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On the road to discovery

Recovering from its tumultuous past, Leros has remained firmly under the tourist radar. As Despina Meris reveals, the Aegean’s best kept secret is ready for its close-up

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Photo: Bill Merambeliotis.

04 April 2012

If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked to divulge an unspoiled Greek island boasting immaculately clean beaches, fresh delicious food, and freedom from throngs of tourists, I'd be one rich travel writer. Alas, I'm not.
Yet I'm still happy to unveil my idyllic travel destination for seekers of an unsullied Greek island experience: Leros.

A member of the Dodecanese island group, little known Leros is barely a blip on the map at 53 square kilometres. What it lacks in size, however, it makes up for with its abundantly picturesque bays, dramatic vistas, inviting laneways and intimate atmosphere.
Leros is quaint, a perfectly manageable size for zipping around its gently curving roads on a scooter, with the scent of pine hanging in the air. It's a carefree way to explore the peaceful island's offerings, interacting with welcoming locals as you go.

The best way to get your bearings is to start at the top. The 11th century Castle of Leros and its Panagia Tou Kastrou (Castle of the Virgin Mary) sit at the peak of Apitiki hill, affording breathtaking views over the island's meandering coastline. Each year on 15 August (one of the most celebrated days on the Greek Orthodox calendar, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary), this towering site attracts the spiritually devout from around Greece. If you time it right, you can join them in their pilgrimage up the 400 steps to the castle for a moving experience.
Looking out from this vantage point onto the semi-circular bays enveloping the crystalline waters below, it's unfathomable that this storybook-pretty morsel of land was once a warzone.

In fact, Leros' perfectly shaped natural harbours made it an ideal naval base at the turn of the century, and led to its occupation by Italy. The Italians retained control for 31 years throughout World War I and II, when Leros became the most bombed Greek island apart from Crete.
When the occupiers left, the islanders were left to - literally - pick up the pieces. Military paraphernalia was scattered all over the hills and today, many of these remnants can be found in the incredible War Museum. Housed in a segment of the underground military tunnel network built by the Italians, the museum displays a collection of fighter jets, guns, bombs, uniforms and pictures - mostly donated by the island's inhabitants.
The Italians also left behind their lasting aesthetic footprint.

Today, the port of Lakki has the faded grandeur of Italian Rationalist architecture throughout - government buildings, a cinema, and even a mansion that Mussolini built for himself. EU projects are underway to bring these derelict buildings back to their former glory. Amplifying the feeling of being frozen in time is the town's clock tower, eerily stuck at the exact time that Germany dropped the first bomb on Leros.
Restoration is also rife in private residences throughout Agia Marina and Platanos.Agia Marina is lovely to wander with its narrow lanes and colourful neoclassical buildings with wrought ironwork, a town so adorable that you want to put it in your pocket. Along the port are traditional taverns and outdoor cafes and tucked into the backstreets are a bakery, craft shops, bookstore and art gallery.

Due to its obscurity, Leros attracts a more sophisticated tourist: mostly Greeks, or cashed up Italians and French who arrive on their yachts, and transform period mansions into their glamorous holiday residences.
Along with the architectural renaissance, the dining scene is taking a turn to more refined tastes. Seafood restaurants in the fishing village of Pantelis arrange tables on the shingled beach, overlooking the very boats that collect the day's catch. Milos Tavern in Agia Marina takes a modern take on traditional Greek decor in the shadow of a traditional windmill. For a refreshing cocktail or frappe served to the tune of international dance tracks, head to Cafe Del Mar overlooking the stretch of beach at Vromolithos.

Leros' undulating coast proffers so many crystal clear coves that many of them remain nameless. Alinta beach is a great all-rounder - a pretty stretch of coastline with sweeping views of the castle, and taverns and cafes within shuffling distance. Dio Liskaria is a small beach dotted with thatched umbrellas and a small tavern pumping out chilled tunes to a crowd in the know.
The private isolated beaches, though, are more challenging to get to, but worth the adventure of discovering a beach to call your very own.

There are over 100 churches and chapels dotted around devout Leros, many remote and unattended, but open to curious passers-by. The whitewashed Agios Isidoros is a marvel to see. The tiny church stands alone on an even tinier island, linked to the mainland by a simple man-made walkway, often wet from the crashing waves.
Leros is an atmospheric island that feels private and intimate, but is still rich with opportunities to make discoveries around every bend. Get there before word gets out.

Getting there: Olympic Air has daily flights from Athens to Leros during peak season.

Staying there: Villa Bianca offers whitewashed self-contained beachfront villas in Alinta. Anemos Studios has studios built into traditional windmills in Panteli.

Eating there: Psaropoula tavern in Pantelis features fresh seafood on the menu. Milos Tavern in Agia Marina serves up modern fare, bookings required. Cocktails and bar menu rate highly at Cafe Del Mar in Vromolithos.

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