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Echoes of the Ottomans: Chios

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An intrinsic aspect of travel is the need to make difficult choices about what to see and what to exclude from an itinerary. Hardly anyone has the time to visit every weekly market in Provence, every waterfall in Iceland, or every charming village in the Cotswolds. There are few decisions as intimidating as which Greek island is most worthy of a visit. In my younger days I went to Ios and Santorini and found them beautiful but overly commercialized. I always thought if I ever returned I would want to find a secret island that had fascinating culture and beautiful towns but few tourists. Once in a while I would research an island or two but none of them fit the description. They were either very commercial or very small and lacking anything except beaches. I gradually came to the conclusion that if there was such an island it would have been discovered and overrun by tourists long ago. It's not like the Greek islands are hard to get to. I hadn't thought about that dream for a while but when I was devising our itinerary for this trip it was only natural to look at the islands off the Aegean coast of Türkiye. Some of the islands were Turkish and some were Greek, and one that immediately seemed interesting was Chios. Despite my previous investigations I had never researched Chios nor could I recall ever having heard of it. It was a large island, actually the fifth largest of all the Greek islands, and so close to the Turkish coastline that it was hard to believe it belonged to Greece. After just a few minutes of reading about Chios I realized that it was quite different from any other Greek island and might be exactly what I had been looking for off and on for all these years.

Chios belongs to the North Aegean group of Greek islands which for the most part are closer to the mainland of Türkiye than Greece. Almost all the Aegean islands belong to Greece due to the Treaty of Lausanne. Having recently been defeated in World War I as the Ottoman Empire, the nascent country of Türkiye had limited strength in the negotiations. Even the islands closest to Türkiye had retained a strong Greek cultural affinity over the centuries and Greece had restored many of them to its own sovereignty in the Balkan Wars that preceded World War I. This unequal division of territory remains one of major sore spots in Greek and Turkish relations a century later. Chios was the site of one of the most horrific chapters in the history of Greek-Turkish relations when thousands of islanders were massacred by Ottoman forces in 1822 in response to a local rebellion against the empire. Having somewhat embedded myself in Turkish culture over the past week, I felt a little like an enemy invader when we disembarked in the port of Chios just half an hour after departing from Çeşme. We wouldn't be picking up our car until Sunday morning so we had quite a long walk with our luggage from the dock through the port area to the hotel. As soon as we had settled in I chose a restaurant in the medieval citadel north of the port.

The atmosphere of the town wasn't that much different from Ayvalik although the Greek lettering on the storefronts confirmed that we were experiencing a different culture. The main town of Chios, as with many Greek islands, is referred to simply as Chora which is the Greek word for "town". Chios was a son of the Greek god Poseidon and the name is used to refer to both the island and the town. Inland from the port there was a modern pedestrianized area filled with stores that were closed and shuttered on a Saturday evening. On the other side was an ancient stone wall with an arched gate that marked the boundary of the citadel. Inside there was a stronger atmosphere of antiquity with rough cobblestone streets and an overgrowth of weeds.

Vradipus proved to be a good choice for dinner. Greece is one of the few European countries where the restaurants can be expected to be at least as good as their ethnic equivalents in the United States. I couldn't tell if the brick and stone walls were as ancient as they looked but we felt as though we were eating in a restored thousand year old ruin. By the time we left night had fallen but the families filling the outdoor cafes inside the citadel looked as though they were just getting started on the evening. As we walked home we followed the sound of live music and voices to the rear of a housing complex where handmade signs marked a demonstration in support of migrants. Due to Chios's location close to the Turkish coastline it has become a focal point of the refugee crisis in Europe, with many boats carrying Middle Eastern and central Asian refugees arriving at the island. The locals are sharply divided about their country's response to the crisis and the reported "pushbacks" of ships to their country of departure.

The Ionia Rooms also had an archaic vibe although with modern touches. We had a typically sized room that had been filled with beds to accommodate five people, which we didn't mind at all. It's kind of fun to all sleep together in one room when we travel, the way most people in the world did until about a hundred years ago and many still do. The only negative aspect of the hotel was that there was very loud shouting from the street until the wee hours of the morning that might as well have been coming from right outside our window. Fortunately I was the only one who lost any sleep because of it.

