Lesvos is one of the places I remember having the most liberated times in my early twenties. Those days were formative, really; having recently emigrated from South Africa, a somewhat conservative society, even as little as 20 years ago.
The island was the pinnacle of ‘live and let live’. It gave me a sense of freedom which runs through the character of the rocky island and its fiercely independent and creative people.
My friend lived in the capital, Mytilene, and each summer, we would go around in her little beat-up car over weekends, choose a beach, pitch a tent and stay a night - as free and simple as could be. I loved it.
I went back to Lesvos this summer for the first time in many years; my friend had moved off the island ages ago and other places had beckoned but I have always wondered how the island had weathered the storm of the Greek financial meltdown and, later, the plight of desperate people arriving on its shores, escaping their war-torn countries.
Lesvos was, of course, the site of the infamous Moria refugee camp that burned down a few years ago. I remember that, when I visited in the 2000s, the local people were fiercely compassionate and hospitable to those who arrived in need at their shores; people did not just accept the law of the land concerning refugees and there were frequent protests against their detainment. People were proud of the statue of Asia Minor Mother, erected in 1922 in honour and celebration of refugees.
Today, things look different and not just as a matter of speech. Back then, you could spot people who looked and dressed differently to local people but today, it’s not so obvious. Despite over 2,700 refugees having arrived in 2023 alone, I did not see any evidence of them; people are locked up in awful Closed Controlled Access Centres (CCAC) which are effectively prisons. Years ago, the people who arrived on these shores were a trickle while it has now become a storm.
In a way, Lesvos is a magnified microcosm of various areas of Europe. Authorities have become increasingly cruel and the far right has been rising confidently. Depressingly far-right parties won almost 13% of the national vote in Greece’s elections this year but still, the average person living on the island feels compassion and solidarity with refugees, and help whenever and wherever they can.
Lesvos looks different in other ways too, slightly worse for wear with too many empty and half-built buildings dotted across the countryside. However, the island still has its charm. Mytilene is still bustling and steeped in a mix of ancient cultures. The island had been conquered and settled by many, making for a long, fascinating history.
Mytilene’s architecture is unique too, combining baroque and neo-gothic elements with classical Greek architecture. You’ll find grand old mansions neighbouring Ottoman masterpieces, and then traditional stone cottages all on the same street.
Southern parts of the island are lush and green while more northern regions are rocky with the occasional moon-like feel due to volcanic eruptions a long, long time ago. Many villages are still very traditional and very charming. Definitely don’t miss the lovely Plomari, the village of cats and Eresou, the ‘winter village’ of Skala Eressos.
Lesvos is a very volcanic island meaning that most beaches are stone and you won’t find long stretches of white, fine sand. The largest and most sandy beach is the famous Eressos (Eros is the Greek God of Desire) where Sappho, the ancient Greek lyrical poet who wrote of love and sex between women was born and lived.
It is said that she established an all-female society at Skala Eresou and each summer people flock to the three-kilometre sandy beach to celebrate at the International Women’s Festival of Eressos. It is a real celebration, and freedom of expression is welcomed. This little fishing village is lovely at any time of the year with good tavernas and a few nice bars and, although it has expanded slightly now, it still has a nice hippy vibe to it.
The island hasn’t changed much since my visits many years ago and I was again charmed by her. It is important to note not to expect much luxury or 5-star travel if you are thinking of visiting Lesvos, it is not about that. It is about visiting a place that is still proudly holding on to its traditions, art and culture.
You won’t find a Holiday Inn or a Hilton here. Good luck finding a McDonald’s or KFC. What you will find plenty of is delicious fresh food at very reasonable prices, absorbing history, warm turquoise waters and welcoming, laid-back local people.
Direct from Stansted to Mytilene with Jet2 from £311 return during August and September
Good to know
• The letter ß in Greek is pronounced as the Latin letter ‘v’. That is why Greeks refer to the island as Lesvos.
• The International Eressos Festival of Women takes place September 10th-20th 2023.
• Lesvos is Greece’s third-largest island – it’s worth renting a car to get around.