Tuesday, 31 December 2013

I Love Gardens

 I Love Gardens

Perhaps this is because I’m English and grew up with gardens all around me. As a child I loved wandering and dreaming in my wealthier grandmother’s garden, imagining all kinds of wonderful scenes. But this was not where I made my first garden, no, that was in the backyard of my other (less wealthy) grandma’s garden. I was about five years old and wanted to make a garden, and the only place seemed to be right on the top of an old air-raid dugout. The problem was that on top of this dugout there was very little soil. As I think of it I’m pretty sure that I planted Alyssum, a Mediterranean plant that grows easily from seed. I think it was a wise gardening uncle who gave me a packet of Alyssum to sow here. It is almost fool proof and forms pretty cushions of white scented flowers.

Alyssum is a typical Mediterranean, a low growing ‘cushion’ plant coming from the mountains of Spain and France, another form comes from coastal districts of Central and Eastern Mediterranean. In England this plant is also known as Sweet Alice. The white variety, called Little Dorrit, is sweet scented and blooms profusely. I brought a packet of seed with me to Greece and planted it in the herb bed, and now I have it appearing every year somewhere in the garden. I just cut back when the plants become straggly, and each year there are enough new plants throughout the garden to keep me happy.

I have made gardens in every place I have lived - Lemnos is no exception. Though it was never going to be easy to get a garden going here, we were only going to live there for half of every year, the area looked like an uncared for playing field, the summers were continuously hot with no rain, and the nurseries were very limited. But we did have a well, and so I started drawing up plans.

First Garden Plan

Ancient Greek and Roman Gardens

To make a Mediterranean garden, of the sort I dreamed of, is uncommon in Greece. You can see them in France and Italy, and while there are a few flower and leisure gardens in Greece they are rare. In fact this has always been so in Greece. Historically Greek gardens have been used to beautify temples or to decorate a few recreational spaces. This is because the Greeks have long been people who valued sporting competitions, intellectual debate, and sculpture, with little time and effort given to the cultivation of private gardens. If there were Greek gardens these were functional farm gardens, for the purpose of growing fruit. Even in the period when other arts in Greece were rapidly advancing to their highest point of development, we hear nothing about a Greek garden culture. In fact it seems that this democractic people watched any such development with a jealous eye, seeing this as a form of personal excess.

However in Crete there reigned royal families who lived in peace protected by the sea. Here there were no fortress walls and we can see a love of the plants in the ornamentation of their vessels and on the frescoes that decorated their rooms.

It was in the Roman civilization that gardens become more developed, for instance the ornamental family and public gardens found in the city of Pompeii. Each large house there had a garden that was regarded as a place of peace and tranquillity – a refuge from urban life. The Roman gardens were also places filled with religious and symbolic meanings.

'Over a fifth of the site evacuated at Pompeii was devoted to gardens, vineyards and cultiation, and over a third of the homes were centred around a garden, with apartment dwellers keeping pots on terraces and balconies... Ornamental gardens were surrounded with walls decorated with frescoes of birds and flowers, and with the arrival of piped water under Augustus, fountains and basins became a viatal part of a conspicuous display of wealth, with the added benefit of cooling the garden.'
'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum', display at The British Museum, London, 2013.

Our courtyard, place of tranquillity and meetings

Horticulture on Lemnos Island

Lemian horticulture today is still mainly centered around plantings for practical purposes. The men tend their allotments, the women gather horta and grow herbs in pots.

On farms the Lemians keep sheep, goats and pigs and grow wheat and grapes. The food they prepare is largely based upon these staples. Sheep are kept for their milk and wool.
Lemnos has long produced thyme honey, ewe’s milk cheese, known in Greece as kalathaki, meaning ‘small basket’ and the wine that Homer referred to when he wrote about Agamemnon reprimanding his soldiers for their laziness and wine drinking, ‘Once while in Lemnos…drinking wine in overflowing glasses.’

I wanted to grow vegetables and fruit trees, but I also wanted to bring into our garden some of the natural beauties  of the island...

Thyme covered

Beaches and Seashores                            

Sea Daffodils

Beside having a source of water in our well, the other great asset was the fact that Greece naturally has such a great variety of plants. I did buy somethings from the nurseries, but I also collected plants from the roadsides and hills. These are tough Mediterranean wild plants and while some like tougher conditions than they got in my garden (and expired from too much attention), many other have survived and even threaten to take over.

