On my first walk through the village of Kontopouli, the roosters are crowing. A sleepy donkey lies next to a chicken in a fenced-in field. The pomegranate trees on the narrow streets are weighted down, nearly ready for harvest. The fish man — with his freshly caught calamari and silvery sardines, which we’ll eat later, bones and all — is about to make his rounds to the local housewives. And the Hrysafi bakery, with its warm and flaky cinnamon-sprinkled bougatsa pastries, is getting ready to open.
I meander up the narrow streets to the top of the hilly town. In the dawn light, I catch a sliver of the north Aegean Sea, which a turboprop plane had carried me over at dusk the day before on the hourlong connecting flight from Athens.
I pause to look as the sea beckons, much brighter now, from 2 miles away. While it’s still cool out, I head in that direction, southwest on a dusty, treeless, and empty road. I stop on the mazelike streets of the next town over, Kalliopi, named for the Greek goddess and muse of poetry, where kite surfers from around the world gather each summer to fly across the turquoise waters at the edge of the white and sandy Keros beach nearby.
But I’m not here for kite surfing. After two months of teaching summer school in humid New York City in record high temperatures, I am here to chill. And the island of Lemnos — though it feels just as hot during my visit — seems like the perfect place for it. (From March to May, temperatures range from the 50s to 70s.)
Lemnos (Limnos to the Greeks) is what Greece once was before throngs of tourists invaded, and some were surprised by $500 bills for cocktails and snacks. It is nearly as deserted and peaceful as when American author Henry Miller first came to the Aegean and Ionian islands back in the 1930s. Miller fell deeply in love with Greece and wrote about it in The Colossus of Maroussi. “If you have light, such as you have here,” he wrote, “all ugliness is obliterated. Since I’ve come to your country, I know that light is holy: Greece is a holy land to me.”
I’m here to spend a week exploring this undiscovered bright spot, a place that’s rough around the edges, but with hidden luxury rentals and incredible restaurants. It is the anti-Mykonos, the real deal, where the only tourists are those few surfers camping at Keros or the vacationing descendants of Greeks who emigrated from here long ago to settle in the United States. Lemnos is a secret I cannot keep.
In one telling of Greek mythology, Hera tossed her ugly, unwanted son Hephaestus from the top of Mount Olympus to Lemnos island. But he survived — injured and with his telltale limp — and would go on to become the god of fire, a craftsman and blacksmith responsible for Achilles’ armor and Hermes’ winged helmet.
My friend Elaine has invited me to stay with her at her home on the northeast side of the island in the village of Kontopouli, just 10 minutes from where the mythical Hephaestus set up his first forge at the foot of Mount Mosychlos. Elaine was born in Greece but raised in New York, where we met. As a child, she’d come to Kontopouli with her parents, then returned every summer with her own children. Now divorced, she’s visiting with her grown daughter and infant grandson. After years of promising to visit Elaine’s family homestead on Lemnos — a small, peach-colored stone house where her father lived until leaving for America in his teens — I’ve finally arrived, worn out and in need of rest on the island’s peaceful shores.
The options of things to do while we’re here together are all appealing: guided bus tours to the sand dunes of the local desert, Pachies Ammoudies; to the famous church with no roof, Panagia Kakaviotissa; and to the ancient temple in Hephaestia. We could even hop on a roundtrip ferry ride to Turkey, visible in the distance, like a low-lying storm cloud on the horizon, and tour Gallipoli (far from where the deadly earthquakes struck in February).
Usually when I travel, I’m ready for an adventure and excited to see the local attractions. But my knees hurt from standing in class day after day, lecturing. I tell Elaine that I want to go to the beach, eat good food, and drink local wine. “You got it,” she says. “That’s easy.”
We take the seven-minute drive to the local lido (or beach concession) at Keros, where reggae is playing and free beach chairs and umbrellas sit empty and waiting. There’s a trampoline for the kids and a volleyball net, but everyone is too relaxed to even use them. Whenever I get too hot in the 90-plus heat, I wade out into the sea, then head back to my lounge chair, nap and repeat. After several rounds, reaching a state of nirvana, we drive 10 minutes west to lunch at Mouragio, one of Elaine’s favorite restaurants, located on the edge of Kotsinas harbor.
We take a walk to the end of the nearby dock and gaze down into the crystal-clear water at the sea urchins clustered on the sandy bottom, then walk past the fishing boats that have likely just caught our lunch. Our calamari are lightly fried and so fresh they melt in my mouth, bearing no resemblance to their frozen, rubber-band-like cousins in the United States. The tzatziki is a revelation, thick with locally made yogurt, and garlic and cucumbers from nearby farms. “Farm to table was kind of invented here,” says Elaine, laughing. A whole fish — fagri (red porgy) — is flaky and sweet. The zucchini fritters, which I will try to re-create back in New York, are crispy and full of flavor. The retsina wine, light and lovely. We have no room for dessert.
The restaurant’s Greek owner, Stella, lived in Miami for several years but returned home to run this place. A green copper statue of a Lemnian woman — an Amazon — holding a sword stands near the restaurant. Lemnian women are known for their fierce nature, having murdered all the men centuries ago for cheating on them with Thracian slaves — according to legend, at least.
“Do you miss Miami?” Elaine asks Stella in Greek as she brings us the check — a mere $53. Stella shrugs and shakes her head no, looking out into beautiful Kotsinas harbor, its waters a steady gradation of a half dozen blues.
