You are never far from land when navigating the Eastern Aegean, yet you feel elated when you spot the green shores of Lesbos amid the blue haze. The 10-hour ferry trip from Kavala is far from over, but one of the best known yet least visited Aegean islands is within your grasp.
In popular imagination, Lesbos is associated with Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess who composed enchanting love poems inspired by and dedicated to other women. In recent decades, this has resulted in a steady stream of LGBT visitors to Eressos, the village on the south shore of Lesbos where Sappho was born. An enchanting place in its own right, its tiny houses are enfolded in the hills above a wonderful beach, a place of pure relaxation that busts into activity during the Sappho Women Eressos Festival in September.
Lesbos has more to offer than just LGBT, however. A major centre of ancient Greek civilisation and of international commerce since Antiquity, visitors arriving by ferry are greeted by the bustling streets of the capital, Mytilene. Neoclassical buildings line the harbour, with the spherical dome of the church of St Therapon rising over their wedding-cake-like confection. Built with the cash of the rich merchants who once became wealthy by exporting the famed Lesbos soap and olive oil, Mytilene's current cityscape is the latest incarnation of this millennia-old place.
Sappho- and love-themed sculptures dot the shore of Eressos
Outside the crowded capital, Lesbos is quiet, calm and sparsely populated; a symbiosis of thick forests covering the mountains, olive groves, the barren landscape of the west and the wetlands of the Kaloni Saltpans where flamingo roam. Traditional communities still fish the sea, grow olives and distill the emblematic ouzo aniseed liquor.
Molyvos is the most popular of these communities, and for a reason. A rival of Mytilene in the past, it is a maze of colourful, tiny houses scattered on a hill under a fortress. Excellent traditional restaurants and bars line the seafront, and one of its streets, narrow and shaded by flowering wisteria, proudly claims it is the most beautiful in the world.
There are more such communities across the north shore of Lesbos, such as Petra with its imposing, rock-top Panagia Glykofiloussa Church, and the charming Skala Sikamineas with its picturesque white-washed church by the sea.
Waterfront church at Skala Sikamineas
When travelling to the west, green Lesbos (the island's name supposedly means "wooded") changes into a moonscape. The result of ancient volcano eruptions and of climate change, the western part of the island preserves a petrified forest that flourished 14 million years ago. The UNESCO-listed Lesbos Geopark is the best way to explore it.
Westerners visit the south shore of Lesbos mainly because of Eressos, but visitors familiar with the Balkans and the Middle East have another centre of attraction: Plomari. In this town a number of distilleries – from industrial sized to family ones, make ouzo, the aniseed aperitif which commonly begins a Greek lunch in any season. After a generous tasting of several types of ouzo in one of the distilleries, accompanied by excellent homemade appetisers, you will be surprised to discover that Plomari itself is a beautiful, enjoyable place of grand old houses in different stages of dereliction and preservation, and makes an excellent starting point for exploring the region on foot or by boat. The affordability of local real estate, including historical mansions, has resulted in an influx of international buyers and developers, but Plomari still preserves its quiet atmosphere of a place that once thrived on soap production. It is now reinventing itself as a tourist and holiday destination.
Sunset over Plomari
A week has passed and it is time for your return trip to Kavala. As the ferry passes along the north shore of Lesbos, you will recognise one by one the places you have just visited visited – Skala Sikamineas, Molyvos, Petra. As they disappear in the the evening glow, you will inevitably be promising to yourself to return to Lesbos, the island of discovery.
You need to climb 114 steps to reach Panagia Glykofiloussa Church in Petra
Hung out to dry: Octopus tentacles adorn Molyvos seafront taverns, ready to end in your plate
Ouzo bottles at the Barbagiannis distillery in Plomari
Molyvos is packed with tourists, but its old cafés remain a place for locals to indulge in the pleasures of Greek life