“Oh Maria please stop! Can we take a photo?”
The airport is five minutes behind us. I get out of the van, camera in one hand and hair in the other- the wind is wild. It’s our first glimpse of Mytilene, the main city of Lesvos, a place I had a longing to visit for reasons I could guess (the extraordinary grace with which they have welcomed so many thousands of refugees, the culture of ouzo), and reasons I could not (the amanes, the gabled mansions that look like Switzerland or Normandy, the salamura and the ladotiro- sheep’s milk cheeses of the high villages- and churches so baroque you think they are Catholic). I take the perfect shot of Mytilene harbor. Beautiful? Of course… any other place, this would be the picture postcard shot. But it tuns out to be among the dullest photos I take during our stay.
Some friends and I (Travel Bloggers Greece) have been invited to get to know the Island. Most trips like this are a weekend. Our hosts thought five days may be just barely enough to have something like a picture. The invitation is special too- a private initiative of this wonderful couple with rooms to spare and a love of their island. This gave us a genuine experience- we don’t so much see the island as truly live it- they welcome us to share their beautiful lives.
Lesvos is Greece’s third largest Island. You couldn’t drive around it in a day. We’re staying at Maria and Georgo’s Natura Studios, happily in the small harbor town of Skala Kallonis (“Skala” is like saying the beach- for instance there is Eresos- on the mountain, and Skala Eresos- just down from Eresos and on the beach). On this map above (not very precise- drawn in 1597 by Giacomo Franco), it is deep in the largest central bay- the best point from which to explore the island in any direction. We saw extraordinary places, every day a different island altogether. But the second day was filled with a variety of landscapes, moods, and experiences that a whole not very small nation would brag about. It was a day unforgettable in its every detail, even if it did seem like a week. Lesvos is like a country- if not a glorious planet- unto itself.
Part I: The Quintessential Picturesque.
We start in the studios’ whitewashed courtyard, eating strapezada under a bougainvilla, then get into Georgo’s 4-wheel drive pick-up truck. This is promising start. Travel bloggers like a partly off road experience. Our first stop is the mountain village of Agiassos, which we devour with cameras- picturesque cafes
and the equally picturesque old men who go to them.
This is not the blue and white Aegean of travel posters. The other Aegean (there’a a hashtag!) has a fanciful palette.
All the churches we see on the island were like nowhere I have seen in Greece, more Baroque than Byzantine- fanciful. Also the names- this one has the most touching name I have ever heard- the Virgin who holds the Infant.
After this, perfect Greek coffee with a thick head of kaimaki and a spoon sweet- olives (seriously. they were very good.)
Part II: Terrifying Beauty.
“I was doing research here in the winter, and the beauty of the plants, the bees, it was overwhelming, intoxicating, literally it was like being drunk. And I thought- ‘Oh no, if it’s like this now, how will I ever bear the Spring?'” Babis Petsikos, a naturalist, documentary maker and writer (he has a bookabout the astounding biodiversity of the island), is a clearly passionate but very sober man- this threat to sanity is no idle talk. Lesvos is home to 550 species of bees, and all the beautiful things that they pollinate. The allure of the beautiful is not without peril. A flower keeps catching my gaze- exotic, nearly tropical. “Ah. That one has a poisonous milk.” he says. “Like figs you mean? Milk that irritates the skin?” “No- poison like you can fish with it- you pour the milk into a stream and it kills the fish and you take them out.” It could also blind you if you picked it then rubbed your eyes. Prettiest thing ever though-
Part III: An Interlude
We reach the bottom of the stone path (used for generations, as today, for the fastest means of getting olives from the tree to the oil press) and Georgos is waiting for us with his friend Stratos. Stratos has been making coal, sacks of it, some abstract sculptures smoldering a safe distance from the trees. A garden of usefulness amid the trees-
Part IV: The Qunitessential Picturesque (again)
Stratos joins us as we wind the short distance to Asomatos. Marissa and I ride in the back of the pickup, the better to enjoy the view. We visited Agaissos, saw it, enjoyed it. But we lived in Asomatos – even if just for an hour or two. It’s a place you connect with, attach to. We left our devices in Maria’s atmospheric cafeneio/ouzeri,
to visit the workshop of Georgos, a skilled carver,
and maker of fanciful instruments- this one, looking as if snatched from the ship of Odysseus, is played by the wind itself-
On the way back to Maria’s for an ouzo, we stop at the folklore museum and the church. The folklore museum is the project of Father Christos- people simply bring their beautiful old things- looms and typewriters and such, and they are displayed as the village’s shared cultural heritage. I should say our visit falls the day before Palm Sunday, starting the busiest week of the year. The carpets are washed and hanging outside the church,
and father Christos himself is up on a ladder, taking down lamps, and polishing them on a table in the yard, sleeves of his robes pushed up. His wife is helping him, and since the hose is out, they have just washed the dog as well. A priest readying with joy his own church is something none of us has seen.
Part V: Ouzo.
