Birthplace of the ancient poet Sappho, Lesvos is an island of bustling sandy beaches, isolated coves, dense forests and volcanic landscapes, a melting pot of Western and Eastern influences, with historical monuments that recall thousands of years of successive conquests, a good number of wonderful resorts, as well as many picturesque mountain villages where the local dialect is still spoken.
Even though the most modern part of the island capital, Mytilene, does bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the gritty central districts of Athens, Lesvos always has a few pleasant surprises in store for the visitor who steps off the boat in the eastern Aegean island’s less-than-attractive main port. In fact, the island’s strongest card is that it defies definition. Even getting to know just a small part of it takes days of exploration.
There is nothing striking about the city of Mytilene at first glance, especially if you’re expecting the usual picturesque houses and cobbled streets of other Aegean islands. Yet the capital of Lesvos should not be dismissed out of hand. It has plenty to offer the visitor, with its most striking landmark being the castle – among the oldest in the Mediterranean – and the old quarter of the city that surrounds it.
Walking through Mytilene will also reveal several impressive examples of neoclassical architecture in its late 19th- and early 20th-century stately homes. Other listed buildings display an array of architectural influences, from the neo-gothic bell tower of the island’s main church to the baroque dome of the Church of Aghios Therapondas (The Healer) at the port, or the Belle Epoque-style Pyrgos Hotel and the baroque-era building that now houses Egnatia Bank.
Uncontrolled building over the past few decades has mercifully been limited to the southern and southwestern ends of the city, where ungainly apartment blocks sprawl all the way down to the coastline. Locals avoid swimming in the sea near Mytilene and prefer instead to head to beaches past the airport, such as Haramida and Aghios Ermogenis to take a dip.
Built on the site where an ancient acropolis once stood at the northeastern end of the city and affording a panoramic view over both sides of the peninsula, the Byzantine-era castle underwent significant structural and stylistic changes under the Genoese Gattilusi family (which received the Duchy of Lesvos as dowry in the marriage between Maria, the sister of John V Palaiologos, and Francesco I Gattilusio) and during the Ottoman occupation.
Today, the ruins of the castle lie among wild greenery, yet the different phases of construction are still evident. Poor security at the site does raise some questions as to how safe the monuments are, but on the other hand it does make exploration of the castle a real adventure that is open to everyone at all times. The island’s new Archaeological Museum is also located nearby, and contains lovely Roman-era mosaics from the residence of the ancient writer Menander and other notables of his era.
Following a simple tourist map that thankfully proved quite accurate, I began my exploration of Lesvos from the center of the city of Mytilene and discovered a network of decent dirt roads that cross the island from east to west through verdant hills and a wonderful black pine forest. Even though these dirt tracks cut into the mountains have an impact on the flora and fauna, they have not been paved – though they are signposted – and provide perfect routes for trekking or biking.
An invisible line separates Lesvos into two parts: one half covered in dense vegetation and the other almost desert-like, with the exception of the village of Antissa, which has a marvelous old plane tree shading its main square. An ancient coastal location, Antissa is located toward the north of the island, near Gavvatha. This peculiar geomorphology is due to the fact that a succession of volcanic eruptions covered the western section of Lesvos in lava and ash, and also formed the famed petrified forest. The Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest near Sigri in the west of the island explains this and other interesting phenomena. It is not far from the fishing village of Skala Erresou, which has a lovely long sandy beach and can get quite busy during the summer months.
In contrast to the west, the east of the island, around Agiasos and the slopes of Mount Olympus, is lush. Many of the villagers who live on the island’s second-highest mountain continue to speak the local dialect. Farmers also sell their fresh produce at roadside stands – if you’re there in September, make sure to buy a couple of kilos of the delicious small peaches that ripen in the late summer and early autumn.
In contrast to Agiasos, where the traditional lifestyle flourishes beside tourism development, in Molyvos, life is almost exclusively centered around tourism, especially in the summer. However, despite the plethora of hotels, rooms-to-let, tavernas, cafes and souvenir shops, Molyvos – or Mithimna, as it was known in antiquity – remains a wonderful destination thanks to its old stone-built houses and the stunning vistas it affords over the Aegean Sea, stretching all the way to the coast of western Turkey.
From Molyvos to the seaside village of Skala Sykaminea, there is a coastal dirt road that passes some of the island’s loveliest beaches, such as Eftalou and Kagia, the latter of which is best known for its bracingly cold water.
As you head back to Mytilene, take the time to stop at Mandamadou, a village famed for its traditional dairy products, and the Man’Katsa waterfall. Just a few kilometers outside the capital, in a location known as Moria, you will see part of a Roman aqueduct which used to carry water from Mount Olympus to ancient Mytilene over a distance of 26 kilometers.