ΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΟ ΒΗΜΑ ΔΙΑΚΙΝΗΣΗΣ ΙΔΕΩΝ ΚΟΙΝΩΝΙΚΟΥ ΠΡΟΒΛΗΜΑΤΙΣΜΟΥ ΠΟΛΙΤΙΚΗΣ ΕΠΙΣΤΗΜΗΣ ΚΑΙ ΤΕΧΝΗΣ ... ESPRESSIONE LIBERA DI IDEE POLITICA SCIENZA ΕD ARTE...
Mytilini is not a town. It's a city. But it is an amazing little city full of life and surprises and if you are someone with a long history in Greece it may actually remind you of Athens or Pireaus in the fifties.
Like other great cities Mytilini is built upon seven hills and is full of history. Mytilini is in fact one of the most culturally enlightened cities in Greece perhaps due to its proximity to the coast of Asia Minor where the ancient Greeks flourished until 1922 when they were forcefully evicted by the Turks. Many of these Greeks had property in Mytilini and many Mytilinians had businesses in Asia Minor. For this reason the museums are full of interesting remnants of the last three thousand years of history and the town itself contains monuments, houses, churches, schools and other buildings from the various historical periods. But it is the Mytilini of today that holds the most interest for many because it is a small and manageable city full of great restaurants, cafes, nightlife, lots of interesting shops and friendly, people.
When you arrive by boat at 7 in the morning it is quiet. The city spreads from the large harbor up into the hills and mountains behind it and is crowned by an enormous castle whose foundations were laid during the time of Justinian on the ruins of an even more ancient fortification. This castle is surrounded by a pine forest that reaches down to the shore and the public beach. In the summertime the castle is used for performances of traveling groups of musicians, theater, opera and music and art festivals. In fact it is one of the best places to hear a concert in Greece. The castle is well worth a trip and a walk around the promontory will give you a whole new perspective of the city because it is like being out in the wilderness with horses and donkeys grazing on the hills that lead up to the fort. If you continue to the back side of the city you will come to the old bordellos and the old harbor where there are more fortifications and ancient ruins.
The waterfront comes alive with traffic by 8 and stays that way until just after 1 pm when the stores close and everyone goes home for lunch and siesta. By early evening the city is alive again with activity. This is not your typical quiet Greek island village but it is certainly a very entertaining place. The main street is lined with cafes that seem to be full year round. For the rest of the island Mytilini is the big city. Smaller villages send their children here for high-school. Mytilini is also the home of the University of the Aegean. People come from all over the island to do their shopping since there are super-markets in the true sense of the word, with aisle after aisle of products, imported and domestic. There are cultural activities, concerts of all styles of music, basketball tournaments, an indoor swimming pool and of course the city is the center of island Government, not only for Lesvos but for Lemnos too.
The marketplace is one of the most active in Greece with shops of every variety and closed to automobile traffic while the stores are open. There is ample evidence of the plentiful fish in Lesvos waters and prices are low. When I arrive by ferry in the early morning I usually spend an hour or so wandering around, checking out the fish and buying sardeles pastes or pastourma (dried spiced beef-like pastrami) to bring as gifts to my friend Tryphon to serve with ouzo in his cafeneon on the far side of the island in the village of Vatousa. It is hard to imagine a more interesting way to spend a morning and the shops contain a variety of items that you won't find anywhere else and to me are more entertaining than a museum. If you require strong coffee to get you going go to the small traditional looking cafe right across the street from the yogurt shop (that has the best yogurt and rizogalo in the world). It is called the Musico Cafeneon and it is on the corner of Komninaki street. if you are just getting off the boat it is a great place to gather your thoughts and drink an espresso or two. The owner is a woman named Martina and she or one of her staff can answer any questions you have upon arrival. If you are staying in the city,day or night it is a great place to hang out. Otherwise the waterfront is full of cafes that sell all sorts of coffee drinks, snacks, breakfasts and entire meals and at night are full service bars. Day or night there are hundreds, maybe thousands of young people who hang out at these cafe-bars.
Be sure to stop in at the Matis Ouzo factory which is right in the agora (market) where it has been for a hundred years, making and bottling their award winning ouzo which is popular on Lesvos but unkown to most people off the island except for the most knowledgable ouzo drinkers. It is located on a small street that connects Ermou Street to Archipelagos Street and the large square where the buses stop in front of the main harbor. There are other small ouzo factories right in town. Ouzo Kefi is made on Ermou Street towards the old port near the famous Ermis Ouzeri. Ouzo Veto is located right at the entrance of the ferry terminal just on the other side of the Blue Sea Hotel. The Association of Mytilene Distilleries (EPOM) ouzo distillary, makers of the popular Ouzo Mini is on the other side of the old harbor just beyond Pano Skala where they still make their ouzo the traditional way but if they offer tours of the plant they don't publicise them very well. That's OK. The smaller ouzo factories will be happy to see you and explain the process and sell you a few bottles as well. If you want a serious ouzo factory tour go to Barbajianis in Plomari.
