The best part of Chios
and what makes the island unique is what are known as the mastikahoria, the famous mastic villages of Chios which are a series of fortified villages built in the 14th century during Genovese rule (1346-1566). These villages had an economy based on the cultivation of mastic a gum like sap from the mastic trees that are unique to the island and were so prized that the Genovese built fortresses to protect them and when the Turks massacred the inhabitants of Chios, the mastic villages were spared. Of these villages the most impressive are Pirgi with its intricately painted houses, Olympi and Mesta
which are both medieval fortress towns pretty much intact.
These villages were built out of sight from the sea and surrounded by high walls with a central tower that was the last resort in case the walls were breached by the Arabic pirates who raided the coasts of the Mediterranean. The tower had no door at street level but was entered by ladders which were used as bridges from the rooftops and then pulled up. The tower had three floors and in the case of Mesta an underground tunnel that led to the well so that even in a siege water would be available. The streets were also designed for defensive purposes, narrow and dark with blind alleys that would not only confuse the invaders but enable the villagers to attack them from above using the walkways and arches that connected the buildings. The houses themselves were small individual fortresses and were an essential part of the whole castle and defensive system.
The ground floor has one entrance and no windows. The animals lived downstairs. The main characteristic of the house is the pounti, a sort of patio on the first floor reached by a staircase which led to the sleeping areas, usually two bedrooms. The pounti had a ladder that went to the roof. In the case of an invasion the ladder could be pulled up and the villagers could walk to the central tower for protection. The roofs of the village were also used for drying almonds or for sleeping out on hot summer nights. These fortress towns were based on the designs of the ancient Greek towns of Ionia.
The most interesting feature of Pirgi are the decorative designs scratched into the exterior walls of the houses, known as scrafitti or ksista. Mostly geometric forms, ksista has gone through several periods and may have originated in Genoa or in Constantinople.
The process, which is still practiced today, even on the modern buildings of the village, begins with the spreading of a mixture of sand, asbestos and cement on the walls of the house. This is then covered with white asbestos (no, not the poisonous kind.... at least I don't think so). When it dries the patterns are drawn onto the outer layer and then scratched with a fork to reveal the darker layers beneath. The whole village is covered in these designs, including some of the churches and the local bank. Another feature of the village are the tomatoes which hang drying beneath many of the balconies of Pirgi, adding a splash of color to the back and white designs on the houses.
My favorite town in Chios is Mesta, a completely intact fortress town of 300 inhabitants, the best preserved of the mastic villages, a living history and cultural museum where life goes on the way it has for hundreds of years.
In the Turkish genocide of 1922 many of the inhabitants were captured to be used as slaves. Because mastic was so important a product, those who knew how to grow and process it were freed and sent back to the village. In 1858 the defensive tower which was no longer considered necessary was demolished to build the Church of the Taxiarchis, still the largest in Chios. It overlooks the main square which has two cafes and the very good taverna O Meseonas, owned by the lovely Despina Bournia, who along with Anna Floradi is very active in promoting the village. The restaurant has a varied menu that features many local Chios dishes such as their tomato keftedes, local cheese and my favorite discovery of the trip, souma, a drink made from figs that is similar in taste and potency to raki or tsipuro.
VESSA is one of the famous mastichochoria and along with others have the best-preserved fortified settlements of the island. It was built between the 14th and the 16th centuries in order to control and protect the inhabitants and their valuable product which was the mastic resin.
It is really so historical, and picturesque and I was amazed seeing that many of the original houses out here still survive.
Vessa preserves its medieval character and this is the reason I am here to see all this.