The southern part of Chios presents the traveller with pictures of unique beauty. Rolling hills extend far and wide hugging the sea.
They are covered with the green color of matic trees, these unusual bushes that bear the valuable transparent resin. In summer the discreet frafrance of mastic is difussed everywhere; timeless olive trees play the counterpoint in this harmonious flora. The roads, most of them in good condition, snaking around the slopes reveal in the last instance the area’s little villages. Here are the renown Mastic villages, the picturesque village- fortresses with roots in the Middle Ages. Even though only a few of them survive as in the old, they all retain those characteristics that make them unique. There is a central tower and vaulted narrow passageways paved with tiles. Today,24 are still intact.
South on the main road we arrive at Armolia. This community has a very old history, yet most of the old houses have been built anew. The Armolousians have a long tradition in making and decorating ceramics. One of of the best iconastasis on the island, carved in 1744 can be found in the church of Panayia, adjacent to the village’s central church of Ayios Dimitrios. On a hill west to the village stands the castle of Apolichnon, an inscription still readable says it was built in 1446 by Ieronymous Justiniani. The castle was elongated, it had it’s own water reservoirs and interior wooden constructions used as barracks. In some places the castle still retains its original height and bastions. According to historians this was one of several similar fortifications used by the Genovese to protect themselves and police the region.
It is the largest and for many the most important of the medieval villages. The community of Pyrgi attracts great interest for its city plan and architectural design. Despite the changes inflicted upon it by time and human interference, Pyrgi even in our days, is a living legend coming deep from the middle Ages. The structure of its fortifications attributed historically to the Genovese, is the application of Greek city planning developed in various medieval monasteries to ward off enemy raids. People entered the village through two heavy iron gates, the Low entrance (Kato Porta) in the middle of the eastern wall and the High entrance (Pano Porta) in the west side. The gates were shut during nighttime and naturally for defensive purposes.
From the village’s center, proud and despotic rose the Tower, the building after which the largest of the mastic villages was named. A defensive as well as an administartive center, the tower was built by the Genoans at the core of the settlement near the central square. time though was B.C. to the palaigraceful with Pyrgi’s historical monuments. Ayioi Apostoli the church in the end of the domed corridor beginning from the central square, is a finely preserved byzantine monument. Although its foundation is placed between the 13th and 14th centuries, both its exterior elements and the frescoes decorating the interior walls-painted by Domestihos Kinigos of Crete, are still in excellent condition.
A few meters away from this priceless gem, in the central square rises commandingly the church of Kimisis Tis Theotokou. Built in 1694 the three aisled basilica which hosts on the ground fllor of its belfry the chapel of Ayios Antonios, today it still functions as the village’s main church. Undoubtedly the principal charecteristic of the houses is the scratched patterns decorating their facades. Theories on the origin of this impressive act are divided. Some maintain that it is the descendant of a parallel "graffiti" art from Genoa. Others believe it originated in Byzantium, specifically in Constantinopole. Whatever its origins the Pyrgians loved and developed this form of exterior decorating, keeping it alive in our days.
Today there are groups of artisans and workers who specialize in this craft. The process is relatively simple though it requires experience and knowledge.
Continuing to Pyrgi, before the village entrance, to the left of the hospital a snaking road takes tou to Emporio, 6 kms away. This picturesque cove has an age long history already from the Bronze Age, ships travelling through the straits of Chios, could seek shelter from the north winds in its safe harbor, the hill of Prophet Ilias to the east was the main obstacle to the wind. On that hill British archaelogists discovered parts of settlements dating back to the 7th or 8th century B.C.
On the southern slope parts of an ancient citadel’s walls were found along with a right angled, flat roofed temple of the 6th century B.C. believed to be dedicated to goddness Athena. Below the citadel one-room houses formed a thick habitational maze. The area seems to have been abandoned peacefully by the end of the ancient era. It is believed to be Leukonion mentioned by historian Thoucidides. At the cove’s temple several historical periods from 690 B.C. to the Paleochristian era can be distinguished. Here the remnants of a well crafted Ionian style temple were also found.
To the left of the harbor rises the presently extinguished volcano Psaronas that once covered with lava everything around it. that explains the existence of the pitch-black pebbles found in the two beaches nearby, namely Mavros Gialos and Foki.
On the main road and not far from Pyrgi, we encounter Olympi, another important medieval village with the apppearance of a fort. The unity of the houses’ walls in the periphery is eminent. They had not openings for windows and obviously functioned as fortifications. There is also a central gate, a defensive tower in the center of the village and narrow labyrinthe streets with vaults and stone bows connecting the houses. Current house renovations have altered the village’s character. The tower is still standing there but half ruined. There is a chapel in the square, that of Ayia Paraskevi. Its wood carved iconostasis is an important example of 18th century art. from the Middle Ages comes ’The Trapeza’ of Olympi situated at Vlihos and still in good condition. It is a two story building consisted of an elongated chamber on each floor. Each room contains stone built benches and tables used for centuries to faciliate the traditional wedding meals of Olympi marriages.
Mesta is the best preserved mastic village. It has the most sights to see and a lrge tourist turnaround. It is also one of the prettiest fort-villages bustling with life and proud of its history. Arriving at the perimeter wall of a tower with 3 guardians turrets in its corners, the visitor begins his or hers personal tour of the Middle Ages. The community built in the Byzantine years, had in the 12th century its fortifications improved by the Genoans. Behind the cntral gate, the so called ’’captain’s door’’ two of the villages oldest churches Ayios Georgios and Ayia Paraskevi containing excellent frescoes, introduce us to a deeply religious world. As we walk we come across many churches, the oldest of which is Old Taxiarchis, from 1412 and for many centuries the village’s main church. Today this role belongs to the church of Taxiarchon, one of the largest on Chios, founded in 1868 at the site of the round central tower. The main square is the only open space in this whole fort-village. Here the villagers congregated for all social purposes, celebrations, marriages and fairs. Today the square still has that beautiful old color, bustling with life especially in the summer months.
Another local product is ’’souma’’. Is a kind of ouzo made by sistilling figs. A beverage for heavy drinkers souma is pure and uniquely tasting, produced exclusively in this area. What most impresses the visitor though, is that Mesta has kept most of its characteristics unchanged, and as these reminders of the old romantic era blend with the intoxicating scent of the mastic, they cause an exquisite feeling to the modern traveller, a feeling never to be forgotten. Yet the value of this superb mastic village does not lie only in its archaeological meaning. Mesta above all is a vivacious, hospitable place with powerful tradition incarnated in its various cultural manifestations. At the same time Mesta is a good starting point for the lovers of natural beauty, since all around it are situated Trahillia, Avlonia, Merikounda, Limenas and Didima, some of the best beaches in Chios.
A little further, after a wonderful route, Vessa stands out. This beautiful mastic village creates a charming setting between the hills. In Vessa, the old and the modern coexist harmoniously, while the sights of the village include the churches of Agios Dimitrios and the Assumption of the Virgin.