by Iosif and Ioulia Stefanou
We are in 1989. The changes in views and attitudes, in parallel with the progress of technology and the shift in the lifestyle, are shockingly rapid.
The generation that leads today, which is in control, is that of the German Occupation or that of the first after the war years. It is us who had the good fortune to live through, or the bad fortune to suffer, the extraordinary experience of those changes that have seen, in our lifetime, through us, the rock of Chora transformed, little by little, from a medieval hamlet into a contemporary settlement, with its own radio station, and Ermoupolis, from a poor, dilapidated and almost forgotten corner – even in 1970 there was not a map, not a mention for this deserted town in KEPE (Centre of Planning and Economic Research) and in the then Ministry of Coordination – today has reached the point where it is considered one of the higher per capita income towns in Greece.
Who would ever have thought thirty or forty years ago of such a transformation in the living and economic conditions of the inhabitants of Syros?
All this socio-economic change, in parallel with the prevalence of the general institutional law, which was valid for centuries on the Rock, has had, as was natural, its consequences and left a strong imprint on it. In the course of a few years one can note changes in buildings, streets and open spaces taking place, which in the past would have taken centuries.
Until the first years after the war, poverty, as well as the conservative attitude of the inhabitants of Ano Syros especially, limited the interventions to necessary small maintenance repairs while no radical changes in the facades or the volume of the buildings was conceivable.
In the fifties the General Construction Regulation was reinforced impersonally even in the remotest areas of the country. The now generalized use of cement, along with technical convenience, offered the potential of new forms.
Who, however, were they that would in this crucial moment pay attention to the local character of the islands? Not until ten years later did the Morphology Professor of the National Polytechnic, P. Michelis, start surveying some of the most characteristic buildings on each island with his students. He was aiming at a first recognition of their character at a time when the term ‘Popular Architecture’ had just begun being used among the most cultured architects.
Unavoidably then, the aesthetic model dominant in all of Syros did not differ in any way from that of the popular neighborhoods of Athens (Peristeri, Egaleo, Korydalos, etc.). This, fortunately, because of scale, was limited here to the size of houses.
During the seventies, Syros together with other islands was included in the important settlements that required protection. The turn that our country took towards the protection, conservation and promotion of our architectural heritage during this time, especially after Amsterdam World Congress in 1975, is known.
The new Constitution, the General Construction Regulation and all the newer relevant laws now deal with this subject.
The violent reaction of the inhabitants to their villages’ classification as important is also known, and was not without reason. We stress “not without reason” because of the inflexibility or the difficulty of adaptation of the administrative machine to the new situation: the time-consuming procedures which the protection scheme imposed meant that you could wait up to two years for a maintenance permit to fix a leaking roof.
Nevertheless, the whole endeavor, even at a slow pace, bore fruit. Today it is not considered utopian or especially difficult to repair a traditional house, while the conservation of the facades, at least of the neoclassical masterpieces of Ermoupolis. is deemed unquestionable by all.
This, however, does not mean that overall we have reached such a cultural level that the conservation and the continuation of our cultural heritage has become ingrained in us.
Most of the restorations of a building or of a set of buildings contain serious mistakes and efforts towards the creation of new buildings that comply with the characteristic architectural style are limited to some pseudo-neoclassical buildings in bad taste. Usually they offend the neoclassical style aesthetically with their gross mistakes in scale, number of openings, balconies with the pseudo-railing, pseudo-cantilevers and their absolutely unstudied cornices.
There is a corresponding weakness and poverty in the building concepts in the countryside. The typical farmhouse of Syros has been neglected entirely and everywhere. The new buildings – those built mainly to serve as a second residence – imitate the architectural style, often ridiculously, of other islands or even that of other countries, presenting a mixed fake Myconian-Spanish style with false arcades as thick as the brick wall, with curved beams in the roof – trellises and “thistly” black or white hinges.
In addition to the corruption and the estrangement from the local character, there is in the architectural scale one more dimension which should not be ignored in urban design and the wider character of the island.
Already the littoral villages of Kato Meria have been transformed into vacation resorts with beaches that boast nothing more than the crowded beaches of the other islands or of Attica. Their much-discussed development has happened in a completely unorganized and amateurish way and as a result we have, through consumption without the corresponding benefit, the destruction of their natural and cultural resources.
