The natural scenery of Apano Meria
By Achilles Dimitropoulos
Here we meet some of the oldest vestiges of human presence on the island, these barren lands which for centuries have nurtured the people of Syros, these dry mountain tops will stay there to remind us of an old, different way of life, when the whole of Syros will have been inhabited densely, these mountain tops will remind us where we came from. For travelers, who make their first acquaintance with the island beholding its rocks and ridges, sailing by its northern part, for them, Apano Meria means Syra.
Long before Ermoupolis emerges in front of your eyes, even before the ship greets Saint Demitris’ church, Syringas, Chalandriani, Platy Vouni stand out. It is Syra for those who know, but also for those who are in a hurry to form an impression! There are people who lived all their lives in Ermoupolis or in some village and they have never visited Apano Meria. They stayed at the southern part of island and they loved it; they confined themselves in the narrow limits of their work within the town.
For many of us, nevertheless, the signs and vestiges of the human presence at Apano Meria are so amazing that you cannot consider yourself a fellow from Syros and never have visited Kastri.
From Ano Syra to Papouri and Syringa
We leave behind us the “Rock” of Ano Syra, we continue crossing the Cemetery of Angels at our right and down to the left Saint Thanassis. We will be back here when the crocus is blooming.
Taking the road uphill, we arrive at Finikia where the road splits it in the middle; there are houses to the deepest end of the gorge. Nowadays the water is transported by pipes that run across the whole area of the mountain. Anywhere there are reeds, water sources sure exist. Here and there you see well-kept gardens and even better kept houses, lost in the vertical mountainous scenery. In the crossroad we continue downhill for a short visit at Papouri. The road now reaches to the bottom. Faraway is Aetos. We go on a little farther, passing from one fallow field to another, but we must descend even lower. Rocks, sculpted as steps by the wind, bring us to the lowest point of the gorge.
All around us, the mountains are full of small and large caves. For centuries, these caves and ground openings, but also the horizontal hallows in the rocks were used as sheep sheds. Shepherds used them as they were or they completed them with stones and tin roofs; they blocked the “weak” points with thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum)or other thorny bushes to impede the animals from passing through. The more rigid and spacious constructions—that today are little by little falling apart—had been used as lodgings or simple dwellings, when agricultural work required a longer stay. Nearby were the sheep shed, the chicken coop and often the threshing yard.
Even today in Papouri these old constructions are used to corral cows and pigs or to shelter goats and sheep during storms. Nevertheless, stone walls and fallow fields fall apart as time goes by. The rocks, left bare by the wind and the saltiness from the sea, encircle the human constructions in such a way that one cannot tell them apart from a distance.
From Papouri we will go on uphill and then we will follow the road that leads to Syringa through Mavri Rachi. In Kyperousa where we will see Syros’ finest and most impressive fallow fields we will make a stop. Kyperousa is not only known for its twig of basil, as the old couplet goes, but mainly for the panoramic view it offers us. As if you were on an airplane, the Aegean Sea is spreading in front of you from the Aitos bay. This is a “real” Aitos (eagle) rock, with two unfolded wings. The road curves bring us higher in the mountain, in a short time we reach Mavri Rachi. The goats’ bleating—lots of goats scattered everywhere—is mingled now with the birds’ twitting. Leaving the trodden path, we enter in the fields, climbing over stone walls and sloppy fences that have almost crumbled down.
It is possible that in Apano Meria, there could have been a tenfold of species of birds than there are today, if there were not so intensive human activities there and if the dirt roads had not reached everywhere. The general impression is that of a gradual but steady retreat of nature and its creatures; at this place where, at least, many migratory shrikes flying over every year could rest and make their nests. It is obvious that in this place, one of the last extended wild parts of the island, people expand and intensify continuously their interventions.
Throughout Syra, and in Apano Meria, the most common bird is the Crested Lark (Galerida cristata). We meet it in most of the open, flat lands and fields of Apano Meria, as well as in cultivated areas. Even when it is dashing up vertically with a strong clap of its wings, we can discern its long scruffy crest and its red-brown feathers at the end of its tail. Its flight is strong, noisy and irregular especially when it raises high.