Eating in Mytilini
Mytilini is a city and a good sized one by Greek island standards. There are lots and lots of good places to eat because generally they are not cooking for tourists, trying to give visitors what they think they will want. The restaurants are for the locals who are here year round which is why when tourists who are only familiar with food from the popular islands in the Cyclades come here, they can't believe how good it is and how inexpensive it is. The main eventis generally fish but there are loads and loads of restaurants that specialize in meat called psistarias and psitopoleios which serve grilled local beef, pork, and especially lamb and goat. Even the fish restaurants will serve paidaikia (lambchops), brizoles (beef and pork steaks), loukaniko (sausage), and some kind of souvlaki-shishkebab. There are fast food joints on the harbor road that serve gyro and souvlakia as well as ice-cream and sweet shops, and all the hip cafes on the waterfront serve food whether it is sandwiches or pastas and international dishes. There is even an Italian restaurant that serves pizza and pasta on Ermou Street on the way to the old harbor.
There is a line of fish tavernas on the far side of the harbor that cater to the tourists, many who arrive on the daily boat from Turkey, so the signs are written in Greek, English and Turkish and they even sell Efes and Yeni Raki from Turkey, along with the ouzo brands from Lesvos. restaurants like Tsimis o Xontros (Jimmy the Fat Man) are popular and even if you ask a local where to eat they will probably send you there where you will walk in and be invited to sit down by every waiter in every restaurant until you reach the end where the small boats are tied and turn around to do it again. Some of these restaurants are psistarias, grill houses specializing in meat, not fish. So if it is fish you want be sure that it is a fish restaurant you are sitting at. The fish is generally pretty good and Lesvos not being an island inundated by tourists, there is not much difference between the tourist restaurants and those that the locals eat at. Remember that they will try to sell you the most expensive fish, which compared to other islands is not that expensive. But if you want to eat fresh fish cheaply stick with the grilled sardines, mackeral, fried gavros (anchovies), kalamari (squid mostly frozen but so what?) and of course the sardeles pastes and gavros marinatos. In season shrimp is cheap and you can get a heaping plate full of them small and medium, fried so perfectly that you can eat the entire thing.
In my opinion the best restaurants are in the old harbor at the end of Ermou Street. You can find sardeles pastes in season at the four or five restaurants right on the sea. The Psaro-taverna Ourano is the oldest of these fish restaurants and is run by Panayotis and his family who immigrated to the island in 1922. They serve excellent fresh grilled fish and meats as well as ouzo mezedes including fried shrimp. Next door Karnayo is a cafe on one side and an ouzeri-psaro taverna on the other. Try their pastourmatiki, which is a bourekaki (stuffed-deepfried-bread) with pastourma and melted cheese. Rembetiko is the most popular of these restaurants and on weekends is usually full as is Refenes right next door. We have eaten at both of these places and the food is very good and the atmosphere festive. For some quiet mezedes nearby but not on the sea cross the street and go to Kastro, a small ouzeri on Ermou Street across from Ermis, which is the most famous ouzeri in Mytilini. Kastro is run by a guy named Giorgos who is also a magician so after some delicious mezedes you may be entertained with some pretty impressive card tricks. For a before or after dinner drink go to Fisheye, a swinging young people's bar right on the sea among the fish tavernas.
If you drive out towards the airport there are several small fish restaurants right on the sea like Limanaki (Small Harbor) that as its name suggests sits right on a little man-made harbor with a few fishing boats next to a beach and a mile or so from the airport. This is a popular place to eat with locals and the fish is fresh and inexpensive. So if you go to the airport for your flight home and you find you have a two or three hour delay it is not the end of the world and if you have not given up your rental car just go back to Limanaki. If you have given it up or never had one to start with all is not lost. A few meters from the terminal are several restaurants including Kalamies, a very nice Greek taverna which is popular with locals who are not going anywhere. Next door is a less formal restaurant, a giant Psitopoleio (grill house-souvlaki shop) with a huge menu of meat and salads and vegetable dishes which is like a fast-food place but with table service and really good food, great by airport standards. This restaurant is also frequented by families from Mytilini, for the food and table wine from Limnos and the playground right in the restaurant grounds.
