GREEK, BUT ISLANDS APART

H.R. Kohl is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area, and a longtime specialist in the Eastern Mediterranean

"Parakalo! Parakalo!" a voice boomed over the loudspeakers. "Attention, please! All visitors are kindly requested to leave. The ship is departing imminently." Like dozens of other vessels that sail to the many islands of Greece from the busy mainland harbor of Piraeus, the Sappho, named after the ancient lyric poetess, was a car ferry leaving for Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean, only a few miles off the coast of Asia Minor.

Sailing time: 14 hours.

I stood at the railing, watching the sunny coast of Attica gliding by, until the ship had passed the temple of Poseidon at Sounion and headed for the darkening east. In the morning I would meet my husband at the harbor of Lesbos' capital, Mytilene. He was taking a plane from Athens.

Flying time: 35 minutes.

Although tickets cost about the same for both means of transportation (roughly $60 in early summer), planes are obviously more convenient. But nothing is more exciting than approaching an island by ship, seeing it slowly rise out of a sparkling sea. Lesbos can be spotted from a great distance, its layers of green mountain ranges unfolding in the luminous Aegean light. It is a view that can hardly have changed since the first Greek settlers, the Aeolians, arrived 3,000 years ago.

Although Lesbos is the third largest island in Greece (after Crete and Evia), it is not well known outside the country, except for its name and the fact that the immortal Sappho was born here (around 600 BC). She taught music and dance to the daughters of aristocratic families, played her own compositions and wrote sensual love poems, many of them dedicated to her women friends. Although her fame spread to every place touched by Greek civilization, the term "lesbian" became synonymous with female homosexuality only a century ago.

A statue of Sappho stands at the quay, but it is not the first thing that catches the eye of visitors arriving by boat. The town's prominent landmarks are a large 19th century domed church (which some say may have been built on grounds once occupied by Sappho's school) and a massive 14th century Genoese castle, built on an earlier Byzantine fortress. (The island had been the dowry of a Byzantine emperor's relative at her wedding to a scion of the Gattelusi family of Genoa.)

My husband and I have vacationed in Lesbos for many years, but when we met that morning at the quay last June, we had skipped a couple of summers. We were amazed by how fundamentally things had changed and how affluent Mytilene had become in that short time. There were new or renovated houses and apartment buildings, modernized hotels (some even with air conditioning), shops that displayed the latest in bathroom and kitchen designs from Italy and Germany, and supermarkets that sold such delectables as Austrian butter and pates from France.

At one of the many coffeehouses along the waterfront, we had a choice of filter coffee, cafe frappe, espresso or cappuccino. It was a far cry from the days when thick Greek (formerly Turkish) coffee was all one could get.

But the most spectacular innovation was the introduction of traffic lights downtown, finally giving pedestrians a fighting chance.

Lesbos was for centuries part of Turkey (until the 1920s), and was scarcely visited by outsiders before the 1950s and early '60s, when a number of European artists and writers arrived in search of solitude and inspiration. The '70s saw individual travelers, mostly romantics in love with nature and looking for simple country life, coming from as far away as the U.S. and Australia. It was only about a dozen years ago that tourism really took off, when European travel agencies "discovered" the island and began to promote inexpensive package deals, which included transportation by charter planes and lodging in private homes.

A construction boom ensued, and Lesbos now offers a variety of accommodations, many with swimming pools, a few with tennis courts--all the amenities vacationers are used to. And so, week after week from May to October, they arrive by the planeload, mostly from northern Europe. In addition to singles and couples with children, gay women are coming to the island in increasing numbers. They head mainly for the village and beach of Eressos, near the western tip of the island, said to have been Sappho's home.

The inhabitants of Lesbos are generally conservative on matters involving sex, and when the first foreign lesbians arrived in noticeable numbers in the early '80s, the welcome was less than friendly. There were scuffles with some townspeople, and graffiti urging "Lesbians go home!"

Now there is an established lesbian community around Eressos, consisting of Greek and foreign women, and a number of women-only hotels. When I inquired about whether the locals had become more tolerant, I was told it was a matter of economics: the power of the "pink drachma" (the drachma is the Greek currency).

