Lipsi, a small island with a big heart
Michael Cowton visits Lipsi, where the landscape, way of life, superb cuisine and warm hospitality offer tourists a wonderful escape
DINNER WITH the Mayor of Lipsi. A charismatic chap by the name of Fotis Mangos. Two years into a five-year term, with a vision to bring about a turnaround in tourism fortunes for this quintessentially Greek island; one with a unique, exquisite charm of the old school, where urbanites traditionally come to escape the occasional madness of life.
Search the history books, and you will find little coverage of the island, the largest of a small group of islets at the northern part of the Dodecanese near to Patmos and Leros. According to legend, however, it was here that Ulysses met the beautiful nymph Calypso, and supposedly imprisoned him as a sex slave for seven years. I can think of worse places and roles at which to pass the time. Once part of the Byzantine Empire, Lipsi has endured a turbulent history. During the Greek Revolution of 1821, the island played an important part in the War of Independence, offering shelter to the rebels and helping them prepare for war. Independence was maintained for some years, until the Treaty of Constantinople in 1932 left the Dodecanese islands, including Lipsi, outside the boundaries of Greece. In 1912, Italian troops occupied the islands and a small garrison was installed. Imposing both their language and religion on the islanders, however, did not deter them from exhibiting their allegiance to Greece, painting the majority of the houses you see today in blue and white, the colours of the Greek flag. It was not until 1947 that Lipsi was finally liberated and annexed to the state of Greece. To this day the Italians continue to occupy the island during the month off August, but purely as tourists.
The climate of the Aegean plays a huge influence upon both the landscape and the way of life here, and in many ways little has changed over the years, with many of the the old customs much in evidence. In the village of Lipsi, whitewashed properties, tavernas and a sprinkling of small shops spill down to the quaint harbour, where fishing vessels, yachts and gulets lay at anchor. Twenty-four hours, and I already feel at home. That is undoubtedly due to the warmth of the people and the overwhelming vibe of tranquillity.
According to Fotis, that is exactly what drew tourists here in the first place. Today, around 40,000 visitors a year arrive at an island with a population of 794 and 1,500 goats. Fifteen thousand of those tourists travel by private boat charter. “This is a magical island, which constantly draws you back,” says ex pat Maria, who spends half the year on Lipsi with her husband, and the other half back in the UK.
Come September, when the last of the Italians have left, tourism ceases and the hotels, self-catering apartments and guest houses shut up shop, with only the odd taverna and restaurant remaining open during the autumn and winter. And yet, when I arrive in mid September, the temperature is in the 30s, the Aegean is crystal clear and a pleasant temperature for swimming. All is good with the world. Yet I am amongst only a handful of visitors. Extending the season by a further six weeks would work perfectly for many holidaymakers seeking that ideal Autumn break. It would also bring extra revenue to the island. I run this thought by Fotis, who nods in agreement, before explaining that a small, UK-based travel agency had been the mainstay of the holiday trade until its doors closed for business ten years ago. Since then, tourists have had to rely on the Internet for bookings.
I meet with Sally Vavoulas, the former island link for Laskarina Holidays. “Laskarina was very good for the island. Running for 12 years, it brought holidaymakers from England between May and October. Most of them came in June and September, when we did not have that many Italians, so it was fantastic for Lipsi. Now the company has ceased to operate, it is much more difficult to attract people here. Most that do come are former Laskarina clients and friends of theirs.” Laskarina, a small, bespoke operation, dealt with only the smaller Greek islands, a niche market which saw the bottom fall out when more people realised the benefits of designing their own holidays on-line, in turn making it more difficult for Laskarina to obtain seats on the major airlines, being such a small operation.
“The island has definitely seen a decline in tourism,” continues Sally. “Come the end of August there is this noticeable dip. And yet September is a lovely month to holiday here, because apart from the odd cloudy, windy day, it is still warm, and is perfect for those that love walking, for example, with some nicely defined paths, some leading to the more remote beaches. This year we had a few English visitors in May, but Lipsi was practically dead until August. No doubt the refugee crisis had a huge effect on tourism. Last year when people were arriving via Kos, refugees were lining the roadsides, so it was not a good start to people’s holidays. Although it is not like that now, many visitors were clearly put off, and decided not to return. Those people that do come here know that Lipsi is a truly Greek island. With zero massive hotel complexes, if you want to see Greece how it was 30 or 40 years ago, then Lipsi is still like that. It has fantastic beaches, is big enough to maintain a good selection of tavernas and restaurants, and yet small enough to sneak away and have a beach to yourself, and especially so in September.”