These plants are the result of the juxtaposition of two great continents and the existence of many separated islands between them. Thus, many different varieties and species have developed close to each other but separated by the sea from each other.
Today we can find more than 6,000 species of plants in Greece, and in proportion to its size Greece has more species of flowers than any other European country, or even the United States.

Books on Mediterranean Gardens

Carol Drinkwater, The Olive Route: A Personal Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean (Orion  Publishing Co., 2007) With many interesting stories of people she visited along the way Drinkwater tells of her travels around the Mediterranean to find out more about the history of olive growing.

Carol Drinkwater knowns for her television acting career,‎

Maria Letizia Tani and Adrea Innocenti’s book on the Flowers of Greece (English Edition, Bonechi Florence, 2004) offers a clearly illustrated and funcionally organized list of Greek flowering plants.‎

Friday, 27 December 2013

Furno, Guesthouse, Terrace

 Furno, Guesthouse, Terrace

Old Furno

When we first came to assess the project I took a number of photos of the house, interior and exterior, the garden and some outbuildings. There were two main outbuildings, one was a tumbled down old ‘furno’ building. That was where the food had once been prepared. The other appeared to be an old wash-house.  When we came back to begin work the next year we employed two Albanian stone masons to help us rebuild the back wall and the old furno.

‘Since we couldn’t start work immediately on the roof, Takis was on the lookout for helpers to work on some of the other most pressing jobs, particularly on the walls along the back and front boundaries and those that had collapsed around the furno building. He finally asked Anestis if he could recommend a good stonemason and the next day he turned up with another Albanian, a large fellow called Marcos. Now Marcos was as strong as Anestis but in bulk he could make three of the little man. And whereas Anestis worked quietly, Marcos had a loud voice and was very temperamental. He’d order Anestis to get this or carry that, and told him off when his directions weren’t followed. We soon discovered that when Marcos was happy he sang loudly, and when he was not so cheerful he shouted at Anestis. One day I asked Anestis and Marcos how I could greet them when they arrived. Miremengjes, Marcos told me, was like saying ‘Yia sou’. He and Anestis would grin each morning when I attempted it. ‘

A few years later we had complete this project and had turned the ruined bake-house into three separate areas, the rebuilt furno, a guest room, and a carpentry workroom for Takis.


Next to the House a Guest House-Workroom 

From the very first year we began working on the project we had guests. The first year we had four, but since then it has usually been about ten a year. Having the guest room set up even before the house was ready was very helpful.

‘Phone calls and emails had helped to keep our children and grandchildren in touch with us, and what we were doing. But it was so much better seeing them in person, and one summer the two oldest grandchildren arrived with their mother. Melinda is Takis’ oldest daughter, and she and her two boys were the first to stay in our ‘furno’ guesthouse. The boys had a wonderful time swimming every day and getting to know two of our neighbour’s nephews. That summer we also accommodated my younger son, who stayed for a couple of weeks, and my daughter, who called in briefly on her way back from a sporting engagement. Koula and George, Takis brother also came for their usual stay, as did a cousin from Canada.’

Vines:  Shade givers and scent givers ....

Jasminum officinale 
This is the common white jasmine, it is the one that I have growing in several places around the garden. It is a summer flowering jasmine and usually needs a lot of room as it spreads in all directions. It can almost be too prolific – I filled a whole trailer with clippings from a plant we had climbing up a pillar from our city flat courtyard. In Lemnos two plants common jasmine plants needed some early encouragement but are now doing well, growing along the two fences leading to the cloths drying-area, and I have recently planted another to grow up the wall of the Well House.

Another lovely jasmine is the Chinese Jasmine, Jasminum polyanthum which has pink buds that open into a mass of fragrant white flowers. Takis remembers jasmines from his days in Alexandria. As children they would make ‘daisy chains’ of jasmine to hang around their necks.
Like the Star Jasmine these too are native to woodlands and like to scramble up and over pergolas and fences. Once established they can cope with relatively little summer watering.  

