Wednesday, January 09, 2013


I'll take it, this winter season, here on the Greek isles, but geez louise, could you have warned me? I'm not prepared for a windy high of 34. And freezing temps up in the hills.

It took only a few hundred steps this morning to realize that this wont do. (You can't see the wind in this protected harbor of the town of Mytilene on the island of Lesvos - or Lesbos, or Mytilene, the island goes by all three - but note the clarity in the air: it spells brisk!) I need something more than my sweater and my lightweight fleece. A cap! If 30% of the heat escapes through your head, then the purchase of a cap should do just fine: I'll settle for being 30% more warm.

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I buy one for 5 Euros and it has the proud logo of Thinsulate on it and I love it to pieces -- until I lose it later in the day. Never mind. Winter on the islands promises to be a one day affair.

We are well rested and ready to go. We show up at a small office of Billy's Car Rental. I mention the agency's name because Billy is quite proud of it: he has it stamped on each car he leases out. (It's on ours as well.)

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Business is slow for Billy (who, BTW, hails from Australia) and so the rates are good and indeed, we can keep the vehicle until tomorrow and drop it off at the airport just minutes before we depart for Athens.
We leave at 8:40 in the morning.
Good, drop it off at 8:20.
That's tight!
No, it's not. Alright then. 8:10. 

Mytilene has a very small airport. Two flights in, two flights out each day.

We follow the route along the coast. Ed drives and I really try very hard to believe that I will survive the terribly winding and the precipitous climb up the hills (mountain?) that separate one shore of the island from the other, but truthfully, I am doubtful.

When we hug the shoreline, the views are stunning -- greatly aided by this brilliantly crisp day. When the sun pops out, the waters are azure, turquoise, navy -- all of the above.

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It's like Scotland, or Portugal, or Sardinia or any other country with a hilly terrain and a beautiful, rugged coast.

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Except that there are reminders: it's Greece. The country with the funny alphabet. The place where a person can speak to me in full beautiful sentences and I'll understand not a single word.

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Eventually we come to a village (Mantamados) reputed to be a place of pretty pottery and good cheeses.  I'm not surprised about the cheese. The hills seem sheep friendly and in fact we pass a herd -- with a lamb so perfectly white and sweet, that he may as well be a poster baby for an Ester card.

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The pottery is fine as well, but we do not pause to examine it closely. We are not in a shopping mode. Especially now, just halfway into our rambles through these regions.

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But aside from the cheese and the pottery, there is also in Mantamados the business of the olive oil. As I noted before, we are in the middle of the olive harvest. You should know that Greece produces by far the largest share of the world's olive oil (close to 45%). And it uses almost all of it for home consumption. We've seen our share of harvesters in Turkey and, too, in Greece. But we've never seen what happens to the olives once they're picked (and I understand that if you're going to squeeze the oil out of them, you have to do within hours after harvest, because they start to spoil very quickly once they're plucked off the branch). In Mantamados, we stumbled upon this:

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It was immediately apparent that we're looking at a small olive oil making plant. Here, look closely:

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We walk to where a farmer is offloading his sacks of olives. (There are many groups of filled sacks and each batch has a scribbled bit of paper with the name of the farmer on it.)

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There is a door to the factory...

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Should we go inside? Why not! They'll throw us out if we're in the way. (In the States, I cannot imagine being allowed to poke around a factory uninvited. For one thing, there are issues of liability.)

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They don't throw us out. Most of the dozen or so men ignore us. One or two nod, then return to their work. An older guy comes over and tells us a lot of things, but he speaks in Greek and we can't grasp the meaning of any of it.

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He points to this, to that and eventually shows us how he uses the dried, pressed pits and remains to make a fire and here he is making a lunch for himself. Would you like some sweet bread? Surely that is what he is asking because he slices off two pieces of bread and gives them to us.

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There is something very old about this place and at the same time, not old at all. Most of the men here are actually not doing any physical work. They're monitoring one thing or another. Measuring. Consulting. It's all about the oil.

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We've rubbed shoulders with the employed here. May their legions grow (unemployment stands at 26% in Greece right now.).

We leave Mantamados. But not before stopping at a tiny bakery with very simple cookies. A few for the road.

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And we continue the climb up the mountain and then down again to the northern shore of the island. We stop first at a very tiny fishing village - Skala Sikaminias. All the boats are in and I ask Ed why this would be so. The skies are blue, the air is clear... Yes, but the winds are strong. It can't be easy to fish on days like this.

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(Here's the one very special self-timed photo of us -- with me in the cap. Before I lost it.)

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And again we climb up the hills and the air is cool as anything. We'd been warned that there may be frost up high. Indeed!

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I tell Ed that he most certainly must drive slowly, what with the ice in the hills. But I only say it once (or twice). I don't want to hear those words, spoken briefly but definitively -- you drive.

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And finally we do our last perilous, serpentine descent, down to the lovely coastal village of Mithimna.

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We read that this is one of the island's favorite summer destinations. It can't be for the beach -- it's insignificant. I try to imagine what it would be like here in the summer. Warmth -- there's that. Many people come for the constant sunshine. The sea breezes. The good food. But it's not the place where you'd see hotels line the shore front. The village is clustered up and down a hill. At the base, there is a port. In the distance - mountains.

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A fisherman comes in from the now calmer sea. He sets his nets here, close to the shore.

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And then he pulls into the small harbor. Ed grins at the way habits form: if you're used to steering your boat with your foot, this is the way you'll be coming into port.

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It's early afternoon and we're undecided as to food. Eat here? It's pretty deserted, even though a few eateries appear to be open. One couple walks boldly toward the door of a small taverna. We follow.

And it is a wonderful little place. We sit to the side (to avoid any cigarette smokers) and this gives us a chance to consider the other guests. The mayor of the village (we're told). Two fishermen. A wife (my take on it; Ed says - girlfriend).

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We order just one salad and I pick two smaller fish.

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The owner is Australian (married to a Greek)! She's been here for decades and she knows her fish (and salad) prep well.

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We are delighted with the bread and cheese spread too and Ed asks her why she only served this for us -- not for the others.

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Oh, they come here all the time. They don't want bread with cheese spread. They only want their loaves to eat with their food. And their ouzo (the Greek drink of choice, everywhere, all the time).
Ed asks her -- so what did your husband do to convince you to come to Greece?
She laughs. It wasn't hard. Besides, my parents were Greek too.

People's migratory habits are very complicated.

An excellent meal and the cheapest of the lot (19 Euro, wine and soda included)!

We get into the car, we climb up, we climb down. And now we're by a gulf that is wide, creating almost a salty lake on the island. Here, in these low lying areas, you'll see immediately the sea salt production (Lesvos is known for this; in fact, most Greeks think of Lesvos as the place for olives, ouzo and salt).

We take a small detour down a dirt road, in part to see the salt...

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...and also because there are birds here -- fantastic birds that seem to love these saline marshes. Including flamingos, all dipping their heads in search of dinner. It's a memorable moment.

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Okay, one more hill to climb and this one is not especially high, but it is a north facing hill, with a beautiful forest and here we come face to face with the one winter day of the year in Lesvos.

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The islands rarely see snow. But last night, there was a light dusting of snow.

And now we're in Mytilene again. Our last night here. (A quick run to the bakery for cookies...)

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Tomorrow, we have a somewhat complicated day. We take an island hopper to Athens. Then, in the evening, I fly to Crete. Ed takes the overnight ferry and meets me there the next day. So, if all goes well, I'll write from Crete next. Winter's behind us. Spring's around the bend.