“I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder,” said travel writer Bill Bryson, “than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” Few countries offer more golden opportunities for feeling utterly ignorant than Greece. The written language alone makes you feel like a toddler, staring at random shapes of letters that seem to be dancing before your eyes. The wonderment goes up exponentially when you take an overnight ferry from the mainland to arrive on a distant island shortly after dawn and before coffee.
"Τώρα φθάνουμε στη Λέσβο,” announced the loudspeaker. We are arriving in Lesbos.
Rich and I grabbed our bags and headed down the gangplank to the port city of Mytilene. The air was sweet and balmy, the light luminous. Was I thinking of Aristotle, Sappho, and all the brilliant minds who’d passed this way before me? Nope, I was seeking coffee. Fortunately, as the Greeks are as deeply attached to their καφές as the most passionate Starbucks addict, it took less than a minute to find a café.
When the caffeine enabled me to gather my wits sufficiently, I asked, “How far is the hotel?”
“About a half hour’s walk.” It was closer to 45 minutes, with the last bit uphill followed by three sets of stairs. But it was a wonderful walk, along the vast curve of the harbor where fishing boats bobbed, whistling young men pushed carts of supplies, ancient Vespas puttered by, women readied tables at wharf-side restaurants, and old men sat nursing thick ceramic mugs and hand-rolled cigarettes. Just about every café seemed to have an old dog sleeping at the threshold. The buildings were a jumble of styles: Mediterranean, old stone, Western European, ornamental Byzantine, and of course, a few boxy, 1960s-style concrete buildings because hey, this is the real world. Our hotel was a converted 1916 mansion, and I was charmed to discover we were in a tower room, one that was perfectly round, like something in a fairy tale. We deposited our bags and set out to explore the town.
We soon found ourselves on Ermou Street, which was much like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley — a blast-from-the-past jumble of fishmongers, cobblers, confectioners, and shops selling old books, Kodak film, DVDs, and “curiosities.” Presiding over one end of the street was the magnificent church of Saint Therapon the Wonderworker, a 7th century Palestinian refugee who had such a knack for curing the sick that his miracles are still much in demand today.
At the other end of Ermou Street was the old harbor and some fish restaurants; lunch instantly moved to the top of our agenda. We settled at a wooden table covered with a blue checked cloth and studied the menu. Grilled sardines, we decided, and at the waiter’s urging, a fish I’d never tried before: red mullet.
Less romantically known by its common name — the bottom-feeding goatfish — red mullet is a tender, tasty fish that in ancient times rose to an extraordinary trendiness among wealthy Romans. Top specimens were sold for their weight in silver, kept in ponds, and caressed by their owner, who would brag to friends about teaching the fish to come to the sound of his voice. (Having owned goldfish, I can tell you that most fish will come to signals associated with food, so this doesn’t imply special brilliance on the part of red mullets. Or their owners.) Great thinkers of the day — Seneca, Pliny, Cicero —discoursed on the red mullet’s charms, and artists were commissioned to include their image in mosaics. But for us, they were simply lunch. The recipe is ridiculously simple: dust the red mullet with flour and salt, fry in oil, serve with lemon.
It’s possible that the island’s most famous resident — the poet Sappho — wrote odes to the red mullet, but we’ll likely never know, as nearly all her work has been lost since her death around 570 BC. Sappho was born to a wealthy Lesbos family and her talent took the ancient world by storm. Many of her poems speak eloquently of love and desire between women, which naturally led to assumptions about Sappho’s own sexuality, giving rise to the term lesbian.
This has driven some conservative residents of Lesbos absolutely bonkers, especially with the rise of the LGBTQ movement in the 20th century. In 2008 a group of Lesbos islanders tried to get a legal injunction banning groups from using the world lesbian in their names, claiming it violated their human rights by associating the island with “disgraceful” practices. As you can imagine, they were laughed out of court and have had to satisfy themselves with making sure everyone spells it Lesvos, a more accurate transliteration of the Greek Λέσβο. Despite their best efforts, there’s a modest but growing LGBTQ tourism trade, supported by agencies such as Sappho Travel in Skala Eressos, Sappho’s birthplace.
Today, the island’s most famous export isn’t poetry but ouzo, a dry anise-flavored aperitif. Lesbos boasts 17 ouzo factories, some quite large, others no bigger than a kitchen; together they produce half the nation’s supply. We’d heard it was traditional to drink ouzo around sunset and that a good place for this was Kastro Tavern, owned by a magician named Georgios.
We arrived at dusk to find Georgios playing backgammon with friends, his dog asleep in the kitchen, and no other customers in sight.
“We’d like some ouzo,” I said. “Do you have Kefi?” This popular brand is named for the state of sublime, transformative contentment when everything in the world seems right.
“No,” said George. “It is turned off.” He mimed closing a tap. “Two brothers made it, and they …” He made fists and pantomimed punched them together. “No more Kefi.” Well, that’s one for the irony department, I thought.
We chose another brand at random. “Ice?” asked George. “Of course,” I said. I’d read that ouzo, which we’d been taking neat, should always be served over ice or with a little cold water, which turns the clear liquid cloudy. Why is this important? I have no idea, but I’m not about to fly in the face of tradition. It’s also meant to be taken with a meze (snack) or two; at 37% to 50% alcohol content, it’s nothing to be trifled with.
We ordered white beans and red mullet, and sat sipping, nibbling, and listening to the clatter of dice and the low hum of talk and laughter. Occasionally George’s dog wandered over so Rich could scratch behind its ears. When we eventually bestirred ourselves to ask for the bill, George said, “Would you like to see magic?” He dazzled us with nifty bits of sleight of hand. “The bag is empty, yes? And now…” he flipped cards out of the bag onto our table; we gasped and applauded. And I reflected that the true magic of Greece is this: its ability to make strangers feel they belong, that they are among friends, even when they are very far from home.
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Here's our path from Kalamata, Greece to Mytiline, Lesbos, Greece
via bus and ferry.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
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