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Greek, But Islands Apart

Unspoiled Lesbos

August 01, 1999|H.R. KOHL | H.R. Kohl is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area, and a longtime specialist in the Eastern Mediterranean

MOLYVOS, Greece — "Parakalo! Parakalo!" a voice boomed over the loudspeakers. "Attention, please! All visitors are kindly requested to leave. The ship is departing imminently." Like dozens of other vessels that sail to the many islands of Greece from the busy mainland harbor of Piraeus, the Sappho, named after the ancient lyric poetess, was a car ferry leaving for Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean, only a few miles off the coast of Asia Minor.

Sailing time: 14 hours.

I stood at the railing, watching the sunny coast of Attica gliding by, until the ship had passed the temple of Poseidon at Sounion and headed for the darkening east. In the morning I would meet my husband at the harbor of Lesbos' capital, Mytilene. He was taking a plane from Athens.

Flying time: 35 minutes.

Although tickets cost about the same for both means of transportation (roughly $60 in early summer), planes are obviously more convenient. But nothing is more exciting than approaching an island by ship, seeing it slowly rise out of a sparkling sea. Lesbos can be spotted from a great distance, its layers of green mountain ranges unfolding in the luminous Aegean light. It is a view that can hardly have changed since the first Greek settlers, the Aeolians, arrived 3,000 years ago.

Although Lesbos is the third largest island in Greece (after Crete and Evia), it is not well known outside the country, except for its name and the fact that the immortal Sappho was born here (around 600 BC). She taught music and dance to the daughters of aristocratic families, played her own compositions and wrote sensual love poems, many of them dedicated to her women friends. Although her fame spread to every place touched by Greek civilization, the term "lesbian" became synonymous with female homosexuality only a century ago.

A statue of Sappho stands at the quay, but it is not the first thing that catches the eye of visitors arriving by boat. The town's prominent landmarks are a large 19th century domed church (which some say may have been built on grounds once occupied by Sappho's school) and a massive 14th century Genoese castle, built on an earlier Byzantine fortress. (The island had been the dowry of a Byzantine emperor's relative at her wedding to a scion of the Gattelusi family of Genoa.)

My husband and I have vacationed in Lesbos for many years, but when we met that morning at the quay last June, we had skipped a couple of summers. We were amazed by how fundamentally things had changed and how affluent Mytilene had become in that short time. There were new or renovated houses and apartment buildings, modernized hotels (some even with air conditioning), shops that displayed the latest in bathroom and kitchen designs from Italy and Germany, and supermarkets that sold such delectables as Austrian butter and pates from France.

At one of the many coffeehouses along the waterfront, we had a choice of filter coffee, cafe frappe, espresso or cappuccino. It was a far cry from the days when thick Greek (formerly Turkish) coffee was all one could get.

But the most spectacular innovation was the introduction of traffic lights downtown, finally giving pedestrians a fighting chance.

Lesbos was for centuries part of Turkey (until the 1920s), and was scarcely visited by outsiders before the 1950s and early '60s, when a number of European artists and writers arrived in search of solitude and inspiration. The '70s saw individual travelers, mostly romantics in love with nature and looking for simple country life, coming from as far away as the U.S. and Australia. It was only about a dozen years ago that tourism really took off, when European travel agencies "discovered" the island and began to promote inexpensive package deals, which included transportation by charter planes and lodging in private homes.

A construction boom ensued, and Lesbos now offers a variety of accommodations, many with swimming pools, a few with tennis courts--all the amenities vacationers are used to. And so, week after week from May to October, they arrive by the planeload, mostly from northern Europe. In addition to singles and couples with children, gay women are coming to the island in increasing numbers. They head mainly for the village and beach of Eressos, near the western tip of the island, said to have been Sappho's home.

The inhabitants of Lesbos are generally conservative on matters involving sex, and when the first foreign lesbians arrived in noticeable numbers in the early '80s, the welcome was less than friendly. There were scuffles with some townspeople, and graffiti urging "Lesbians go home!"

Now there is an established lesbian community around Eressos, consisting of Greek and foreign women, and a number of women-only hotels. When I inquired about whether the locals had become more tolerant, I was told it was a matter of economics: the power of the "pink drachma" (the drachma is the Greek currency).

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