Greece’s third largest island, Lesbos has the best food and drink in the North Aegean, from traditional mezedes to new-Med fusion
Some say the best ouzo in Greece comes from Plomari on Lesbos, and papalina (freshly salted sardines) from the Gulf of Kalloni make the perfect accompaniment. Try them both at I Taverna tou Panai, at Agios Isidoros beach, not a stone’s throw from Plomari village, as the start of a great meal that will cost you no more than €15 a head.
Greeks often drink ouzo instead of wine with a meal, watering it down to taste. Adding water turns the drink a milky white, and brings out its more complex flavours. Take time to savour, and you’ll begin to realise that good ouzo is as different from the everyday stuff (which tastes of aniseed and not much else) as single malt whisky is from supermarket blends.
If you’ve a mind to stay close to the source for protracted sampling, the small Aegean Sun hotel at Agios Isidoros is a comfortable base, with rooms from €60-80. Or do your sipping and snacking at O Milos at Skala Kalloni, by the shores of the Gulf. This shallow lagoon takes a deep bite out of the island’s west coast, and its calm waters provide a rich harvest of seafood – not just sardines, but fan mussels (whose huge silvery shells decorate the walls of this fish taverna), cockles, scallops, octopus, sea urchins and langouste.
The marshes and saltpans around the Gulf attract migratory birds, including pelicans, flamingos, glossy ibis and more than 130 other species – visit in spring or autumn for the biggest count.
Lesbos is Greece’s third biggest island, almost 50 miles from east to west, and around 30 miles from north to south, which means there’s plenty of room for everyone around its coast and deep in its hilly hinterland. Compared with the near-desert southern islands, it’s lushly fertile, with orchards and olive groves, vineyards, wheatfields, pastures and vegetable patches overflowing with aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes and melons.
The most attractive beaches and resorts are on the northwest coast of the island. Unfortunately, the airport and the main harbour town are close to its southeast corner, which makes for long coach transfers between your flight and your hotel. You can take the sting out of this by spending a night or two before flying home in Mytilini, the island capital just a few miles from the airport, where a portfolio of stylish small hotels includes Loriet, with 40 rooms in a florid old mansion (from €80); Archontiko Mytilinis, with 12 rooms starting at €100; and the cream of the bunch, Pyrgos Mytilinis, with immaculate service and just 12 rooms in a building that mimics a French Second Empire chateau.
Most visitors prefer to speed straight on to tourism epicentres such as Molivos, Petra, and Skala Eressou, thus missing Mytilini’s attractions. Their loss, your gain. It’s a happening place in a very Greek way. Nightlife (driven by a big student population) caters to younger locals with a plethora of clubs and music bars – there are at least a dozen summer dance clubs and music bars, including Buddha, Marush, Central, Faces, Ocean 11, and Kochlia. Out by the airport (where it won’t keep the locals awake), Giraffe doesn’t open until 10pm, and is the best place on the island to rave until dawn.
There’s great food too. Do some more ouzo sampling at Kastro (Ermou 326), Antonis or Thea (both at Taxiarchis, between town and the airport). Greeks never drink without eating, so order trays of meze snacks – local cheeses, sausage, meatballs, sea urchin roes, roast aubergines and much more. Kalamies, next to the airport, is a good spot for a last-minute drink before your flight.
Eat cheap and cheerful souvlaki at Politeknos and Makis, by the harbour, and more substantial traditional food at Dimos, by the old port, which stays open 24 hours a day to cater to fishermen, sailors and passengers waiting for late-night ferries to Piraeus. Zoumbouli (Vernardaki 2) is another great retro tavern (it’s like stepping back to the 1940s), and Lemoni kai Prasino Piperi (‘Lemon and Green Pepper’) at Plateia Konstantinoulos, on the seafront, is modern French with a local twist.
The Archaeological Museum (at Argiri Eftaliou 7) has some pretty murals, mosaics and ceramics, but more interesting is the Theophilous Museum in the suburb of Varia, where more than 80 lively paintings by the self-taught local artist Theophilous are on show. Today, he’d probably be doing acclaimed graphic novels – his scenes from folklore, legend, history and village life are a delight (some have even made it to the Louvre).
Molivos, almost 90 minutes' drive from Mytilini, is the island’s tourism epicentre. It’s the prettiest village in the North Aegean isles, a place of steep lanes where cats slumber in the sun on the doorsteps of red-roofed houses that rise in tiers from the harbour to a hilltop crowned by the frowning ramparts of a castle built by the Genoese Gateluzzi, who dominated the island in medieval times. Stay here at Nassos, a simple, comfy guesthouse managed by Dutch expat Tom van Maanen, with a mix of double and twin rooms that share baths and a kitchen and start at €20, plus self-contained studios and apartments (you can also rent the entire house, for around a dozen people, from €120). If you’re looking for a full-service, beachside hotel, the newly-built Delfinia at Efthalou, less than a mile from Molivos, stands amid palm trees and landscaped grounds and rooms here start at €75.
If Molivos has a flaw, it’s the lack of a good beach. There’s a thin stretch of pebbles immediately below the village, and the water is clean though the bottom is stony. But for better bathing you need to go as far as Efthalou, where natural hot springs bubble up through the pebbles; for a free, open-air spa, dig a hole in the sand, let it fill and hey presto! – your own, natural hot tub. (For a slightly less primitive hot water experience, visit the bathhouse at Skala Thermi, with a hot spring that has been credited with healing properties since ancient times, or the baths at Polychnitou, the hottest natural spring in Europe).
Lesbos has a reputation as a ‘red’ island, but its leftist loyalties don’t seem to clash with tourism. On the contrary, the co-operative spirit makes the island all the more welcoming. At Petra, about three miles south of Molivos (and with a much better beach), stay with the Women’s Cooperative of Petra, whose 30-plus members have rooms, studios and apartments in homes and on working farms all over the village; you’re encouraged to join in farm and garden work, help in the kitchen and join in local activities.
Eressos, some 60 miles from Mytilini on the southwest coast, is the birthplace of the classical poet Sappho, and as a result it is a place of summer pilgrimage for her modern followers. The north end of Skala Eressou’s long sand-and-pebble beach, furthest from the village, is, by tacit consent, a gay women’s preserve, but the beach and the village are by no means exclusively gay – there’s plenty of room for all on the beach (including a family of semi-domesticated pelicans) and the village is pleasingly free of big-time tourism, though it has a handful of decent restaurants and small pensions and guesthouses.
A two-week holiday is just barely enough time to begin to discover Lesbos. Plan to come back next year.