Subscribe to Blog via Email
Olympos, Karpathos, 2023
In lieu of a separate post on Olympos: I’d already written it on Quora.
Well, four years after proud Olymp-ian Rigopoula gave her answer,
I’ve just paid Olympos a visit myself.
Olympos is a village cut off from the rest of the island of Karpathos, which itself is somewhat cut off from the other Greek islands. Road access only dates from the 1980s, and the road is windy enough I had to stop at least once, to prevent me soiling the cab I was in.
Karpathos is spoken of with some reverence by Greek dialectologists as an archaic kind of place, with four subdialects to go around 6k people, and with lots of interesting things going on with /z/, whose status as a double consonant appears to have survived here uniquely ([zː]); in Olympos, most archaic of them all, in fact, it survives as [dz].
As I heard from Mrs Sofia, the owner of “Mike’s Restaurant”, the first shop you stumble across as you drive into the village, and she knows it.
- dzisome “make a living”
- madzi “together”
- xadzi “silly”
And most important of all, her parting wish to me and my cab driver:
- kali sedzon, “Happy Tourist Season”.
And as I walked up the hill, it became clear why. There’s enough woodwork in the old mansions to suggest there was some affluence here a while back. But now, Olympos depends on tourism. Olympos main snaking alley is a queue of tavernas and traditional wares showcases, all of them trying to sell you something. Olympos’ claim to fame is its cultural conservatism, and it clutches on to that fame to make a buck. The locals are proud of their traditional women’s clothing, but there’s a reason you don’t see traditional women’s clothing worn anywhere else in the country. If you just rock up here, you can be forgiven for thinking that this is a Disneyland exhibit. The Greek equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.
There was already a fair bit of this to be seen even now in early May, when only the Dutch come to Karpathos. (I have no idea why, but Karpathos is Dutch-only from 20 April until the start of the “sedzon” proper, in June.)
Of course, there is an actual village behind both the obligatory traditional clothing and the tourist tat. You just have to sit down in a cafe and listen to the locals.
And what you’ll hear from them—as well as from my somewhat sceptical cab driver, from the south of the island—is that Olympos struggles in the winter, and it really does depend on tourism to survive; but there are still people that stay and tough it out outside the “sedzon”. In the 2011 census, the village has a population of 500; 80 of them stick around in winter, my cab driver claimed. (There is a north/south rivalry, I’m told, so I’m just passing that on as his take.) The whole of Karpathos is oriented around tourism, but (with the exception of Pyles) the southern villages look to have enough else going on to keep them going in the winter months. And none of them were as enthusiastically turned over to tourism as the main drag of Olympos has been.
(With the non-exception of Ammoopi, which is exclusively hotels and rental houses; but that’s because Ammoopi never was a village to begin with: it was beachside farmland belonging to Menetes village, and the villagers of Menetes were savvy enough to turn their farmland into gold. They’re still building there today.)
But the profusion of goats on the road to Olympos were proof enough that there is life outside of Dutch tourists up north as well; someone’s making a living from them. And the local constable—from Iraklio, Crete, with moustache to match, and an accent utterly out of place—was also confirmation of life outside of tourism; he was regaling his neighbours with tales of the unregistered shotgun he’d just confiscated from a car.
“If it was registered, he could claim he was a shepherd, and he needed to scare the crows away from the goats. Still illegal, but the court would let him off. But this thing had the serial numbers filed off, with nine bullets in the front seat. What did he think was going to happen?“
(You’re not going to hear that much dialect from the non-Cretan villagers, by the way. If you wanted to hear that, you’re 50 years too late. A bit of the Cyprus-lite intonation is the most you’ll get out of the majority of people. Mrs Sofia is clearly a conservative speaker, and even at her least guarded—when she was chatting on the phone to a friend—I caught just one archaic verb ending, piɣasi “they went”.)
EDIT: while at the University in Rhodes, I checked
Makris, Manolis. 2022. Στην Όλυμπο της Καρπάθου: Σελίδες της Ιστορίας και του Πολιτισμού της [In Olympos, Karpathos: pages of its history and culture]. Piraeus: Αδελφότητα Ολυμπιτών Καρπάθου «Η Δήμητρα».
- He puts the current permanent population at 200.
- Never mind the road, the phone connection to the outside world only dates from the 60s, and was unreliable until the 80s.
- I surmised past prosperity from the woodwork on show, but there is no historical indication of it, other than the general fact that Olympos, like much of the Dodecanese, had tax exemptions during the Ottoman Empire. The village did agriculture and animal husbandry, same as most villages in Greece, and with the same primitive tools. (As Greeks like to say nowadays, the plough had remained unchanged since when Hesiod described it.)
I’m reminded of the Cypriot lady I talked to during a service taxi ride from Nicosia back to Limassol, who spoke standard Greek for me but one ancient form, epeváleto for epivalótan, snuck in.