Thursday, August 27, 2009

The 'Tropical' Greek Isle of Samos

Vathy Main Square. The statue of the ‘Samian Lion’ on the pedestal, which reminds me of the Venetian Lion, though in a different pose.

Having 5 hours to spend in one place can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on the place, of course. It’s more than enough time to leisurely enjoy Samos Island’s main town of Vathy, but it’s frustratingly little to explore any other parts of the island without the expense of renting a car or scooter.

The island has taxis and a public bus system. But unlike our constantly-in-motion Turkish minibus (dolmuş, literally meaning ‘stuffed’) system to get residents around, Samos only has large buses. I’m reticent to rely on schedules because I’ve seen buses wait to fill up before they leave the station. The last time I visited the other easily accessible town in Northern Samos, the lovely birthplace of Pythagoras and thus named Pythagorio, the usually 45-minute bus ride from the eastern coast over the mountains back to Vathy became an hour and a half. I nearly missed the afternoon ferry to Kuşadası.

So Vathy is again where I spend my time this mid-August visit. Its central square sits next to the harbor, with only a two-lane street dividing it from the water. But that street is a busy one, in this typical Mediterranean tourist town. The harbor street is lined with overpriced cafes selling stereotypical Greek ‘cuisine’ along with full English breakfasts, hamburgers, pizzas and Belgian waffles. The restaurants with real Greek food are in the walking streets behind Vathy’s narrow shopping streets that parallel the water.

Like most coastal towns in this part of the world, Vathy appears a mix of old and new. Perhaps the island economy is not strong enough yet within the EU system to restore all the derelict buildings surrounding the mostly well maintained structures along the harbor. But that may be a blessing, as long as they do not collapse or fall victim to the wrecking ball meanwhile.

Classical Greek touches on a restored harbor building remind me that the statues of antiquity may have been white marble, but were painted in vibrant colors like these.

The one time I spent the night on Samos several years ago, I stayed just off this square in a small pension called Artemis, serendipitously enough. I spoke with the older owner to ask him if he’d ever gone to see our one remaining column of the Temple of Artemis in Selçuk. Though he was perfectly polite to me, he was perplexed that an American woman would actually choose to live with the Turks, but it seemed to prove his opinion that Americans were rather clueless. What do we know of history in a nation so young? Even though his family origins were in the Ephesus Valley -- they had been ‘exchanged’ in the 1920’s -- he’d never been across the water; indeed, he’d almost never left Samos. He told me his grandmother warned him NEVER to go to Ephesus; she swore the Turks would kill him as he got off the boat. I told him that was not the case, and gave him our card if he ever got decided to come. I’ve yet to see him again.

One of several small markets along the shopping streets near the harbor. Shops are open from 8 am to 2:30 pm, most not reopening later in the day, to the chagrin of many tourists, me included. Unlike Kuşadası and even Selçuk, where shops are open on average more than 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, especially in summer.

A Samian midday traffic jam. The population of the entire island of Samos is about 33,000, and I’ll bet two-thirds live here in Vathy. Scooters are everywhere. Cars are quite new, with a preference for the color red, smart for visibility on an island with twisting mountain roads.

Samos has a small archeological museum, to the right in the photo above, just out of view. To the left is a farmer’s market that this day was nearly devoid of produce. The old building in the center seems sadly stranded in the midst of a busy car park.

Once I wind my way through the mix of locals and tourists in the small walking streets and past the museum square, I head directly for the stone building with the red sign, above, which houses Vathy’s largest grocery store. I must get there before lunchtime when it closes. The exteriors of all grocery stores should be camouflaged this way! I stock up on food items that are more elusive in Selçuk, like blue cheese, mangoes, Belgian chocolate, marzipan and massive chunks of fresh ginger. Prices are not cheap because it’s an island; most everything has to be shipped in from Athens across the Aegean. Getting fruit and veggies from Turkey would be a good solution. I once asked if anything in the produce department came from there and was answered with an outburst in rapid Greek. I guess not?

The museum’s garden is my favorite place, with a variety of ancient trees and plants, quite lush, shady and green for mid-August. This time it is full of the sound of cicadas, which are called “August bugs” in Turkey; wonder what the Greeks call them? It’s the first time I’ve seen the garden also full of Roma children, playing toy accordions for whoever will spare a few coins. I overhear one girl say something to her toddler brother in Turkish, so I ask her where she is from. She’d been born in Samos, though her older family came from Turkey years before. I don’t ask how they came across. When I see her with family later, the older members are speaking Greek to each other.

My favorite café is within the garden. It’s a gathering spot for local islanders, with many spending hours chatting with friends they have probably known their entire lives. I think I’ve seen this particular group of men here each year during my visits. Even though we are seated next to a large fountain, it’s so hot that everyone has their requisite bottle of water along with whatever else they are enjoying. For me, it’s a cappuccino and toast with cheese and ham, another rarity in Selçuk.