In the morning the first thing I did was call the rental car agency to confirm that I would be able to pick up our car. I had to activate our home AT&T plan for the day since my Turkish SIM didn't work in Greece. There was only an automated response in Greek which didn't fill me with confidence that we would be able to proceed with our plans for the day unimpeded. I left a message and we walked down to the strip of cafes along the port and found ourselves a place with a wide selection of American style breakfasts and mugs of delicious juice. We decided that I would take a taxi alone to pick up our car at the airport while the family hung out in the cafe, but as I was walking to the taxi stand I got a call back from the agency. They offered to drop the car off at their office next to the ferry dock, which was a major improvement over going to the airport.

On the way to the office I noticed that all the rental car agencies were open despite it being early Sunday morning. The island was clearly more touristic than I had expected although the town didn't seem very busy. We had no trouble picking up our car although there was a surcharge for the drop-off at Chora that the airport agent hadn't mentioned. We tried to argue against it weakly but the agent seemed quite disinterested in our protestations. What were we going to do, try and find a cheaper automatic car rental that morning? Of course not. I had also forgotten that I had reserved the car for the entire next day as well, even though I now had ferry tickets for Monday morning. We asked if we could adjust the rental period for an earlier return and he told us we would have to take that up with the third party booking agency which was obviously not going to happen.

Even though we ended up spending a hundred dollars more than we needed to on the rental fee I was relieved that we now had our car and would be able to carry out our exciting itinerary in Chios. Our first stop was just north of Chora at one of the island's landmarks, a line of four restored nineteenth century stone windmills on a short jetty projecting into the Aegean Sea. The sails of the windmills were wrapped around their masts and it wasn't clear if the restorations had been designed to be functional.

The most unique aspect of Chios is what are known as the mastic villages in the southern part of the island. Mastic is a resin produced by by the tree of the same name that has been used for centuries as a flavoring for gum, candies, and liqueurs. The Genovese rulers of the island in the late middle ages expanded the production of mastic in a number of villages and built citadels to protect their wealth. Attempts have been made to cultivate these trees in other locations but only the ones that grow on the southern side of Chios have been able to produce mastic.

Of all the mastic villages the most alluring was Pyrgi, the closest one to Chora. To reach it we took a pleasant half hour drive along good quality asphalt roads that wound through fairly nondescript countryside. It was definitely not the idea of a Greek island that someone might have had if they were steeped in the imagery of the Cyclades. However, all pretensions of modesty were dropped once we arrived at Pyrgi. We parked just outside the center and were immediately greeted by a spectacular array of houses with intricate black and white geometrical designs. These xysta designs were brought to Pyrgi by the Genovese and the decorative tradition has continued for centuries. The designs are created by first plastering the walls with lime darkened with volcanic sand, followed by application of three layers of white paint. The paint is then scratched off with a lathe to create the characteristic geometric patterns.

It wasn't just the xysta that made Pyrgi so beautiful and unique. The entire center of the town was a labyrinth of narrow streets and short tunnels with charming little squares appearing at unexpected moments. There was a confusing similarity among the streets but on closer inspection they were like snowflakes, no two being exactly alike. The omnipresent second floor balconies with wrought iron railings and clumps of bougainvillea complemented the dizzying effect of the xysta. We've been to countless exquisite villages in Europe but I couldn't think of any that were quite as breathtaking as Pyrgi. No matter what lay ahead in Türkiye and China, this would unquestionably be one of the most memorable experiences of our trip.

I had no intention of leaving Pyrgi until I was sure I had walked down every street in the town center, but the intermittent drizzle we had experienced since our arrival suddenly strengthened and forced us to take shelter in a cafe. It was a charming little place with black and white tiles that evoked the distinctive theme of the town. We treated the kids to ice cream and hot chocolate while we watched the rain strengthen into a deluge the likes of which we hadn't seen since our arrival in Türkiye. We waited about a half hour to see if there would be a break in the downpour but eventually our impatience won out and we began racing through the flooded streets towards the car. Even with the raincoats there was no hope of protecting ourselves from being drenched. The water was running downhill towards us and was over our ankles in some places, and I began to wonder if it was actually possible to drown in a flash flood on Chios. Things never got quite that grim fortunately and we eventually made it back to the car. I stood under the trunk lid while the kids passed their raincoats back to me and I laid them out in the trunk on the off chance that they might dry.