When I put these comments to the Mayor, he agrees wholeheartedly. A school teacher by profession, his love for Lipsi is clearly evident, which is why he has such a passion to see the island grow its tourism industry once again. Like many of the islanders, he would love to see a new tour operator move in, although it would have to be the right kind of organisation. “This is not a party island and therefore does not attract youngsters that want to party all night. Lipsi appeals to the more mature visitor, those seeking peace and relaxation. The island can offer that in abundance. It is my aim to see the season run from May or June through to the end of October. There is clearly work to be done, but you only have to visit this island to see how much it has to offer.”
The landscape varies from its southern gentle slopes to the more rugged peaks of the north, with a fascinating habitat with bushes and trees sculpted by the goats and the Meltemi wind, which can blow for several days at a time. Many trees and shrubs are evergreen, having waxy-coated or needle-like leaves, which help reduce water loss during the long, dry summers. Aromatic plants such as wild thyme, rosemary, sage and juniper are common. In early spring, several different types of orchid can be found, and later the island becomes a mass of white with daisies, followed by a carpet of red poppies.
Historically, the majority of the land was once farmed, evidence of which can still be seen in the old terracing on the hillsides where grapes, wheat and other crops were once grown. Sufficient grain was produced to warrant three windmills, which stood high up on the ridge behind the village, and old threshing circles are still dotted about the island. Today, a patchwork of fields are surrounded by drystone walls, often topped with branches to prevent the resident goats from jumping over. To hear the sound of goat bells jangling as they move to new grazing grounds is a magical experience.
Their milk is used to make cheese, and the meat is a staple part of the diet here. Most of the cheese-making occurs between October and April, when the kid goats are born and the milk is plentiful. Much of the cheese is then stored in oil for use throughout the year or exported to other islands. It is wonderful to see the goat herders still using donkeys and mules as transport, as they are ideally suited to the rough terrain and arrow roads.
The village of Lipsi is centred around the picturesque harbour, with the traditional bakery and pastry shop Kairis (www.lipsibakery.com) seemingly the main meeting hub, where I find freshly baked bread direct from a wood-fired oven. Owned by a very affable Takis and managed by Yannis Grillis, conversation over coffee and cake can be enjoyed throughout the day. I sit on the terrace and am easily tempted by traditional cakes and specialities typical of the islands, all made with fresh ingredients.
Takis’s family works round the clock in the bakery producing 15 types of bread, whilst grandfather delivers their own milk to be made into cheese for the cakes. There is even a special boat delivery service, so you do not have to step off the gangplank of your yacht.
My first evening, and I dine at the Calipso, owned by Nikolas Mangos, the brother of the Mayor, and whose mother Alexandra has a major hand in the cooking. I start with black scorpionfish soup, followed by Greek salad, and fillet of yellowtail. Typically, the food keeps coming as Fotis tempts my palette with a glass of ouzo, the clear liquid turning cloudy as ice and water mix with the aniseed base. I am conscious that the last time I had a session on this, I ended the evening walking into a glass door.
As we gaze out across the harbour basin, Fotis is understandably keen to to protect the peace here, which is why there are no watersports activities, such as jet-skiing. Neither will you find car hire. You can, however, hire a scooter or bicycle, and possibly next year the island will see the introduction of e-bikes.
“What puts many people off is the fact that Lipsi is not the easiest of places to get to. From England, you have to fly into Kos and then catch a catamaran for the two-hour crossing, which means an overnight stay in Kos due to the boat schedule. However, most people when they arrive realise it is well worth the journey,” says Fotis. “Ten years ago we saw 250 people arriving every day from England. The closure of Laskarina saw the demise of that trade, so now it is time to start again afresh.”
Next morning, and I am greeted with clear blue skies as I board the M/S RENA to enjoy a five islands tour (www.renasrooms.com). At 25 euros for the eight-hour cruise, it proves exceptional value. Most guests take up position at the bow, so it is worth arriving a good twenty minutes early if you want to bag a prize spot with your towel.
