Traditional Greek Houses
You could be amongst the austere tower houses built by warring clans in the rugged Peloponnese; elegant neo-classical villas on Syros built by exiles from another island; fortified, walled villages on Chios that are almost exactly the same as 14th-century northern Italian settlements; solid mansions built by blockade-running sea-captains in Hydra and Spetses; mansions built by tobacco barons and fur-traders in the north; or houses built by Venetians or Turks anywhere from Crete in the south to Thessaloniki in the north.
There are no postcard-pretty houses in the Mani region of the
They built towers into which families would retreat at the first sign of trouble. In the early days, from the-mid 15th to early 18th centuries, these were basic and functional, but they got more elaborate with time. Typical features include thick walls, small and few openings, stone canopies on corners or façades with holes in the bottom through which boiling oil could be poured down on enemies. Doors were not at ground level, but a few feet above, and accessed via three stone pegs projecting from the wall, so raiders couldn’t easily batter down the wooden doors and leap through. The living quarters were on the first and second floors, and accessed via a step ladder that could be pulled up and the hole closed with a trap door as further protection.
Defence was the major reason behind the construction of the fortified, walled villages of Chios, an island in the eastern
The “mastic villages” in the south of the island, Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympi in particular, were located well inland, out of the way of surprise attacks by pirates. The houses turn their backs on the outside world, crowded into narrow, labyrinthine alleys in roughly concentric circles and connected across these lanes by arches. These fulfilled two functions: they allowed villagers to move around above ground to confuse and evade raiders, and they helped prevent earthquake damage. They vary in width from a foot or so to being wide enough today to carry balconies, terraces, rooms, and, in one case, a stone oven. The maze of alleys was designed to confuse invaders – today, they still befuddle tourists!
You can spot patterns symbolising pomegranates carved into the lintels over many doors. It is a tradition in
Researchers have found parallels between these patterns and those seen in the Anatolia region of
There’s a world of difference between these medieval houses of Chios and the neo-classical mansions of
Marble from neighbouring islands was used extensively as a building material – and some of the streets are even paved with it. The mansions were a manifestation of the prosperity of the owners, the confidence that came as the result of the Greek War of Independence, and an indication of
The Saronic Gulf islands of Hydra and Spetses, southwest of
It is thought that the long, narrow shape of early examples of the mansions was based on the dimensions of ships, so that the same timbers could be used. In winter families lived on the ground floor, but in summer they moved upstairs, usually occupying one large room where windows on all four sides could be flung open to catch the breeze. Bedding was stored in built-in cupboards and brought out at night. The most striking feature of arhontika is the paintwork around the windows. The outer frames and bars of the windows are painted in pale blue, dark blue, black or grey while the inner sections are a dazzling white.
The Maniot towers, the “mastichoria” of Chios, the Syrian neo-classical mansions and the Hydran and Spetsian “arhontika” are but just a few of the many different styles of houses – and which are still lived in – all over Greece. By all means, keep your mind’s-eye picture of those little whitewashed cubes, but just add a few new ones next time you visit the country!