Postcard from Lesbos

Stone houses in the hills, Plomari, Lesbos, Greece

In the Aegean Sea, just a short hop across a narrow strait from Turkey, lies the third largest of the Greek islands, Lesbos.

The island is a secret, almost – and all about living the good life in a sustainable manner. Lesbos produces the best olive oil in Greece and the local Ouzu is sought after and difficult to find outside the island. This is one Greek island that doesn’t rely heavily on tourism for its existence.

Lesbos is also a dream destination for the ecologically aware visitor. Not only will you find all things Greek: gorgeous beaches along sparkling blue ocean, small, white churches and chapels, olive groves and lively village squares. You’ll also find mountains, forests and rivers. You’ll experience dry heat from the Levant and humid greenery, pink flamingos and chestnut trees. You’ll find canyons and rocky capes, monks dressed in black and roaming donkeys.

Cute donkey and the deep, blue sea, Lesbos, Greece

We were there a few years ago, in early May – much too early for those coming to worship sun, sand and ouzo, but perfect if you’re there to explore the hills and valleys, the rich flora and fauna. The photos are from Plomari, a town that back then seemed locked in a different era.

Lesbians – and lesbians

You’re of course curious about the island’s name: In the town of Eresos, about 2 500 ears ago, lived a woman named Sappho, one of the famous nine lyric poets of antiquity. She is celebrated as a Lesbian poet – and of course she was. Every inhabitant of Lesbos, man or woman, is a Lesbian.

But was she also a lesbian? The philosopher Maximus of Tyre said of Socrates and Sappho that they both loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful… Just as for Socrates, Sappho’s sexuality is debated.

Naturally, the island – and especially Eresos – attracts a fair few lesbian tourists on pilgrimages. This is somewhat of a difficult issue for the more conservative parts of the Greek Orthodox Church. A few years ago, three islanders tried to ban the use of the word lesbian in a sexual context, claiming it violated their human rights. That’s taking matters a bit far, wouldn’t you say? At least, that’s what the Athens court thought. Not surprisingly, the islanders lost the court appeal.

Side-stepping the issue altogether, most locals we spoke with referred to the island as Mytilini or Mytilene, after the island capital.

Sunning at the rocky beach in Plomari on the island of Lesbos, Greece

Sunning at the rocky beach in Plomari on the island of Lesbos, Greece

Men at work in Plomari on the island of Lesbos, Greece



Getting to Lesbos

Whatever your take on the sexual politics, Lesbos/Mytilini is a beautiful and unusual island, well worth visiting. I suggest you stay clear of the European holidays (basically, the entire month of August). To get there, fly from Athens, or take the over-night ferry from Piraeus – about 13.5 hrs. Or take the ferry from the Turkish port of Ayvalik (near Bergama/Pergamon) – about 1.5 hrs.

Center map

Any thoughts on the islanders’ naming conundrum? What’s your favourite island?


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51 Responses to “Postcard from Lesbos”

  1. ItalianNotes 27 May 2012 1724 #

    What a fascinating story. I remember hearing about the mythology at school, but I wasn’t aware there had been a court case about the right to use the name.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2050 #

      Interesting, isn’t it…

  2. Blog Me Travel 27 May 2012 2230 #

    I love this post! Not only for the Geek Mythology and lovely photographs but for the ever evolving debates relating to sexual politics ha ha! Charles Baudelaire wrote a rather erotic poem entitled “Lesbos” in ode to this place:

    “Lesbos, land of hot and languorous nights,
    That make the hollow-eyed girls, amorous
    Of their own bodies, caress before their mirrors
    The ripe fruits of their nubility, O sterile pleasure!
    Lesbos, land of hot and languorous nights”

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2052 #

      That’s a pretty sexy poem.

  3. Ana (Ana Travels) 27 May 2012 2253 #

    Calling it Mytilini is an elegant solution 🙂
    All the photos are beautiful but for some reason, my favourite is the one with the donkey.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2052 #

      At least, he (or she) doesn’t care about the island’s name 🙂

  4. Leigh 28 May 2012 0207 #

    I’m open minded – whatever is good for the locals is good for me and this is one Greek island that sounds absolutely lovely.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2053 #

      That it is.

  5. Natalie 28 May 2012 0511 #

    This place is on my bucket list – I want to do all the Greek islands that have ferry routes from Turkey. The name does not bother me but Mytilini does sound more mystical!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2057 #

      Mytilini is a pretty name, isn’t it? I’ve taken ferries between various Greek islands and the Turkish coast – apart from this one, Cesme and Chios, Marmaris and Rhodes. I want to see the rest as well, both the islands and the Turkish coastal towns.

  6. Cole @ Four Jandals 28 May 2012 1529 #

    Who cares about the origins of its name when it looks like that! Beautiful photos!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2057 #


  7. Annie - FootTracker 28 May 2012 2314 #

    I kind of see their concerns about the name, it does get confusing if you are from that area and someone asks you about it. However, besides the name drama, I think this place is beautiful =D

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2058 #

      I can see how it must feel a bit odd, at least.

  8. Natasha von Geldern 29 May 2012 0312 #

    Sounds gorgeous, I’ve only been to Santorini and Paphos – love how the Greek Islands each have their own distinct personality! I also like the idea of visiting Sappho’s home!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2102 #

      They really are surprisingly different from one another, the Greek islands.

