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Lesvos Villages

Village Life in Lesvos

Perhaps the least known and most charming aspect of Lesvos is life in the traditional mountain villages. While most travelers stick to the beaches and seaports, life in the villages goes on as it has for hundreds of years, though now modern conveniences like electricity, television and motorized transportation have made it a bit easier. In a typical village, life revolves around the main square and the cafeneons around it. The men work in the fields or whatever crafts they have been trained in. But no matter how hard they work they always find time to go to the cafeneons. For the men of the village it is their home away from home. Or perhaps their homes are their home away from home

Yannis the baker in Vatousa There are carpenters who build doors and window frames and whatever else is needed. There are guys who build roofs or stone walls and pavement. There is a barber who will shave you using a straight razor and plenty of hot lather. There is usually a dry good store that sells anything from beans to canned foods, soap, and whatever is grown locally and can be stored. There are butchers who not only carve up the meat but actually slaughter it in the shop. If a villager decides it is time to eat one of his sheep, either for a special occasion or just to have the meat, the animal is lead to the butcher shop and using techniques that have been passed down from father to son, first hypnotizes, then kills, skins and cleans the animal in about 15 minutes. Every village has a bakery and some may have more than one. The old ovens burn wood, usually scrap or olive. The bread they make is usually very healthy.

A majority of the people in the villages are old. Most of the young leave after highschool to work in Mytilini, Athens or overseas. Many of the old people have lived in America or Australia and come back to their ancestral home to retire. Some of the old people never left and continue to work the fields and orchards their parents and grandparents worked. Many villages have olive trees and in October-November when the olives are ripe all activity is focused on the collecting and picking. Many villages have an olive-oil cooperative. The olives are pressed locally or in a nearby village that has a facility and the profits are shared.

Cheese is usually home made since many people have sheep and goats. The process of cheese-making is virtually un-changed from ancient times. The milk is cooked outdoors in a big cauldren. Some villages have their own cheese factories where farmers can sell or trade their milk. Other villages have wallnut trees and you will know when they are in season because everyone's hands will be dyed black from picking them. In many villages a man's wealth is measured by how many sheep he owns.

Village life in Lesvos Products like shoes, tables, chairs, socks, clothes. houseplants, carpets and almost anything you can imagine are sold out of trucks that make their way through the villages. Some of these mobile stores are owned by gypsies who not only travel from village to village but from island to island too. Fresh fish is sold out of trucks that load up from the fishing boats of Molyvos, Skala Kaloni and the other fishing ports of the island, and then drive through all the villages announcing what they have through a loudspeaker. They will stop in the platia and a crowd will gather, most to look on and a few to buy.There are trucks that come through town calling for people to bring out their old clothes and furniture and others that repair pots and pans.

Kiosk in Vatousa, Lesvos There is usually a 'periptero' where you can buy cigarettes, gum, envelopes, matches, newspapers(sometimes), and many other daily 'necesities'. If it is not a free standing building then there will be a store which serves the same purpose, usually near the main platia. Many of the village platias are centered around a giant 'platanos' or plane tree. Sometimes important announcements are posted on these trees and in some villages the inside of the tree is actually hollow and used for storage. Some of these trees have provided cool shade in the hot summer months for hundreds of years. In some villages farmers will exhibit and sell their produce in the platia.

xidira, lesvos The village life for the older men and some of the younger men too revolves around the cafeneons. The old men come and go appearing at different cafeneons in various formations all day long. There are just under four-hundred inhabitants in the village of Xidera, perhaps a third of them men. There are seven cafeneons . The women generally don't go to the cafeneons unless they happen to own it. They stay within the walls of their homes and gardens or work in the fields until sunset when they come out to sit in groups on the street and talk with one another.

Babis bouzouki player in Lesvos The cafeneons can be lively with conversation. Card games usually draw a crowd. I can't walk into a cafeneon without someone buying me an ouzo and asking me about life in America. Many of the old men you see speak English but they will not let you know unless you ask them directly. I don't know if they feel rusty or shy because they have not used the language in so long but there are always one or two surprises waiting to happen in any room full of old men. Some of them have spent their lives in America and have returned to their ancestral home to retire. On a Sunday or even during the week you may find the village musicians in the cafeneons. The longer they play the more fun it gets as the more people join in, some singing along and others dancing.