Virginia Creeper, 

Parthenocissus quinquefolia (five lobs). This five lobed plant is very vigorous and will grow a stem as thick as a tree trunk. It does not cling as much as the three lobed Virginia Creeper. It has been a great cover-plant for our pergola (along with wisteria and a passion fruit). So now we can eat lunch in the summer sitting under deep shade, surrounded by the brightly lit garden all around us.
Parthenocissus tricuspidata (three lobs) also called Boston ivy is self clinging and I have planted two plants to climb the house walls, much to Anestis displeasure as he had just painted the house and its suckers leave marks on the painted surface that are hard to get rid of. However I have seen it used in England on old houses, and feel that it can also help to cool the house, so we have struck a deal and he will allow it in two patches, and trims them back twice a year. It tends to go a deeper autumn red that the five lobed variety of Virginia Creeper.

This is a south American plant with vivid bracts that nowadays are produced in variety of colours. I had a variety in Loch Sport called Tango Supreme (light blue) and planted it over the fence by the back door. It grew slowly but was doing well. In Emerald I found the common purple-mauve variety (bougainvillea glabra) growing on the fence between us and our neighbours. This variety is more cold tolerant than other species. It blooms spring-summer and has grown very large, acting as a useful screen. And even though the cold winters knock it back hard it will soon be just as vigorous. In Lemnos I have bought a pretty pink variety and planted it next to Takis’ workroom. It also gets knocked back each winter, but survives and regrows, though much less vigorously than my Australian plant. I am planning to plant a glabra in Lemnos hoping that placing it by the front gate between a pine and the wall it will be sheltered from the cold winds and winter snows.


Takis memories of groups gathering on the back terrace. Neigbours remember twenty or more of the Mavrellies family sitting around small tables out there after siesta, playing cards.

‘For a time all Takis and I could discuss was how to take up, re-level and then re-lay the outside terrace. Eventually the two strong Albanians heaved and wheelbarrowed each stone separately, and stored them all in a heap in the garden. When that was done Marcos re-leveled and laid the steel reinforcement over the whole area. He would start each day singing, while Anestis would fire up the wonderful Memorial Day Cement Mixer and begin churning out one cement-load after another. Takis had to get on the phone again to ask for new deliveries of sand and gravel and more bags of cement. The amount we were using horrified and silenced me, as I’d been accustomed to expressing my disgust at the way Greeks use cement with abandon, and here we were doing the same.
Though it had been a very big job to take up the pavers, it looked like being an even harder job to put them back. Each stone was not just unbelievably heavy but also of a different size. What were we to do?
‘We don’t have to put them where they were before, nor do they have to be laid as tightly,’ I said, while trying to lay the breakfast table.
‘I’m sure there’s a way to put these pavers back down again.’
 ‘Why go to all that trouble?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps we could use them somewhere else, and you could use ordinary crazy paving stones,’ I suggested, trying to get out the tea caddy from the cupboard behind him.
We’d have loved to put the stones back where they came from, but in the end we could see it was impossible, especially as we also had to maintain a slope to drain the surface water away from the house. But that morning we couldn’t come to an agreement, so we decided we’d have to leave the pavers where they were in the garden for a while. And eventually we did decide to lay crazy paving, which, though not as beautiful, was more practical. (In the end the old pavers were used to make some very distinguished garden walks.)'

Honeysuckle (Lonicera, Ayioklima)
This plant, like the rose, had a name I could easily remember because it was so applicable, Ayioklima, meaning the ‘climbing saint’. There are about 180 species of Lonicera in the Northern Hemisphere. In my garden I have one variety from a root I took from Ourania’s garden. But whether it is Italian, Etruscan or Common I’m not sure. The first plant spread and covered a high screening fence outside the laundry and I have another on a high fence between the vegetable garden and the shade walk. Both of these need to be occasionally cut back when they twine into nearby plants. I planted another on a wall near our outdoor dining area. A good place to get a waft of scent at breakfast time.

Grape Vine
And over the top of me in this picture is an old grape vine. This has been here many years. It does not produce good eating grapes as they always have a heave mould on them, no matter what we do. But the vine does produce shade over our breakfast table.

Monday, 23 December 2013


Home in Greece

This blog is about the retirement adventure of two Australians, one a Greek-Australian (Takis) and the other an English-Australian (Julia).

We had both been married before and we had six children and six grandchildren between us. That should have kept us pretty busy, but when I retired from academia and my husband retired from business we both felt like we needed a new project. Thus, when an opportunity opened to renovate an old house in Greece we decided to take it up.

