any mercy to anyone. Still, they are cats and they are adorable. Just appreciate them from more distance. 

Greek name of the island is Chios or Xios, but it is called as the "Sakiz Adasi" (Mastic Island) in Turkish. This name comes from the local product of the island: Mastic which is collected from a tree called, Pistacia lentiscus. As it can be guessed from the Latin name, it is a relative of the pistachio tree. This tree is a local from Chios, but actually mastic is all around us. Mastic is used to make desserts, medicine, chemicals and many more things and 95% of the world supply comes from this tiny island. I personally love mastic with coffee, in liqueurs and in milk-based desserts. Yummy yummy! 

Collecting and processing mastic are very laborious and require experience. So precious, in order to not to disrupt this delicate mastic ecosystem here, Ottoman Empire limited the Muslim migration to this island even though Greeks and Turkish lived side by side for 300 years. A gesture of kindness, which also constituted self-interest of the Ottomans.

This scrub-looking tree on the left is the source of the mastic and it is way more special than it looks like. As I mentioned before, the island's southern culture has shaped around mastic -a culture which goes back to Medieval ages, when Genoese ruled the island-.  Mastic villages were built at certain locations and with a special planning. Just the right location because these trees are very delicate, and they just need enough sunlight, enough breeze, and careful tending. This is why villages in southern Chios are mostly 3-4 km from the seaside. 

Protecting the trees from inexperienced farmers and tough sea breeze are the easiest maybe. How about protecting the product from the pirates who attack the island to steal the mastic? It sounds like a fairy tale now; however, pirates were a reality of the Mediterranean area back then. These Medieval villages are real-life mazes with high walls, tunnels that all look-alike. Mesta is the most well preserved example of these villages in Chios. There are only one entrance and one exit to the village and all streets meet in the center. Houses were built really close to each other in order to allow the villagers could run to the center in case of danger, by jumping one roof to another. You can see a glimpse of the scene at the picture below.

It just left me speechless how well the history has been preserved in Mesta. *D also loves history as I do. We definitely fell in love with this awesome place. While eating mastic/pomegranate ice cream at the center of the village and being connected to the free Wi-Fi there, we made a decision. We could have live in this village: It was all included! I hear that some voices are asking how will we settle down and have a family at an island with an old and small population. Answer is simple: There is a famous church in Mesta where unmarried people go and wish for spouses. We can do the same and maybe it will rain eligible bachelors and we can pick of one them.  

Within a 15 minute drive, we reached the seaside again. So hypnotized in Mesr=ta, we didn't realize our hunger. We ordered some chips, grilled octopus and fresh Chios beer. A trio that is best in summer, by the sea. It just makes you feel alive. One of the blessings of Mediterranean is the variety and availability of the high quality sea-food. Maybe that is why Nordic salmon is not so "oh wow!" for me.

Our next and last stop was Pyrgi, another mastic village which is more modernized, yet it has its own specialty. Almost all houses and churches here were painted with a unique technique.  Facades of the houses are decorated with patterns called "Xysta". On top of grey, some layers of white paint was applied and these motifs were scratched carefully. Each design has different symbolic meanings, like crosses and wine glass motifs put on the church walls. Enough of the abstractness, check the photo below: a close up from the facade of a house. Honestly, I also didn't like the "street" look of the streets and I prefer to share xysta in this way.

PS: I got some mastic coffee from Pyrgi, like I didn't consume enough of it that day. But still, I need it in Helsinki since coffee is one of my daily needs and Greek coffee is technically the same with Turkish coffee.

So imagine, even half of the southern parts of the island took that much of time to travel. We were so tired at the end of the tour. Siesta time for us! Not such a long one like the Greeks have: It is so weird for me to close up all shops between 2-6 pm! And most of the days, they are not being opened again after 6 pm. 

Thankfully, siesta is not applied for the coffee shops. We went to a cafe inside the castle walls, "Kafenes". It is a really cute place and it provides many gluten-free options. Menu was of course in Greek, Turkish and English again. My  little *D, saw the Greek coffee on the menu; however, she asked for Turkish coffee. It was an honest mistake out of habit and the waitress responded cheerfully: "Don't say sorry, in my opinion it is actually Turkish coffee." We had a joyful conversation with her about coffee, education and people. I really wish to see her again cause I owe her one fortune telling from the coffee.

After walking around the center more, we decided to eat dinner at a tavern. Greeks eat dinner at 9 pm but our dinner got a bit more delayed due to the protest -a long political story-. I guess we started eating like 9.30 smth. So late in my standards! Menu was predictable: Sea food all the way and some appetizers. These are the best things if you want to drink "Ouzo" next to your meal. Ouzo is a distilled alcoholic beverage like raki or absinthe. They all have anis in them as a flavor. It was my first time tasting it, though I liked it better then raki. Truth must speak! After we finished up everything, they brought us watermelon slices and a little bottle of mastic liqueur. I have heard about the tavern customs of Greeks but we still couldn't believe this much of generosity. The amount of the liqueur was same as the ouzo we drank. The amount of the tipsiness had changed for someone though.

We spent so little time in Chios, some well spent time indeed. I am so pissed of to myself that I have never visited Greece before. Honestly, I didn't have any excuses beside my laziness. Let's hope that I will soon -next year is soon- visit Chios and Greece again. That side of the Aegean is as pretty as where I grew up. During our visit, I felt like I was at home. Maybe I have a home at least, and it is where ever Mediterranean is.

As one of my favorite composers said it once: "My heart is left at the Aegean."