Cafeneon owner in Xidera Some of the cafeneons are run by women who are almost like den-mothers to the men. There are few if any restaurants in the villages. Food is served at the cafeneons and the owners are almost always excellent cooks. They usually serve one special a day and then basic foods that they always have on hand like fried potatoes, salads, feta and whatever fish they have bought off the trucks. Many times when I see Tryphonos at his cafe for my breakfast or coffee I will ask him to buy some makeral, gopes, sardines or another variety of fish if a truck comes around and they look fresh. Then at night we have a feast. Sometimes he will phone the house and tell me that a truck is in town with a certain type of fish and he asks me if he should buy it for us for dinner. For breakfast you can always get eggs, fresh bread and cheese and of course excellent Greek coffee. A meal in a village cafeneon will generally cost a fraction of what a meal in a restaurant will cost. There are no menus. You have to ask what they have.

Village priest in Xidira, Lesvos Most cafeneons have a television in the corner and if there is nothing else to do people may be sitting around watching a movie though in some villages, reception is limited because of interference by the mountans. Though TV seems to have filled in the gaps between conversation, it has by no means dominated life in the cafeneons. Unless there is something important going on like elections or a big basketball game the television is treated like a fellow patron who talks a lot but nobody pays that much attention to unless he says something interesting. Then they will discuss it amongst themselves and forget the TV is there. There is almost always a village priest who you will see walking to and from wherever it is that priests go. Many times they can be found in the cafeneons with the boys or even watching a soccer match. Though they can look quite severe, with long beards and dressed in black robes, they are actually very approachable and it is not a sin to offer to buy one a drink while you are conversing in the cafeneons. Regardless of whether they accept or order a coffee instead, they will be happy to speak with you about village life, both material and spiritual.

Baptism in Lesvos There is always more than one church in or around the village and the popular Saint day of a particular church is celebrated at a Panayiri with services and a celebration with food wine and dancing. The August 15th celebration of the Virgin Mary is the biggest. There are musicians, roasting of lambs and dancing that goes on until dawn. At other times during the year people will visit neighboring villages on their particular saint's day. The priest also administers events like baptisms, funerals and everything in between. Usually the entire village turns out for the service and then goes to the reception in the cafeneons. For very special events a high ranking priest will come from a larger town or from Mytilini. Many of the churches in the village are quite old and impressive, containing icons and wall paintings that are historical and valuable.


Tryfon's Cafeneon in Vatousa, Lesvos Very few villages have hotels but usually there is a guesthouse of some sort for the few 'strangers' who come or people who come to work in the village for short periods. In the summer the villages are full of activity. People return from Athens or abroad and the streets are filled with children. The cafes are full of men and women who sit outside and enjoy the cool evening air which is alive with music and conversation. Inside the cafe owner is kept busy but this is the period when they make most of their money so they really don't mind and during the summer there are always family members around to help. The temperature is generally much more pleasant in the mountains of Lesvos then it is on the plains or the coast. Anyway there is no village that is more then twenty minutes away from the nearest beach.

Not every village has a policeman. Savas is stationed in Antissa but fights crime as far away as Skalahori. Some villages like Xidera have not had a policeman in several hundred years and are considered 'wild' by other villages.

Aglaia runs a cafeneon in Xidera with her husband Panayotis, the village butcher. She is an amazing cook and also acts a host-mother for all the young and old men who drift in and out of the cafe each day.

Bobis is well known for being a talented bouzouki musician who can play hundreds of old rembetika songs, and he is the artist who paints most of the signs for the restaurants and cafes in western Lesvos. He is also the mailman in Antissa.(Now retired)

Michalis is a carpenter with his own woodshop that he works at with his father. He has a cafeneon too, right across the street. Many people in the village do more than one job to make ends meet. They also supplement their income through agriculture.

Yiannis the Vatousa Barber

Spiro Kupe

Without a doubt Yannis from Vatousa is the most famous barber in Lesvos. His photo was featured in an article in Islands Magazine by Patricia Storace. He uses a straight razor and will probably give you the best shave you have ever gotten.

Spiro Kupe is a talented stone mason, a Greek from Albania who lives in Vatousa. He hopes to go to America to work and teach. All the houses in the villages are made of stone. If you want to build a stone house anywhere go to Vatousa and hire him.



Yannis Manouchos publishes the Pulse of Vatousa , a monthly magazine for all the people connected with the village, whether they live on the island or abroad.

