Lesvos ~ Crossing the island
Stepping out of the aircraft the familiar burst of warm air: the smell and noise of arrival in a new place fills the senses. A bustle of taxis and buses are familiar but the sea across the road calms everything.
Four kilometres away is the city of Mytilini.
The road sweeps along the sea edge, modern villas give way to old mansion once belonging to successful merchants, shipping families - some in need of care, some, most, restored well - line the approach to the city and huge outer harbour.
Mytilini, an important city port with its position on the island and teardrop shaped sheltered inner harbour had a commanding influence on the eastern Aegean.
Blue clinker fishing boats, nets hanging from rusting winches go about their business in the inner harbour while ferries and cargo shipping gather in the outer harbour. This watery business is casually watched by drinkers and diners from the arena of tavernas, each sitting on rickety chairs behind pinned down tablecloths perched as close to the edge as they dare.
A bizarre network of roads, signs, lights and shouting seem to work well and keep the traffic flowing in a city laid out for foot fall, carts and donkeys.
Beyond the harbour lined with shops, municipal buildings, a small park and hotels give no indication of the sprawling and strong castle draped over the hill on the other side of the city overlooking approaches to this part of the island and guarding the old harbour below. It sends a clear message to those who might have coveted this island. Be it Athenians, Romans, Saracens, Byzantines, Genoese, Ottomans, who all, in their turn, occupied this place and intended to defend it.
Thousands of students from the University of the Aegean vibrate in the streets and beyond the city 12 million olive trees carpet the island suggesting that the visitor €, although welcome, is only part of a vibrant economy.
A route out of the city leaves the bustle of overhanging shops and one-way streets for the recently completed highway, passing glass and steel outlets- selling what to whom?
A vista of velvet olive groves topped by mountains and underscored by the Bay of Geras gives a hint of what is to come. The road morphs from the slick modern to narrow as it negotiates another, yet to be by-passed, hamlet and drops down to the bay edge. The passing green becomes darker and denser as pinewoods replace formal spaced olive trees. The recent road cutting has left trees tenaciously holding their ground either side of the road with roots exposed pointing accusingly at passers by.
Stopping in the cooling shade of this higher ground to walk away from the road and human noise is soothing. Cicadas, birdsong and maybe the rustle of a tortoise emerging, neck stretched to warm - and sometimes silence when senses focus on the smooth scent of pines. Again, misty distant mountains and expanding horizon are a backdrop to the beauty of Kalloni Bay. Bordered by a fertile plain and salt-pans, all yet too far to be distinct.
The bay is a busy stop over for migrating birds heading north from Africa and for some it’s a destination. In recent years flamingos have decided this is the place to be.
Kalloni’s animals were a project of Aristotle, the first naturalist, spending several years discovering, collecting and documenting the diverse wildlife in and around the bay. Coming near to sea level the blue of the bay grades to a sparkling silver line between salt-pans and sky.
Kalloni has everything that would attract settlement from earliest times: fresh water flowing from cool hills, spreading in rivulets across a fertile plain to the warm bay rich in food for birds and people.
Today Kalloni, at the centre of the island, is a busy cross roads where the clacking of beads mix happily with iPods in the street-side tavernas. Commerce, banks, shops and services are the hub around which this part of the island revolves.
The roads leaving Kalloni continue north towards Petra with its lovely beach and church on a rock and Molivos, the ‘nearly’ capital of the island with bobbing boats in the harbour.
Heading west along the edge of Kalloni bay the road sometimes climbs a little from the water’s edge giving a view of blue with white chevrons of wake from boats harvesting the fish and octopus from the brackish warm waters, then back to sea level and gentle breaking waves below the crisp blue sky.
Settlements are passed less often, and turning away from the bay the rocks become greyer as trees give way to tussock grasses with a backdrop of mountain-sides marked by impossible feats of dry stone walling, dividing some often long forgotten rights to grazing and water over millennia.
The route to the west climbs over the ridge revealing a broad deep valley with the town of Agra in the distance - red roofed buildings, each look like individual tiles left scattered high on the far slope.
Agra comes and goes from view as the road zigs and zags in descent to the verdant valley. If you choose not to use the new road which hugs the mountainside with views of the sparkling Aegean, the homesteads slowly becomes real on the climb up to the town. The road narrows between and around the white houses and small shops.
4x4s are parked where once donkeys would be tied up; their owners in tavernas where utilitarian plastic chairs are evidence that the coffee and company are still more important than being commercial.
Glimpses of the other side of the valley can be seen flashing through the trees when ascending away from Agra.
Stone structures either side of the road at the peak of the pass frame the distant Aegean beyond, overlaying green valleys, like fingers reaching up to the rocky moonscape for sweet spring water - a gateway to the west of the island.
Olive groves are welcome after the low growth of the hillsides as the road skims the top of Mesotopos. From here a road descends to the sea and village of Tavari. Sheltered between a little harbour and jetty an estuary divides the beach and is overlooked by several tavernas, some said to be open all year.
Back above Mesotopos the road carries on in winding decent to the inland town of Eressos. The seaside part of the town, Skala Eressos, 2 miles away, like many coastal and island villages, had an inland part to retreat to from the winter weather and defence from raiders and pirates.
Here under the dapple shade a choice; right to the village or left to Skala.
A near straight tree-lined road following the river changes to a crazy paved surfaced centre of Skala Eressos. Traffic is encouraged to use a large car park 100m from the beach, regarded as out-of-town.
Between here and the centre, with a sprinkling of shops, glimpses of the sparkling sea can be seen.
Red pantile-roofed buildings line the grid layout of the village fanning out along the line of the beach.
Each pathway leads to a seafront of surprises; senses have to take in the lapping Aegean with the ‘Rock’ guarding the bay, colour, gentle movement and sculpture, Ouzo, coffee and culinary creation.
Conversation, laughter, clattering dice can be heard and everyone seems to have a hand to hold. Scatter-cushioned seat, a muslin drape billows, moved by the warm breeze, as a cool drink is brought across the boardwalk with a smile.
See you there x