The house today

Our story began after my husband went for a holiday with his brother and two sisters to an old family house on the island of Lemnos.

The seed of the idea was planted in Takis’ mind on that holiday by a physiotherapist. He had to visit her as he had strained his back bending to lift a huge watermelon from the bottom self of a fridge. The suggestion was that Takis apply for a grant to renovate the old house as a hotel.

The hotel did not eventuate but I could say our house in Greece had its beginnings with that watermelon.

It was from that moment, that suggestion,  our adventure began; an adventure that involved ….

dreaming        retiring       journeying      reclaiming       

  purchasing       renovating        rebuilding        renewing

The next year a key was procured

The year after the roof of the house was repaired

And in the following years many walls were rebuilt, shutters renewed, floors taken up and heaps of painting - inside and out - was done.

Sometimes we had time to do a Greek Dance

Sometimes we had time to go to a taverna

But for the most part the next ten years was taken up with renovation work - for at least six months every year.

We (Takis and I and our good helper Anestis) have found ourselves continuously….

 finishing off      redecorating     gardening      preserving  

And, of course cooking for our many family guests from Greece, Australia, America and England (usually about ten a year arrive on our doorstep, staying for days, weeks or even months)

                 Wishing you all a Happy New Year


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Summer Sojourners, Winter Emigres

Summer Sojourners, Winter Emigres 

One year our Greek garden filled briefly with wrens, and another year with robins – probably on their migratory path from Africa to Europe. I was thinking about the way these birds like us moved from country to country with the seasons, and I wrote a poem called Sojourners.

Birds in the birdbath (taken through the kitchen window)


After journeying
The swifts in May and the Tits in June,
Stop on the island.
Following the sun to our garden.

Just for a while,
Up in the sky and down on the ground,
They swoop for insects,
Improving our beautiful garden

Sojourners all
We come for the warmth of Europe in spring,
Cutting and pruning
Shaping the plants in our garden.

Voyaging again,
When the winds blow, like birds in autumn
We fly to south,
Saying goodbye to the garden.

In autumn we watch the clouds gather
(no clouds all summer!)

Clouds add to the spectacle of sunset (especially the clouds over Mount Athos)

And then we lock the gates and close the doors and leave once more for Australia. 

A Book of Greek Poetry I've enjoyed

Greece in Poetry, edited by Simoni Zafiropoulos (Harry N. Abrams. Inc., 1993). Seeing a country through its poet’s eyes gives yet another dimension to its history. This book has a delightful collection of ancient and modern Greek poetry, each poem illustrated with artwork that spans the rich visual history of Greece.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

December/January: here and there

 DecemberJanuary: here and there

Temperature today: 23C rising to 38 in four days time.

Australia is a very large continent, and there are many different climates. There can be floods in Queensland, fires around Sydney, and here in the south we might be having hail, all on the same day. And in fact that did happened last month. Also, although many nationalities make up the population, and there are many different celebrations, so many are from Europe with a Christian heritage Christmas is very important. Probably more so as a family celebration than a Christian one.

Christmas starts in the shops on November 1st when people start looking for good Christmas buys, and magazines begin to fill with articles on what to buy for him, for her, for the kids and so on. There are also articles on how to make your own decorations, on how to roast a turkey, and what to wear to a party – with the emphasis on the expectation of hot weather. So BBQ’s are favoured, and sundresses are light.

An Australian (Melbourne) Garden in December

A Xmas quote that was up for discussion in the writing group I go to.

‘I do like Christmas on the whole…In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill. But it is clumsier every year.’ E.M.Forster

                               Our xmas tree this year

You may also have read this quotation, so true!
‘There are three stages of a man’s life: He believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus.’ Author Unknown.

Takis will probably once again dress up as Santa Claus at the  party given by his daughters and including his grandchildren.

Granddaughters opening presents

And then, in Australia, after all the eating and feasting the country enjoys a long summer holiday, with families leaving the city for the beaches, often staying there until it is time for children to go back to school in February.

