Old Mesolongi is in search of new opportunities

Modern cafes line the streets of the city next to the few remaining fishmongers. The young travel on bicycles, which is the main form of transport, not only for students but also for the local residents, thanks to the flat terrain. Finding employment in this historic city, however, is far from easy. Twenty-five-year-old Thanassis Ninis said: «We have our history and the lagoon to be proud of, but only those who have the right profession will stay in Mesolongi. As an agronomist, I found a job and fish farmers can also find work. But someone who has studied information technology will not find employment here.» It is not uncommon to find qualified teachers working in cafes or doing jobs unrelated to their qualifications. One of the few factories in the city, which produces avgotaraho, a kind of pressed caviar, was opened by Stelios Kotsaris, who decided to take up his father’s trade rather than do odd jobs. The town that became renowned throughout Europe for the heroic mass exodus of its people after two months of siege in 1826 and their subsequent massacre by the Turks in the Greek War of Independence has produced five prime ministers (Spyridon Trikoupis, Epameinondas Deligeorgis, Harilaos Trikoupis, and Zinovios and Dimitris Valvis) and numerous writers (Palamas, Malakasis, Drosinis, Travlantonis, Golfis, Lyberakis, Giannaras, Kasolas, Zalakostas and Griparis) but today, apart from its cultural heritage, it has little to be proud of in terms of economic development. The town was initially founded by Dalmatian pirates and fishermen who took refuge in the area. It was later called Mezzo Lagi, literally meaning «between the lakes,» by Italian sailors. Mesolongi could in fact be considered the eighth island of the seven-island group of the Ionian Islands. In the 1960s, fishing was the main occupation in this picturesque and quiet city. Large sections of the lagoon were drained at this time and the fishermen slowly abandoned fishing and became general workers. There was a large population shift, as over half the town’s residents left while others came and settled from nearby villages. Today the young frequent the cafes and complain about the lack of opportunities in the area and the high rents. Landlords charge as much as 300-350 euros a month for a damp bedsit. Among the ultramodern cafes, the legendary ouzeri Potopoieia Trikene, run by Pantelis and Eleni, is eye-catching. Upon entering, visitors feel as though they have entered a different era, as though the store, built in 1901, has been untouched by time. The characteristic old floor tiles, clock, marble counter and awards won in Thessaloniki fairs all have their own special place. The store used to be a popular haunt for the town’s artists and writers. Its owner complains that little of the cultural spirit of bygone days now remains. Nevertheless the pedestrian zones in the center and the cafes and bars have brought with them a renaissance of a kind. Lagoon The Mesolongi lagoon is one the most important wetlands in the Mediterranean. It is made up of six lagoons that are part of the Natura 2000 network set up by the Ramsar Convention. The islet of Tourlida is connected to Mesolongi by a causeway stretching 5 kilometers long. Unfortunately, the edges of the lake have been used as a dumping ground. The rows of old wooden fishing huts that stand on stilts have now been turned into summer homes and are connected to the electricity grid, albeit illegally, to secure votes for politicians. The well-known natural fish farms or ivaria are located here and are the main form of fishing in the lagoon. The ivaria serve as traps into which the fish are herded. The leasing of the ivaria, however, has been controversial, as they are divided between the Mesolongi Municipality and the Prefecture of Western Greece which apply party criteria and charge exorbitant fees. Illegal fishing, trawling and drag nets in the Gulf of Patras are a major problem, as they prevent the fish from actually reaching the ivaria. Greece, though, is a country where everything is allowed and everything is forbidden. For years, an incineration site on the southeastern bank of the Kleisovas Lagoon was in operation with disastrous consequences. Fortunately, the establishment of a waste treatment plant closed the site and recent water samples have shown that the lagoon is not polluted, though human activity has damaged the area. President of the Friends of the Lagoon Association Haralambos Gogousis highlighted: «The area is known for its fish, salt and eels. What people don’t know about is the tincture of iodine, a red iodine found only here, in Mesolongi and Japan. Phosphorus is also abundant but we do not exploit it. The lagoon is a reflection of Mesolongi and we are unfortunately destroying it with garbage and overfishing.»

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