Limnos: A quiet and windswept island

Limnos has been trying for years to shed its reputation as a floating military camp. It’s not that the army is unwelcome. On the contrary, the military has boosted the local economy, but their presence has done little to encourage tourism. Poor ferry services haven’t helped either. Yet the lack of tourists has done the island no harm. So far, most of its long sandy beaches have escaped the plague of umbrellas and sun beds. The island boasts simplicity, beautiful villages and a robust traditional cuisine. The people are warm and generous, keen to treat visitors to a drink of tsipouro and the local cheese, and to show you their wonderful but little known island that also goes by the name of Anemoessa («windswept»). You soon get used to the strong wind, bearing a powerful aroma of the thyme for which Limnos is known. And apart from trying the local soda at Babis’s traditional cafe in Kontopouli, the village where poet Yiannis Ritsos wrote his «Kapnismeno tsoukali» (The Charred Cooking Pot) while in political exile, there’s plenty of other things to do. Local produce Ask the local women to show you how they make flomaria, their handmade pasta. Taste the famous wines, whites made from the Moschato grape of Alexandria, and the Limnio and Kalambaki reds. Spend an evening at Nea Koutali, which became home to refugees who fled the island of Koutali in the Sea of Marmara in 1922. Explore the boatyard that maintained the local fishing and sponge fishers’ fleet in winter, and beaches that appear untouched. Haris Poriazis, who grew up in Alexandria, tells me that before the war some 20,000 Limniots lived in Egypt at a time when the population of Limnos was only 12,000. «The first wave of migration was in 1869, when the Suez Canal was opened, because the island was poor and life was hard. But wherever they settled, the islanders kept in touch with home. Ships leased in Alexandria brought the Limniots of Egypt home for summer on the island.» As dusk falls in Myrina, the capital, the market near the harbor comes to life. Catering for locals, it’s more like a market in a typical provincial village than one on a Greek island that only comes to life in the tourist season. There’s nothing doing at midday, but by 7 in the evening all the stores are open. That’s when visitors go up to the castle in the hope of seeing the platonia, small deer imported from Rhodes in the 1970s, and now so much at home that they venture down to the beach of Tourkiko Gialo in the evening. Moudros, the next most significant commercial and financial center on the island, lacks the picturesque quality of Myrina. A longstanding rivalry between the two towns has abated in recent years. «If we aren’t doing well, we always blame someone else. In our case it was Myrina for many decades,» says Moudros Mayor Constantinos Adamidis. «At the time when both towns were at the same stage, a lot of people left, mainly for Australia. As the capital, Myrina controlled services and trade, while Moudros lagged behind and couldn’t close the gap.» Now Moudros is counting on tourism, which it has linked to farm production, Adamidis explains: «We’ll show visitors how we make cheese and wine; how we get honey.» Ask a Limniot about the island’s best beaches and you’ll get confusing answers. But you’ll soon find your own favorite little bays by following the first dirt road you see. In Sardes, a little mountain village we come across on the way to Pachies Am’des, an area with sand dunes, we follow the advice of friends and taste authentic local food at the famous Mandela taverna. The owner, Dinos, acquired the nickname when he returned from a 15-year stay in South Africa. «The business opposite is called Carter, after another villager who migrated to the United States,» laughs Dinos. In the kitchen his mother Krystallo is making dough for autoudia, a handmade pasta that resembles gnocchi. «That’s what people grew up on during the occupation; it was the cheapest food,» explains Mandela. Now it’s considered a gourmet item, because it’s so time-consuming to make and, he claims, women don’t want to get their hands messy when they bake. He sends us to Katalakko, a village built in a stream bed to conceal it from pirates. Wandering through its steep streets we stop for lemonade and cherry preserve at the cafe of Triantafyllos Kapakis, where we get talking to him and Eleftheria. They lament the lack of children in the remote village – «which you’d need a compass to find in the winter mist» – saying they’d never get through the day without television. Many villages present a similar picture. Dina, who we meet on the beach with her friends, can’t wait for September when she’ll go to Athens to study. She was born in Skandali, the last village on the southeastern tip of Limnos, and admits she has spent «quiet a few lonely winters» there. Nikos, 40, recalls how he went to Skandali some years back with a group of friends. The cafe didn’t have enough glasses to serve them and had to get reserves from home. As I watch the sunset in Kontia, I recall the enthusiasm of iconographer and art conservator Angelos Blias, who told me earlier about the Museum of Contemporary Balkan Art which opened on August 4. An initiative of the village’s cultural association, the museum holds 78 works by 28 artists from eight countries. I imagine them working together in the studio set up in the local primary school several summers ago, then visiting the cave where legend says the Achaeans, on their way to Troy, abandoned Philoctetes, who had been bitten by a snake. In local myth the cave was a place visited in secret by devotees of the Kabeirian mysteries. This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s weekly supplement K on August 19, 2007.