Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Scents of Summer (Part 1, Mykonos)

Sometimes it’s not just scents that create powerful feelings of longing, but sounds as well. The closer the day of my vacation came, the more I missed the sound of cicadas, cicadas singing in the noonday fever of the Greek summer with nary another sound around, for everyone takes refuge from the heat either at seaside or inside when the sun burns brightest, hottest. By the time I was ready to leave Holland, memories of the deafening, blissful song were interwoven with everything Greece is and my craving had become almost unbearable. But there are no cicadas in Mykonos, just the sound of wind and happiness, composed by the collective sounds of the sea, the cheerful voices, the music.

Cicadas need groves, woods to thrive and there aren’t any of those on the dry, magical landscapes of this little Cycladian island. The only plant that seems to grow in almost incontrollable abundance is the Prickly Pear cactus, otherwise known as the Indian Fig, whole fields of which paint a beautiful picture as their prickly paddles are heavily covered with fruit which blushes first bright orange, then red as it’s caressed by the sun’s golden, fiery fingers. Oh, how aromatic Mykonos would be were these fruiting cacti to smell as good as they look! But of course, they don’t. In fact, they smell like nothing at all.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any opportunities to be led by the nose. Far from it in fact: Prickly pears are not the only fruiting plants on the island. There are the glorious fig trees! Take a walk and soon one will call out to you with its unmistakable scented invitation. Before the tree is even in sight, you’ll smell it: unbelievably green, earthy, lactonic, it’s somewhere near! The smell never fails to light up an exclamation mark in my mind: “Fig Tree!” and like a treasure hunter, off I go, literally led by the nose. Find it, pick it, don’t even bother to wash it, just blissfully devour. Get punished with ridiculously sticky fingers if you’re too greedy and pick any that are yet unripe. Laugh about it. And stay a while under its shade, marveling in this God-sent scent. For surely, the smell of the fig tree has to be the work of some divine being? No, no other explanation for such glory. Was it really a humble apple that caused the original sin? Are we sure it wasn’t the fig?

Forget about the airco and crack the window open in the car; On this dry, arid island, the smell of the sea creeps up the hills just as you are climbing down, putting a smile on your face before she even shows her crystal clear smile. First comes her scent, delicious and salty, humid, like a wet kiss in the midst of the dry air. Then comes her sound, the softly lapping waves, and maybe - depending on if it’s a popular beach you’ve chosen - the sound of laughter, people and beachy music. When finally there, ask yourself: Is there any scent on earth that smells as exuberant and at the same time as devoid of any trace of melancholy than the combination of sea water, salty skin, burning sand and sunscreen? Even if there is… I couldn’t possibly come up with it now, when I’m missing it so much. It might not make my heart sing, but it definitely makes me dream.

Sitting down to eat too, offers plenty opportunities to experience beautiful olfactory delights, different depending on the time of day. Eating breakfast at one of the dozens of cafes found at Gialos (the beachside of the main town) will fill your nose with the scent of roasting Greek coffee. If you can stand the novelty of its gritty texture, do like the Greeks and order one for yourself. At lunchtime, the air will be filled with the scent of ouzo; marvel at how beautifully its strong aniseed scent marries with the scent of the sea - it’s like they were meant for each other. The evening air might be most strongly scented with people and their perfume, but sitting down to eat will for sure treat you not only to the scent of beautifully prepared food, but also to the scent of Mastiha (Chios Mastic, aka Chios Tears) for every restaurant in town seems to have taken up the habit of offering a glass of Mastiha Liquer to all diners for free at the end of every meal. This most beautiful of resins is aromatic, resinous, delightfully sweet in a subtle way and most importantly, truly unique. There simply is no other scent that is comparable to it. If you’re lucky, you might even be treated to Mastiha ice-cream, a real delight, especially when eaten together with kantaifi, an oriental delicacy made of clove and cinnamon spiced walnuts wrapped in angel hair and covered in thin, delicate syrup. Even though mastic trees are native to the whole of Mediterranean and grow in many different places, bizarrely, only those on the Greek island of Chios actually produce the resin, which is consequently rare and valuable. Tasting and smelling this beautiful product is truly a unique Greek experience.

