Route 6: Across medieval villages and big cities. Linking the two sides of the Aegean
Twelve-day cruise to Limnia, Volissos, Mastichochoria, Chios Town, Çeşme, Alaçatı, Uzunada, İzmir
In the sea caves
there's a thirst there's a love
there's an ecstasy
all hard like shells
you can hold them in your palm.
In the sea caves
for whole days I gazed into your eyes
and I didn't know you nor did you know me.
Giorgos Seferis, In the sea caves, 1940
In this quest, we are exploring unchanged by time medieval villages and modern big cities that dominate the Aegean coast from both sides. From an idyllic valley covered with mastic trees, we are being transferred to a busy metropolis with a population of millions. It seems contradictory but this unique feeling of shifting, perpetual movement and continuous change is the main characteristic of our permanent companion and guide, the Meltemi wind.
Chios – Lim(n)ia/Volissos (GR)
And he composed there, at the Chian’s in Volissos… and all the other playful poems of Homer; so that he now also became famous in the city thanks to his poetry.
Pseudo-Herodotus, Life of Homer, § 24, 3rd-4th century AD
Limia or Limnia, the seaport of Volissos, is the best place to approach the northwestern part of Chios. With its newly constructed marina and its nice bars and taverns, constitutes our primary option on our way to Volissos. Volissos lies only two kilometers away from Limnia and it is the largest village in the northwestern part of the island. There is a tradition deriving from an unknown writer of the 3rd or 4th century AD, whom philologists named Pseudo-Herodotus, according to which the most important poet of antiquity, Homer, stayed at Volissos and wrote his epic poems, Iliad and Odyssey, in this place. The inhabitants of the modern village are feeling proud of this tradition and this is why they carved this specific excerpt from Pseudo-Herodotus on a marble plaque which is welcoming the visitors at the entrance of Volissos.
The medieval settlement is crowned by an imposing castle that was initially built by the Byzantines but was renovated in the 15th century by the Genoese rulers of the island to protect Volissos from the invading pirates that were pillaging the surrounding area. Volissos castle with its trapezoid layout, its six still standing towers and its dark grey masonry, is one of the best places to enjoy an unforgettable sunset in Chios. After this unique experience, we propose as an ending for this day a visit to the traditional tavernas of the village, in one of Volissos’ two major squares under the shadow of the old churches with a glass of local ouzo, famous throughout Greece.
Around twenty-three kilometers northwest of Volissos lies a little village with a very strange name…! Agio Gala, which literally means Holy Milk, is one of the most mystic places on the island. The main sight of the village is the mysterious cave with a medieval chapel dedicated to Virgin Agiogalousena, or Virgin of the Holy Milk. When entering the chapel we are having this unique feeling of transcendence deriving from the satisfaction that we are exploring a secret place far away from the hordes of tourist that are flooding the island. Inside the cave, there is a second chapel dedicated to St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin. According to the local legend, one king exiled his daughter in this place because she was a leper. The girl was wandering through the rough hills and the ravines and when she fell asleep because of her exhaustion she saw a dream. A lady dressed in black that was standing inside a cave appeared in her sleep and she advised her to find the cave and wash her body with the water that was oozing from the stalactites of the cavern. When the young lady woke up she noticed the entrance of the cave and immediately ran there. As soon as she entered the dark cave and her eyes got used in the dark she saw the same woman and she realized that she was the Virgin. She washed in the stalactite water and she was healed miraculously by her terrible leprosy. When her father learned about the healing of his daughter he ordered his men to build the chapels that we have just visited. Leaving aside the legends the chapels date to the 13th or the 14th century, while the marvelous wood-carved iconostasis from the beginning of the 18th century is one of the best examples of this kind in Chios. The metaphor of a stalactite that naturally resembles a female breast and is oozing its holy water like milk is maybe one of the most amazing and timeless thoughts of antiquity that the people at Agio Gala have interpreted according to their religious beliefs.
