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Traveling By Bicycle Around Lesvos

 by Colleen Mcguire

Lesvos, GreeceAn ancient mystique is one ingredient which tends to lure me to a foreign land. The Greek island of Lesvos proved bewitchingly alluring, not least because it is home to perhaps the oldest known female poet in history, Sappho, born in 628 BC in the town of Eressos. A second beckoning ingredient is a land’s potential for adventure travel, and Lesvos fit this bill, too.

Also known as Mytilini, Greece’s third largest island has a network of at least 400 miles of well-maintained paved roads. With my Trek 1220 road bike, two panniers and a tent, I spent two weeks bicycling to just about every town and village in the island accessible by asphalt. With great relief and pleasure I hereby broadcast that as a single female traveler, I was never once harassed, disturbed, or pestered by any man.

Beach in Lesvos, GreeceAlthough Mytilini with roughly 90,000 inhabitants certainly has its share of foreign visitors, compared to Cyclades islands such as Santorini and Mykonos, its tourism falls short of industry proportions. As a result, you never feel crowded and--icing on the cake--goods and services tend to be half the cost as other Greek islands.

There are pockets of tourist activity where mostly northern Europeans cluster, yet more common are the countless empty beaches that render bikinis cumbersome. I slept on many such beaches, my tent pitched within spitting distance of the Mediterranean. A perfectly circular sun, as fiery red as a traffic light, frequently held me captive as it rose from or set into the sea.

Beach in NE LesvosThe shape of Lesvos can be likened to an upside-down uterus with the Kaloni Gulf splitting the land into two quasi-equal halves. The terrain of each half is so opposite the other, it is as if you are traversing two separate islands. While the east is flush with greenery, orchards and water, the western half is dry and barren, having a desert feel.

The twelve-hour overnight ferry from Athens deposited me in the capital, Mytilini, at 8:00 in the morning. Upon touching terra firma, with no pause for city sightseeing, I immediately started cycling up the island’s eastern flank. I pursued a very leisurely pace, stopping often, such as to tour several monasteries or marvel at the mountainous terrain which provided tantalizing views of the Turkish coastline, a mere two hour boat ride away. Numerous instances while cycling on a quiet mountain road, the silence was startlingly ruptured by a clamorous clink-clank-clink of metal bells dangling from a herd of at least 20-30 goats.

Skala Sikaminia, LesvosBy 6 p.m. my first day, 40 miles later, I arrived to the adorable fishing village of Skala Sikaminias where I camped for the night. Its parent town, Sikaminias, is two steep miles away, comprising maybe 900 inhabitants. Their old and stately stone homes with red tile roofs cling in a charming huddled cluster to the side of the mountain.

When summer comes many of the villagers of Sikaminias move down to Skala Sikaminias, and when summer ends, they ascend back up the mountain. This unique seasonal movement occurs in other Lesvian towns, too. A resident of Eressos and Skala Eressos fascinated me with a report of how, until four years ago, for decades and decades her entire village (including merchants, doctor, pharmacy, post office, etc.) made its annual mountain-sea-mountain relocation en masse on the very same day.

The beauty of Lesvos is that the islanders proudly preserve their traditions. They demonstrate a remarkable, and indeed refreshing, disinterest in developing their land into another indistinguishable McMall. They cherish a more tranquil flow to life, insisting on the two or three hour afternoon nap regardless of whether business could be transacted or profits made in that period. Siga-siga, meaning slowly in Greek, is a word readily learned.

Molyvos, LesvosWhile cycling, especially in mountain terrain, I daily passed old men riding side-saddle on donkeys. By their warm smiles, I sensed these elders shared my sentiment that we are allies in our embrace of a non-motorized means of transportation. Siga-siga, they sometimes said to me in passing.

From Skala Sikaminias, I traveled about ten miles westward on a road hugging the sea more fit for a mountain bike than my 28 cm tires. But traveling ever so siga-siga, I made it safely to beautiful, photogenic Molyvos, (population about 1400), a town which under no circumstances can be missed. Its winding, narrow cobblestoned streets and elegant stone houses with loudly painted shutters set against the blinding blue sea and an imposing castle make Molyvos a destination for the romantically inclined.

Hot springs near Ligaria Paradise, LesvosAbout three kilometers from Molyvos is Eftalou, the soothing hot springs coming out of the sea. The ancient spa is a little structure with a round white roof, a hamam as it is called in Turkish, that is a popular tourist site famed for its natural healing capacities. The place was closed on a Sunday morning, but I went behind the building and sat directly in the hot sea water, a wonderful experience, but not as heavenly as my previous day’s discovery.

On that rocky coastal road to Molyvos I came across hot springs that are not “tamed” so to speak, meaning no one has enclosed them. They are just out there in the sea, no building, no sign, no fees, no people. You wouldn’t even know to look for them unless you had a “heads up” which I fortuitously received owing to my tendency to initiate conversation with every passing Greek, especially one encountered on a siga-siga type of backroad. I mentioned to the man I met that I was going to Eftalou. To my surprise he informed me that there are hot springs here too, not that far away, near the bend in the road, close to a little white boat on the beach. With those sketchy instructions, I succeeded in finding these “untamed” hot springs. I sat in bliss in hot sea water at the shore, my back resting against a smooth rock, savoring the tingling feeling of cool sea waves lapping over me. (Look for the rock with the little rocks on top of them close to the Ligaria Paradise Taverna as seen in this photo).

