Twin jewels of the Aegean Sea

The coastal cities of Chios in Greece and Cesme in Turkey have a shared culture and history

Gazing out at a secret network of roof terraces from the rooftop of a ceramics shop, I realise why Chios in the Aegean Sea is no ordinary Greek island.

I am in Mesta, the most famous among the 24 mastic villages (mastichohoria) in the island's south- west, where the small, hardy mastic tree, from the pistachio family and prized for its resin production, is king and the main source of Chios' wealth since ancient times.

The resin, touted for its healing properties, had an advocate in Greek physician Hippocrates and was treasured as a spice in Mediterranean cooking and a flavouring in Arabian cuisine.

So precious is this gum that Chios was targeted by conquerors and Arab pirates over centuries and fortified villages had to be built to keep them out.

Mesta is such a village. Surrounded by massive stone walls with five defence towers, the entire settlement was designed as an intricate maze of passages to "confuse pirates", says Mr Tasos Tsekouras, manager of Hotel Lida Mary, where I am staying.

The Genoese, who built most of the mastic villages when they occupied the island from 1346 to 1566, did not just stop at the ground level to ensure the safety of villagers.

On the upper levels of every house in Mesta, accessible only by a ladder, what looks like a window opens out to a rooftop terrace that connects to other houses and eventually to a tower where villagers could gather to seek refuge.


A tour of Penelope Ceramics store in Mesta reveals hidden roof terraces for escape in times of danger.

Before leaving their houses, the villagers would pull up the ladder, denying invaders access to this hidden window and terrace.

"The plan was so clever," says the proprietor of Penelope Ceramics, who is on her rooftop terrace with me. She gives me a tour of her shop and showroom (the ground floor is for animals, the second level for storage and cooking and the third, for sleeping).

Each house is a cave-like structure with curved ceilings. "No two houses are the same and the bigger ones are beautiful."

The meticulous plan of the Genoese in designing their pathways to befuddle pirates has the same outcome on me. I often lose my way in Mesta, taking the wrong turn and stumbling upon residents sitting outside their homes in hidden cul-de-sacs.

TIMELESS MESTA

There are few places as charming as Mesta for getting lost. Walking on cobbled alleyways lined by high stone walls, under vaulted arches and through tunnels, is like stepping back in time to the mediaeval days of Mesta, which has been continually inhabited since the 14th century.

Inside, the houses have hardly changed. Lida Mary's eight rooms (www.lidamary.gr) are typical of Mesta's traditional houses, with bed lofts, stone niches, traditional olive presses or an underground wine cellar.

Life in Mesta, I suspect, has changed little since its early days. The heart of the village is its main square bounded by the main Church of the Taxiarchae (Archangels), tavernas, craft stores, mastic shops and homes. The same residents gather every evening to drink and chat or sit outside their houses to watch the world go by.

Mesta is also about mastic, which continues to be cultivated as in the days of old. The first time I sample it is in my Greek salad, which has been dressed with mastic-infused olive oil. It tastes tangy with hints of pine.

To find out more, I visit a mastic store owned by Ms Despina Karampela located off the main square. She shows me a box of translucent mastic gum, shaped like teardrops. "This is what people buy to chew. It freshens their breath, helps digestion, cures an upset stomach and absorbs cholesterol."

I chew a piece and immediately taste its slight bitterness. Unlike other types of gum, mastic is chewed until it dissolves.

The gum sticks to my teeth all day, but I know that it is releasing anti-bacterial properties while slowly melting away. During the harvesting season, Ms Karampela organises tours to her family's mastic farm outside Mesta (www.taste-mesta.gr).


  • GETTING THERE
     

    I fly on Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) to Istanbul and transfer to a one-hour domestic flight to Izmir, the nearest airport to Cesme.

    The round-trip fare from Singapore to Izmir via Istanbul costs less than making separate bookings for the international and domestic sectors.

    The Havas airport bus meets arriving flights at Izmir to provide direct transport to Cesme (25 Turkish lira or S$10, one hour). I use Cesme as a base as it is easy to travel to Ilica and Alacati by dolmus (minibus), which ply at frequent intervals till late at night with a fare of four lira a trip.Travel between Cesme in Turkey and the Greek island of Chios takes 20 minutes on a passenger ferry and 50 minutes on the car ferry (€30.50 or S$47 for a round trip). The ferries ply daily and tickets can be bought at travel agencies near the Cesme marina or online (www.erturk.com.tr).

    TRAVEL TIPS
     

    • As Turkish Airlines allows a free stopover in Istanbul up to 24 hours on its outgoing and returning flights, you can explore Istanbul before and after visiting Izmir.

    • Time your travels in Chios during the week as public buses do not run on weekends. Otherwise, hire a taxi, which charges €25 for one hour.

    • Chios Town has several stores selling a wide range of mastic products - from toothpaste and cosmetics to olive oil and condiments.

