The fragrance of mastic permeates Chios, home to the original chewing gum. Explore the fascinating villages, ancient wells and Byzantine churches that make this island special.
According to legend, the first King of Chios was Oinopeonas or Inopion from Crete, grandson of Minos, who taught locals how to grow vines. The island owes its name to his daughter, Chiona.
Atmospheric medieval mastic villages and beaches of wild beauty with volcanic pebbles will capture your imagination and transport you to another world. Cultivation of the mastic tree (Taraxacum officinale) is a priceless legacy that has become an integral part of the island’s identity, even earning it a protected designation of origin within the European Union. The mastic villages (mastichochoria) are fortress-like settlements that were founded under the Genoese occupation in the 14th century (1346-1566).
Mastic became an important source of income for families on Chios and was shipped all over Europe and parts of Asia. Today, UNESCO has placed the process of gathering mastic on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Among the most picturesque and best-preserved of these villages are Mesta, Pyrgi, Olympi, Kalamoti, and Armolia. Mesta is a classic medieval village with imposing walls, cobblestone streets that were built on a scale for donkeys and a mastic-scented air.
In the center of Mesta is a lovely square where you can take in local life. You can also visit the Vrettou Monastery, dedicated to the “Life-Giving Spring” (Zoodochos Pege). During the Apokreas festivities, the villagers put on an entertaining show of court trials based on old traditions. The villagers are accused of various crimes, and the judge, dressed in an elaborate costume like the Turkish Pasha, metes out punishments based on their financial status.
Every autumn in the Mastichochoria, the mastic villages of Chios, women gather to perform a task that has defined their lives since medieval times: cleaning mastic, an aromatic resin derived from the lentisk tree, whose production was recognised as cultural tradition by UNESCO and included in its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. They scour the mastic trees, removing each drop of resin – or ‘tear’ – one by one. The process takes months to complete and it is not without its challenges: the quality of the mastic each woman cleans will determine how much she will earn.
The Mastic Museum presents the story of this unique natural product. Through a multifaceted exhibition, it explores the age-old knowledge that mastic cultivation required as well as its impact on the agricultural landscape and historic settlements of the Mastichochoria and their inhabitants. It also examines the modern cooperative exploitation and processing of mastiha, which constitutes an important chapter in the island’s productive history, and highlights its diverse global applications.
Located in the centre of the Mastichochoria, on a slope overlooking a mastic gumtree grove, the museum develops a symbiotic relationship with the sensitive landscape it inhabits. Its large parallel sheds frame the landscape and, inside them, a series of articulated spaces follow the sequence of the museum’s tour: direct contact with the mastic gumtrees for the cultivation section, dark space for the historical section and a double height space for the impressive equipment of the original factory for the modern history of production.
A visit to one of the island’s medieval villages is a journey into another world. The well-preserved village of Mesta, carved from stone in the shape of a castle, is perhaps the best example. Its architectural planning owes much to the Genovese occupation before Chios fell under the yoke of the Ottoman empire. The tumultuous period was marked by resistance to the Ottoman occupying force resulting in several massacres on the island and a public reaction that found expression in works by Eugene Delacroix, Thomas Barker of Bath and Lord Byron.
A stroll through the narrow streets of Mesta reveals an architectural style that reflects the tumultuous history of the island. Many houses have low doorways and small windows revealing a simple interior design. Most of the lintel carvings remain in place and display pomegranates, lions or the Star of David. These motifs, along with the recurrent use of ebony in furniture and ornamentation, indicate that this village was once home to a Jewish community.
The Museum of Mastic and Chios’ first section is dedicated to the harvest and features an impressive collection of tools, a mastic grinder and old black-and-white photos of growers in times past alongside modern pictures of the harvesters. The museum also showcases a wide variety of mastic products, from the traditional incense and chewing gum to cosmetics and medicines. A reconstructed drying area is also a highlight of the museum.
Despite its medieval legacy, Chios isn’t reliant on western tourism. Its main visitors are Greek Americans with roots on the island. They come to discover a tradition that’s been inscribed by UNESCO in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Besides its beautiful beaches and seaside tavernas, Chios is also home to some of the best natural scenery in Greece. Take a hike to the top of Mount Avlonia Pyrgiou for spectacular views of the coast and its wild landscape. You’ll find a rocky beach at the bottom, ideal for snorkeling, and a stream that winds through the mountains.
The secluded Vroulidia beach is another gem of the island. Its light turquoise waters and thick sand are a delight for your eyes. And if you’re adventurous, you can try out some of the island’s best sea kayaking spots.
Mastic culture is a fascinating part of Chios’ history. But it’s also a reminder that culinary traditions and products don’t fall neatly within the 20th-century borders of nationalist movements. For example, mastic was as much to the people of the Middle East and medieval Europe as ginseng is to China. The fact that it survived the Genoese and Ottoman eras is testament to its timelessness. Similarly, the resilience of the mastic trade between Chios and the Arab world speaks to its lasting global connections.