Antissa, Lesvos, GreecePerhaps traveling in Lesvos may not be as rich for many as it was for me, specifically because I am able to carry on a modest conversation in Greek. Where Athenians tend to lapse into English with me, the mountain villagers allowed me to speak, albeit at siga-siga pace, and tended not to interrupt me, just patiently waiting for me to formulate my sentences. So, I loved going up into the mountain areas to villages of 200 or 300 people, like Pterounda or Ambelika or Pelopi (whose Dukakis Street is named for guess who?), for the experience of talking exclusively in Greek. Besides the language barrier, these are towns by and large ignored by European vacationers since the beach is the premier attraction for that crowd. The villagers delighted in welcoming a venturesome foreigner such as myself to their turf.

Each village has a little plateia (square), usually with a vine-covered canopy for cherished shade. Mandatory are several coffeehouses, called cafeneons, where the men sit for hours drinking thick Greek coffee from little doll-sized white demitasse cups, “Mavro,” they’d order (black). I would bicycle into the village, often turning a narrow corner, suddenly appearing into the plateia rather dramatically from nowhere--unlike the noisy announcement of a car or motorcycle. I was invariably told that I was the only bicyclist in memory to ride into town.

Vatousa, LesvosMy presence always created a hubbub, probably the talk of the week. It wouldn’t take long for someone to engage me with the routine litany of initial questions: Where are you from? Where is your husband? Do you have any children? Although I don’t drink coffee, I started to do so in Lesvos in order to access myself to the villagers. It always heartened me to be treated by one of the elders and served mavro in those little white cups just like the locals.

After a while, I would leave the center of gravity of the town, the plateia where the men dominated, and start venturing down the village’s side streets where the women prevailed. I would find them at home, sewing, cooking, relaxing on porches, or tending to animals. Young and old, seemed dazzled by my female presence on a bike. “All alone?” the women always asked in seeming admiration. A glass of water, fruit, a towel to wipe my sweat were offered to me when I visited women in their homes. I was never looked at suspiciously or with a glare of distrust. A smile always greeted my smile, coupled by direct and forthright eye contact.

Monastery, Eressos, LesvosLesvians were in constant awe of my ability to traverse the island by bicycle. For example, going 40 or so kilometers from Petra to Xidera by noon caused eyes to bulge in Xidera. Any new person joining the conversation was instantly advised of this remarkable fact, inducing another round of eye-bulging as if I’d just done a century. Although the climb to Xidera was 1500-2000 feet, yet and still, 24 miles is “just warming up” for a modestly fit cyclist like myself. I confess it felt great to have Greeks regard me as if I was some sort of Olympian caliber athlete.

One thing that makes it easy to cycle in Lesvos, even through its barren western half, is the fact that you can always find water to drink. Every town has at least one fountain, and invariably you’ll come upon running water in the middle of absolutely nowhere. In the mountains, the water is usually refreshingly cold. While cycling in a pulverizing sun which Greeks have sense enough to stay out of, I’d dunk my head under the spigot and the rush it created was enough to keep me cycling until the next fountain.

Louloudia, LesvosMytilini has many novel surprises, such as, the petrified forest near the western town of Sigri which enticed me for two hours. Unlike the one in Arizona, this rock-forest has “trees” still standing, giving the barren region an eerie ruin-like effect. Migrating birds from Africa make the island an internationally desired venue for birdwatchers. The aromatic pine forest mountains in the south can make a mountain biker delirious, while Kaloni Gulf, looking and feeling like a big lake, offers great windsurfing.

The flora of Lesvos enchanted me. Near Molyvos I unexpectedly set my tent next to a bush of wild rosemary and I’m certain its fragrant aroma infiltrated my dreams for the two nights I camped there. One day on an isolated road I encountered a smiling man (where had he come from?) carrying a little green and lavender sprig who handed it to me saying, “mentha,” which my dictionary translated as peppermint. I carried the wild twig in my handlebar bag for days, whiffing its energizing scent regularly. In an adorable fishing village, Niferida, an old woman cooked me louloudia. This uniquely delicious plate consists of the yellow/orange flower of the zucchini plant rolled up in a conical shape and stuffed with rice and herbs. I’d never seen or tasted anything like it.

Skala Eressos, LesvosSkala Eressos is the epicenter of lesbian visitors from all over the world, many of whom come year after year. Although unmistakably Greek, the town has its own distinct flavor. You find, for example, women casually caressing each other at the hip Sappho Hotel, a nude beach unusually close to the town’s main beach, a taverna named Filomena which serves a daily vegan dish, reflexologists and other healers advertising their arts, a women’s only hotel, anti-war graffiti stating, “Bush, Blair, Sharon = Terrorist.”

Lesvos is the Greek island where ouzo--that delightfully tasting Greek liquor that smells of anise--was born. And Plomari, a loveable town on the southeast coast, is the home of ouzo. There are actually certain brands of ouzo that can only be purchased in Plomari. Even if ouzo is not your taste, you cannot venture to Lesvos without indulging in this quintessentially Lesvian experience.

Visitors to Lesvos regard this precious island as one of Greece’s best kept secrets. The people are warm and friendly. The food is divinely delicious in part because Mytilini some of Greece’s finest olive oil. There are as yet no high rise hotels or packaged jumbo jets of tacky tourists trampling all over the place. I didn’t meet a single American until I took a day-boat to Turkey at the end of my trip.

For you women adventure travelers on the look-out for a female friendly, mountain-sea locale that offers physical challenges and a siga-siga charm, Lesvos is waiting to unleash your goddess spirit.

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