  9. Christy @ Technosyncratic 29 May 2012 0345 #

    I understand how it would be confusing, but I personally think it’s kind of funny that Lesbos residents are called lesbians. And seriously, those three citizens trying to claim that their human rights were being violated? I don’t think so.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2105 #

      It does sound a bit absurd. And even if they had won in the Greek courts, it wouldn’t have carried internationally.

  10. Angela 29 May 2012 1125 #

    That’s a beautiful town, the typical yesteryear Greek scene. Although the name might sound a bit odd, I still find they history fascinating.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2106 #

      Yesteryear is a good description – it did feel different and old-fashioned in a nice, relaxed way.

  11. Vi 29 May 2012 1348 #

    hmm…it should sound strange if guy would tell “I am a Lesbian” if somebody doesn’t know about Lesbos island.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2108 #

      Strange, indeed.

  12. robin 29 May 2012 1515 #

    Plenty of room for comedy I suppose if your “nationality” is best described with the word lesbian!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2109 #

      Yeah, one would have thought Monty Python would have made something out of it.

  13. D.J. - The World of Deej 29 May 2012 1616 #

    Great story, and certainly an interesting history!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2110 #

      Very interesting!

  14. Cathy Sweeney 29 May 2012 1921 #

    I’ve heard the name of the island Lesbos all of my life, but never really knew much about it beyond Sappho. It looks like a wonderful place to spend some time. Some local Ouzu might be nice, too. The donkey photo is a treasure.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2110 #

      Lovely place. And lovely Ouzo.

  15. Love all the mythology of the Greek Isles. I would love to spend my time wandering through the isles making sure to stop at some of the lesser known ones. Lesbos would be on the list! Thanks for sharing this interesting story.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2112 #

      Greece is wonderful for island hopping – and very easy and accessible, too..

  16. Robin Clark 29 May 2012 2142 #

    Wandering donkeys – it’s on the list. And you think I’m joking…

    Nice photos.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 May 2012 2248 #

      Joking? But no, no…
      And thanks 🙂

  17. Turkey's For Life 30 May 2012 1031 #

    Oh wow, I didn’t realise the islanders had such issues with the name of their island and I had no idea they used an alternative. Whatever anyone chooses to call it, it’s certainly a pretty place but I think we would go in May, like you, then we could go trekking.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 30 May 2012 2324 #

      It’s a great island for exploring nature.

  18. Laurel 30 May 2012 1615 #

    I’ve never heard of Lesbos, and yes I can see that would be quite a predicament for a religious/conservative island. I personally find it rather amusing, but I am neither religious or conservative.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 30 May 2012 2327 #

      If they could get past being offended, I think humour would probably be the best way to deal with it.

  19. I love how this Greek island looks with roaming donkeys too. I can see why this would be a popular place for pilgrimages (lesbian or not). Such an interesting take on the name and its history. Mytilini just doesn’t sound as cool as Lesbos.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 June 2012 0130 #

      Of course so many parts of Greece is full of intriguing history, but this island is quite unique, I think.

  20. Andrea 31 May 2012 1722 #

    An obscure island that I bet everyone has heard of, haha – some interesting history here! I love the idea of an ecological island – and that shot of the donkey! =)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 June 2012 0131 #

      Must be something about that donkey 🙂

  21. Ayngelina 2 June 2012 0015 #

    This is a pretty good hidden secret, I had never heard of it. Do they have tacky t-shirts making fun of the name?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 June 2012 0128 #

      Been a few years since I was there, but there was no joking about it then. Considering the relatively recent trial, I would be surprised if they had lesbian t-shirts.

  22. InsideJourneys 2 June 2012 0713 #

    As soon as I saw Lesbos, I thought lesbians, not Lesbians. They became famous (or infamous) and didn’t have a hand it it. If I lived there, I’d want it changed too. Beautiful island, though.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 June 2012 1432 #

      Although I think taking the case to court is going a bit far, I see their problem. How to solve it is another matter – I suppose relinquishing the name (and choosing Mytilini instead) is one solution, but considering the long history, that’s a bit sad, too.

  23. Suzy 2 June 2012 1843 #

    I had to read Sappho in college so Lesbos sounds fascinating. I like how the island isn’t all about tourism, much like the other Greek islands and has a bit of quirky story behind it.

  24. Abby 3 June 2012 1948 #

    Sort of funny about the name! The island is gorgeous.

  25. hahahaha i want to move there for a few months so that i can tell people that I am a Lesbian and have it be true

  26. Sithonia 12 July 2012 1227 #

    Great and funny story about the name! I’ve never been to Lesbos, and my favourite island in Greece is not quite an island – the Sithonia peninsula of Halkidiki in Northern Greece. The perfect, relaxing getaway.

  27. Crazy, I was literally researching Lesbos this morning on Wikipedia. Thanks so much for the interesting story and personal insights.

  28. Andrew Darwitan 24 September 2015 0606 #

    It’s always so interesting to read blogs about the Greek islands. Every single one of them has a unique identity and characteristic of its own. =)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 September 2015 2323 #

      The Greek islands are undoubtedly unique and so interesting 🙂

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