We first drop anchor at the caves at Makronissi, with its own natural rock pool. Guests jump and dive into the Aegean and make for the rocky outcrop. Back on board, we next head for Aspronissia (White Island), before sailing on to Tiganakia.
A leisurely fish lunch is enjoyed on Marathi at the Pirate restaurant, a short walk along the beach, before we make for the final island of Arkioi. Travelling at 13 knots, we cover a good 30 nautical miles before arriving back at Lipsi, with the sun beginning its slow descent on the horizon, casting a brilliant red and yellow glow across the sky.
The cruises run from the beginning of May to the end of September. “Every day Lipsi offers you something different,” I here one satisfied guest comment.
That comment rings true when I am taken to the Bay of Katsadia on the southeast side of the island, a mere 15-minute walk from the village. Private yachts lay at anchor, with small tenders tied up alongside the stone pier, which leads directly to Dilaila Restaurant/Bar/Café.
It is here that I am to experience one of the most delightful afternoons I have spent in years; an unforgettable, leisurely few hours in a stunning environment accompanied by amazing food and hospitality. Everything from the kitchen of owner Christodoulos Gampieris is freshly prepared – carpaccio of calamari and octopus, tuna tartar, filet tenderloin in wine, Psaroxorto (fresh tuna with vegetables). His partner Barbara tells me that the restaurant was established 24 years ago, the surrounding grounds having previously being a hippy-styled campsite, where people would at one time pop in for a coffee.
For some unexplained reason, Dilaila was Christodoulos’s nickname as a child. Whatever else you do on Lipsi, do not miss the opportunity to enjoy lunch here, followed by moonlight cocktails served at the adjacent bar.
I heard it on the grapevine
Sally Vavoulas and her husband Manolis share ownership of Lipsi Winery (www.lipsiwinery.com) with Nikos and Vassilia Grillis. Lipsi has a long history of wine making,
“If you were here 150 years ago you would see a completely different landscape. Many of the hills were terraced, with families working parcels of land, growing produce, and in particular vines, and making wine for home consumption,” explains Sally as we wander through one of the vineyards on a gently sloping hillside, with panoramic views of the village.
As long-time friends, Manolis and Nikos traditionally produced wine for their own families. It was in 2010 that they first discussed the idea of creating a new, modern winery together, initially to revive and promote the traditional sweet wine of Lipsi and to produce new, quality wines from grape varieties ideally suited to the terrain and climate of the island. Lipsi Winery was finally born in 2013.
The signature sweet red wine Aposperitis is made from Fokiano, a vigorous and productive sun-dried grape which is also one of the oldest indigenous varieties of the Aegean. With aromas of honey, sweet grapes and dried fruit, the name translates as the Evening Star, or the planet Venus, seen from the island as the sun goes down. The grape owes its name to the ancient town of Phocaea in Asia Minor and, according to tradition, was a gift to the islands from the god Dionysus. “Our vision has always been to revive Fokiano, so we now produce a semi-dry rosé and a unique Blanc de Noirs from this rare variety,” says Sally.
Manolis and Nikos believed Aposperitis wine to be just as good as the popular sweet wine Vansanko, produced on Santorini, which is why they originally applied for a European grant in order to create the winery. That was in 2012. “We traditionally only produced a sweet wine from the grape. However, we are now into our second year of production of a rosé, as well as a Blanc de Noirs, a white wine produced from a red grape. We did this for the first time this past year, with only a small production of 1,500 bottles, which proved to be very successful.”
The vineyards collectively cover around four-and-a-half hectares, where the owners grow the varieties Fokiano, Assyrtiko, Athiri, Syrah and Mandilaria. Assyrtiko and Athiri are both recognised Greek varieties ideally suited to the dry, hot Aegean summer, and from which the winery produces Aloni. The crisp, dry white, with its delicate citrusy aromas of white-fleshed fruit, lemon blossom and lime, was recently chosen by Aegean Airways for business-class passengers, as part of their ‘Closer to Greece’ programme. The youngest vineyard grows Syrah and Mandilaria, an indigenous variety widely grown in Greece and ideal for blending.