The next day at Plaka, a 15-minute drive to the northeastern tip of the island, the beach crowd is even smaller and mellower than the one at Keros, with only about a dozen chairs and thatched roof umbrellas. Just looking at this place, the remnants of my work tension melt away. Afterward, Elaine will take me to the nearby tiny shrine of St. Charalambos, a miracle healer whose name in Greek means “glowing with joy.” People once took their sick donkeys and other farm animals here for its healing clay, known as terra Lemnia. Past the white and blue dollhouse of a shrine, down a long flight of rocky stairs to the beach, we find four rectangular outdoor baths filled with muddied sea water, just above the shoreline.
“Just rub it on whatever hurts,” Elaine instructs. I massage a handful onto each achy knee.
A few steps below, the sea’s edge is covered in flat rocks of various sizes. “Take one of the rocks and place it on your head,” she says. “If you make it to the top of the stairs without it falling off, you can place it in the shrine and make a wish.” I select a stone the size of an iPhone and walking slowly, my knees creaking, I place it in the little blue and white shrine with its red tile roof and big white cross — a miniature of the dozens of churches we have passed in the countryside.
Another day, on our way to yet another gorgeous beach, we stop in Kontias, a pretty village with a gallery that features the work of Balkan artists. Beautiful paintings of landscapes try to capture the island’s magical light, but none can rival the actual scenery we’ve soaked in along the way. Elaine has driven us 13 miles southwest of Kontopouli, past frighteningly steep cliffs. It’s impossible to tell the deep blue of the sky from the Aegean as they seem to have merged in every direction, only the curve of the horizon reminding us we are on earth and not actually in heaven.
On our daily excursions we make our way farther and farther from our home base in Kontopouli until we reach Myrina, Lemnos’ capital, on the opposite side of the island, about a 30-minute drive southwest. Myrina has shops, a marina, and, yes, a gorgeous beach. Just steps away from our beach chairs, we eat at Taverna Tzitzifies — named after the trees that the restaurant is built around, providing shade for the small crowd of 30 or so (the most people I will see gathered in one place on the island).
Waiting at our table for our food to arrive, we eye the modern-looking bars lining the harbor. A far cry from the crowded nightclubs of Santorini, their mellow dance music attracts couples and young people staying in Myrina’s hotels.
Soon, our feasting begins. We spread tangy garlic dip over ever-so-lightly fried eggplant. Then comes the octopus, and grilled barbounia — red mullet — followed by fava, mashed up and decorated with olives and pickled peppers. And the finale, two lobsters — brown and spikier than their US relativesbut much sweeter, more like crab — split in half and over what must be a pound of spaghetti. Once again, I think I have no room for dessert, but then we’re presented with local yogurt and preserved grapes. “Oh my God,” I say, after one taste.
To work off my epic lunch, I walk up hundreds of winding stone steps to the top of the castle in Myrina, the largest castle in the Aegean. Built upon an ancient Greek citadel, the fortress has grown with each passing empire — the Byzantines, the Venetians, the Ottomans. Now the only inhabitants are about 200 local deer. Families of humans make their way up and up, children leading the charge, climbing excitedly past the ruins, their parents shooting photo after photo.
The view from the top — after a 20-minute climb — is breathtaking, with the golden sun setting on a stretch of red clay roofs, the harbor and the hills in the distance. I realize my knees no longer hurt, thanks to the restful beach days, the warm Aegean, or maybe that blessed mud.
From this high up, I can see all of Myrina, the mellow bars and restaurants just coming to life, the walkway along the marina beginning to fill with couples and families. For those with small children, there’s a colorful playground with slides and swings, right by the water. Older kids can take day-long boat rides featuring fishing and snorkeling, or venture a little farther to Lemnos Playland, which offers tennis, paintball matches, roller skating, and Ping-Pong. And there’s a café for the parents.
Back in Kontopouli, I visit the local craftswoman — the village’s answer to Hephaestus. Konstantina Despoteri, another strong Lemnian woman, taught pottery making in Athens for over 30 years but is now here in a small studio with a blue door and several shelves filled with her fired creations. To find her, I simply follow the signs from the center of town. I select one of her plates with blue melted glass at the bottom, several small painted bowls, and an aqua pitcher the same color as the sea with a thumb print for a grip to carry back home.
On August 14, the day before I’m set to leave, the nights suddenly turn much cooler. A strong breeze blows clouds into the clear blue sky that in my short stay I’ve already come to take for granted. Late that night, a storm approaches the village, thunderbolts flying out of the sky as if thrown by Hephaestus’ angry father, Zeus. But raindrops never fall.
Praying mantises appear, a sign that summer is nearing its end. “Starting today,” explains Elaine, “everyone will wish one another a happy winter.”
Because of the Feast of the Assumption, when the Blessed Mother was said to be carried body and soul to heaven, women light candles in the local cemetery next to the raised crypts of their ancestors. In ancient myth, Athena once cursed the women of Lemnos for not taking care of their family shrines.
On this night, every grave is lit, candles shining in the darkness.
Where to Stay, Where to Rent a Car
For those not lucky enough to stay with Elaine, she suggests Hotel Diamantidis in Myrina (from $80), which has a pool.
For those who want to be closer to the kite surfing scene in Kalliopi, luxury safari tents are available through Surf Club Keros (tents sleeping four start at around $65).
Garofalis Rental in Kontopouli can meet you at the airport with a car rental. It also offers inexpensive rental apartments on the island that start as low as $37 per night in spring and $74 in summer.
Helene Stapinski is a journalist and the author of four books, including The American Way: A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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