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.

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