By Alexandra Wensley
How grateful am I? One of the best aspects of having a father who lives in Greece is planning our family vacation to visit him every other summer. My father and his 90-year-old sister Maria live on the Greek island of Lesvos in a small farming town. Although Lesvos, Greece’s third-largest island, is not on the radar of many Americans, it is full of historic villages with gorgeous beaches, medieval castles, delicious food and an abundance of natural beauty. The Greek tradition of hospitality is prevalent throughout the island, making Lesvos a great place for families and couples who want a quiet, fun vacation destination. It’s a charming gem in the northern Aegean.
We arrived in Lesvos mid-July via a short 45-minute flight from Athens to Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos and a lively port city. We rented a car and made our way through the maze of crowded streets. Our first stop was the medieval castle, one of the largest castles in the Mediterranean. Mytilene Castle, built in the 6th century AD, is perched atop a hill on the edge of the city. We spent several hours touring the ancient ruins, tunnels and towers. It was grand and picturesque with incredible water views from every corner.
A short drive from Mytilene is the famous Monastery of Agios Raphael (St. Raphael) in Thermi. It’s dedicated to one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Lesvos. We wandered around this sacred and impressive house of worship filled with inspiring stories of miracles and visionaries. It’s also worth a visit to another prominent monastery, Moni Taxiarchon, located on the north side of the island in the town of Mantamados. While the monastery was fascinating, we went to taste the famous loukoumades, the Greek version of a fried doughnut sprinkled with sweet honey and cinnamon served at the cafe on the monastery’s compound.
The Ouzo Capital of the World
Plomari on the southern coast of Lesvos is known for some of the island’s best beaches, olive oil and the local ouzo. On the winding road leading into town there are many ouzo factories and the ouzo museum. One learns how ouzo is made and what distinguishes one brand from another. On many evenings, we visited the island’s seaside taverns with my father and his friend where they shared a bottle of ouzo. Drop one or two ice cubes in a small glass with a little ice water, pour a small amount of ouzo on top and watch as the ouzo turns from crystal clear to a smooth white chalk. Now ready to drink, “only sip it and slowly,” my father instructs my husband, and enjoy it with small plates of mezze: feta cheese and olives (there are 11 million olive trees on Lesvos), fresh sardines, fava beans drenched in olive oil, and fried eggplant. Drinking ouzo is a Greek tradition and a ritual meant to be savored with the traditional cuisine.
On one morning, a herd of sheep with bells clanking around their necks blocked traffic as we made our way to Molyvos, an incredibly picturesque town of stone homes that cascade down a hill under a Byzantine castle. Molyvos has some of Greece’s main attractions – crystal blue water, excellent seafood and grand architecture all in one place. We walked along the cobblestone streets to a small harbor where octopus tentacles are hung to dry before grilling. We chose one of the casual seaside spots for lunch, and enjoyed an excellent meal of Greek salad, souvlaki and, of course, grilled octopus. We spent the evening watching the sunset – it was dreamy, making for the perfect photo op.
Just outside of Molyvos, it’s worth a visit to the coastal villages of Petra and Anaxos, each offering resort-style beaches with sun beds, umbrellas and spectacular views. In Petra, we arrived at Mojo Bar, a recommendation from a friend, and loved the lively music and the comfortable beach loungers. I enjoyed a Frappe while my husband and boys indulged on honeydew and watermelon handpicked that morning from my father’s farm.
We spent many leisurely days on the island’s beautiful beaches. The kids played paddle tennis on the sand and burned more energy on the cool inflatable trampolines and slides floating in the sea. We discovered new places, ate delicious gyros on-the-go and were spoiled with gourmet meals prepared by Aunt Maria. We feasted on homemade dishes of okra cooked with fresh tomatoes and olive oil, lamb stew with peas from the garden and pastitsio, a traditional pasta dish made with ground beef topped with béchamel sauce. This is the Greek island living that I most cherish providing an enchanting getaway for all that are blessed to discover it.