With the islands of the Aegean having dropped off travellers' radars, head to Lesvos and Chios to soak up their food, culture and history in crowd-free bliss...
"Flamingos aren't actually pink." My guide Eleni's words made me stop studying the clearly blush coloured feathers of the birds that I was watching through my telephoto lens, to check that I hadn't perhaps inadvertently pressed my eye to a pink-filtered stereoscope instead.
"Of course, they are pink now..." she continued, "but they have to eat tonnes of brine shrimp constantly in the first two years of their lives to make that happen."
That sounded like a whole lot of shrimp to me. But if my last couple of days here on the Greek isle of Lesvos were anything to go by, they had certainly chosen the right place to gorge themselves into a pink-tinged stupor.
It all started – as the best trips always do – with food... and lots of it. From being presented with a double-portioned dinner when I arrived at midnight at my hotel in the capital of Mytilini, to a gargantuan breakfast buffet in the morning, a second breakfast when I met my other guide Elsa later, and her subsequent insistence that we stop at least twice for coffee (and cake) en route to the west of the island.
The first surprise, I mused as I sipped my second frappé, was that there were no crowds. Though once a destination bustling with European tourists, visitor numbers since 2015 have been hit hard in the wake of news channels worldwide broadcasting endless footage of refugees arriving on this small Aegean island (roughly the same size as Skye in Scotland), just off the coast of Turkey.
“The refugees are not an issue any more. Most moved on to be with family in other countries," said a curator when I arrived at the Museum of Natural History in Sigri, over on the island's west coast. “But we did notice a difference in numbers the year immediately after."
It has been the same for much of the western Aegean. And though visitors are returning to Sigri and Lesvos' neighbouring islands, it is a slow process. In the interim, for intrepid travellers like me (and you, dear reader), undeterred by headlines, the chance to explore its food, culture and wilder reaches in undisturbed peace is too much to resist.
And so, I found myself taking a glass-bottomed boat in blissful solitude out from Sigri to the tiny isle of Nisiopi (opposite the museum) in search of the fossilised remains of a once verdant forest. Today, this treeless 'woodland' is an almost camouflaged network of petrified trunks, all coated with volcanic lava from some 20 million years ago.
Through a process of demineralisation – where organic matter is replaced by minerals – the 'trees' appear as stone boles of yellows, oranges and reds, all their rings and knots etched in white as though scratched by a fingernail. It's said to be one of the oldest and best preserved examples of its kind in the world, though not well known outside of Greece. I was in my element, strolling in the sunshine and discovering trunk after trunk on the island's eroding edges, from conifers such as pines, to laurel, beech, walnut and cinnamon.
Arriving back in the town, food was on the agenda again. This time it was from a local women's co-operative selling homemade snacks – cheese, bread, olive oil and pasteli (a honey and sesame seed bar) – as a way of generating money for the community. Before I could decline on account of still being full, I found myself with a plate full of treats, which I dutifully devoured without complaint.
That evening, fuelled by sugar, I headed south to Eressos – perhaps the most famous spot on the entire island. Known as the birthplace of the ancient poet Sappho, who – though little is known about her life –has become something of a global lesbian icon.
"We still hold an annual Women's Festival every September," said local photographer and Lesvos expert Tzeli Hadjidimitriou as we met for mezethes (a bountiful platter of Greek meze), "and every day we have a 'Women's Rock Group' meet where we swim out to the rock."
She gestured at the protruding lump rising from the Aegean, glistening in the orange sunset. Behind her hung an octopus, its legs stretched out to dry for a dish we'd later be served. Though in no state to take to the water after my mountain of meze, I did decide to stretch my legs along the waterfront.
The general vibe in Eressos is that of a bohemian, hipster neighbourhood. Rainbow-coloured hammocks dangled from the fronts of most tavernas, while Greek music seeped out of doorways. Murals covered the sides of buildings where cruiser bikes leaned, and the pace was laid-back. I took a seat on the sand and watched the waves lap lazily against the shore. Just as I nearly dozed off, I heard Tzeli calling - the next round of plates had arrived. Duty called...
The next day – feeling very much like an overstuffed flamingo – I decided to get active. At the Kalloni salt pans (rich in the brine shrimp the birds love so much), I took to two wheels on a bicycle tour with a local outfit. Loulia and Titos Chatzelis were my obliging guides, leading me alongside brackish channels of water, past the gleaming white mountain of freshly harvested salt and alongside scores of little stints, plover and egret. Though the route was flat, the exercise felt good, especially with the gentle breeze coming off the water and tickling my legs.
Being so close to Turkey (and Asia) means that Lesvos sees 331 species reside, or migrate through, here every year, making it a haven for birders.
"The wildlife really does change day by day," said environmentalist Eleni. We had stopped at one of the hides that line the shore, and she excitedly pointed out a flying flamingo swooping across the water like a pretty bullet.