In the middle of the new harbor connected by a narrow causeway lined with fishing boats is a small cafe-ouzerie which is one of the finest places to sit, have an ouzo and a mezedes and watch the ships leave for Athens at sunset or the small ferries returning from Turkey or the comings and goings of sailboats and fishing boats. In the afternoon it is full of old fishermen, making lures as they drink their coffee or ouzo and in the evening it is full of people eating mezedes drinking ouzo, beer or soda and talking. It's a fine vantage point to watch the lights of the city come on as darkness approaches. Scattered throughout the city are cafeneons that serve ouzo and excellent mezedes. Which are the best? The most crowded ones of course so wander around til you hear loud voices and music and if you see a large number of tables and old men smoking and talking you are on the right track. If they are singing then you have stumbled upon some place special. Some of my favorite places in the city are the cafeneons and ouzeries that are hidden on back streets where afternoon parties are spontaneous. The people of Mytilini are intelligent, warm and generous who love good food and engaging conversation. Fueled by ouzo, a pleasant lunch can last until early evening and the people who hours before were strangers at the next table can begin to feel like blood brothers and soul-mates. As in any town or city in Greece or the world, it's not the buildings or the scenery that make a place special. It's the people.
The city of Mytilini is a maze of small streets that defies drivers to find their way out once they have ventured in too deeply. Behind the town is the ancient harbor which used to be connected to the new harbor by a canal. Mytilini sits upon the site of the ancient city and traces of a shipyard, remains of the ancient agora and fragmentary sections of the Roman aqueduct are located at Apano Skala near the old harbor. There is also an ancient theater above Apano Skala. The neighborhood of Apano Skala was settled by Greek refugees from Asia Minor in 1922. Two story stone apartment buildings were built for them and most of them are still standing though many have been altered. The area of Pano Skala and the Old Harbor below get the north wind and seem to have a much nicer climate than the new harbor which is one reason why the locals eat in the above mentioned tavernas and the tourists eat on the other side. There are also the remains of old factories and warehouses that give this part of Mytilini a really cool industrial look, sort of inner-city-on-the-sea. To make it more interesting there are also ancient ruins, two old mosques and the old EPOM Ouzo factory in the neigborhood, which has a terrific view of the castle. If you have some time wander around Pano Skala and learn to recognize what the original refugee buildings looked like and then check out the ingenious way they have been added to and upgraded so much that in some cases you can't even imagine the original stone boxes they used to be.
There are many churches of interest and also renowned neo-classical mansions scattered throughout the city, particularly in the old aristocratic neighborhoods. Mytilini has been a prominent intellectual center in the Aegean from ancient times to the present and is an important center of the Greek Orthodox church. The popular Bishop of Mytilini, Iakavos III, is known for his work rescuing children in Serbia during the wars in Yugoslavia and his house overlooks the city. There are several important churches including the Cathedral of Saint Athanasios which was built at the end of the 16th Century and has a secret underground tomb. The sacred relics of Saint Theodore, hung by the Turks in 1795 are kept here and his martyrdom is celebrated February 17th and also on the 4th Sunday after Easter. The saint has been credited with saving the island from a plague in 1836. The largest church in Mytilini is Saint Therapon (photo) built in 1860, which is just behind the habor road in the market. Supposedly the church sits on top of an ancient temple to Apollo. Both churches are full of Byzantine icons and impressive wood-carvings and gold. Also nearby is the Church of Saint Theodore a triple-aisled baslica and the church of Saint Nicholas, a converted mosque.