As we go on, crossing the cultivated fields laying among the fallow lands, we hear clearly the Crested Larks’ song in the humid morning air. From their delicate, musical song, stands out the characteristic fast, high-pitched sequence of sharp, tinkling notes that these birds produce as they fly and sound like “dou-e”. Very bold, sometimes larks spring up, only when we are very near to them after they have observed our movements camouflaged by their light brown color. Larks feed on seeds, sprouts and insects and are often seen pecking on a threshing yard and threshed fields. Sometime they snatch insects that rise from the feet of grazing donkeys.
The migration has already started and almost everywhere in Apano Meria we meet various flycatcher species of all age groups. These birds are standing inconspicuous places like stone walls, fences, on the top of bushes or rocks, and from there they rise and swoop with great skill and catch flying insects.
The common Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)is a very common species in Apano Meria. Their almost monochrome body stands out from the colorful contrasts of other related species. In the road that slopes down toward Syringa two flycatchers defend a temporary territory, bordered by an old wooden fence. Seated at the edge of poles or on the rusted wire netting, the flycatchers look out nervously around them, as much for avoiding a Peregrine Falcon that appears now and then above, as for snatching an insect or driving out “invaders” from their own species.
Sometimes they have a wavy flight landing always at the same spot. These standardized movements of the birds also declare their dominion of the place. Flycatchers fly lightly and float in the air skillfully; it is then when you can discern their long wings and the big characteristic head. Their color is always an indistinct gray-brown. Among the rest “black and white” flycatchers, with the intense contrasting colors, the most common is the Pied Flycatcher of Central Europe (Ficedula hypoleuca).
This species stands out for the poise of their body and their characteristic behavior, which also, stands on conspicuous spots, but flaps often its wings and has a different voice. Most of the males are dark on the upper body part in gray-black to pale gray-brown hues – and these “pale” males constitute the larger populations in Central and East Europe. Females do not differ a lot from the “pale” males, but they do not have the characteristic white spots on the head front. The darker of these males are almost black and white. These flycatchers that come from North, Central and East Europe stay long enough in Cyclades and on Syros, forming and defending small, temporary territories. Since the beginning of spring till late in autumn insects are abundant in Apano Meria, especially those insects that are food for many bird species. It is rare today to come across such a great variety of insects.
“Meroupes”, the Blue Rock Thrush, (Monticola solitarius),are Famous in Syros. In our visit in Apano Meria we were lucky to observe two related species, the Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius)who lives on the island all year around and the migratory Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis). We find the “Meropes” or “Meroupes” always in warm, sunny mountain slopes or cliffs down the sea level but also in ruins or stone walls. It is a shy nervous and skillful bird that sometimes stands high on the rocks or hunts big insects dashing down from its position with a light wing flapping. The male is characteristically gray light-blue and in autumn acquires light gray edges in most of its feathers.
The female is of a brown color with many densely arrange stripes on the under body part. The Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitariu)has a melodious song and her voice reminds the voice of the Blackbird, with shorter sounds like those of a flute. Many times they chatter melodiously, adding to those pleasant sounds short cries similar to those of the Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Seen from a near distance, her eyes appear big and expressive.
The Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis) is more colorful than “Meroupas” (Monticola solitarious), especially males with their spring plumage, in gray light-blue and orange hues: at the rear part of their back there is a white spot that varies in size. As it flies from Syringa toward the sea, the male reveals its orange colored feathers of its tail shining in the sun. The song of the Rock Thrush consists of thinner, sharper sounds than that of “Meroupas”. They also emit a series of high pitched, sharp sounds followed by a long rattling voice. It eats insects, worms, lizards and small animals as well as fruits. It is migratory and arrives in Cyclades in April.
Related to above species, the Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica)is of the commonest birds of Apano Meria. A beautiful black and white bird showing an incredible variety of designs and hues in relation to sex, age and season, it appears similar to “Meroupa” (Monticola solitarious)in its movement and “nervousness” as it flies spreading out its impressive black long wings and its black and white broad tail. The one year old males are brownish and look a lot like the females.
Early at dawn and at dusk, the mountains all around Apano Meria echo the cackles of the Chucar Partridge (Alectoris chukar).Partridges are still common birds at the northern part of Syros, although their population seems to go up and down and depends on hunting as well as on weather conditions during breeding season.
Two of the rarest bird species of Syros, the Raven and the Peregrine Falcon, cannot be seen nowadays anywhere else but in Apano Meria. There were never many ravens on Syros and today there are left no more than two or three pairs. The Raven is big and pitch black and flies with its wings and tail spread out, with its primary flight feathers very open like fingers. Especially when they are changing feathers, these are spread out even more and their sight becomes very distinctive.