Leaving my bike behind, I went to see a pair of nesting peregrine falcons further inland, coincidentally at an olive oil museum where more food awaited. Lesvos, I learned, was home to a whopping 11 million olive trees. It has been one of Greece's main producers of the eponymous oil for millennia, even during the centuries-long Turkish occupation (from 1462), when high taxation and the Great Frost of 1850 nearly destroyed olive production here. When the Turks left in 1912, a co-operative was formed, so locals could produce the oil themselves. Though their factory (now the museum) closed in the '50s, having been overtaken by modernity, it stands as testament to a community that came together for the greater good.
"Though the factory no longer operates, most locals do still have their own small groves," explained Elsa, as we learned how laborious the production can be – from harvesting to crushing and pressing, separating and storing. "Most is still done by hand," she said.
We sampled some of the spoils in the café, with a mix of olive bread, oil cheese (a rich and tasty sheep's milk cheese preserved in olive oil) and, of course, olives themselves. The black ones were firm and tart while the greens were softer and exploded with a tang on my tongue.
Satiated on history (and olives), we headed further north, to the seaside town of Petra, to work off the feast with a stroll up to the monastery that sits atop a rocky outcrop in its centre. Determined to continue the momentum, we followed it with a spot of snorkelling nearby and saw electric-blue damselfish, the almost invisible red-and-white scorpion fish, as well as urchins, starfish and red mullet. We ended with a short horseback ride up in the hills above Molyvos, before returning for plenty more food at the harbour in the town.
For the final day on Lesvos, I insisted we do some more walking – and less eating. Not missing a trick, Elsa took me on a hunt for more Lesvos produce, but this time of the liquid variety.
Strolling through a chestnut grove, we reached Agiassos and its ornate baroque-style church. This is the site of an annual pilgrimage where locals walk from the capital 26km away in a single day. The winding, cobbled streets weave between craft stores, where carpenters carve wooden ornaments, and art shops are resplendent in pottery and paintings.
Handily, at the top of the hill, alongside the church, was a café where the non-religious can worship at the altar of traditional Greek coffee. I watched in awe as the 'barista' mixed together the coffee and sugar in a long-handled briki (coffee pot) and held it on the sandy embers in a hole in the wall, boiling it slowly. I wasn't sure what I'd make of the dark-coloured brew but, when sipping it, the bitter and the sweet mixed magically in my mouth.
Elsa looked at my satisfied face: "Are you ready for ouzo now?"
The aperitif is made all over the island, and you can't escape visiting at least one ouzo factory when coming to Lesvos. I decided to go to its unofficial capital in Plomari, just an hour's drive away. The sharp scent of liquorice filled my nostrils as I entered the family-run Barbayanni factory, which has been producing the tipple for over 150 years using only herbs found in the fields on the island.
"Yamas! (Cheers!)" declared the owner as she topped up my glass with some of the special 'Aphrodite' blend. Given it was my fourth tasting, I struggled to conjure anything intelligent to say and just smiled. The goddess was working her magic.
If I thought the drinking would end after my departure from Lesvos (you can't come to the Aegean Islands and only see one...), then I was soon put right upon my arrival at Chios.
A three-hour ferry ride south, this island is even closer to Turkey and separated from the Anatolian coast by just 7km. Unlike Lesvos, very little is known about it outside of Greece, save for one thing: mastic liqueur.
"I will show you how we cut the tree to make it 'cry'," said mastic farmer Roula later that day, as she clutched a tool that resembled the claw of a velociraptor and began to scratch the lower trunk of what looked a little like an overgrown bonsai tree.
Originally from Athens, Roula and her partner moved to southwest Chios 12 years ago, giving up well-paid jobs to buy their own mastic plantation here on the island. Under the endless blue sky, it seemed like a good move, though harvesting the resin that is produced by 'bleeding' these trees is a slow and committing process.
"It starts each year in July. First we clear the area beneath the tree and scatter calcium carbonate," Roula explained. "Then we make small incisions in the bark – but only about five each day. We have to do it in all the trees, then come back and repeat every day until harvesting in October. And still we have made no money from it!" she laughed.
Where she had sliced the wood, shining droplets of sap had begun to form, known as 'mastic tears'. After a couple of weeks they would harden into a white gum, which the farmers scrape off and collect.
"The cleaning takes the longest," she said. "Go to the mastic villages here on the island in autumn and you'll see the women helping each other do this in the street."
To stop any undercutting, and to preserve the lifestyle and practice, a co-operative was set up on the island to control the price of the resin. It's used to make (most famously) a fairly sweet liqueur, but here you'll also find mastic ice cream, chocolate and even chewing gum.
On her instruction, I visited the mastic villages of Mesta, Olympoi and Pyrgi, each one fortified to protect the precious stores at their centre. The latter was the standout, its buildings like works of art. Each was covered in black-and-white geometric shapes (known as xystra), formed from limestone and sand sourced from the local beach – it looked like something out of an MC Escher sketch.
If I thought I'd fallen into an artist's dream in the mastic area, the next day I assumed the effects of too much liqueur had seen me stumble onto some ferry only to wake up in Tuscany. North of the main city, Kampos is a suburb full of orchards surrounded by red and ochre brick houses that wouldn't look out of place in Italy. The air smelt strongly of citrus as I cycled through the streets listening to the cicadas hum and attempting to peer over the walls of these old estates. Many were now luxury hotels, with their elaborate irrigation systems still intact, featuring wooden wheels and cobbled drains.