It was a very short drive to our next stop, Olimpi. This village was even smaller than Pyrgi and had hardly any xysta, although there plenty of magnificent old stone walls and some cheerfully cartoonish trompe l'oeil doorways. We found a restaurant whose outdoor charcoal grill was still glowing and the kids dried themselves a little in the radiating heat, much to the amusement of the remaining customers.

Little Olimpi couldn't compete with Pyrgi's star quality but its winding lanes surrounded by three story stone buildings reminded me of slot canyons in the American southwest. Crumbling plaster revealed the irregular stones used in construction and the plants growing between them like a vertical garden. Occasionally we got a glimpse of the light blue trim of the clocktower of the Church of Agios Georgios.

The next town over was Mesta which has the best-preserved citadel on the island. The pentagonal fortress was formed by a continuous wall of stone houses whose doorways face interiorly. The inside of the village could only be accessed through gates positioned within watchtowers. This construction helped protect the town from pirates and other would-be invaders. Within the gates there was a fascinating labyrinth containing countless archways and short tunnels. It was amazing how easy it was to get lost in such a small area. Without the phone GPS to guide us out of the maze we might still be searching for the exit.

After leaving Mesta we followed a winding road that took us to the western shore of the island. This was the area from which ferries departed to the sparsely populated island of Psara. An enormous cargo ship rested in the harbor, buoyed by the pure blue water of the Aegean Sea. The road then ascended back into the hills providing sweeping overlooks over the sea and the town of Elata.

Vessa was the quietest and smallest of all the towns we visited. I'm not even sure how it ended up on our list since there were no stores and just a couple of unappealing restaurants. The complete absence of tourists hadn't prevented the inhabitants from rendering their stone houses quite enchanting. In general the buildings were in better condition than in Olimpi and Mesta with a strong emphasis on colorful plants on trellises and in planters.

Since Vessa's restaurants held no charm for us I decided to see if any of Chios's top rated restaurants were within driving range and open on Sunday. I selected Agyra which was back on the eastern coast a few miles south of Chora. It was on a nondescript stretch of rocky beach that probably hadn't seen many people on that rainy day. The kids managed to find a run-down playground and had to be rounded up once I'd already ordered our dinner. We had a decent if unmemorable seafood meal that left me wondering if there really weren't ten better restaurants in all of Chios. I had my first bottle of Chios beer that came from a microbrewery in a small village ten minutes away. Apparently there's a mastic-flavored version as well but it's only available at the on-site store.

Fortunately there was no repeat of the previous night's loud carousing outside our window. In the morning we had to make the decision of whether to turn in the car and catch the early ferry back to Çeşme or to spend another full day on Chios. There were a number of things we could still do in Chios. There were the ruins of the Greek temples of Athena and Apollo, the Chios microbrewery, a winery, and no end of beaches. We hadn't seen anything of the northern half of the island and frankly I wouldn't have minded another crack at Pyrgi since our first visit had been shortened by rain. On the other hand if we went back to Türkiye we would be able to see the country's top archaeological site at Ephesus and have more time in Izmir. In the end Türkiye won out, perhaps because I didn't want to deal with the hassle of changing our ferry tickets. The auto rental office at the port still hadn't opened so we were forced to park the car outside and leave a message on the voicemail. Soon enough we were on the ferry and the coastline of Chora began to recede into the distance. It had been a very short venture into Greece but I felt like we had gained a memorable perspective into a fascinating corner of Greek culture. Chios might not have the perfect beaches and whitewashed walls of the quintessential Greek island but the mastic villages are quite unique unto themselves. We were quite pleased with our choice of island. With a half hour the promontory of the Turkish mainland came into view and soon enough we were docked.

I burned half an hour of valuable time finding the main office of the ferry company to demand our refund. The sole employee there made a phone call and I found myself talking with the same agent who had sold me the ticket. I was quite surprised when he told me my card had been credited the previous day. I verified this on my phone, thereby confirming I had wasted everyone's time by not checking this in advance. The last thing I was expecting was for the agent to be proactive on my reimbursement but the Turkish people had surprised me once again. We retrieved our car and were relieved to find intact all the belongings we had left behind. From here it would be an hour and a half to Ephesus.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:26 Archived in Greece Tagged road_trip windmills family family_travel travel_blog pyrgi tony_friedman family_travel_blog mesta

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