Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Last weekend, my friends and I took the ferry from Cesme (a nearby beach town) to the Greek island of Chios.  Here we are bright and early on the Saturday morning ferry:
Just a short hop, skip, and a jump away from Turkey!
So close, but so different!  As soon as we docked, I noticed a hint of European in the architecture:
The most boring part of an otherwise wonderful weekend, the customs line:
We stayed in a hostel recommended to us by other teachers from ACI.  It was super cute and super cheap.  Tall tall ceilings, exposed beams, and the classic Greek look: white stucco exterior with blue shutters. Here's the interior:
And the views from our balcony:
For our first day of exploring the small island, we rented a car and a motorcycle for the seven of us, and headed 15km inland to tour a UNESCO World Heritage site called Néa Moní, or New Monastery.  When we first pulled up, I noticed the silence and these prayer bundles fastened to tree branches. 
All the monasteries I’ve visited in Turkey and Spain have been perched in out-of-the-way hillsides like this, closer to the heavens, and all have contained the same stillness in the air.
But as we explored the grounds, the stillness I first noticed seemed more connected to an aftermath than an absence of turmoil.  For one, the monastery was surrounded by burnt forest, the remains of the forest fire that swept through these hills just a month ago.   
We hiked through the burnt forest to discover a small chapel with a padlocked door and a grated window for peeping in.  Inside, thousands of skulls stared back at us, laying atop neat piles of bones along the alter.  Shocking and creepy!  We soon realized there was definitely a story we were missing.We soon learned on our tour of the grounds that the story is one of fires, earthquakes, and massacres. I've since done a little research to fill in the rest of the gaps:
According to legend, one night three hermits noticed a strange light coming from the mountain where the monastery is now built, but when they went to explore it the next morning, the light was gone.  To discover the will of God, they decided to set fire to the site. The fire raged along the slope until suddenly dying out, leaving one spot unmarred. In this spot, there was a myrtle bush, and from its branch hung an icon of the Virgin Mary.  The hermits brought the icon to the cave where they lived, but miraculously it continued to return to the place where it was originally found. The hermits decided to build a monastery around its place.  The original monastery is referred to as the Old Monastery.

One day the Virgin Mary icon told the monks there that the general, Konstantinos Monomachos, then exiled in Lesbos, would be emperor. They went to the nearby island of Lesbos and informed the general of this prophecy. He told them that if it should come true, he would reward them.  The men asked only that he build them a new church for the Virgin Mary icon.
We continued to hike up the hill through the burnt forest to discover this newer monastery.  Several Greek Orthodox priests opened the door to let us come in.
Two years later, Konstantinos was unexpectedly called to be emperor of the empire’s capital, Constantinople.  Keeping his promise, he built a church dedicated to Mary at the site where the Old Monastery was. The work continued for 12 years, and after the death of the emperor, his widow brought it to its completion. This is the Néa Moní, or New Monanstery, which we visited.
(The legend is adapted from
But the story doesn't stop there.  The Monastery went through devastating times in the 1800s.  The Néa Moní was burnt down by the Ottoman Turks during the massacre of 1822, and then was greatly damaged by the earthquake of 1881.  The icon supposedly survived both of these undamaged, and hangs today in the church. You can see it in this picture.
These are pictures of the exterior of the chapel.  You can see the older stonework next to the newer stonework, renovation after the earthquake.

The chapel was built inside a cave:

On the second day of exploration, we drove to a medieval village called Pyrgi.  It was built in a fortresslike complex of narrow streets for protection against pirates and invading Turks. The distinctive  technique used to decorate the exteriors of the buildings is called Xysta.  To create Xysta, the outer layer of cement is painted white and then geometric shapes (triangles, circles, etc.) are scraped away, exposing the black base. It is based on the Italian form of decoration called Sgraffito which stems from Genoa, Italy. People from Chios traveled extensively due to its strategic location and brought back the technique from Italy.
It also seemed the custom to hang out tomatoes to dry, creating a stark contrast of color.
This is one of my all time favorite door pictures:
This 13th century Byzantine church is in the town square.  The same striking design covers its exterior.  This is also where the old guy tending to the church kept trying to cop a feel of my girl friends and I. What's up with the old creepers hanging out in mosques and churches?  Ironically, these are the only places where uncomfortable things have happened to me during my travels.
The oldest church in town (12th c.):
The town square.  Okay, it's official. I miss Catalunya a little bit.  And being in Chios felt like I was touring a medieval village in Catalunya, or having lunch in the clocktower plaza in Gracia, Barcelona.  It's so funny how I could sense I was in Europe. Greece and Turkey use so many similar ingredients for their food, and the landscape is exactly the same.  But just changing the architecture so that a town is organized around a town square, preparing the food in different ways, and the way the country roads were built to wind through the small towns perched on hills... all these made me feel like I was in Spain again, even though Greece may have more in common with Turkey.
Then we drove to the southern tip of the island, a region where they grow mastic, a substance used in gum, cosmetics, and medicine, historically a major source of income for the island's inhabitants.  But we quickly passed the mastic farms, because we were headed for this beach, which we named "Paradise Found."
 Bye-bye to Chios for now!  Surely, we will be back again and again to explore more medieval villages, eat yummy Greek food, and swim on more gorgeous beaches...

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