Wednesday, March 2

Megisti Kastelorizo

Kastelorizo Harbor and Mosque
by Amy Stark

I'm sitting on the long balcony at "the Red House" where I rented a room. It overlooks the compact harbor town of Kastelorizo, a tiny Greek island tucked into the Turkish coast. When something breaks, when parts or supplies are running low, the locals are supposed to get their needs fulfilled by Greeks, in Greece. But the closest Greek neighbor is Rhodes, a 6 hour boat ride away. In reality, it's so much easier to just pop next door to the Turkish town of Kaş. As a result, this island has a much different relationship with Turkey than the rest of Greece, although somewhat clandestinely. In the harbor opposite from where I sit is the island's former Ottoman mosque which dates from the second half of the 18th century, and which has now been restored and re-opened as a museum. That doesn't happen too often in Greece.

Kastelorizo Harbor by Amy Stark
 I worked on this painting many days. My last day on the island I went out to finish the boat. The fisherman, when he came in early that morning, had tied it up parallel to the dock instead of perpendicular. Wrong! A local guy brought me to the fisherman's house. I definitely had interrupted either his lunch or his nap, but I showed him my painting and gathering my best Greek sentences together, asked him to please move his boat so I could finish the painting! 
And he did!

The ancient, and official, name of this island is Megistimeaning "Biggest" or "Greatest", though as I said, it is tiny. But for such a small place, I was amazed, there was always some drama going on, things are always happening. Perched on my balcony, I keep thinking: This is Theatre! I'm watching a non-ending performance. I've been on larger islands that were much more dull and sleepy. Here, boats always wandered in and out (especially high-end sailboats touring the coastline), but one day a flotilla appeared! Two large open boats, masts unfurled, filled with people. Packed with people. They hung onto everything that was hang-onto-able, looking as if they'd easily fall into the sea. This was definitely NOT a tour boat. They landed, came ashore and spread out. A few hours later they reboarded and left. I thought "every restaurant will be wiped out", as I headed into town to see if there was anything left to eat. But as Yianni explained to me, "they're from Turkey. They don't come to eat! They come over to buy tea and alcohol to take home!" And evidently, it occurs quite regularly.

The original Red Castle of the island name no longer exists. First the crusades, then WWII bombs took care of that. A modern one is perched in its place on the cliff opposite me, also overlooking the harbor.  My "home", the Red House, as the owner aptly calls it, was the Italian headquarters when wartime Italy occupied the island. I'm sure the plumbing was equally as precarious then.

This place has a very sad history, as do so many of the Greek islands. First it was Byzantine, then Egyptian, then ruled by Naples, the Ottomans, Venetians, Ottomans again, French, Italians, Ottomans again, and finally assigned to Greece with the Paris Peace Treaties in 1947. But during WWII, when the British occupied the island, they thought it prudent to evacuate all the islanders. Many had already emigrated to Australia. The remaining were removed to Cyprus (except for 1 very elderly man I met at dinner one night - he was the only one who had stayed!). Afterwards, their homes were burned in a great fire. Local lore has it that the British, after evacuating the inhabitants, set the houses on fire to prevent repatriation. Later, when it was finally safe to come home, 500 islanders were loaded onto an aging ship. Within sight of their island, the ship caught fire and sank. Today, many homes have been rebuilt, but burnt out houses are still here, bringing past to present. There are also empty plots of land with names sign-posted, like cemetery tombstones, marking a family home, should anyone come back to claim it. (As of my visit, they still resent the British, and are still waiting for reparations. As a result, the British tourists are the only ones they charge for "visas" to shuttle them across to Turkey.)

There are now about 200 inhabitants who have come "home" from Australia. Thick Aussie accents can be heard as you eat wonderful Greek food, in the Little Sydney taverna. And there is always something going on.

One last note: The wonderful Italian anti-war, Oscar-winning movie "Mediterraneo" was filmed on this island. They also thought it was a great location for drama! Tiny island. Megisti heart.