Anemomilos is the first dry white wine to be produced by Lipsi Winery from the Fokiano grape. With aromas of green fruits and hints of herbs, its fullness is revealed on the palate, where the fruity bouquet is enhanced by subtle mineral notes. The fourth wine, Psilante, reveals a full and well-balanced palate with a unique character, and is a perfect accompaniment to a wide range of Mediterranean dishes, or enjoyed as an aperitif. Lipsi Winery has been certified to ISO 2000, an international food safety management standard. Next year, Sally is hoping to extend the number of tours around the winery.
As I wander back through the village on a blissfully calm afternoon, I note occasional tumbledown buildings and small plots of land for sale, emphasising the slow but steady rise in the construction of holiday homes. The development is slow, however, and for the moment the beauty, peace and harmony of Lipsi and its traditional way of life remains unchanged.
HOW TO GET THERE
Lipsi has ferry connections to Piraeus (Athens) and to the surrounding islands of Kalymnos, Leros, Patmos and Samos. In the summer months there are also daily, local schedules for hydrofoils, a catamaran and district ferry boats. These schedules relate to the line running from Rhodes-Kos-Kalymnos-Leros-Lipsi-Patmos-Samos and back. You can travel by plane to Kos, Kalymnos, Leros or Samos, from where it is easy to catch a hydrofoil, catamaran or ferry to Lipsi. If travelling from Athens, visit bluestarferries.gr From Rhodes, Kos, Kalymnos, Leros, Patmos or Samos visit Dodekanisos Seaways (catamaran) and www.annaexpress.eu
WHERE TO STAY
HOTEL AFRODITI offers 28 fully equipped apartments for 2, 3 and 4 people. From the spacious and sunny rooms with large balconies it is possible to look out over Lientou beach (www.hotel-aphrodite.com)
HELIOS LIPSI STUDIO APARTMENTS are tastefully furnished and functional. Handmade beds sculptured of iron and wood are made by owner George Chloros, alongside handmade lamps. George is one of the most wonderful hosts one could ever hope to meet, with nothing being too much trouble (www.helioslipsi.com)
HOTEL CALYPSO is a family-owned hotel established by the Mangos brothers and consists of 10 studios, cafeteria and restaurant with nearby supermarket and hairdressing salon. The hotel is situated 10 metres from the harbour. All rooms enjoy views of the sea and overlook the village park. They are equipped with self-catering facilities, private bathrooms and air-conditioning, with daily cleaning and linen service. Transport from and to the ferry terminal can be arranged for guests ( www.lipsihotels.gr)
KOS AKTIS ART HOTEL, 7 Vas. Georgia Str., 85300 Kos, is perfect for an overnight stopover, being right on the beach, and situated a short walk from the ferry terminal (www.kosaktis.gr)
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
MANOLIS TASTES in Port Lipsi celebrates traditional Greek cuisine with an authentic twist, with dishes such as apricot chicken, lobster spaghetti, and Lipsi lamb with a lemon sauce (www.manolistastes.com)
RESTAURANT CALIPSO, Port Lipsi offers a superb selection of fish dishes ( www.lipsihotels.gr)
RESTAURANT TO PEFKO Port Lipsi, offers traditional Greek food. email firstname.lastname@example.org
YIANNIS RESTAURANT is metres from the sea in Port Lipsi and has an excellent menu, ranging from homemade appetisers to vegetarian entrees, a wide variety of fresh salads and wonderful seafood. This traditional Greek taverna is overseen by Pantelis, whose parents John and Maria once shared their hospitality with diners. There are two outdoor patios and an indoor dining-room (www.yianisrestaurant.com)
KAIRIS BAKERY & PASTRY SHOP, Port Lipsi (www.lipsibakery.com)
DILAILA RESTAURANT-CAFE-BAR, Katsadia Bay, offers an unforgettable experience in a stunning environment (www.dilaila.gr)
NICK’S & LOULI’S OUZERIE, O SOFOKLIS and THE ROCK (ouzerie and bar) are three ouzeries by Lipsi harbour. Ouzeries are an uncommon sight these days on Greek islands. Enjoy meze with ouzo or beer at an incredibly reasonable cost