Mytilene – Lesvos’ main town – has everything you want from an island and everything you want from a capital at the same time. There is the charm of a harbor filled with “trata” (brightly painted fishing boats) and a promenade of cafes curving around it. There is a splendid fortress from the middle ages, and a fantastic archaeological museum. Plus enjoy the cosmopolitan allure of contemporary culture, and the grandeur of Belle Epoque prosperity.
Cinematic Belle Epoque-
Mansions! Mansions galore. And not one kind of mansion either, but many European styles. You’ll see mansard roofs and deep eaves. Olive oil was expensive,and Lesvos was rich in it. There was also wine, and leather- goods with a market. Foreign importers drawn to Lesvos for business built in the styles of home, as did wealthy Europeans drawn by the famous spas.
These mansions define a whole neighborhood- you feel like you’re on a stage set.
A Boutique Hotel in a Mansion:
You could live the Belle Epoque elegance first hand and stay at the Pyrgos of Mytilene boutique hotel. We went for a coffee in the lobby. We felt glamorous just being in the salon with the soaring, ultra-ornate ceiling. It’s the real thing- Maria, who invited us to her wonderful island, grew up next door – her mother used to come to dances here.
The Pyrgos Hotel
Big, Bold Baroque-
Agios Therapon, Mytilene’s main Church
A house of worship that dominates the cityscape – like Notre Dame or the Blue Mosque – sets a grand tone. Mytilene’s skyline is defined by the dome of Agios Therapon cathedral. It was designed by Argyris Adalis– native to Lesvos, and a student of Ernst Ziller (the neo-Rennaissance Numismatic Museum in Athens, among many others). They both borrowed, and borrowed well. Agio Therapon, opened in 1935, has a grand baroque mood that- like the mansions- doesn’t speak of Greece specifically but of a cosmopolitan vibe of European capitals in general.
The Glamour of Ancient Greece-
The mansions of the Belle Epoque continue a much earlier tradition. Mytilene was a city of wealth from at least the 2nd C BC. We had a tour with Professor Giannis Kourtzellis at the Museum of Archaeology. We couldn’t stop marveling at the mosaic floors of elegant homes, including the dramatist Menander‘s. Professor Kourtzellis filled out the corners of our imaginations with stories of symposia and banquets. What also struck us? The reliefs depicting the dinners of the dead, held on the third and ninth days after death (days we commemorate still), and funerary reliefs for heroes- depicted on horseback. Most notable and unusual is the equestrian heroine– usually we only see men this way. But this is from Eresos (birthplace of Sappho).
And of course this arresting Praxitelous–
Praxitelous was a master of the contrapposto, enlivening his figures with a naturalistic “S” shaped pose. There were lots of them- originals in bronze, and copies in marble.
The Intrigue of the Gatalusi Fortress-
This monumental fortress has the best view of the city. This was the home of one-time pirate Gatalusi. It was a wedding present- along with the rest of the Island(!) when he wed the sister of Paleologos (Byzantine Emperor John V). The Gatalusi fortress is one of the largest and best preserved of the whole Mediterranean. On our tour with Archaeologist Georgia Tampakopoulou we only had eyes for the ruins and crests, and ears for her stories. She had an intuition that led to the discovery of something that would have been lost forever- evidence of a church where none was thought to have been. Visiting the site with her was magic- it gave us goosebumps to be so close to the thrill of discovery.
The mingled crests of Galausi and Paleologos, and the seal of Constantinople
Dining in the Marina-
What’s an island without a marina? What’s a marina without a yacht club? What’s a yacht club without a great kitchen, and some Frank Sinatra and Amy Winehouse? Those are happily not questions we had to answer. Because we spent several happy hours at the Marina Yacht Club with its adorable, unpretentious, and surprisingly young owner Eirini Petrelli, enjoying all those things. We tried dish after dish- all playful, delicious, but honest and real- exactly what you want to eat as the masts cast ever longer shadows. The best soundtrack, best wine glasses, best view, and absolutely the best hostess. Go. The Marina Yacht Club tastes like holiday.
A Statue of Liberty-
I grew up with a meaningful statue in the harbor by my house- it was for many the first sight of America. How perfect that Mytilene has its own Statue of Liberty–
This is a gift to the island from the people who emigrated from here to New York City. It could not be more fitting: Lesvos has been much in the news, here and around the world, because of how many refugees have passed through here. Ai Wei Wei’s exhibition at the Cycladic museum in Athens has the crisis as a focal point, and the images recorded by many local photographers open the exhibition-
Photographs by Petros Tsakmakis
Philanthropy and Inspiration
That is one of the reasons we are here. We came to see how Lesvos is dealing with this crisis, and to show how this impacts a visitor’s experience. We found this is the ideal destination if you want to experience not just culture and pleasure but true goodness. We found ourselves inspired by a population who responds to the need of others with grace. This is an island that has done so much for humanity, on behalf of us all. The only concrete signs we saw of the refugee crisis were the welcoming signs in Arabic- at souvaki places, and on the public buses.
Why we love Mytilene
We loved this little city, crammed with mansions and little boats. It has such a beautiful archaeological museum, and an enormous neo-Baroque cathedral. We loved its cosmopolitan, elegant side- the boutique hotel and dining by theharbor. We loved the people most of all – for their culture, warmth, and values. Lesvos is the ideal holiday destination, and Mytilene is the first taste.
To stay in style (but at a good value) in Mytilene, try the Pirgos Hotel, set in a historic mansion.