Continuing our quest in this unexplored land of mystery, we can take an easy path and walk around two kilometers southeast of Agio Gala to visit the abandoned settlement of Agios Ioannis. Some of the old houses made of stone are still standing like melancholic remnants from another era.
Chios – Mastichochoria (GR)
Chios’ most important product throughout the centuries was and still is mastic. Chios is the only place in the world where, due to its climatology, the mastic tree is thriving. The resin of the mastic tree, the Tears of Chios as the locals refer to it, because of its use in medicine, cosmetics and cookery made the island famous from antiquity and the mastic resin became Chios’ main product of export. Some of the most important doctors of antiquity like Hippocrates and Galenus praised the beneficial qualities of mastic in digestive problems, colds, bronchitis, even as a remedy against snake bites. Except for medicinal purposes it was used for centuries as a base for paints and its chewable jelly beans were much appreciated in the harem of the Sultans by the ladies because of their elegant aroma that was making their breath smell nice.
The Genoese that ruled the island from 1304 to 1566 set up a monopoly on this precious substance which helped them to gain wealth but was also very important for the prosperity of the Islanders. The Ottomans considered the mastic resin one of the most precious products of their empire and they even called Chios, Sakız Adası, which means the mastic island. Numbers reveal the prosperity of the island…At the beginning of the 19th century, the inhabitants of the island were about 120.000, a huge number for the period, if someone considers that according to the 2011 census the population of Chios is around 51.000 people. Because of taking part in the Greek War of Independence, the Ottomans released a furious attack on the island in 1822, an event that inspired . The villages that were producing the mastic’s resin from the middle ages until our time are called Mastichochoria/the Mastic Villages. They are located in the southwestern and south part of the island because the mastic tree grows only there. These villages were spared by the Ottomans in the 1822 massacre because of their importance related with the cultivation of the mastic tree. Architecturally they form a unique paradigm of Genoese medieval urban planning in which the basic concept is a rectangular complex network of tall houses with their exterior row used as a fortification wall. Towers enhance the perimeter while specific gateways allow the entrance to the settlement.
These amazing medieval villages were always prosperous because of the cultivation of the mastic tree and some of them managed to maintain their traditional architectural since nowadays. From the around twenty villages in our quest we are proposing a visit to four of them.
Our exploration of the Mastichochoria, the Mastic villages, is starting from the village of Emporeios. Emporeios’ port is located almost at the southern corner of the island and it is the best place to rent a car for our tour. Except for a visit to some tavernas and bars, we can climb the steep hill that is lying on the northeast of the village and admire the ruins of the ancient city and the temple of the goddess Athena. In the village one can still see the ruins of an early Christian baptistery that once belonged to a basilica.
Pyrgi is one of the oldest, more important and most colorful of the Mastichochoria. It is called the painted village because of the decoration of its houses that are elaborately embossed with xysta, patterns cut into whitewash to reveal a layer of black volcanic sand underneath. Walking in Pyrgi is an amazing experience! Medieval arches and vaults, Byzantine churches and defensive towers are forming a stupendous place where the past meets the present. A must see in Pyrgi is the church of Hagioi Apostoloi. Dated from the 13th or the 14th century it is following the architectural model of Chios’ most important church, Nea Moni. The main element of this typology is the octagonal structure that is supporting the dome. The walls of the church are covered in the interior by magnificent frescoes dated in the 17th century.
Olymbi, is surprising the visitor with its tower-keep which is located in the central square. Like Pyrgi, Olymbi is one of the most important production centers of the mastic’s resin. We can combine our trip to Olymbi with a visit to its amazing cave that lies around four kilometers south of the village. The cave is famous for its extraordinary stalactite formations that were formed 150 million years ago. It was explored in 1985 by the Hellenic Speleological Society and opened for the public in 2003. Its depth is 55 meters and is still active because the formation of its stalactites and stalagmites has not stopped yet.
Mesta is the last, but not least, village of the Mastichochoria that we are visiting on this trip. Located four kilometers west of Olymbi, is considered together with Pyrgi the most beautiful of the Mastic villages. Its central square is dominated by the imposing church of the Archangels with its two icons of Michael, one dressed in Byzantine robes and the other in Genoese armor. The village is like a medieval labyrinth with its old houses, towers, arches and vaults and took its final form in the 15th century.
Chios - Town/Chora (GR)
Chios town or as the locals call it, Chora, is the capital and bigger settlement of the island. With its 27.000 inhabitants constitutes the financial, administrative and political center of the region. Unfortunately, the terrible earthquake of 1881 altered the medieval character of the historical port and nowadays the town is a mixture of architecture from the middle ages, the Ottoman period but also from the 20th century.
The northern part of the city is dominated by the massive medieval castle that covers an area of 180.000m2. Located next to the port it was built initially by the Byzantines in the 10th or 11th century but its current form is the result of a complete renovation that was made by the Genoese rulers of the island from the 14th to the 16 century. Porta Maggiore, the best preserved medieval gate, is the best option for entering the castle. Even now, around 700 Chians are living inside the old castle, which during the Ottoman period it formed the core of the Turkish and the Jewish communities of Chios. Inside the castle’s enceinte one can still see two Ottoman hamams, Bayrakli mosque, the church of Hagios Georgios and the Giustiniani mansion. This is the best way to approach the multicultural past of Chios, an island located between east and west, a bridge connecting Europe with Asia.
In the city of Chios we can visit the archaeological museum, a recently renovated building, with exhibits that are covering a huge period, from the Neolithic to Roman times. Some of the highlights are the column bases made from limestone from the temple of Apollo that are shaped into lion’s claws and some archaic faience miniatures from Emporeios.
Next to the main square of the city, housed in an amazing old mosque –Mecidiye Camii- the Byzantine Museum of Chios is unveiling its treasures. Byzantine, Genoese and Ottoman reliefs together with Jewish tombstones are witnessing the coexistence of so many different communities in the past. There are also exhibited many detached frescoes from some of the medieval churches of the island and a copy of . In the center of Chios, housed in an interesting neoclassical building, we can also visit the Maritime Museum of Chios. The museum was established to represent the nautical history and traditions of Chios, as well as its role in the contemporary maritime world. The collection has many interesting models of ships but the most important exhibits that are enshrined at its foyer are the knife and the glass-globe of Admiral Kanaris, one of the most important personalities in the naval history of Greece.
The town of Chios is full of wonderful bars, tradional tavernas serving well-cooked local dishes and the famous from antiquity Chian wine. The wine of Chios was one of the most expensive wines of the ancient world and according to the Greek historian Theopompus was the first red wine of ancient Greece…because of this it was called the “black wine”. Maybe this tradition is related with the name of the mythical king of the island who had a really interesting name for a king…His name was Oenopion, which means the wine drinker…According to ancient Greek mythology this legendary king brought the art of wine-making in the island and taught its inhabitants how to produce the best wine in the world!
North of Chios town we can easily approach Vrontados. Once a separate coastal settlement, now almost a suburb of Chios, Vrontados has a long tradition in merchant seafaring and is also the place of origin of many important ship-owning families. Vrontados is connected with two traditions, both of great interest. According to the oldest one, the most important poet of antiquity, Homer, allegedly have lived and taught here. This is why the locals are calling one ancient rock, located just above the picturesque little port, the Teacher’s Stone or Homer’s stone. The rock was probably part of an ancient sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Cybele.
The newer legend says that Christopher Columbus, the famous Genoese explorer who discovered the “New World”, had strong relationships with the island of Chios and that before his trip to the other side of the world that would change forever our knowledge of geography, he had visited Vrontados to recruit some experienced seafarers to join him in his adventurous quest.