In search of the real Greece
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.