Gazing out at a secret network of roof terraces from the rooftop of a ceramics shop, I realise why Chios in the Aegean Sea is no ordinary Greek island.
I am in Mesta, the most famous among the 24 mastic villages (mastichohoria) in the island’s south- west, where the small, hardy mastic tree, from the pistachio family and prized for its resin production, is king and the main source of Chios’ wealth since ancient times.
The resin, touted for its healing properties, had an advocate in Greek physician Hippocrates and was treasured as a spice in Mediterranean cooking and a flavouring in Arabian cuisine.
Mesta is such a village. Surrounded by massive stone walls with five defence towers, the entire settlement was designed as an intricate maze of passages to “confuse pirates”, says Mr Tasos Tsekouras, manager of Hotel Lida Mary, where I am staying.
On the upper levels of every house in Mesta, accessible only by a ladder, what looks like a window opens out to a rooftop terrace that connects to other houses and eventually to a tower where villagers could gather to seek refuge.
Before leaving their houses, the villagers would pull up the ladder, denying invaders access to this hidden window and terrace.
“The plan was so clever,” says the proprietor of Penelope Ceramics, who is on her rooftop terrace with me. She gives me a tour of her shop and showroom (the ground floor is for animals, the second level for storage and cooking and the third, for sleeping).
Each house is a cave-like structure with curved ceilings. “No two houses are the same and the bigger ones are beautiful.”
The meticulous plan of the Genoese in designing their pathways to befuddle pirates has the same outcome on me. I often lose my way in Mesta, taking the wrong turn and stumbling upon residents sitting outside their homes in hidden cul-de-sacs.
There are few places as charming as Mesta for getting lost. Walking on cobbled alleyways lined by high stone walls, under vaulted arches and through tunnels, is like stepping back in time to the mediaeval days of Mesta, which has been continually inhabited since the 14th century. Twin jewels of the Aegean Sea, Travel News & Top Stories – The Straits Times