The exterior of a smaller church, is simple compared to the interior…

…with 4 chandeliers from different time and style periods competing for attention down the central aisle. The church’s interior is overwhelmed with ornate details, including faux marble columns and walls. I wonder why they did not use the real stone. Surely Samos is made from as much marble as we have across the sea?

I particularly love seeking out the gardens in Vathy; this one is the back garden of the Catholic church near the harbor. The church has been under restoration for the 10 years I’ve been coming here; I was only able to get inside once and it was much more Spartan in its décor than the Orthodox churches. Obviously, the Roman Catholic population on the island would be far smaller than the Greek Orthodox one. Other islands to the south, such as Rhodes and Kos, not only have churches of both denominations, but mosques and synagogues to serve their small Muslim and Jewish communities. But those islands were part of Italy until the 1950’s.

The garden of an official building. Since I can’t read Greek, I have no idea what the sign said, but it has a ‘60’s style bell tower and a huge Greek flag that refuses to photograph well in the sparse breeze. So I’m posting the hibiscus instead.

In a poorer harbor neighborhood, there may not be the luxury of a garden for hanging the laundry.
I end each visit walking though the coastal neighborhoods, which have steep hills accessed by stone staircases and some lucky homes hidden by overgrown gardens. This old wall is a composite of homes and gardens past, covered in the vibrant trumpet vines that adorn our Turkish beaches as well.

While Vathy has many alleys leading to the sea, here a ginger cat very politely poses while I take several shots. The well-laden peach tree is an uncommon sight.

The lush green and a glimpse of sea here and there help me ignore that it’s unbearably hot in these lanes. The cicadas here have competition for disturbing the quiet that comes with such unrelenting heat, paralyzing larger creatures into inactivity. Most houses have at least one pastel-colored bird cage hanging near the front door, canaries and parakeets inside, chirping away for all they are worth.

This trip I notice that within some old houses -- or within their former seaside gardens -- several trendy bars have popped up along the water. Modern décor overhangs the rocky coves, the latest in European café furniture contrasts with the peeling paint of buildings beyond. This corner of Vathy must be quite a different place at night. But for now, I am content to return to Selçuk and our garden on Ayasuluk Hill, with its own particular blend of old and new.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Homer's 'Wine Dark Sea'

Bird Island, or Kuşadası in Turkish, with its Byzantine castle

Every few months, I am obliged to take a day trip to the neighboring country of Greece. The most efficient way to accomplish this from Selcuk is to take the ferry from our nearby port city of Kuşadası (pronounced koo-sha-da-suh) to Vathy, the largest town on the island of Samos. In terms of culture and history, I’ve visited more compelling Greek islands such as Rhodes, south of Samos in the Dodecanese, the more famous group of 12 islands off Turkey's southwestern coast. Greece has a mind-boggling 6000 or so islands, only 227 of them inhabited (and only 17 of these larger than 100 square miles. Samos is #9 in size). But a day spent crossing a portion of the Aegean is a pleasant necessity I don’t mind at all.

A statue of Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, tops the hill above Kuşadası's harbor. The poor neighborhood of old houses just to the left of the statue has the most amazing view in town – it’s a wonder those houses are still there, considering the encroaching high-rises.

The most challenging part of the day is getting the 18 kilometers from Selcuk to Kuşadası’s harbor by 8 am. Fortunately, the local tour company from which I purchase my ticket collects me from our cousin Abdullah’s Boomerang Pansiyon, a quick walk across Ayasuluk Hill from our house.

Kuşadası is a port town at least three times the population of Selcuk. For me, it’s best seen from a distance. What was once a small coastal village has changed in the last 20 years to a bustling small city of high-rises and in-season throngs of cruise ship tourists and part-time foreign residents. It does not feel particularly Turkish to me, but rather anywhere Mediterranean that has been overbuilt and made anonymous in pursuit of daytime sun and nighttime partying.

Our small ferry in the foreground, with a midsize cruiser and an enormous Princess cruise dominating the harbor behind it.

My sense of scale is always challenged here in Kuşadası’s harbor. The cruise ships can be up to 14 stories tall, essentially 3-4 times higher than the castle on Bird Island and nearly as tall as that hill from which Ataturk’s image guards the scene. There can be many ships in harbor at any given time, though this morning there are only two.
Out on the Aegean, the scenery becomes a million shades of the color blue. On the left in the distance is the mountain range home of one of Turkey’s national parks. On the right is Samos Island. Just beyond this finger of land is Posidonio Point, one of the nearest points between Turkey and Greece at a distance of about a mile (1.6km). Because the two countries are so close here, this Mycale Strait has become a crossing for the many illegal immigrants who traverse Turkey’s porous borders from countries to the east and south, hoping to reach the European Union. Samos is home to the largest detention center in the Mediterranean region -- perhaps Europe -- for this reason. Unfortunately there have been many cases of shipwreck and drowning over the years as people try their luck in crossing the turbulent Aegean.

Halfway across the water once in Greek territory, our ferry boat hoists the Greek flag.

The crossing to Samos Island takes just under two hours because Vathy is on the island’s western side. Above, the mountains that dominate Vathy’s harbor come into view.

On this journey, I am joined by perhaps 50 other travelers, speaking numerous languages. Today I am surprised at the large number of Turkish holidaymakers on the ferry. This would not have been the case a few years ago. But as Turkey prospers and relations between the two countries relax, it seems easier for Turks to get an EU tourist visa, though it’s not always a simple process. A number of the European travelers are wearing the bright yellow wristbands that tour companies require as a means of group identification. Not my idea of the best way to see a country, especially Turkey, but it’s good to see any tourists in the area this summer of economic crises.

The town of Vathy from just outside the harbor.

On this day, there are no other ferries in Vathy’s harbor, not even the enormous inter-island Greek ferries that usually depart in the late afternoons. Only two Coast Guard ships are present, in the slowest season for Eastern Aegean tourism in my ten years here.

Our ferry, the Kuşadası Express

The buildings surrounding the town’s main square at the center of the photo above form the core of Vathy’s harbor. I meander 5 hours around town before taking the return ferry back home to Turkey. To me, the best part of the day is spent on the water, especially in the 38C/100F degree heat of August, although Vathy does have its charms. I’ll be posting separately about the town later this week, since as usual I took too many photos!

A view back along Vathy’s coastline

Above, one of Vathy’s older seaside neighborhoods, which retains more old houses than we have in Selcuk, though they are of a very similar architectural style.

As we make our way through immigration formalities in the afternoon, I am witness to a situation that makes me curious about a trip in my past. A 14 year old boy directly in line in front of me, holder of a Turkish passport, is dropped off by his parents, a Turkish father and a probably European mother, who only speak fluent Turkish to each other (unlike Abit and I, who speak a mix of Turkish and English, often in the same sentence).

Why this couple is sending their son to Turkey alone, I don’t know. Perhaps he has to get back to prepare for school or the parents are having some time to themselves on a Greek holiday. But the immigration official throws a small temper tantrum. “You are a minor – you cannot travel by yourself !” he claims in English. The boy, speaking perfect English as well, says he’s done it before; he says his father’s friend will meet him at the harbor in Kuşadası. The official is not persuaded. “Your parents must come back to the harbor immediately to explain themselves to me, or you are not getting on that boat”.

I watch long enough to see the mother return, only to have the official create a scene, harshly and loudly chastising her for being irresponsible. The boy does make the ferry, but has to remain in the captain’s quarters. It makes me wonder: I too traveled internationally at the age of 14 with a friend my age, as “unaccompanied minors”, from the US to Britain. That was obviously a much further distance. I don’t recall my parents having to get permission from the airlines or US/UK immigration. Perhaps they did?

By late afternoon, the water of the Aegean has changed from various hues of aqua and turquoise to a deep luminescent blue, becoming nearly purple as the sun further sets. It’s apparent why Homer described this sea as 'wine dark', even in the bright light of summer. A few houses are scattered along the rocky northern cliffs of the island, against the various greens of oregano, olive and cedar. This end of the island does not have sandy beaches; travelers looking for those must rent scooters or cars to head south.

At the northernmost point of Samos is a small island, above, about the same size as Kuşadası’s Bird Island, below. This Greek bit of land appears to have a small whitewashed church on top. Otherwise, the landscapes of the two countries look alike here.

This voyage has not been very rough. Trips at other times of the year have been so turbulent that I’ve felt the motion of the waves for more than a day once back on land. The Aegean is not pleasant water for those who are easily seasick. The twice daily ferry runs are reduced to one or two a week from October 1st through the end of March because the crossing can be unpredictable.

Back in Kuşadası, the new port center is a modern structure of glass and local limestone. It has a remarkably small immigration room for the lines of passengers waiting to get their visas stamped, and a very large Duty Free shop. Priorities are obvious. Once through customs, the only way out of the complex is through a two-story shopping mall, named Scala Nuova in a nod to the ancient Roman name for this harbor, complete with a Starbucks on the wharf. Its unobstructed view of Bird Island is perhaps the most valuable real estate in town. American coffee chains in the land that invented the coffeehouse…I resist the call of a venti latte and make my way slowly through the crowded streets, toward the more home-grown and less expensive pleasures of Selçuk.