Friday, 14 June 2013

The colour comes back

Enki in Mandraki port on Oinoussa island

This is more like it. Our first "Greek" Greek island, the kind they sell in the brochures, where the blues of the sea and sky are just right, the hillsides steep and barren, the fishing fleet cheerful and toy-sized, and nothing is in a hurry except the north-west wind.

View from the deck, with Chios in the distance

We pulled into Mandraki harbour on Oinoussa island just after breakfast. Three yachts were alongside the quay, and by evening we were five. Full-up. The water's so clear under our rudder that I can watch schools of tiny fish swimming by. We're only 10 nautical miles  from the dirty, abandoned municipal "marina" where we spent the previous two nights in Chios, but it feels much further. We're on our way north again. That's what counts most.

On shore, no-one took any notice of our arrival. Oinoussa, a chip off the north-eastern side of Chios, doesn't do tourism per se. Boy racers on 2-stroke motorbikes were tearing up the flat straight next to the quay.  In counterpoint to their frenzy, a man sat on the stone steps next to his tiny boat, whacking his morning catch of calamari. A woman in black leggings worked her way down a very broad set of front steps with a broom. I admired her industry until I realised she was probably staff.  There are quite a few large houses overlooking Mandraki harbour and now that I've got a better idea of who lives on this island I don't expect their mistresses do much sweeping of steps.

Mr Leon Lemos, shipping magnate, sir

Oinoussa is where Greek families with names like Pateras and Lemos, originally come from - families which own a huge chunk of Europe's shipping tonnage. The shipping magnates run their operations from Athens, New York and London and it's only in summer time that they come "home". The village has a locked up feel at the moment - almost that of a gated community. Nobody was looking for our business. We simply weren't of interest. Not family.

There's a smart nautical museum in town which gives you a  picture of how the Oinoussan shipping families built their  fortunes . It wasn't easy to get inside, mind you. We had to rustle up the man with the key who'd taken an early mark (to find a Greek museum with its door open during "opening hours" is something of a miracle). The museum contains models and paintings of the ships which have belonged to, or still belong, to Oinoussian shipping companies. They started with sail, were quick to pick the shift to steam, and still seem to be ahead of the game. They've built a lot of ships (mostly in the US), and lost a lot too. Apparently they are risk-takers, the men from Oinoussa.

Like racehorses - but better earners
What we lingered longest over was a fabulous collection of miniature model ships made in the late 18th and early 19th century by French prisoners of war who were kept in shackles by the English on hulks at Portsmouth. What ingenuity human beings possess for keeping insanity at bay in conditions of extreme deprivation. The prisoners' model ships, the gift of one Antonis S. Lemos, are incongruously exhibited with pairs of duelling pistols and other elegant- looking weaponry as well as a few pottery dishes dating from around 1600 BC. A man with money can spend it on what takes his fancy, and there need be no explanation of the latter.

Models built by French POWs in late 18th cent

Vodia machine (right), rare specimen in Greece
Talking of such things, you'll be wondering about our engine - maybe. Well, the Volvo man from Athens left us in the lurch. Completely. On Sunday night, when we realised he was never coming to Mytilene, we got talking to a local yachtsman, George, from Alternative Sailing,  who put us onto Dimitri, a local (unauthorised) Volvo mechanic who came on board, gave us a better idea of what might be wrong, and then, via George, pointed us in the direction of a Volvo dealer with a Vodia machine. We sailed south 55 miles. I can't say more. It was all very fraught. We stand by our opinion that the east Aegean islands are a black hole for Volvo service.

The fault is in the turbo. We need a new charge air pressure sensor. We'll order that from the UK, and pick it up where we can. Meanwhile, we can use the engine., albeit not at full capacity. To my mind, the diagnosis hardly warranted the kind of anxiety we threw at the situation, but then we weren't to know that, were we?

This beach near Emboreios will be covered in bodies soon

Forest fires destroyed a lot of the mastic trees on Chios in August 2012

Young mastic trees

Mastic (front left) and olives cover south Chios
We had missed Chios on our way north. I'm glad we had a chance to see it after all. It's where Homer was born. Not much sign of Homeric fighting spirit on the island these days. Chios town felt more desperate than Mytilene, its waterfront bars far too empty for comfort.

The tourist draw is  in the south where mastic shrubs grow wild amongst the olives. Mastic is a chewy substance with medicinal properties which I've managed to live in total ignorance of until now - though I recognise it as the origin of the word masticate. It's made from resin which weeps from the mastic shrub when its bark is cut. "Tears of Chios" is another name for it (kind of proprietary). It's been in use for 2500 years for a variety of ailments (Google it) but the Ottoman sultans  prized it as a breath freshener for the girls in the harem, and were prepared to pay over the odds for it. So the mastic-producing villages of Chios - a kind of cartel -  were heavily fortified to keep their chewy gold out of the hands of robbers. From a distance places like Mesta and Olympic are almost indistinguishable from the rocky, scrubby landscape. Inside the villages, people must have lived in almost complete darkness. Their houses let in only a smidgeon of light because the laneways were so narrow and interconnected at both street and roof level. Prosperity at a price.

Wide street in Mesta

Getting a bit tight in Mesta

This isn't a set-up - Olympi resident

Everything to scale - a tiny church in Olympi

Decorative plasterwork in Pyrgi 
I liked the rustic plasterwork on houses and churches at Pyrgi, another of the mastic villages. The motifs and their execution are not especially fine or complex, but to my eye they are as striking as, say, a strong Marrimekko print or a piece of Tongan tapa cloth. Some modern houses at Emboreios, a tiny port a stone's throw from Pyrgi, had the traditional stencil work applied to their new plaster. I liked that too.

We were almost on our own as we wandered through these curious medieval villages. We remembered being in Provence in early summer, and almost drowning in the torrent of tourists rushing through similar cobbled streets. The trickle of visitors to the eastern Sporades islands in mid-June is something to both be grateful for, and to puzzle over.


  1. Glad to hear you're back on the seas. Love the blog...and agree re the Eastern Sporades. we loved them. In Istanbul, with our own issues. Sandy and Paul - Mistral

  2. hey Enkis - glad to see you're operational again!