We sit outside, shaded by a high arbor stretching from one side of the street to the other, a clever construction we see all over the island. Maria, Stratos, Babis, Georgos the woodcarver, Georgos our host, and the four of us (Marissa, Elena, Chrysoula, and I) are drinking *ouzo –
and having a cheese made by Stratos’ mother from her own sheep. Two cheeses actually- a feta, sliced and bathed for a week in sheep’s milk yogurt to the good of each-
and a hard cheese bathed in oil. Maria is charming and makes delicious dolmadakia. Georgos the carver tells me how to put up mushrooms by pickling. Then Maria brings mushrooms for dessert! These are in syrup. Not nearly as strange as they sound. My glass is filled many times over, diluted to gentleness with water. Ouzo drunk right is so soft and refreshing that, with the food and the good company, one is more likely to get intoxicated from the flowers and the bees.
Part VI: Water Sweeter than Wine (and the World’s Largest Plane Tree)
We are climbing through the woods in the pick-up truck. We stop to drink from a fountain. It pours sweet and clear, just like in the Frank Sinatra song. This is the most delicious water that has ever touched my lips. The next day we will see photos of the aqueduct the Romans built to carry this down to the city. It must have been the first thing they did. I do not really know if the plane tree we all climbed together is the biggest one in the world. It was like its own planet. We descended unscathed (but only just), breathless, exhilerated.
Part VII: The Top of the World.
As we climb, the landscape gets ever more wild and stark- trees give way to boulders, and the car fills gently with dust because we cannot bear to close the windows because the air is so rich with wild thyme and something else- majoram? hot from the sun. The road gets ever narrower, and the drop off on each side steep. The Aegean is shimmering to the left and to the right, really, really far below, and off to the left is Turkey- probably swimmable if you are strong, and if the sea and fate are on your side. The light is just beginning to get all golden. Beautiful, terrifying Phlomos flourishes everywhere, and crystals glitter in the sun.
We are here for ages, long enough for the light to change still more, although there’s plenty of it left. Inspired by the euphoria and the very height of the place we take pictures, jumping higher still. Babis, the documentary maker, chides us to new heights. We had no idea any of us could jump so high. Legs like rubber, dusty, and laughing, we climb into the pick-up, Chrysoula and I in the back, open to the sky, the beauty more than making up for the rough road.
Part VII: The Edge of the Earth.
Now the shadows are longer and the golden light is making the grass almost unbearably green. Clearly we are in paradise. If there was any doubt, being greeted by six puppies cleared it up. Add to this a charming three year old girl. Her dad is centered and grounded, calm and you just want to be around him because it seems contagious. It’s like the landscape became a person.
Why the ‘Edge of the Earth’? Because no place could be any more idyllic- its perfection lacks nothing. Then the horses show up.
Now it’s idyllic.
Part VIII: Another Interlude.
We drive through a town on the Geras Gulf, stop in the middle of an alley next to a butcher’s shop, and Georgos says- “Two minutes. You’ll like this.”
It’s a bridle and tack shop! About ten square meters. Everything by hand. It smells like leather. This is where you shop if you want your horses and your donkeys to know that you know that they are beautiful. There are tiny seashells on everything.
Part IX: The Suspended Step of the Stork.
A narrow road hugs the gulf of Geras, barely a meter away from the sea and not a meter higher. It must be impassable much of the year. But right now, the gulf is flat like glass (in Greek, they say like oil). The sky has light enough only for itself now. There is a windmill- the Mykonos kind, right at the sea’s edge. Set off some short distance, on its own small pier, is a shack. Reeds reach silently up out of the water. Somewhere off screen a seagull cries out, just once. “Ooh. We’re in an Angelopoulos film.” “Wait ten minutes. One of us might say something. Then it’s Angelopoulos.” Georgos is dry, and quick. We are definitely not in an Angelopoulos film.
Part X: A Turkish Bath, and a Full Moon.
We have driven to the other side of the gulf. It’s dark now. On a platform overlooking the sea is a jacuzzi filled with water the temperature of a fever- it bubbles up from from two and a half kilometers underneath the island at 39.5 C (103 f)- warm enough to feel like the womb, not so hot you would ever want to leave. The moon’s not quite up yet. We go down to the cathedral ceilinged bath of the Ottomans, a room filled with steam and the sound of water flowing. The pool is deep- chest height, and big enough to swim genty around in. It is playful and relaxing at once. Babis, the naturalist, has done a documentary about the springs but he is a modest guy and we do not learn about it until we are back! Watch a teaser here. See the floor of the pool, big slabs of stone puzzled together. They are smooth and warm under the feet, textured, worn.
We say goodnight to Babis, and Georgos drives us back to Skala Kalloni. We are elated, overwhelmed, and famished. He goes back to Mytilene for a concert, and we go across the street to have comfort food- textbook perfect Mousaka at Ambrosia – happy to have a taste of home after being to the edge of the world and back, replaying the wonderful day, giddy. And definitely a little in love.
*Ouzo- refreshing, complex, divine- is not just a drink but a whole culture- we had the most intimate and convivial of introductions at the Eva distillery, and learned much that I look forward to sharing. In the meantime, this is my favorite thing.
More about Fabulous Lesvos-
Molyvos is the Greece of your Dreams
The Culture of Ouzo:
The essentials of ouzo (and a great party at Eva Distillery):
Learning about the world’s most romantic profession: