So this is mostly a photo tour. Do you like how my "narrative" travel blog has morphed over the years from mostly text-based to mostly photography-based? It's cuz I'm lazy. :-) Also, my interest in photography has grown like a baobab or a panda ... i.e. dramatically. And, truth be told, I've come to see the truth in the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words ... or if not quite a thousand, a whole lot of them. It's more expedient for conveying things ... buildings, landscapes, animals, what people look like, etc. If something particularly interesting happened to us in these villages, I'd tell you about it. But mostly we just wandered around contentedly, got totally and genuinely lost, and had a very pleasant time -- one day by ourselves and another afternoon with two fellow volunteers with A Drop in the Ocean who were working with us at the Souda refugee camp in Chios Town.
But a wee bit of background for the two villages I'm going to share with you in this post, Pyrgi and Mesta. They are sometimes referred to as "mastic villages," being located in the southern part of Chios Island, where the mastic trees grow. I'd never heard of mastic until arriving on Chios, where I learned it is (a) grown only here on Chios and nowhere else in the world, (b) when made into mastiha liqueur, it's fabulously delicious. It's used in many other products, as well, both edible and non (like body care products). Plain mastiha candies taste kind of like cut grass or earth, but add a little mint flavor and they're far tastier (according to *my* taste buds). It's rather remarkable how delicious the liqueur is compared to the plain candy.
But, "What is the mastic?" you ask. "Does it grow on the mastic trees? Is it harvested like olives? Is it the root?" Nay. Mastic (pretty much interchangeable with "mastiha," as far as I can tell) is actually the sappy resin in the tree bark. Farmers bore holes into the bark, put a plastic tarp skirt around the base of the tree and let the resin run down the trunk, then collect it in the skirt. The trees are quite small, kind of like olive trees, and we could see terraced groves of them from the roads. So anyway, if you can get your hands on some mastiha liquor, go wrap your little fingers around a bottle of it. There are different alcohol contents, we found we preferred the middle-of-the-road 28%. Pretty much every night in our hotel room we had a nightcap (or two) of mastiha before bed.
Mesta is a classic medieval mastic village. Here and at all of the small villages on Chios, as a visitor you must park your car outside the old city walls, there are usually small parking lots. The streets were built to scale for donkeys, not cars! There are several entry points through the city walls into the maze. Mesta was built in the Byzantine era (approx. 14th century) and its high defensive walls and central tower were designed on account of the pirates and Turks who were always trying to raid them and their mastic stores.
The city walls:
The narrow streets ... a miniature tractor manages his way down the cobblestones.
The interior maze of streets (what I'd consider more aptly as alleyways) are lined with houses adjoined to one another in solid blocks, interspered with archways. Most doorways looked like they belonged to abanonded homes. But there is, in fact, a hotel in the middle of the village and several tourist souvenir shops and a large central courtyard of restaurants, so the place does not feel dead.
The biggest attraction for island locals is the church, Megalos Taksiarhis, aka "the big Archangels Church," the largest orthodox church on the island and one of the biggest in all of Greece. It was built in the mid-1800s where the original castle tower had been built in the Byzantine era.
And just in case you did not get enough kitties in the Kitties of Chios post, here is one I title, "The Dark Kitty" ... emerging from his dark alley lair!
And another shot of the blind kitty also pictured in the Tuesday Tale, "A Life Left to the Cats," about an abandoned home we explored in Mesta.
Now we move on to the uniquely picturesque southern Chios village of Pyrgi, the largest of the mastic villages, and often referred to as "the painted village." Pyrgi has been mentioned in old documents as far back as the 11th century. Apparently, it's widely believed that Christopher Columbus is descended from a family in Pyrgi and that he lived for a time in the village. Why is it called the painted village? Because of the unique black or gray and white geometrical decorative motifs on the facades of the buildings. It's called Xysta and is made by a plastering-sand being applied to the wall, carefully painted white, then scraped with the designs. So the designs are etched, not painted, in spite of the "painted village" moniker.
Of course there is the ubiquitous village clock tower rising above town, and the old man enjoying the afternoon sun. Er, well, he's in the shade, but the sun will get to him .....
A central feature of Pyrgi is the Church of Ayioi Apostoloi (Holy Apostles). A Byzantine-era church, it mimics, on a smaller scale, the architectural structure of the larger Nea Moni monastery (which I'm planning to show in a future blog post). There is an inscription that dates the erection to 1546, but historians consider the architectural features to be a more reliable date (Byzantine 14th century) and therefore conclude it was merely repaired or remodeled at that time. The interior walls and ceiling of the church are covered in frescoes, but we were not allowed to take photographs inside the church. I'm glad we got to visit it twice, to better cement in my own memory the interior, which is really quite small.
Its ancient Byzantine structure and plain stone facade stand out in a kind of simplicity in contrast to the elaborate Xysta facades of the rest of the village center.
Like Mesta, Pyrgi is a combination of abandonment and vibrance. Some of the abandonment:
Some of the vibrance:
I guess Erik's the main vibrance here.
It appears I just can't help myself from including one last kitty picture, I included a different shot of this sweeite in Kitties of Chios. Only one of the many kitties we accosted with my camera in the mastic villages.
It's easy to drive around Chios, there aren't that many roads and there isn't much traffic, or at least there wasn't in April. Most people think of the Mediterranean islands like Santorini when they think of Greek Islands. But a visit to the Aegean island of Chios would make a nice addition to any Greek itinerary.