Friday, 3 June 2011

One Island Not To Be Overlooked

Leros, tucked away in the south eastern corner of the Aegean, is often overlooked by Greeks and foreign tourists alike. That’s a shame. In addition to having the safest harbour in the Aegean the island offers rich architecture, good food, and fascinating – if somewhat bizarre – history. For one thing, walking through the main town of Lakki you get the strange feeling that you’re on an Italian movie set.

Approaching Lakki
 Like every island in this part of the world, the history and legend go back thousands of years, and the island was sacred to Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The remains of a small temple to Artemis can be found on the northern part of the island. A more stunning reminder of the complicated history of this region is the large castle built by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem in the 14th century that still stands high on a hill overlooking the small fishing village of Pandeli. The Knights gave way to the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century who stayed around until 1912 when it was the turn of the Italians to run the islands. Why the Italians? They were awarded the Dodecanese Islands as part of the spoils of war when the defeated the Turks in 1911. The Italians stayed until 1948 when the Greeks finally reclaimed these islands.

The Italians took advantage of the large harbour to make a base for their Aegean fleet, and in the process decided to create a new town that they called Portolago, since renamed Lakki by the Greeks. In the 1930s this town was created with wide, tree-lined streets and several classic art-deco buildings. After the war many of these buildings were left to decay, but fortunately their architectural value was finally recognized and they are gradually being restored. You half expect Federico Fellini to walk out of one of them as you stroll around the town. The grounds of the naval base itself have been given over to a psychiatric hospital, but you can still see the magnificent house that Mussolini sometimes used as a summer residence. Italian tourists still maintain a close association with the island, and many of them own houses or keep their boats there.

The island suffered badly during World War II when it was bombed in turn by the Royal Air Force and later by Luftwaffe when Britain tried unsuccessfully to recapture the Dodecanese Islands in the fall of 1943. The tunnels prepared by the Italians to store ammunition served a much better purpose during the battles by sheltering citizens of the islands from the worst of the carnage. One of these tunnels now serves as museum dedicated to the Battle of Leros. The other major reminder of that conflict is the immaculately maintained British War Cemetery by Alinda Bay that contains the remains of 179 British, Canadian, and South African soldiers, airmen and sailors killed in the battle. Those interested in the ill-fated attempt to recapture the Dodecanese should read Churchill’s Folly by Anthony Rogers.

While slowing gaining in popularity the island is by no means over-run with visitors, and many of those come on boats that use the marina in Lakki or anchor in the small bay across the island in Panteli. Wherever you stay the best way to see the island is to hire a motor scooter to get around. The roads are fine, and many of them are lined with high eucalyptus and pine trees. As you leave Lakki head up the hill to Platanos, the capital of Leros, and then down to Aghia Marina along Alinda Bay and enjoy the combination of traditional village and neo-classical architecture that dominates these two towns.

Easy Rider Returns
 One of the real pleasures in Aghia Marina is to sit at cafe on the quay munching what are among the best sweets in all of Greece and sipping a decent espresso or an iced cappuccino. You quickly fall into the pleasant routine of those around you and spend a great deal of time doing essentially nothing other than sipping coffee and taking in the beautiful scene around you. When you eventually do get up you feel oddly refreshed and ready for the next adventure – dinner.

Waterfront in Aghia Marina
 If you’re tired of the usual taverna fare of Greek salad, over-cooked meat or chicken, or pasta that is definitely not al dente head to Dimitris O Karaflas (Dimitri the Bald One) in Vromolithos. If nothing else, the setting high on a hill overlooking one of the island’s many bays makes this a worthwhile trip. But the real treat is Dimitris himself who is passionate about food and goes out of his way to use local ingredients to create original, delicious dishes. The best thing is to forget the menu and put yourself in his hands. He will tell you what he has prepared that day and bring you a steady succession of dishes from baby shrimp, to marinated tuna, to pork in a red wine sauce that melts in your mouth, and on and on. By the end of the evening we could just about waddle out to get a cab back to the boat. It was interesting to note that this sumptuous meal was three times cheaper than the dinner we had in Turkey the previous evening. It used to be the other way around. Now Turkey is much more expensive than these islands.

Dimitris The Bald One
The next day was clear with a decent wind, and we headed off for a small group of islands even less well known than Leros where the main entertainment was the tinkling of goat bells and the insistent call of the local rooster.

1 comment:

A Seasonal Cook in Turkey said...

oh gosh you make these islands sound wonderful! Where are they and are they easily accessible?