TEARS OF CHIOS

I travel 25km south of Mesta to Pyrgi's nearby Chios Mastic Museum, set on a hill overlooking a grove of gnarled mastic shrubs growing in neat rows. From its excellent exhibits, I learn that cultivating mastic is laborious.

Preparations begin in June when the twisted branches and trunk of each tree are cleaned and wiped, while a circle of white clay powder is strewn on the ground around it to catch the drops of resin as they fall.

A month later, the trunks and branches are scored with a sharp tool. Incisions are carried out weekly over six weeks.

It takes a fortnight for resin to drip from every round of scoring, falling onto the ground in the shape of teardrops, hence mastic's nickname as the "tears of Chios".

Collection of the drops is done once they have hardened between 15 and 30 days. The gathering takes place at dawn before the sun's rays soften the gum.

Villagers then sort out the coagulated drops, cleaning them of dirt and leaves, and washing them. This takes all winter and brings communities together.

It is hard work, but the returns are great. The mastic trees yield resin after five years of growth and for the next 65 years. Although the yield from each tree is small, up to 150g, a 5g bottle of mastic essential oil retails at €30 (S$47).

In Pyrgi, it is time to explore this fortress village. Virtually every building, including its church, is covered in black-and-white geometric patterns using a scraping technique known as xysta.

Introduced possibly by the Genoese, black sand brought in from the nearby volcanic-sand beach of Mavra Volio is plastered on the buildings, then layered with white lime before it is hand-scraped to create various shapes, which are reminiscent of the Italian sgraffito, a decorative Renaissance art style.

Wandering in the alleyways of Pyrgi evokes the same timeless feel as in Mesta. But Pyrgi is more compact; the cobblestone lanes are narrower and the walls higher. Like Mesta, it was built out of sight from the sea with a central tower for villagers to converge in times of danger, accessed across rooftops.

COSMOPOLITAN CESME

As unique as Chios is in Greece, as it is only on this island that mastic has been successfully cultivated, there is another place that mirrors it and that is Cesme in Turkey. It is just 15km across the Aegean Sea, on the coast of Turkey.

Like Chios, Cesme has the same microclimate and soil conditions conducive for mastic cultivation.

But unlike its Greek counterpart, production has always been limited, although plans are afoot to plant more mastic trees. The Turks use their gum to flavour sweets such as Turkish delight and for making its popular sticky ice cream.

But Chios has more in common with Cesme than mastic. They have a shared culture and history.

In ancient times, this coastal town bore the Greek name of Cysus. Once a fishing village, it was renamed Cesme, meaning "fountain", after the many natural healing springs in the area. Like Chios, Cesme was plagued by pirate attacks and a Genoese castle was built in 1508 to repel them.

Today, the hilltop castle dominates the city centre. I walk along its ramparts for panoramic views of Cesme and visit its archaeological museum, which has artefacts tracing the settlement's origins to as early as 196BC during the Roman era.

As holiday destinations, Chios and Cesme are intertwined as they make natural springboards for each another. It is easier and cheaper to get to Chios by ferry from Cesme than to fly from the Greek capital, Athens.

Cesme matches the sophistication of Chios Town with a marina similarly crammed with sleek yachts and surrounded by trendy bars and restaurants. It also has a seafront promenade for viewing glorious sunsets and lined with traditional Turkish wooden gulets offering day cruises to offshore islands for swimming and snorkelling.

But what makes Cesme special is its Mediterranean flavour, thanks to its stone houses with terracotta roofs. They make for a picture- postcard scene around the marina and harbour set against a backdrop of verdant mountains. The soaring minaret of a nearby mosque adds a distinctive Turkish touch.

Away from these houses, many of which are holiday homes of well-to-do city dwellers in nearby Izmir and Istanbul, is Cesme's old quarter, with its traditional Ottoman houses with wooden balconies and a 16th-century caravanserai that has been restored into a 29-room boutique hotel (www.cesmekervansaray.com.tr).

HEALING NATURAL SPRINGS

I seek out Cesme's famed healing springs at Ilica. A popular resort with sandy beaches and shallow waters, the thermal springs ooze direct from the seabed.

In a corner of Ilica Harbour, I walk down a rickety flight of steps to join several swimmers in an enclosed section of the sea to experience the sensation of hot mineral waters bubbling up to the surface and mixing with cool ocean water to provide a pleasant warm soak.

Later, at the Sifne Termal & Hotel (admission: 25 Turkish lira or S$10, www.cestur.com), I soak in its two outdoor thermal pools of different temperatures and discover the reason for the springs' allure.

On a board is a long list of minerals in the water, such as sulphur, iron, sodium, magnesium and calcium - all good for the skin and for curing body aches - and to which Ilica, meaning "hot springs", owes its name.

To slip into a soothing spring is a true Mediterranean pleasure. So it is little wonder that Cesme - and Chios - are the Aegean's twin coastal gems.

•Tan Chung Lee is a freelance travel writer who explores Europe from Turkey every year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'Twin jewels of the Aegean Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe