Growing up, I have always had the ultimate conversation starter, “I am Lesbian trapped inside this body.” Mind you, not everyone thought it was funny, but what else could I say about Lesbos. I never really appreciated the charm of my island until I was forced to spend a few weeks there in 1999.
When people use to ask me where to go in Greece I would always say, go the Cyclades or Kriti. These are the islands with the white homes, interesting architecture, crystal clear beaches, great food and wine and the place to be for a glendi. Then 1999 came along and ever since I have sung a different tune-and I have returned to my island home many times since.
Lesbos, or Mytilene as it is referred to by the locals may not immediately conjure up the splendour of stunning backdrops that you often associate with when you think of Greece. It does however have its own elegance that few islands can match. If you come looking for another Mykonos or Corfu, you will not find it here. In fact this is an island that does not rely on tourism, yet the tourist is well catered for, looked after by friendly locals.
Let’s start from the beginning for a clearer perspective. Mytilene has a very long and proud history. It was mentioned as an important player by Thucydides during the Peloponnesian War in classical times and it proved to be a resilient island during Byzantine times and the subsequent occupations by the Genoans and the Ottomans. After the genocide of the Greeks in Asia Minor and the great population exchange in the 1920’s, the island accepted a significant population of refugees from mainland Turkey, which is an hour from Mytilene by ferry.
This is an island that has a thriving economy and strong trade links with neighbouring Turkey. The island’s sardelles and ouzo are famous all over the world. There is nothing better than walking through the pretty town of Plomari were the smell of Ouzo permeates the air. In fact wherever you are in Greece it is more than likely you will be drinking either Ouzo Mytilene or Plomari. Within this context it is easy to understand why the island does not exactly rely on tourism. Having said that, Mytilene receives its fair share of tourists mainly from northern Europe.
The wonderful aspect of Mytilene is that you need at least 1-2 weeks to fully appreciate what the island has to offer. And the island certainly has plenty to offer the visitor, whether it be the world renown Petrified Forrest which is millions and millions of years old or the numerous archaeological sites dating from Classical to Byzantine Greek times-it is all here on the island. Any visitor that comes here will notice the island is “prasino” and verdant, with low level mountains and ellies being the main features of the landscape.
When I return to the island, usually once or twice a year, I know that if I want to catch a bus or hire a car, I can get around the island with relative ease. Busses travel to just about all the villages on the island and are frequent throughout the summer time. If you hire a car, the roads are generally well paved and easy to traverse-except of course Mytilene City which is a thriving, hustling bustling small scale Athens. For an island capital, there seems to be plenty of high rises, a very busy port and plenty of traffic that is counter balanced by an abundance of excellent shops and eateries, local character and atmosphere.
Mytilene is a great place to stay for a couple of nights and to use as a base to visit the neighbouring towns, especially the beaches that are on the coastal route to the northern monasteries of Agio Rafael at Thermi and Agio Taxiarches at Mantamados. Along the way, you can stop at places that few visitors are aware of to feast in relative peace at a taverna over-looking the water, and beyond that the background of Asia Minor (Turkey) which is visible from most locations on the island. The capital itself does not have idyllic beaches, but what it does have in its favour are daily trips to Avali (Aivalik) in Turkey were you can shop at the Bazaar or join a tour to visit the ancient Greek sites. Having been there I can tell you it is worth a visit and the people are very friendly.
Assuming that a visitor takes the opportunity to spend a few days or more on the island, then it becomes difficult to describe the adventures and the memories you will gain. How does one describe the medieval town of Molivos (ancient Methymna) were captives from the Trojan War were brought back to or Eressos the scenic hometown of poetess Saphhos, the original Lesbian. Then there is the idyllic Sigri, the beach side village of Petra with its magnificent church perched on the centre of a rock in the middle of the town, the tiny fishing village of Sykamias and the nightlife of Skala Kallonis. Then there are miles and miles of amazing beaches such as Vatera and Vigla.
Each of the villages described above are charming and most of them provide the visitor with tranquil locations and are inhabited by locals that are always keen to quiz you about where you come from. I remember in 1999 visiting the quiet villages of Skoutaros and Filia, the villages or my parents. All it took was one person asking me who I was as I walked into the village and by the time I reached the other side, just about the whole village was out there wanting news on Australia. And this happens to me every year when I return to the island.
Each time I come back to Mytilene I discover new places and it amazes that there are even more places waiting to be found. The last time I was there I discovered the Roman aqueduct of Moria and an ancient site in a church courtyard on my way to Thermi. There are plenty of Byzantine castles, ruins, museums (make sure you visit the museum of 1920’s painter Theophilos), “panagiria” and monasteries. This is no ordinary island and having been a visitor on over 20 occasions I can tell you it is worth going to. You will always find a doumatio to sleep in (except in places like Molyvos and Mytilene in August) and frequent transportation to move from place to place.
So back to the time I fell in love with the island in 1999, my family sent me back to Greece after an absence of 12 years and it was direct to Mytilene rather than the party islands. As I was a struggling student who was I to argue with my family. I had planned to escape the moment I arrived, but after a few days meeting my relatives and feasting under the electrifying castle of Molivos and gaining a tan in Petra, the island essentially captured me. Even though it was my final semester of study, I quickly extended my holiday for as long as I could, why would I want to go home when I could be on the island of the Lesbians.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Mytilene is 188 nautical miles from Piraeus and there are any number of ships that call in to the island. Ships also come from Thessaloniki, Kavala, neighbouring islands and Aivali. There are daily flights on Olympic Airways and Aegean Airlines from Athens and Thessaloniki. In addition Mytilene Airport welcomes numerous international flights through special charter planes. The author highly recommends flying in to the island, Mytilene capital is only 10 minutes from the airport and it is a picturesque drive into town.