The capacity of the seaside, the sensitivity of the landscape, the capability of the other resources of the villages, the conservation and the promotion of the elements that make a place attractive have not been considered at all. Land speculation, the misuse of sites and the downgrading of their quality with makeshift and out-of-context constructions are visible on every coast in the south of the island.
Under these circumstances, the propositions of the Urban Report for the recognition of all of Apano Meria as an Urban Control Zone must be considered as the least means of prevention and as the least we owe to future generations.
The myth of perpetual development has already collapsed worldwide and we should not ignore international experience and, as in so many other cases, discover a fiasco fifty years later just because we are not willing to learn from the failures of others before us.
What does the term “Development of Apano Meria” mean for Syros? What does “Touristic Exploitation” mean? This is an element which is pursued with great insistence and pride in various plans.
Tourism is indeed a way to exploit the beauty of a place and of its natural and cultural resources, a way however, that has a great social, psychological and cultural cost.
This is the reason that special caution is needed whenever this sector is chosen for development. It is easy to sell our natural and cultural treasures cheaply but if investment is not done correctly, they will soon be deserted by the clients who, once they have consumed wastefully, will turn to new markets.
What is the per capita income of the inhabitants of Syros today? Statistics show that this income is so high that the sale of Syros’ precious resources for the sake of its accretion is in no way justified. Besides, in the way that touristic exploitation has been done till today, only in a few cases can we talk of the distribution of touristic income. As a rule this is destined to be circulated in very closed circles, enriching only certain owners.
What is the unemployment rate in Syros today that could justify the pursuit of such a precarious occupation, even as temporary solution for this problem? In this matter also statistics confirm that the unemployment rate is negligible in Syros.
For whom therefore are we going to sell out our heritage? Shall we bring human resources from other islands or other places in Greece to work in tourist services and to which development policy would such a project belong?*
*Translators note: This article was written in 1989, long before the economic crisis hit Greece.
What is the land use or development plan of this country that makes provisions for the reinforcement and population growth of Ermoupolis as well as its inter-Cycladic role? If there was something of the kind, it should be providing for the necessary investments. We are sure that in the case of such a plan being made the tourist sector would not be emphasized as the most important one.
As regards agriculture, the primary sector in Syros, after the terrible loss of human resources during the 40’s and the 50’s, it barely survives in Kato Meria with the constant decrease of those employed in it, because of their absorption into Neorio and the tourist sector, while in Apano Meria it fades away and disappears at a worryingly quick pace.
In the whole of the northern part of the island only one or two families in the most dynamic villages still offer some of their members to the least attractive – because of local conditions – agricultural sector. There is not even one young person who has chosen the farmer’s profession, that of a “peasant”, to take over from the generation that is already withdrawing.
Nevertheless the image of Apano Meria is not so bleak. A new form of amateurish cultivation of the land attracts the urbanized owners of the farmlands and the houses that are now used as summer residences. Even if not in an especially intense or traditional way, they cultivate and exploit the small terrace-fields, the small vineyards and more importantly they have developed a sizable beekeeping practice. Grapes, melons of arid cultivation and vegetables (high quality tomatoes, green beans, onions, etc.) and the very sought-after honey are the main products of those parallel occupations of the inhabitants of Apano Meria.
Moreover, this place with its tranquility and calmness composes one of the few “virgin unchanged places”: a sample of Greek insular nature but also of a long-lived tradition which should not in any way be downgraded.
The current tendency to open roads everywhere for the “development” of the villages, is not justified in reality. Today the term “development” should be replaced by the more appropriate term “revival”, since all the existing small villages and even the simple family habitations are served by roads already.
If we speak about opening roads towards the coasts for their development, this is equivalent to a proposal for their downgrading and destruction. The beaches of Apano Meria are especially beautiful just because they are virgin and wild. Their capacity nevertheless is so limited that five car-loadsof people would be enough to create overcrowding on most of them.
The fact that today one can with a relatively short trip by boat or by walking enjoy the beauty of Cycladic nature is a privilege that should not be easily sold off.
