Explore The East and North Aegean
“Craggy Híos”, as Homer aptly described his putative birthplace, has a turbulent history and a strong identity. This large island has always been prosperous: in medieval times through the export of mastic resin – a trade controlled by Genoese overlords between 1346 and 1566 – and later by the Ottomans, who dubbed the place Sakız Adası (“Resin Island”). Since union with Greece in 1912, several shipping dynasties have emerged here, continuing to generate wealth, and someone in almost every family still spends time in the merchant navy.
Unfortunately, the island has suffered more than its share of catastrophes since the 1800s. The Ottomans perpetrated their most infamous, if not their worst, anti-revolutionary atrocity here in March 1822, massacring 30,000 Hiots and enslaving or exiling even more. In 1881, much of Híos was destroyed by a violent earthquake, and throughout the 1980s the island’s natural beauty was compromised by devastating forest fires, compounding the effect of generations of tree-felling by boat-builders.
Until the late 1980s, the more powerful ship-owning dynasts, local government and the military authorities discouraged tourism and even now it is concentrated mostly in the capital or the nearby beach resorts of Karfás and Ayía Ermióni. Despite this, various foreigners have discovered a Híos beyond its rather daunting port capital: fascinating villages, important Byzantine monuments and a respectable, if remote, complement of beaches. English is widely spoken courtesy of numerous returned Greek-Americans and Greek-Canadians.Read More
HÍOS TOWN, a brash, concrete-laced commercial centre with little predating the 1881 quake, will come as a shock after modest island capitals elsewhere. Yet in many ways it’s the most satisfactory of the east Aegean ports, with a large and fascinating marketplace, several museums, an old quarter and some good, authentic tavernas. Although a sprawling place of about 30,000 souls, most things of interest lie within a few hundred metres of the water, fringed by Leofóros Egéou.
Besides olive groves, southern Híos’s gently rolling countryside is home to the mastic bush, and the twenty or so mastihohoriá, or mastic villages. Since the decline of the mastic trade, the mastihohoriá live mainly off their tangerines, apricots and olives, though the villages, the only settlements on Híos spared by the Ottomans in 1822, retain their architectural uniqueness, designed by the Genoese but with a distinctly Middle Eastern feel. The basic plan involves a rectangular warren of tall houses, with the outer row doubling as perimeter fortification, and breached by a limited number of gateways. More recent additions, whether in traditional architectural style or not, straggle outside the original defences. Of the surviving villages, three stand out: Pyrgí, Olýmbi and Mestá.
The mastic bush (Pistacia lentisca) is found across much of Aegean Greece but only in southern Híos – pruned to an umbrella shape to facilitate harvesting – does it produce aromatic resin of any quality or quantity, scraped from incisions made on the trunk during summer. For centuries it was used as a base for paints, cosmetics and the chewable jelly beans that became an addictive staple in Ottoman harems. Indeed, the interruption of the flow of mastic from Híos to Istanbul by the revolt of spring 1822 was a main cause of the brutal Ottoman reaction. The wealth engendered by the mastic trade supported twenty mastihohoriá (mastic villages) from the time the Genoese set up a monopoly in the substance during the fourteenth century, but the demise of imperial Turkey and the development of petroleum-based products knocked the bottom out of the mastic market.
Now it’s just a curiosity, to be chewed – try the sweetened Elma-brand gum – or drunk as mastíha liqueur. It has had medicinal applications since ancient times; contemporary advocates claim that mastic boosts the immune system and thins the blood. High-end cosmetics, toothpaste and mouthwash are now sold at the Mastiha Shop in Híos Town.