I stopped in the Citrus Memories Museum, where I learned that another export of Chios was the Chian tangerine, which was once thought of so highly that, up until the 1930s, each fruit was individually wrapped in paper printed with gold-leaf before being shipped all over Europe. Naturally, I sampled one in drink form and was also treated to a traditional dessert called 'spoon sweet', which is literally a single spoonful of a homemade preserve that tastes somewhere between jelly and marmalade.
Determined to devote my last day to something other than being guided by my stomach, I headed north to the 'wild end' of the island. The roads up there twisted and turned up and down mountains and along coastlines. My first stop was the UNESCO-listed Nea Moni Monastery, a fine example of Byzantine architecture nestled into the hill flanks and surrounded by perpendicular poplar trees.
The next destination was Anavatos, a once thriving mountain village. Following an earthquake in 1881, it now sits empty save for one hardy 80-something-year-old resident. As we approached, I could only see rocks and began to think we were headed for the wrong place. It wasn't until I stopped and got out my binoculars that I realised what I had assumed were more buttresses were actually the walls of houses.
A path led me up to the remains of an old fortress from where I finally feasted on views of hillsides, forests and the distant coast rather than food. It was a novelty that wouldn't last long.
In the nearby village of Avgonyma I met with George, a walking guide who promised to show me a hike with a surprise at the end. We headed further north in the car, then went on foot down through farmsteads, past my first classic whitewashed church of the trip (all the windmills and buildings I'd previously seen had exposed orange and brown brickwork), and ended on an undulating coastal trail.
As we walked, he handed me wild spoils of oranges and figs. At one point our path was blocked by a spider's web, its resident tucking into a freshly wrapped cicada – food, it seemed, is always top of the agenda here.
The surprise at the end was a welcome thermal bathhouse where I could soak my weary muscles in waters that flowed from the naturally heated volcanic spring at Agiasmata. As I lay in the warm bath, my cheeks flushed a rosy pink from the heat, I couldn't help but think back to the flamingos on Lesvos, gulping down brine shrimp. This trip had been a feast from the start: of natural wonders, rich birdlife, unique architecture and, of course, bountiful local food and drink. And though I felt sated from the experience, like all good meals I was already anticipating a second helping.
1: Sigri, Lesvos
Visit the excellent Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest (lesvosmuseum.gr) and take a glass-bottomed boat to the island of Nisiopi to see the remains of 20 million-year-old trees preserved by volcanic ash.
2: Kalloni, Lesvos
Walk or cycle (lesvosride.gr) among the salt pans of the gulf and spy flamingo, little stints and ring plovers with a birder in tow (lesvosbirdwatching.gr), before heading into the hills to visit the impressive olive oil museum (piop.gr).
3: Eressos, Lesvos
Stroll along the beach that was the birthplace of the famous poet Sappho – and a Mecca for women and lesbians.
4: Mastic Museum, Chios
Learn how the island grows and collects 'mastic tears' (resin of mastic trees) in the museum, then visit the mastic villages of Pyrgi, Mesta and Olympoi to wander their old city walls.
5: Agiasmata, Chios
Venture to the island's far north to hike, then relax at the thermal baths while watching the sun set.
Further reading and information
A Girl's Guide to Lesvos (odoiporikon.com, 2012) by Tzeli Hadjidimitriou - LGBTQ guide
The author flew with Aegean Airways (aegeanair.com) from the UK to Lesvos (Mytilini), returning from Chios (both via Athens). Another option is to go via Thessaloniki. Flight times are from around six hours (including transfer times).
Both islands have a good road network (though northern Chios has winding and unpaved roads in parts) and cars can be hired from the airport, with all the usual suspects - it's the most convenient way to get around.
To travel from Lesvos to Chios, you'll need to get the ferry (air travel all goes via Athens). Both Blue Star Ferries (bluestarferries.com; five sailings per week) and Hellenic Seaways (hellenicseaways.gr; eight sailings per week) will take you there in around 2.5 hours.
On both islands are a range of options, with everything from campsites to an array of family-run hotels and budget and boutique digs. The author stayed at and recommends: Mylitini's Hotel Elysion (elysion.gr) and Mythimna's Aphrodite (aphrodite-hotel-lesvos.com) on Lesvos, as well as Karfas's Hotel Erytha (erytha.gr/en) on Chios.
Food and drink
In the tavernas, try a range of seafood-heavy meze, including local speciality sardhelles (sardines fried or grilled in lemon or oil). Vegetarians should try dolmadakia (vine leaves stuffed with rice), kolokythoanthoi (courgette flowers filled with cheese and fried) and kolokithia and melitsanes (courgette and aubergine marinated and served with garlic and cheese).
To drink, be sure to try Greek coffee from a traditional kafeneio (coffee shop) where they boil the coffee and sugar together over a stove. You also cannot leave Lesvos without trying ouzo; head for the Barbayanni distillery (barbayanni-ouzo.com) in Plomari, Lesvos. Be sure to sample mastic tears on Chios, too – whether in liqueur form, in ice cream or even as chewing gum.
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