What would be the benefit of a road except for the construction of some houses and perhaps of an establishment that will serve visitors, offering – as a recompense for its incongruous presence in this place – some refreshments or lunch? But there are already many other places for those who are interested in feasting in convenience near the sea.
Galissas, Vari, Finikas, Agathopes, Kini, Megas Gialos offer many establishments, which are able to meet the needs of twice or three times the number of today’s customers, both from Syros itself and its visitors.
We are all in search of a new place, virgin and untouched. As soon as we find one, we interfere with it in such an indelicate way that even the presence of its first few visitors destroys, alters and downgrades it. Let’s consider, for example, Delfini, which till recently was beautiful and untouched. Soon it will not differ from Azolimnos or Megas Gialos, despite the difficulties that the dirt road presents.
But since the car has reached it, destruction is inevitable. Why are we in such haste to alter everything? Why do we still stress the necessity of road-opening where it is not only not needed, but on the contrary does harm?
It is unbelievable, but today, after all those years since the beginning of the reconstruction of our war-ridden country, we still preserve development standards of that period. Even today, in the minds of citizens and municipal governors road-opening means positive activity, progress, development… Moreover on the ground of opening a road which would made an Apano Meria beach accessible (the one at Koraki), the citizens of Ano Syros were convinced to vote in favour of the proposal to put the rubbish dump there. A decision that destroyed a place, which, because of its history, (it is located just below Ferekydes’s cave), but also because of its natural beauty, should long ago have been characterized as “a site of important beauty” and been protected.
However, the road-opening issue is not only one of aesthetics. Such an intervention creates various problems in the life of the fauna of this site. For example, the frequent passage of cars along a road in Apano Meria impedes the seasonal and wind-dictated movements of small wild animals from the east to the west side of the island and vice versa.
The crowds and the dense habitation of these areas affect beekeeping most negatively. The strictly regulated but also very sensitive laboring of this insect is widely known. From the cultural point of view the sites of Apano Meria have an outstanding beauty, an intense character and wide open views, which comprise their special aesthetic quality. In addition, they have a powerful and meaningful value, since almost every rock and every cave is linked to a story, a legend or a folk tale, which often has a link with its name.
Alithini, the Philosopher’s cave, Elliniko, Pigadi of Anevrouha, Chrysa Daxtylidia, Leontino’s cave, Apianos’ cave, Grammata, Kastri, Chalandriani, etc., all these places have a story or more to tell that show the popular wisdom and the inhabitants’ love for their island, the history and the fiction that make this rock’s inhabitants artists, poets and philosophers.
It is certainly worth examining, in a future presentation of Apano Meria, while there is still time, the symbolic and semantic side of these places with a narration and interpretation of all these stories and tales. Such an endeavor would remind the present inhabitants of their responsibility to their history and their place so as to avoid destructions such as that of Apianos’ Cave. This cave was blown up needlessly on a mere suspicion that it would yield more water which could be exploited along with that of Syringa. In the end the water was completely lost as if the cave, in revenge, swallowed its own source. A place linked with a romantic elopement in the last century was deformed and mutilated horribly.
Finally, another dimension which should not be omitted, is that of the virgin landscape which, formed by the various geological adventures of the island, displays an impressive range of rock formations: Chalara, Schizomenes andvarious individual rocks, which like meteorites appear suddenly in the most improbable places; the vertical slopes of the western coasts, such as those of Grammata , offer unique views as we approach them and they should be preserved at any cost as natural monuments.
The proposition of the Urban Report for the recognition of all of Apano Meria as an Urban Control Zone aims mainly to stop it being sold as building lots. It aims to prevent the disaster which would replace fields, fallow lands and rocks with plots and stone walls with barbed wire, the fragrant slopes of wild thyme with dumps. We have one of the few places in Greece in which you can walk for two hours on the mountain without coming across rubbish and detritus. We have not only the task, but also the moral obligation to save it, to leave it for the next generation, who may be more prudent, having learnt their lesson better and for sure they will be better educated, so as to be able to make their own choices for this heritage that was donated to us so generously by nature and our ancestors.
Source: Syriana Grammata, v. 8, 1989.
Translated by Aliki Tsoukala / Edited by Rupert Smith