In search of the real Greece

Lesvos, and the charm­ing town Molyvos, let you slot into the slow rhythm of the lo­cal life­style

Central and North Burnett Times - - READ - BY Gary Chig­wid­den

THE taxi driver, tak­ing us from Athens air­port to our ho­tel in the city cen­tre, nailed it. “Ahh! Lesvos,” he said, in re­sponse to our an­swer to his query to me and my wife, Pam, about where we had come from, “the real Greece.”

It was an an­swer that mir­rored my thoughts about the is­land and more par­tic­u­larly the cap­ti­vat­ing town of Molyvos where we had spent the pre­vi­ous three weeks.

Perched on a hill­side be­low a Byzan­tine cas­tle and of­fer­ing ex­pan­sive and breath­tak­ing views of the Aegean and sur­round­ing moun­tains and hills, this place with its har­bour, its nar­row, cob­bled streets run­ning through the wis­te­ria-cov­ered agora – mar­ket place – and its peo­ple quickly found a per­ma­nent home in my soul.

But don’t ex­pect to see the white­washed houses fa­mil­iar to San­torini, or other sim­i­lar Greek is­lands – build­ings in Molyvos are con­structed from the vol­canic rock so preva­lent in the area, the nat­u­ral colours un­touched.

And don’t ex­pect the full-on rag­ing party scene of some of the other more pop­u­lar Greek is­lands and the tourist hordes that make it a chore to move about.

Molyvos, on the is­land’s north coast and close to Turkey, is dif­fer­ent.

Yes, it is a tourist town. In­deed, tourism is its lifeblood. But it’s a soft form of tourism that en­cour­ages – and al­lows – you to slot easily into the slower-paced rhythms of the lo­cal life­style and all it has to of­fer.

But Molyvos, de­spite its ob­vi­ous at­trac­tions, is se­ri­ously strug­gling.

We were there at the end of May and the first week of June, the of­fi­cial start of the sum­mer sea­son, and it was quiet, very quiet.

It has been mostly like that since early 2015 when Lesvos hit world head­lines af­ter thou­sands of refugees be­gan ar­riv­ing on its shores in all man­ner of craft, cross­ing the short stretch of wa­ter from nearby Turkey to es­cape war, ter­ror­ism and poverty.

Molyvos and the sur­round­ing area bore the brunt of the flood of peo­ple seek­ing a safe haven and a new life.

The re­sul­tant world­wide pub­lic­ity, in­clud­ing cov­er­age of the ex­tra­or­di­nary hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts of many Lesvos lo­cals in aid­ing the refugees, re­sulted in a mas­sive can­cel­la­tion of booked hol­i­days. But even worse for the econ­omy of Molyvos and nearby towns, tourist agen­cies, pack­age hol­i­day com­pa­nies and char­ter flight com­pa­nies stopped book­ing Molyvos hol­i­days for 2016.

Hol­i­day book­ings for 2016 dropped by 65% to 80%. Aphrodite Vati, the press and me­dia co-or­di­na­tor for the Molyvos Tourism As­so­ci­a­tion and also man­ager of the fam­ily-owned Aphrodite Ho­tel, a short drive from the town cen­tre, felt the im­pacts first­hand.

She and her fam­ily, along with other lo­cal res­i­dents and vol­un­teers, worked tire­lessly for many months, with­out any of­fi­cial help, to help refugees who landed on the beach in front of her ho­tel.

To­wards the end of 2015 and early 2016, the refugee flood turned to a trickle and es­sen­tially stopped when Turkey signed a deal with the EU and the gates to Turkey were closed to refugees. At the same time Greece closed off all ac­cess by refugees on north­ern Aegean is­lands to the main­land.

By then, the tourism in­dus­try in the north of the is­land had been crip­pled. Busi­nesses closed, jobs were lost and de­spair was in the air.

But that was then. Molyvos is now fight­ing back.

“We need the true story to get out that things have got back to nor­mal,” Aphrodite said.

“Busi­nesses are open and ready to do what they have al­ways done.

“The whole of Greece is flood­ing with tourists this year. They are go­ing ev­ery­where ex­cept Lesvos.”

A new cam­paign, Lesvos. The Other Aegean, which was to have been launched two years ago but was put on hold when the refugee boats started to ar­rive, is soon to be mar­keted across Europe. It will push the point that Lesvos “is the place for trav­ellers who want to ex­pe­ri­ence and par­tic­i­pate in life rather than merely en­joy­ing it”.

For my wife Pam and I, par­tic­i­pat­ing in lo­cal life – which was our aim – was made a lot eas­ier thanks to a real gem in Na­dia Kostaki, who runs the epony­mous Na­dia Apart­ments where we stayed.

Her two hol­i­day apart­ments and three stu­dios are part of a spa­cious fam­ily com­pound on the edge of town where she lives with her hus­band, chil­dren, mother and fa­ther and grand­mother.

Guests ef­fec­tively be­come part of the ex­tended fam­ily and it’s up to you to de­ter­mine the level of con­nec­tion be­yond the nor­mal pleasantries of “good morn­ing’’ and “good af­ter­noon’’.

Din­ing choices at Molyvos are plen­ti­ful and by Aus­tralian stan­dards the cost of a din­ner for two with a cou­ple of beers and a glass of wine is re­fresh­ingly cheap – in our case, rang­ing from about $30 to $45.

Res­tau­rants we en­joyed in­cluded Gatos, Cap­tain’s Ta­ble, Oc­to­pus, Betty’s, Ma­jo­ran and Trop­i­cana, lo­cated in a square with two mag­nif­i­cent plane trees pro­vid­ing a canopy for out­door din­ing.

And for a quick snack, try a pita gyro ($3.75), wrapped pita bread filled with chicken or pork and chips, from Friends in the town cen­tre. Goes well with the lo­cal Mythos beer.

For a re­laxed late af­ter­noon beer or wine, and maybe a swim, we liked Sun­set Bar right on the beach.

It took us a cou­ple of days to find a place that made a cof­fee that suited my taste (im­por­tant), which is why most morn­ings we took the leisurely five-minute stroll from Na­dia’s Apart­ments into town and then a fur­ther 10-minute walk down to the har­bour to the Aiyaiov (Aegean) Cafe.

De­spite my wife’s one-per­son ef­forts to bol­ster the lo­cal econ­omy by buy­ing lo­cal jew­ellery, it was only a drop in the Aegean when many more drops are needed.

How­ever, the signs are there that things are start­ing to im­prove. Aphrodite pre­dicts book­ings for the cur­rent north­ern sum­mer will be only 40% down on 2014 lev­els.

That’s a lit­tle bit of sun­shine, but she knows there is a long way to go. All travel and ac­com­mo­da­tion ex­penses were paid by the au­thor.

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

◗ The Greek town of Molyvos, on the Greek is­land of Lesvos, is re­cov­er­ing af­ter an in­un­da­tion of refugees from Turkey re­duced tourist trade on the is­land.

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