My husband and I had, as usual, rented a house in Molyvos, which is about 40 miles north of Mytilene. Instead of driving there directly, we detoured to Eressos for a few hours on its splendid beach.

The road from Mytilene to the island's north crosses a mountain ridge, opening a vista that displays at one sweeping glance the island's main source of wealth: olive trees. Rows and rows of them, glittering with silvery leaves, run down the slopes right to the edge of the turquoise Gulf of Gera. In the background, amid hills of pine, plane and chestnut trees, rises the peak of Mt. Olympus, one of the 19 mountains said to have been given that name in the ancient Greek world.

We made a brief stop at Agiassos, on the slopes of Olympus, a place of pilgrimage for many Orthodox Greeks. In the local church hangs an icon of the Virgin and Child, reputedly painted by St. Luke, all covered in silver (except for the faces) and encrusted with jewels. Originally destined for the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, it arrived on Lesbos en route from Jerusalem in the early 9th century. But the Byzantine Church was racked by iconoclastic (anti-image) strife, and the icon remained here.

A parking area was filling with tourist buses when we stopped. A tall priest in a flowing black robe, leading a flock of middle-aged women, was carrying nothing but a cellular phone. Since he had a direct line to a higher authority, I wondered what he needed it for. Joking aside, the cell phone is the latest and most desired gadget on the island, and mountaintops are spiked with new antennas to handle the rising demand.

Agiassos may be the busiest place of pilgrimage on Lesbos, but it is not the only one. There are hundreds of churches and shrines where the faithful seek cures from illness and comfort for the soul. They are dedicated to angels, saints and martyrs but mostly to the Virgin Mary, Panagia, with names like the "Mermaid Madonna," at a small fishing port, or the "Church of Our Lady of the Sweet Kiss," on top of a rock.

The road to Eressos took us past the broad Gulf of Kaloni, then up into the hills, skirting hidden villages and isolated monasteries before entering the most barren part of the island, the petrified forest of trees fossilized by the ash of a volcanic eruption eons ago.

Against that arid landscape, Eressos was an oasis. Its long, sandy beach, Skala Eressou, is considered one of the most beautiful in this country of islands. In our absence it had bloomed with new hotels, but we found a comfortable spot, not too crowded, for a quick swim before going on to Molyvos.

After Mytilene and Eressos, we were prepared to see change, but the north coast that we remembered so fondly was hardly recognizable. With the development of resorts for the package-vacation trade, the once empty beaches had sprouted wall-to-wall lounge chairs with forests of sun umbrellas. "Rooms for Rent" signs were everywhere. Tavernas and coffeehouses were jumping with scantily dressed people, while those on the beach across the road wore even less.

The sight of topless women has become so common that even the Greeks are not that shocked anymore. Elderly women clad in black may still cluck disapprovingly, but the menfolk, who never would permit their own women to parade like this in public, don't mind ogling the crazy foreigners. Total nudity, however, is not allowed in town. For that, the local authorities have reserved special areas far removed from the public beaches.

We were happy to reach Molyvos, the ancient Mithymna, our favorite town on the northern shore. Recalling an amphitheater on the tip of a peninsula, the town's tiers of red-roofed stone houses climb a rocky hill crowned by a castle.

The Gattelusis of Molyvos, members of the ruling Genoese family in Mytilene, resided at this fortress for a century. The noble name has survived in the form of a big discotheque that juts out from a rock with sweeping views of the sea. Until the early morning hours, the sounds of music swell and ebb, reminiscent of night revelers in ancient times, when this part of the island was known for its cult of Dionysos, god of wine. Today Lesbos is prized for its output of ouzo, the anise-flavored national drink.

On the pebbly town beach, things had not changed much, except for the now ubiquitous sun umbrellas and lounge chairs. We recalled our first visit to the strand, when we were startled by a woman's piercing shout: "Aphrodite, Aphrodite! Get out of the water!" After repeated calls, a girl emerged from the sea--not a vision of the legendary goddess of love, but a scrawny little kid with a runny nose.

