The stone houses of Kontias.
They return to Kontias because it is the home that they were born in or where their fathers or mothers were born.
The villages of Lemnos remain largely unknown and undiscovered beyond those regular visitors to the island. Like many of Greece’s villages, they remain beautiful secrets to be discovered.
Kontias is lies to the west of the Mudros Bay, standing astride one of the main routes overland to the capital at Myrina and to the thermal baths at Therma. Its heart lies along the road from Portianou and on to the great beach at Evgatia. Kontias is an old village on Lemnos.
In July I was fortunate to have stayed here as a guest, learning of its local history and traditions – and its connection to Australia’s Anzac story.
Like all Greek villages, it has its churches, village square and welcoming and well patronised tavernas, servicing its winter population of around 600. But one of the things that strikes you immediately as you walk around the winding lanes of the town is its architecture. And magnificent it is.
Yes, like many Greek villages there are many abandoned or long forgotten houses and buildings. Telling of wealthier times and large families, these deserted homes are like ghosts of a lost past.
These are proud reminders of Kontias’ prosperous agricultural and fishing past. The first to produce cotton on Lemnos, Kontias was the home of one Mr Papagiannis, the owner of a fleet of sixty boats.
But one of the things that strikes you about Kontias is its architecture, its beautiful solid stone houses and buildings. For this village has retained its traditional architecture. I walk the lanes taking photographs of these amazing structures.
The restoration of these lovely stone houses is an impressive example of how modern living can be married with heritage. Yes, double glazed windows and solar panels have been installed, as well as indoor bathrooms and satellite television. But the stone walls and plaster, the rich tan roofing tiles with their Hellenistic cornices, the beautiful door frames – all reflect the traditional character of this old Lemnian village.
A Melbourne friend told me that much of the woodwork – window and door-frames – was completed by her grandfather – including the impressive church doors and panelling. There is much that remains of the hardy carpentry of her grandfather – some awaiting loving restoration.
The historic nature of the village is not restricted to the houses. The lanes and alleys reflect their history as donkey or mule cart tracks of old.
Above the village stands its row of well-restored windmills. Once the centre of the village economy, essential to the grinding of grains, these towering structures lie largely abandoned and ruined across the island. While these wrecks of a bygone era are evocative, it is great to see those in Kontias given new life as boutique accommodation for visitors.
As if to remind everyone of the connection to the past, Kontias looks up to the lovely little church of Agios Ioannis. Unlike most of the hills and mountains on Lemnos, this one has been spared the ravages of the herds of goats that devour all in their path. Perched above its treed surrounds, the church stands above the village below. It is a great experience to walk to its summit at daybreak, giving views across to Diapori and Portianou, Mudros and Kontias Bays, as well as to Evgatia to the west.
In 1915 the Anzacs came to Kontias, and they recorded their time here in photographs and their writings. One shows them walking through the village, across one of its many lanes and alleys, on their way for a coffee or maybe to the baths at Therma or a swim at Evgatia. Another shows the broad expanse of Kontias’ nearby bay, a harbour for Allied ships. And there is another taken at the time of a funeral procession through the village.
Sister Olive Haynes, a nurse at one of the nearby Australian hospitals, wrote home telling of her visit to Kontias on the 9th January 1915.
“… We’ve had such nice weather lately – we have been awfully lucky. The other afternoon Sister Daw and I walked to Kondria [sic], such a pretty little port over the other side. We bought mandarins and nuts and ate them in a shop. The Greek kids gathered round saying ‘Australia very good, very nice. Turco finish’.
When Australian Signaller AH Edmonds described walking through the steep and narrow lanes of Kontias, describing some of the laneways as “merely flights of steps”, he could be talking about today. And one of the features he also noted was the tavernas, or “smoking clubs”, writing:
“These villages boast smoking clubs, where members bring their own mouthpieces for attachment to a “narghile” – a Turkish apparatus for smoking tobacco, in which the smoke is drawn through water by means of a long flexible tube.
The Australian 21st Battalion’s Corporal Ivor Alexander Williams wrote of the village’s windmills and the fertility of the land surrounding the village, both features of Kontias that remain to this day:
“On the other side of town is a row of their windmills. These are round stone structures of two storeys. The windmill is a series of sticks (6) all strapped together like a wheel and each is attached to a sail. This connects with a pinion wheel which turns an immense stone on top of another thus crushing the grain. Beside this is the village drinking well. The water of which is periodically blessed. All this is surrounded by very fertile fields.”
When the Anzacs arrived, Kontias would have thronged with people. It had around 1,200 residents then, making it the third largest village in Lemnos. Yet the years ahead would see its population decline, especially after the Second World War. Many of these villagers made their way to a new life in Melbourne.
Many of these now return in summer, trebling the population of the village. Sitting in the tavern or on nearby Evgatia beach, the sounds of Australia ring in the ears. “Where are you from?” someone asks, “Caulfield”, they reply. “Did Collingwood beat Carlton on Saturday?” asks another. There are so many people from Melbourne, you could for a minute forget where you are. But not for long.
They return to Kontias because it is the home that they were born in or where their fathers or mothers were born. Many of the restorations have been carried out by these returning Lemnians, renewing their traditional family homes. It’s obvious that these returnees are very much proud of being Australian, but returning to Kontias connects them with their roots in the old world.
But a village is not merely stones and mortar. Kontias has a lively population that indulges in all the pleasures of community. They share the rich and tasty home grown produce from their gardens and the fields surrounding the village. The rich volcanic soil of Lemnos delivers an abundance of produce – from walnuts and figs, watermelons, pomegranates and berries. I can still taste the sweet watermelons that Anastasia and Panayiotis shared with me for breakfast one sunny morning.
One day I take the walk to nearby Profiti Ilias. It’s one of the tallest mountains on the volcanic island and takes about 2 hours to walk. My walk is in the footsteps of the Anzacs, for it was here that the Australian, George Renwick, climbed to survey the great Allied armada of 200 ships in Mudros Bay in 1915. And he left behind a spectacular photograph.
The walk is full of the nature and history of the area – from the amazing smelling wild Rigani, the roaming donkeys, an Ottoman-era fountain to the great church on the top of the mountain. And here is the amazing view – from Kontias and Mudros Bay below, to Evgatia and Myrina, and to Agios Dimitrious and Therma.
Standing at the summit, thinking of George Renwick and 1915, it’s easy to feel the strong connection between Lemnos and Australia.
Other villages on Lemnos have their advantages too. Portianou, its links to the Anzacs clear in its cemetery. Tsimandria has its taverned platea with its restored historic bridge, commemorating Lemnos’ liberation in 1912-13. Platy has its wonderful beach and houses clinging to the mountainside. Kotsinas boasts its fish restaurants and great views of Samothraki. Mudros, with its great cathedral and war cemetery, looks out over Mudros Bay and begs one to imagine the Anzac fleet of 1915. But these are other stories.
But this year, I spent some time in Kontias and learned to appreciate its own special treasures. If you are ever on Lemnos, take the time to visit Kontias and admire its stone reminders of the past.
* Jim Claven, MA, is a historian, published author and tour leader, who is completing research into the Anzac presence in Greece during WW1 and WW2, especially the role of Lemnos in the Gallipoli campaign. He thanks his local Lemnian friends, especially Joe, for their sharing of their village and its life.