SIGRI, GREECE — Jubilant passengers cheer and clap in celebration as our aircraft lands at the Mytilene airport. I share their excitement, eager to begin my adventure on Greece’s third largest island, Lesvos, situated in the north-eastern Aegean Sea.
While this Grecian island isn’t as well known or popular as some of the tourist hotspots of Santorini, Mykonos and Crete, I don’t mind that it flies below the tourist radar. This calm and peaceful island is truly authentic, inexpensive and not overrun with tourists.
Lesvos is known for its breathtaking scenery and is home to one of the world’s most beautiful streets in the town of Molyvos. The island produces high-quality olive oil and features the ouzo capital of the world — Plomari.
What makes Lesvos truly special to me is that it’s the ancestral home of my father’s family. We are travelling with my grandparents, who have arranged for taxis to meet us outside the airport to transport us to Sigri, a small fishing village on the opposite side of the island. As we load our bags into the trunk, I see the coast of Turkey only about a dozen kilometres in the distance across the Mytilene Strait.
Above: Octopus hangs drying in the mid-day sun, left, while an old windmill, right, provides tourists with an Instagram moment.
I was excited to see the mountainous views and picturesque villages along the two-hour drive that cuts through to the western side of the island. But being jet lagged, I doze off somewhere outside the capital city.
My dad gives me a gentle nudge as we approach Sigri, named after the Latin word siguro, meaning "safe," since it was considered a safe harbour. I take in the gorgeous dusk sky as the sun lowers behind the glistening sea. Fishing boats sway in the calm waves while the bay is filled with kite and wind surfers who are enjoying the cool winds.
Before we head up the stairs to the apartment we have rented for the week, a young kitten catches my attention. Suddenly there are several other cats that I instantly fall in love with. My grandmother (yiayia, as she’s called in Greek) tells me that cats roam freely throughout the island.
I can tell that she and my grandfather (pappou) are excited to show me their childhood stomping grounds. They met at school when they were paired up as young children to garden inside the castle that was built by the Ottomans in 1757. The castle is now one of the main tourist spots for the village.
Above: Lesvos' petrified forest, the largest in the world, resulted from volcanic activity 15 to 20 million years ago.
The next morning, I awake to the sounds of roosters crowing and foreign words being blasted through a megaphone. “Karpousia, karpooooosia, karpooooosiaaaa …” is loudly repeated to my frustration, as I throw a pillow over my head trying to block out the noise. Mobile selling of fish, meats, fruits and vegetables are common in this part of Greece, with this truck announcing that he has watermelons for sale. Although I would love to sleep in more, I know that my grandparents are likely waiting for me to start the day.
After a stop at the bakery for the best spinach pie (spanakopita) and cheese filled triangle (tiropita) I’ve ever had, we pass by shops selling hand-painted ceramics and a postcard-perfect old windmill that was originally used to ground wheat into flour. The windmill was recently converted into a home.
We stroll upwards through the town to visit the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest, which resulted from intense volcanic activity in the area around Sigri 15 to 20 million years ago. Lesvos’ petrified forest is the second largest in the world.
As we tour the museum, marvelling at the exhibits, my pappou shares how he regrets not realizing how special the petrified stone-like trees were — some standing and some fallen — when he saw them as a young child.
As we make our way back into town, my pappou says hello to a group of men that he recognizes from his school days hanging out in a café. Some fiddle with their worry beads (komboloi), while others enjoy Greek coffee as they play backgammon.
We then pass by the church of Agia Triada, originally built as a mosque in 1870. Legend has it that the Greek architect commissioned by the Turks had a vision that it would one day become an Orthodox church. So, he built it with the front of the church facing the sunrise in the east, instead of south in the direction of Mecca. In 1923, it ended up switching to Greek Orthodox after the Turkish residents departed the village.
Above: The Church of Agia Triada started out as an Ottoman mosque but was converted into a Greek Orthodox church in 1923.
We choose to eat at one of the seaside restaurants where octopus caught in the morning hangs in the sun throughout the day ready for the dinner crowd. I enjoy zucchini flowers (louloudakia) that are cheese filled, battered and deep fried. It’s so delicious that I wonder how I can recreate this recipe back home.
While I enjoy a fresh-baked piece of baklava, my grandparents share what it was like growing up on the island in the 1950s.
Before Sigri, pappou used to live in the neighbouring town of Antissa, approximately 15km away, where he would gather acorns off oak trees. This was a source of income for the townsfolk as boats full of acorns would be shipped to the mainland and made into dye for leather. He was proud to have gathered enough all summer long to afford a new pair of knee-length shorts.
The wood from the oak trees was made into charcoal that was used to heat homes or the irons for the tailor shop that my pappou and his father owned and worked, sometimes up to 17-hours a day.
Once the oak trees were cut down, thousands of olive trees were planted annually in their place.
Broken olive pits, remaining from oil presses, were also burned for heat and cooking.
As we make our way down cobblestone streets, we pass by the ruins of an old house where my yiayia used to live as a young child. With fondness, she tells me about her donkey Marco”that would help her with her everyday chores gathering figs and almonds through the summer months.
I’m surprised by how different my grandparents’ childhoods were compared to mine.
Sigri is a truly historic and charming place, and the more I explore of this Grecian paradise, the more I find myself agreeing with Albert Camus, author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who said it best. ‘It is the land of the Gods’!
JUST THE FACTS
• Official tourism website for Greece: www.visitgreece.gr
• The Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest: www.lesvosmuseum.gr/en/node/12
• Ferry boat schedules and fares throughout Greece and beyond: www.ferries.gr