But what if you’re after actual perfume? Mykonos will not disappoint there either. It might be daunting to visit all of the countless clothes and accessories boutiques, but if you’re determined to find niche perfumes, it is definitely the way to go since there simply isn’t a place where you can find many niche brands assembled together. Instead, it is the clothes and accessories boutiques that have adopted a brand or two of choice. Eccentric Molecules, Anick Goutal (yes, including the full range of Les Orientalistes), Comme des Garçons and many others are hidden, waiting to be discovered. A visit to the pharmacies will pay off as well, since that’s where you’ll come across hard-to-find Greek perfumes, such as the full range of Apivita (definitely do try Spice and Earth, they are both lovely) and Korres (love the bath & body products, not so hot about the perfumes in this case). A great discovery I made in one of the town’s three pharmacies was the Corine de Farme line of fragrances (Jasmine, The Vert, Vanille and Amande) which is inexpensive but very pretty-smelling and long-lasting. I sprung for the Amande at 12 euros, a beautiful, incredibly realistic bitter almond scent with a milky undertone that very slowly dries down to a cuddly almond-vanilla veil with a musky finish. A bargain! The entire Satellite range can be bought at the Satellite boutique (I refreshed my bottle of 40º à l'Ombre - it’s what I’ve been wearing all summer) and couldn’t resist buying some of the beautiful jewelry as well. Lastly, the determined perfume-lover should definitely venture out of the main town to visit Psarou beach, possibly the most star-studded (and expensive) beach of the island. There you will find not only a magical location but also the beautiful Luisa boutique which sells Dyptique, L’Artisan and Lea St. Barth perfumes. I do love the Lea St. Barth range and since I can’t find them here, a visit there is always a treat. Furthermore at Luisa you can pick up 15ml size bottles of several of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s gems, a great way to finally owning some great perfumes you love but couldn’t bring yourself to committing to a larger bottle.

Finally, this wouldn’t truly be a piece about Mykonos if I didn’t mention this island’s most wonderful quality, its energy. Reading about Mykonos, or hearing about it from those that love it you will undoubtedly come across mention of this mysterious ‘energy’ that is said to affect all those that visit it. Is it the ancient island of Delos nearby? Is it the crazed Meltemia (strong, northern dry winds) that ravage the rocks and rush whistling through its daedal alleys? Is it the beautiful sun that constantly loves the island, bathing it in light? Is it the supposed ‘energy triangle’ formed by Mykonos and nearby Delos and Tinos? Or even its supposed… magnetic field…? Oh what nonsense, I’ve thought countless times with a derogatory smirk. And yet, and yet… I keep going back. I’ve broken my ‘see a different island every summer’ tradition and just keep heading its Siren song. I go back. No more cicadas for me. I’m sure there’s no magnetic field. I’m sure the ‘energy triangle’ of the pagan traditions is just that, a pagan story. But truly, this island has this terrible charm you can’t escape from, this magical, elusive, completely indefinable and intangible quality. You set foot there and suddenly your heart is full. Food for the soul, yes. And there is an energy there. Something you cannot possibly put your finger on. It’s in the way the sun laughs when he sees her, Mykonos. He bathes her in this unbelievable light that reverberates from the streets. You just want to eat it up. And I swear you can smell it.

Images: prickly figs via, figs & the view from our hotel room and myself taking a picture, own collection.


PinstripedZebra said...

Oh, I love those cacti, now I finally know their name, no more 'those cacti with the red fruit'! Those figs, yummie! And a good reason to keep a bottle of water in the car to not smear the juices all over the steeringwheel after indulging.

And, an interesting fact for you too, biblical scholars indeed think it was no apple which Eve plucked but an orange.:P The things you pick up from books...

If your tastes don't run towards greek coffee, try a frappe instead!

Thank you for taking me back there, you can never go wrong to visit Mykonos!


Ines said...

I feel like I just went through an anti-stress therapy and although I'm hardly back from my vacation, it feels like I already need it. I so want to visit Greece, I hope I will in the next few years. I just know it is going to be one of a kind experience.
And I'm glad to hear you enjoyed Mykonos so much. :)

Suzanne said...

Divina, your posts on your travels this summer are so spell-like and enchanting, they have left me entirely in your thrall. You should write a series of travel books for the perfume lover...or for anyone, for that matter.

Karin said...

Welcome back, Divina! I hope the rest of your week went better than the first day. Ugh. That test/experiment sounds AWFUL!!!!

Flora said...

Divina the Divine, the way you evoked the feel of a smell of the Greek islands makes me want to hop on a plane this minute! The Mastiha alone would be worth the trip, not to mention the wild fig trees.

(Have you ever eaten Prickly Pear fruit? Once the spines are removed, they taste a bit like beets.)