December/January in Lemnos

Temperature today: 10C staying the same for the next four days.

hail stones 
and rain

December can get some early snow falls, though January is more likely to get snow and rain and may be very windy. I have some wonderful pictures, taken by a neighbour, of our house with snow-drifts half way up the door frames. On snowy days such as these the schools are closed. And Anestis has told us there are days when it is so windy he can't ride his bike, or even step outside the house. However this extreme weather quickly moves on, and though it might be windy or cold it is often sunny in winter in Lemnos.

My Lemnian Garden after a light fall of snow

One year we visited Athens in January and we were privileged to attend a New Year party with relatives and friends.  That was quite some time ago, just before the Greek Olympics, and at the time we were still wondering whether we would commit to a great big renovation project in Greece.

It all began with a watermelon

‘New Year’s Eve was filled with family and celebrations in a unit on the top of a block of flats in one of the city suburbs. The story of their possession of this unit was a familiar one. The owner’s father, a doctor, had once lived here in one of the old classical Athenian houses that filled the city at that time. After the war they’d sold the house to developers, who then built a block of flats, giving them the penthouse.
That New Year’s night we sat with the family and their friends in this penthouse, around a table laden with all kinds of Greek delights – dips like tzatziki and taramasalata, main dishes like lamb fricassee and braised beef with lemon, followed by various honeyed sweets and a Christmas pudding. Yes, Christmas pudding was there too! It appeared the owner’s mother was from England and had kept this English tradition going.
At midnight, from the balcony we watched fireworks sparkle above the city and all around the Parthenon. The display was more lavish than usual, celebrating the handing over of the city to a new mayor, a woman who would guide the city through the Olympics. And, we speculated, perhaps into a new era? Takis said he thought this was a shrewd move on the part of the city councillors in case anything went wrong with the Games. I countered that the choice probably had as much to do with the fact that a woman might be able to bypass male pride and the tortuous deals whereby messon (insider help) was sought and given to get a job done. I was fast learning that this was the usual style of allocating contracts in Greece, since contracts weren’t given to the contractors who gave the best (in all senses of the term) quotes, rather they were awarded to friends or to contractors who gave ‘donations’ to city councillors.
This was such a well-known practice that it was openly talked about around the table, with those present indicating that not only at the top but at every aspect of business a similar approach prevailed. My heart sank when I heard this. How could we consider doing business here?’

A picture of me at Marina Port, rugged up for winter

After the party we went to Lemnos for a short visit though at that time I had yet to learn about the local Christmas/New Year traditions. It was a few years later that my neighbour Vetta invited me to go with her to see her old home in the hills behind our house. It was a mild September day and a beautiful walk, though the hills were still dry as the rains had not yet arrived. We walked to a little stone hut high on a hillside where Vetta, her two sisters and brother had been raised. Nowadays this structure is only used by the sheep, but at that other time her mother grew flowers and basil in the small forecourt.

Behind the hut was another structure that I was very interested to see. It was here that three little pigs were housed. Every week I had to save any stale bread we had for Vetta and she then passed the bag of stale bread on to her brother to feed to his pigs. It was fun to see these happy and inquisitive porkers, though a bit worrying to know that they were being fattened up for New Year chops.

Three little pigs

Christmas is not as important as Easter in Greece. Easter is when folks give presents and prepare a great feast. But on the day after Christmas there is a tradition on the island (and maybe in other places in Greece) of slaughtering the family pig and then preparing every part of it for winter food, and especially for the coming New Year feast.

I later read in a Lemian cookery book (written by another neighbour and my good friend Ourania) that in the past the meat was salted and fried in its own fat, then preserved in big earthenware pots. This preserved meat is called kavurmas. The fat is cut into small strips and preserved in the same way. The intestines are filled with minced meat to make sausages. It seems that even the bones were salted and later used in stews with pulses, potatoes and vegetables. The head too was used to make pork jelly, and even the skin was dried to make the farmer’s shoes.

Books about food traditions

The English edition of Ourania's book about the traditional way of preparing food in Lemnos is now out of print. However there are still some of the Greek edition on sale on the island of Lemnos.

Tom Stone, The Summer of my Greek Taverna (Simon and Shuster, 2003). This is the story of an American who moved to Greece, and lived there for 22 years. He describes some of the Greek characters he got to know and includes a lot about his cooking experiences, plus recipes. He has also written Greek dictionaries and phrase books.

Wishing you a Happy Christmas, and all the very best in 2014