The old priest in Vatousa was one of my favorite people. He asked me to send him some Ben-gay from the states for his arthritis. The next summer he was very pleased to see me. He died the following year.



The villages are primarily filled with old people and most of them are in pretty good shape. They have to be. The streets are steep and the winters are cold and the work never ends.

Still there are plenty of children in the village, especially during the summer when they come to visit their grandparents or in Xidira which has not seen a mass exodus to Athens.

Lesvos Trachana

Horseracing in Lesvos

In the summer the villagers make trachana from wheat and goats milk to use as a winter staple. They dry it in flat areas and they have to stand guard 24 hours a day for three days to keep the cats from eating them.

The most popular sport in the village is horse-racing which in the villages of Lesvos has more in common with American drag racing than it does with the Kentucky Derby. There is a big race in Agia Paraskevis in early July.

Sheep in Lesvos

Playing cards in Vatousa

It is hard to say whether the main occupation of most village men is tending sheep... ... or playing cards

sweets in vatousa

Rena's in Vatousa

Poppy and her family make traditional sweets in their small workshop and sell them in the family grocery store in the Vatousa main square right by the cathedral. Their rice pudding alone is worth the trip as is a visit to the workshop to see what they are making that day.

If anyone was born to be a restaurateur it is Giorgos who has been waiting tables in his parents restaurant in Vatousa since he was 5. He now runs Rena's, the cafeneon-psistaria in Vatousa on the road through the lower village. His father and mother do the cooking.

Vatousa, Mitso

Vatousa Vasso

Mitso had a long career selling cassettes and CDs in Omonia Square in Athens. He now sells his own CDs in the square of Vatousa. What makes this interesting is that he plays all the instruments. What makes this more interesting is the only instrument is his mouth.

There is no cafeneon owner more lovely than Vasso and no staff more beautiful than her daughters. Maybe that is why her zacharoplasteion (sweet shop) became so popular with the young men that she expanded and became the third cafeneon in Vatousa's village square.

Vatousa, Lesvos, workers

Mitso

Stone masons, carpenters, painters and workers who know how to build and fix houses in the traditional style, like Thomas and Panayotis are in demand in Vatousa.

Mitso has been building stone walls and houses since he was a boy and many of the young men who worked for him went off to start their own contracting companies, like Spiro Kupe.

Methymnaos Yiannis

Michalis Vatousa

Like almost everywhere in Greece the crisis has brought on a back-to-the-village movement, led by pioneers like Yiannis Lambrou who traded academia and philosophy for the Methymnaos Winery in Xidira

Michalis is a former restaurant owner who changed careers and is now a member of the forest service which is like being a policeman who protects the mountains, valleys, rivers and forests of Lesvos.

Pamela Jerome

Vatousa Christos

Pamela Jerome is a well known NYC architect and the world's foremost expert on mud-brick architecture, who makes her home in the village of Vatousa where she restores houses and provides advice to foreigners who want to build or restore houses in Lesvos.

Christos has worked as a waiter in Santorini and had his own bar in the village of Sigri. But he chose the simple life in the village of Vatousa where he tends his flock of sheep and works in his garden. In the winter there is not much to do so he watches a lot of American movies.

Thanks to the people of the villages of Vatousa and Xidira in Lesvos. If you want to contact any of these people e-mail matt@greecetravel.com

39 Coffeee Houses and a Barber’s Shop

39 Coffee Houses BookPhotographic album. Texts: A. Fasianos, F. Frangouli, G Chronas, E. Papataxiarchis, G. Nikolakakis, Th. Paraskevaidis. Paper back edition, 144 pages. 1st edition 1997 by Crete University Press. price 25 euro

“In the pictures of Lesvos’s coffee-houses, Tzeli strikes the right balance between light and color. Allthough the pictures are filled with details, none of them jump out to distract one’s gaze but instead are orchestrated to create an atmosphere both soothing and highly vivid. Tzeli is indeed deft at turning the seemingly banal into stories about the passage of time and the endurance of human values. So while coffee-houses are a subject largely exhausted by a folkloric, pseudo-sentimental aesthetic, Tzeli puts them back into the right perspective. Despite her emotional ties with the island-she was born there-she does not retreat into nostalgia. Instead, she offers a vision that is tender, meditative and thoroughly dignified. What motivates her is a desire to give visual expression to moods and to evoke fading habits and lifestyles. ”

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