Seeing her flying, inspecting the ground from high, with her metallic black color shining in the sun, we forget that the Raven belongs to passerines (or … songbirds) as the Goldfinch of the Canary, of which, she is the largest. She eats corpses, rubbish, small animals and vegetal food. Around Syringas she hunts big insects and visits the nearby landfill often. The Raven is not easily approached; she avoids being very near people and we often see her flying away while she emits a deep guttural cry, a lot deeper than the cry of the Hooded Crow.
For a short time, exactly over Syringas’ source, a Peregrine Falcon appears flying. The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)is one of the largest and most potent falcon species and one of the most skillful hunters living today. They feed on birds that catch on flight; their body structure facilitates the great velocity of their flight. The stable presence of the Peregrine Falcon in Apano Meria is related to the existing populations on all of the neighboring islands, especially on Kea, Andros and Tinos. Peregrine Falcons enjoy good living conditions near the sea, and at least on Syros, they hunt seabirds, domestic pigeons and Rock Doves, a great variety of passerines’ species, as well as corvids, mainly Hooded Crows.
We see them, always solitary, over the sea, as they fly against the rocks and the slopes of Apano Meria in the background: they fly rather swiftly before they turn and sit on a stone. Their presence is often betrayed by flocks of frightened small birds that fly away. Female Peregrine Falcons are larger that the males; adults have gray light-blue backs while the young ones are brown. When they fly, Peregrine Falcons’ figure is much stronger and “angular” than that of any other falcons on the island.
From Mavri Rachi to Kambos and Sa-Michalis
We leave behind Syringas tracing back our steps and we turn into the road for Kambos. We go on quickly following the path that leads to Lia. The reed beds, wherever are found in Apano Meria, indicate the presence of water, as in Helliniko; in our way to Lia they form a wall at the edges of the path. There around, beekeepers water their donkeys before they start for their beehives. What stands out in the area, for those of us who come from Athens or other urban areas is the air we breathe here; a humid sea air, full of flower and earth scents especially after a short spring shower.
Open sea air, together with the dazzling light and the bare mountain slopes: here is Syros more than anywhere else. Opposite we can see clearly, side by side, the islands of Andros and Tinos. Here and there, from Syringas to Sa-Michalis we meet many semi-wild, feral cats. We have seen more before, in Chalara. They are house cats that little by little have gone away from their houses and have become wild. Some come near people inhabiting the area only in the summer and the rest of the year they hunt rodents and birds.
It is not difficult to figure out where some of these cats come from as we approach the now deserted Sa-Michalis. A characteristic case of an abandoned village, Sa-Michalis seems alive yet, as if its inhabitants have gone to a nearby religious festival. The stone, rough path which becomes the village’s main little street, goes a little uphill till it reaches the slope’s edge. Left and right deserted farmhouses fall apart; we see a chicken coop with a few hens at the roadside and, looking towards the sea and the lower hilltops, a group of sheep and some cow sheds with their, now legendary, threshing yards. We enter the sheds where animals were sheltered from yesterday night’s rain. The wind is blowing hard towards the sea over the stone roof, carrying away a Hooded Crow down the slopes. Sheep are grazing around the top.
From Sa-Michalis to Chalandriani and Plati Vouni
We turn to the road of Chalandriani. We pass from Psycha and early in the morning we arrive at Plati Vouni. In Plati Vouni we walk from the first to the last village house, as we did in Sa-Michalis and surprise! A completely different sight awaits us. Plati Vouni is inhabited in winter too. Lately even new inhabitants came to be added to the existing ones.
This new human force gives vigor and life to the village and a two to three hours talk under a vine arbor with a morning coffee, reveals a lot. From the older ones we learn details unfolding the past as far as the First World War, and from the younger ones we are informed about the degradation that the immediate and the wider environment have suffered. It was long time since we had met with such a combination of local and foreign inhabitants of Syros and witnessing a gradual and welcomed interaction.
In the way straight on to Ai Dimitris, Plati Vouni is developed with new housing settlements, for example, over there, farther than Vaporia, near the old, dating before the war, farmhouses of Apano Meria. Somewhere here the borders are defined too, near the yard of the new house of Plati Vouni, we stop our tour. We will come back, as promised. We, as well as others, will sometime come back. We hold a surprise for ourselves when we will see Sa-Michalis inhabited again.
Translated by Aliki Tsoukala / Edited by Constantine Hatziadoniu