Over the years we've met many people bearing the names of characters in Greek mythology or ancient history--many an Athena, Agamemnon, Paris and Pericles, to mention just a few. The most popular name seems to be Maria, which turns Aug. 15, the Virgin's feast day, into a huge holiday, for Greeks celebrate their saints' name days instead of birthdays.

The Orthodox faith is palpable here, a manifestation of culture as well as belief. One of my favorite memories of Molyvos is the sound of hymns from a church answered by the cries of an onion and carrot vendor outside, an interesting mix to offer the Lord.

Still, there are changes. Walking through the narrow, wisteria-covered cobblestone lanes of the town after sundown, we noticed the flicker of TV screens shining through windows that once used to show nothing but the little red vigil lights in front of icons. Tavernas had become "restaurants" with cloth napkins and candlelight, and the little store on the corner, which used to be famous for its rice pudding, was now a fancy boutique. The old tailor shop, once owned by a cross-eyed man called Socrates, had become a souvenir store.

Down at the harbor, site of two tavernas some years ago, countless tables and chairs were lined up outside a long row of eateries. An endless procession of foreign and Greek tourists soon filled the space, with waiters mixing shouts of orders in Greek with bits of rudimentary conversation in English, German and Italian.

Although the view--the sea, the mountains, the illuminated castle--was spectacular, we decided to drive to a quiet place we knew on the way to the hot springs of Eftalou, where miles of pebble beaches are often totally devoid of people. Passing olive groves, fig and almond trees, and a few modern hotels in lush green settings, we saw that the battered shack of Adonis, the old fisherman, was still there, and so were his cats, of which he keeps about 30 at a time. They all have imposing names, like Arafat and Ecevit (the Turkish prime minister). And when there is no fishing in the winter, he cooks pasta for them.

Angelos, the proprietor of our favorite taverna, Anatoli, offered the day's specialties: octopus in wine sauce, spinach and cheese pies, fried zucchini flowers, stuffed eggplant (papoutsakias, or little shoes) and, of course, fresh fish. Prices, as in most tavernas, were modest (from about $15 to $25 for two, with wine).

Sitting at a table overlooking the sea, we suddenly saw a train of mules and donkeys appearing in the distance, led by a handsome rider on horseback. Deeply tanned and shirtless, a bandanna draped around his head, he looked like a Greek version of Lawrence of Arabia. On the animals that followed him perched an odd mixture of male and female tourists, some dressed for what they thought was a kind of "Wild West" venture.

"Michalis is making good money," said the waiter. "Donkey trekking is a big hit with the tourists." There must have been something to it, since, when we saw Michalis again in town, he had slipped into some kind of designer clothes, perhaps Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren.

After the sun had disappeared like an orange ball behind Cape Baba--the Greek Cape Lekton in Homer's "Iliad"--the sea glowed in colors of bronze and silver until darkness fell and the first twinkling lights could be seen on the shore of Turkey, just seven miles away.

As we drove back to town, part of the road was lined with a row of cats' eyes--not signposts, but the real thing: a parade of Adonis' cats on their way to Angelos' taverna for a midnight snack.

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GUIDEBOOK

Summering on Lesbos

Getting there: Connecting flights from LAX to Athens, involving at least one plane change, are available on Delta, British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa. Round trips begin at $1,009.

Olympic Airways flies nonstop several times a day from Athens to Mytilene for $88 round trip. There is one ferry a day from Athens' port of Piraeus, a 12-hour overnight voyage that in summer costs $35 to $60 per person for a cabin, $25 for a chair.

Where to stay: I'm familiar with two attractive, modest hotels in Molyvos:

The Delfinia, telephone 011-30-253-71502, fax 011- 30-253-71524. Doubles about $65 with breakfast.

Sunrise Hotel, tel. 011- 30-253-71713, fax 011-30- 253-71791, e-mail sunrise@otenet.gr. Doubles $80 per night with breakfast.

Where to eat: Octopus (Xtapodi) is a traditional fish taverna in Molyvos' little harbor. Costa's Mermaid, on the only road to the harbor, is delightful.

For more information: Greek National Tourist Organization, 645 Fifth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10022; tel. (212) 421- 5777, fax (212) 826-6940.

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