Route 3: Surfing among poets, pirates, amazons and philosophers
A five-day cruise to Myrina, Agios Efstratios, Mithymna, Assos and Babakale
A lot of us were on the bark:
Some framed a sail for windy weather,
The others strongly and together
Moved oars. In silence sunk,
Keeping a rudder, strong and clever,
The skipper drove the heavy skiff;
And I -- with careless belief --
I sang for sailors... . But the stiff
Whirl smashed at once the waters' favor...
All dead -- the captain and his guard! --
But I, the enigmatic bard,
Was thrown to the shore alone.
I sing the former anthems, yet,
And dry my mantle, torn and wet,
In beams of sun under a stone.
Alexander Pushkin, 1827
Our first stop is the capital of Lemnos, Myrina located in the western part of the island. As we are being disconnected from the world we are exploring the most isolated island of the Aegean, Agios Efstratios. A place that once housed political prisoners nowadays became one of the “greenest” islands of Greece. We are meeting Arion, an ancient poet who was kidnapped by pirates… while following his footsteps we are approaching Mithymna, his awe-inspiring birthplace crowned with a magnificent castle. Like Aristotle almost 2400 years ago we are leaving behind Lesbos and we discover one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in Turkey, Assos. On our way back to Keros Surf Club we are passing by one of the most symbolic places of the world, Cape Baba near the village of Babakale, the westernmost point of vast Asia, the locus where one continent ends and Europe is beginning.
Lemnos – Myrina (GR)
Now the queen of the Amazons, Myrina, collected, it is said, an army of thirty thousand foot-soldiers and three thousand cavalry, since they favoured to an unusual degree the use of cavalry in their wars. For protective devices they used the skins of large snakes, since Libya contains such animals of incredible size, and for offensive weapons, swords and lances; they also used bows and arrows, with which they struck not only when facing the enemy but also when in flight, by shooting backwards at their pursuers with good effect.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 3. 54, 1st century B.C.
Named after the legendary Amazon queen, Myrina is the capital and largest settlement of the island of Lemnos. As we enter the picturesque port, the view of the medieval castle is really astonishing. Built by the Byzantines at the beginning of the 12th century and reconstructed by the Venetians in the 13th, it occupies a rocky hill where once stood the ancient city. Except for the beauty of its ruins, the castle holds many surprises for its visitors. Dozens of cute deer live inside the castle’s enceinte, patrolling its walls like modern but peaceful warriors. They had been imported some years ago from Rhodes and – while being fed by the municipality of Lemnos- today constitute one of the main attractions of Myrina.
The district of Romeikos Yalos forms the capital’s aristocratic suburb, where ornate neoclassical mansions are preserved. One of them, the former Ottoman governor’s villa, houses the Archaeological Museum of Myrina. Its collections include findings from the Neolithic to the Roman period. Among them, the most impressive are some votive lamps in the form of Sirens. Sirens were mythical creatures that lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. Maybe the ancient inhabitants of Lemnos wanted to appease these demonic entities and muses of the underworld and this is why they gave their shape to these objects.
We can enjoy our lunch in one of the fish taverns of Romeikos Yalos while tasting one glass of the famous Lemnian wine. Lemnos, like most volcanic islands, produces excellent wine –good dry white, rosé and retsina- plus ouzo.
If the weather is clear maybe we can discern the gigantic silhouette of Mount Athos somewhere in the west. This mountain, like Mount Fengari of Samothraki, was another major point of navigation for the sea-farers of antiquity. In the Old Town which is located in the foothills of the castle’s hill, there are also a few monuments from the Ottoman period. An octagonal building with an inscription over the door, probably the tekke or the lodge of a Dervish order and a still functioning fountain near the harbor with another calligraphic inscription in Ottoman-Arabic scripture.
Agios Efstratios (GR)
I am not afraid of Agios Efstratios
This is also a Greek piece of land
Even if our black hair has turned into white
We are not afraid of heavy winter
Excerpt from the Greek Resistance song “Curly Hair”
A visit to the most isolated island of the Aegean constitutes an unforgettable experience. Undiscovered by the hordes of tourists who are flooding the Greek islands, Agios Efstratios preserves its unmarred natural beauty.
In antiquity, the island was called Alonnisos (not to be confused with the homonym island of the Sporades complex). Scattered archaeological findings from the prehistoric period to the middle ages have been traced on the island. According to some ancient sources the island emerged from the sea during the “heroic” age of Homer. Hagios is the Greek word for Saint. The island bears the name of Saint Efstratios the Miraculous, a monk from Bithynia in the Turkish coast who was exiled in the island by the emperor Leo V in the 9th century, during the turbulent years of a religious conflict that shook the medieval empire of Byzantium and it is known as the Iconoclasm. It is said that his undiscovered tomb is somewhere in the island that it was named after him. Cristoforo Buandelmonti, an Italian Franciscan priest and traveler visited the island in the 15th century and he is mentioning it in his legendary book Liber Insularum Archipelagi that he wrote in the year 1420. During the Ottoman period, the island was known as Bozbaba. It was incorporated in the Greek State during the First Balkan War in 1912 and was used as a site of exile for political prisoners for many years.
In Hagios Efstratios there is the unique in Greece Museum of Democracy. The island was used as a place of exile from the early 1930’s until the 1960’s. Thousands of political prisoners spent many years in this piece of earth, especially during the dictatorial regime of Ioannis Metaxas (1936-1941). These people brought with them their knowledge and skills and helped the isolated inhabitants of the island to connect with new ideas and modern achievements. Many of them died here, leaving their last breath under the bright sun of the Aegean. This remarkable newly-built museum displays the daily life and all the afflictions of the political prisoners. Photographs, personal objects even a violin that was constructed by an exiled prisoner in the island are exhibited in this “Shelter of Democracy”. Famous poets, actors and authors like Yannis Ritsos, Menelaos Loudemis and Manos Katrakis passed from the island during the past decades.
In 1968 a terrible earthquake destroyed the old settlement that was located on the hill next to the port. The new village was constructed next to the sea, in the place where once stood the melancholic camps of the exiled. A walk around the ruins offers a great view of the sea and the settlement and procures the visitor with an extraordinary experience. Ruined houses made of stone, even a destroyed church, are standing as silent witnesses of a lost traditional architecture.
This little chapel of St. Menas is known as a monument and an ossuary containing the bones of many political prisoners that lost their lives on the island. The chapel of St. Menas is the ideal location to enjoy a magnificent sunset. Close to Alonitsi beach, the Cave of St. Efstratios is rumored to be the mystic place where the exiled saint found shelter from his persecutors