Don’t let the migrant-crisis headlines fool you: Lesvos is one of the most quietly beautiful, and least-touristed, islands in Greece’s Aegean Sea.
Story and Photos by Dario De Santis
I truly think the Greek islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth. While Samothraki enthralled us, Lesvos—the third largest island, often spelled Lesbos and also known as Mytilini—is arguably the most attractive, boasting a wide range of attractions, from immaculate beaches and scenic mountains to medieval castles and charming traditional villages.
We reached Lesvos by ferry from the Turkish town of Ayvalık, and were surprised to find it not spoiled by mass tourism. At the time of our visit, in early September 2016, there were very few tourists, as the island’s refugee emergency discouraged people from spending their holidays there.
Our headquarters were in Pyrgoi Thermis, a quiet village on the eastern part of the island plunged among olive trees, with superb sea views, a relaxing beach and a 14th century Byzantine church.
I was ill on our first day, but, determined not to let a silly fever ruin our holiday, the second day I was on my feet, driving toward the island’s northeast. Our first stop was the seaside village of Petra, a cluster of white houses lining narrow pebbled alleys. The main attraction of Petra is the church of the Panagia Glikofilousa (“Our Lady Sweet Kissing”), skillfully built on the top of the rocky spur after which the village is named. (Petra is Greek for rock.)
The huge rock stands right in the middle of the town, and climbing the 114 steps to its peak was absolutely worth it, as from there we could enjoy stunning views of the houses with their pretty hidden gardens, the sea dotted by three small islets and a long sandy beach. I was still not in shape to swim, so we settled for a nice lunch in a fish restaurant on the seaside and then we headed for Molyvos, also known as Mithymna.
As soon as we came in sight of Molyvos, we were impressed by its fabulous location on the flanks of a hill topped by a dramatic castle overlooking a beautiful bay. First we drove to the top of the hill and visited the medieval castle. The amazing view from the bastions urged us to go down and explore Molyvos. Fearing the steep and narrow alleys, we parked our car in a parking lot outside the village and proceeded on foot.
Walking around the maze of cobblestone alleys, we could admire the charming traditional stone mansions embellished with refined wooden balconies. Some alleys are covered in vine creating shady arcades—an efficient and natural air-conditioning system.
Our walk ended at the scenic harbor, offering probably the most picturesque view of all Lesvos: sailors mending boats, fishermen carrying around boxes of fish, young people swimming in the sea, locals and tourists alike drinking coffee in the little cafes with the background of the quaint houses clinging to the castle-crowned hill.
The next morning we visited the largest monastery of the island, Limonos Monastery. Founded in 1526 by St. Ignatius, it is one of the Aegean’s wealthiest monasteries, as we could easily infer from its size and rich collection of Byzantine manuscripts, icons and holy relics. Access to the main church is not allowed to women, so Angeliki had to wait outside while I wondered at the splendid frescoes decorating the walls and at the wooden-carved temple covered with gold foil.
Limonos Monastery is located north of Kalloni, roughly in the middle of the north part of the island. From there we made our way through the northwest side of Lesvos, whose barren landscape greatly differs from the lush vegetation of the rest of the island. An intense volcanic eruption 20 million years ago covered these lands with lava and ashes, creating the Petrified Forest of Sigri, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We are talking about a whole fossilized forest spreading over a huge area. It was a truly amazing experience watching and touching the fossils of these giant trees. Being in their presence made me ponder how puny humanity is compared to scale of the universe.
After the petrified forest, we visited Sigri, a charming fishing village, and from there we moved on to Skala Eressos, a resort with a stunning beach. We got there from the wrong road, a sort of unpaved mule track running along the shore.
It took us forever to reach our destination, but the landscape was of such a rough beauty we didn’t mind at all. (Our car did, though.) In Skala Eressos, after another exquisite lunch with grilled sun-dried octopus and fish, I finally managed to swim. Angeliki tried in vain to stop me, babbling something about my flu and the dangers of swimming after lunch. I couldn’t care less. The water was too inviting and I had been waiting for that moment too long.
In my opinion, Lesvos’ most striking feature is its astonishingly diversified range of sceneries. You can visit fishing villages blessed with sunshine like Sigri as well as mountain village, plunged in chestnut forests like Agiassos.
To get there, we had to drive up a winding, steep road with breathtaking mountain and sea views. Agiassos—centered around the famous Church of Panagia Vrefokratousa—is probably the village that has most retained its traditions. Apart from the cooler temperature, Angeliki and I immediately noticed its laidback vibe. There are several shops selling souvenirs and local handicrafts as well as drowsy kafeneia where people seem to move at a slower pace without a care in the world.
The last day we took it very easy, as we needed to recharge our batteries before the journey back home. We spent the morning on a beach with friends and the rest of the day exploring Mytilene. Lesvos’ capital is one of the oldest cities in Greece and, as one would expect, it boasts several archaeological, architectural and religious monuments.
Among modern apartment blocks, you can still find many neoclassical mansions, some interesting museums and fine churches like the iconic Saint Therapon, whose impressive façade and dome dominates the port.
Mytilene’s most important landmark, however, is the massive castle sitting on the tip of a promontory. After the sightseeing, we just walked along the waterfront and had some souvlakia (the famous Greek meat skewers) and wine in one of the many grill houses lining it.
On the ferry taking us back home to Turkey, we already felt nostalgic. Regrettably, we hadn’t had time to go to Plomari, “the capital of ouzo,” and to most the southern part of the island. The truth is I can never get enough of Greece and no matters how much time I spend there, I always want more. And I always return.