The old neoclassic mansions and houses make the city of Mytilini itself a sort of museum. But on the outskirts of Mytilini in the neighborhood of Varia are theTheophilos and Teriade Museums which contain collections that any gallery in the world would be honored to have in their possession. For those who have never heard of him Theophilos was an interesting character. Born Theophilos Chatzimichael in 1873 in what is now the suburb of Vareia near Mytilini town. He died in 1934 from food poisoning. His works are inspired by history, mythology, nature and life and once recognized you will see them everywhere, on hotel room walls, advertisements and in cafes and restaurants. They are distinguished by their primitiveness but also for their expressiveness and their color combinations. The paintings of Theophilos are very valuable and hard to find outside of the museum so be sure to visit because even though he painted on walls, doors windows, houses and shops all over the island many of his works have been lost or destroyed. The Teriade Museum contains the collection of Strati Eleftheriadi (Teriade), a patron of the arts, where you can find works by paintings by well known Greek artists, such as Tsarouchis, Vakirtzis, Canellis, Charalambidis as well as the works of great European artists of our time including Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Chagall, Le Corbusier, Miro and others. It was Teriade who recognized that Theophilos was a great artist and rescued him from obscurity, preserving the works that still exist. The Archaeological Museum of Mytilini is in the neaighborhood between the ferry port and Mytilini Castle at 8th November Street and focuses on Hellenistic and Roman Lesbos from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD. (For more see Lesvos Museums)
There are banks, tourist agencies, car rental offices, and shops of every type. The accommodations and entertainment facilities in the city and suburbs, which are surrounded by greenery and located by the sea, have every modern convenience. Many of the hotels are on the road to the airport and if you are staying there a car is helpful though the city's bus service can keep you from feeling isolated and taxis are cheap. Many people stay out there because of the beaches which are right across the street. But if you are a city person you may want to stay at one of the hotels that is in the center. Visiting all the sights and the museums but especially wandering around the city, the market and the neighborhoods, gives one the knowledge and understanding of a place that is truly Greek.And you don't have to go all the way out to the airport to have a swim either.
One of the most interesting neighborhoods is the area between the waterfront and the castle with a mixture of old Turkish houses and mansions. It is from this neigborhood that the old people make their way on foot and bicycle or papaki (motorbike)to what is one of my favorite places to swim on Lesvos.Below the Statue of Liberty, just on the other side of where the ferry comes in, is a swimming area of concrete platforms where the sea is clean and deep and cool, and you can find many old people doing their daily banyo (bath-swim), deep in conversation as they tread water thirty or forty meters off shore, or do their daily trip to the point and back. There is a changing cabana and a shower too as well as some shade and there are ladders that enable people to easily get in and out of the sea. Below the castle and the pine forest there is the town beach where you pay to go in and in return get a nicer changing room, a cafe, better showers a real beach. There is another concrete swimming platform below the lighthouse just beyond the town beach. Despite this area being within a five minute walk from the center of the city it really is a very nice place to swim similar to swimming off the rocks in Hydra but cleaner and without the irritating beach music. (You can get that at the town beach a couple hundred meters away).
The long dock that seperates the swimming area from the harbor is about a half a mile long and people take walks and ride their bikes to the end and back. There are also many people fishing here as the sun begins to set. If you walk to the end there is a large covered cement gazebo and you can hang out and enjoy the sea air and watch the ships come and go just a few feet away. The breakwater and dock that protects the new harbor is really an architectural feat, one of the longest I have seen in the Greek islands. If you are someone who likes to exercise by walking you can start anywhere, walk to the gazebo and back and then around the harbor to the ouzeri at the other end of the harbor and you will have gotten your exercise of the day without even having to cross a street with cars. Or you can go the other way around the castle along the sea, past the old bordellos and end up in the Old Harbor where you can cut in on Ermou Street and end up right back in the new harbor.
Because Mytilini is a city and can be hot in the summer as cities can be, most people who visit Lesvos don't spend their holiday here, opting for the beach towns of Molyvos, Vatera, Skala Eressos, Plomari and Sigri which are more the type of places people have in mind when they go on vacation. Usually they will spend a few hours here on the way on and off the island since this is where the ferry port and the airport are located. But it is not a bad idea to plan a night or so in Mytilini if you want that big city action, or if you are like me and enjoy exploring cities. If you arrive early on the ferry or a flight don't follow the impulse to jump on the first bus or taxi or drive your rental car to wherever you are booked to stay. Take some time to explore the market right behind the port road, which in the mornings of even the hottest days is quite bareable. You can visit the Teriyade and the Theophilos Museums as part of a day trip or on your way in or out of town as well. For those who arrive on day trips by ferry from Turkey or on the cruise ships that have begun stopping here my suggestion is to begin with the market, take a quick trip to the museums, or walk up Ermou street to the old harbor and enjoy the cool breeze and lunch at one of the fish tavernas on the sea (rather then go to the restaurants in the main port which will be busier and more hot.). Have a swim at one of the swimming areas below the Statue of Liberty or the town beach where the sea is cool and cleaner than you would expect from in a city. Then go to one of the hip cafes on the waterfront and have a nice frappe or a iced capucino fredo and wait for the time to board your ferry or cruise ship. If you leave at night, even better. Go back to the old harbor for a drink at Fisheye or dinner at Ourano or Rembetis or one of the other restaurants, or have an ouzo or three and mezedes at Ermis and Kastro on Ermou street.