At a glance, Leros looks like any other Greek island. When you arrive on the ferry at the fishing village of Ayia Marina, the first thing you notice is the pastel-coloured plasterwork of the small cafés that line the harbour.
Clusters of elderly locals are sitting at tables outside, swapping anecdotes that have lasted them more than 60 years. At the quayside opposite, minty-blue fishing boats bob about under a cloudless sky, while fishermen work with their bright yellow nets. The only interruption to the peace and quiet is the occasional moped sputtering past with no particular sense of urgency.
Everything you see here suggests that Leros is little different from the other islands in the Dodecanese. It’s only when you drive 15 minutes down the road, to the town of Lakki, that you realise things are not what they seem.
In contrast to the quaint little harbour and hotchpotch of cottages that you see in Ayia Marina, Lakki has an art deco seafront that looks more Miami than Mediterranean. To be precise, it’s a blend of art deco and Bauhaus, known as “Rationalism”, which was championed by the Italian fascist regime. Most of the buildings in Lakki were constructed in this incongruous architectural style, courtesy of the island’s Italian occupiers in the 1930s
Back then, Leros’s location, in the northern part of the Dodecanese group of islands, meant it was ideally placed for controlling the trade routes between Europe and Africa. Not only that but Lakki has the safest natural, deep-water harbour in the eastern Mediterranean; this makes it perfect for building a naval base.
And so it was that the Italians arrived on the crest of an expansionist wave, and set about building a flagship city for their Greek empire. At that point, the whole island had around 4000 inhabitants, with Lakki itself being home to just a few hundred. Under orders from Mussolini, the Italians transformed it into a bustling town called Porto Lago, capable of housing 30000 people. While nowhere near that number live here now, many of the buildings are still standing, and if you take a closer look at them you’ll see signs of the town’s turbulent and tragic past.
After arriving in the late afternoon, I took a stroll along the semi-circular promenade that borders the sea. The opposite side of the street is lined with various buildings erected by the Italians, all of them displaying the clean lines and smooth curves that typified the Rationalist movement.
The thing that’s special about Lakki is that you won’t find a town built in this style anywhere else in Greece. Indeed, along with Sabaudia, just outside Rome, it’s the only town in the world to be purpose-built in this style.
One of the finest examples of the buildings you’ll find here is the old cinema, which is currently being renovated thanks to a European Union grant. Amazingly, despite being bombed heavily by British and German forces in the Second World War, it was still in use until last year.
Ignoring the missing chunks of brickwork and flaky paint, Lakki’s locals would regularly gather here to watch films while the real stars winked at them through holes in the roof. It was rather like a Greek version of the cult Italian movie, Cinema Paradiso, in which an old movie theatre forms the cornerstone of a small community.
In spite of its current dilapidated state, Lakki’s cinema still oozes a sense of faded grandeur. Next door is the old town hall and fascist headquarters; its white-painted cylindrical tower and balcony area form a voluptuous silhouette against the electric blue sky.
This building was used during the war for giving speeches to thronging crowds of white-uniformed sailors, who would gather for news of the Italian campaign in Europe. You can almost hear the echoes of highly-strung Italian voices resounding off the crumbling plasterwork. Meanwhile, in the street directly behind the cinema is one of the town’s most evocative buildings: the white, square clock tower with its minimalist numerals and characteristic thin column of windows up one side.
It’s not just the buildings that tell the story of this place, though. Take a look at the odd lamppost and you’ll find it embossed with the classic fascist emblem of the bundle of sticks wrapped around a two-headed axe.
Almost everything you see in the town was built by the Italians, including the roads you’ll drive on. Before they came here, life on Leros had remained unchanged for centuries. The infrastructure had consisted of dusty donkey tracks that strung together the island’s tiny villages, while Lakki itself comprised a few fishermen’s cottages and muscatel vineyards, with what is now the waterfront being nothing but marshland.
The Italians drained the water by planting eucalyptus trees, which you can still see lining the streets, and built a promenade fit for military parades.
Like most of the towns on Leros, Lakki is pretty small. The island itself is about 10 miles long, with a width of less than a mile at the smallest point, and fewer than 9000 permanent inhabitants. You could do a whole lap of the coast in less than an hour.
It may be small but there’s a huge variety of beaches to choose from, and you’ve every chance of getting one to yourself. On numerous occasions while I was here, I found myself on a deserted stretch of golden sand, with the only sound being the splosh of the waves that were tickling my feet.
My personal favourite was Vromolithos, about five minutes’ drive east from Lakki. Not only is it blissfully quiet but there’s a great restaurant, The Well, just two minutes’ walk away. The food you get here is different from the dishes you’ll find elsewhere on the island (namely calamari, swordfish and stuffed peppers).
Everything has an international twist and is cooked to order by the chef, Panayioti, who spends his winters cooking at a hotel in Athens. If you fancy a more exclusive sunbathing spot, take the road to Blefuti, a beautiful beach in its own right, and carry on left towards Partheni. Leave your car by the church, and take the short track down to a tiny little cove where you’ll find gin-clear water to cool off in. There’s only enough room for about 25 people, so peace and quiet are guaranteed.
While Leros is a treasure trove, as far as deserted beaches and good restaurants are concerned, it’s mercifully bereft of clubs and raucous bars.
Unlike its larger siblings, Rhodes and Kos, it’s one of the few islands that has yet to be overrun by hordes of lobster-pink tourists only interested in buy-one-get-one-free cocktail offers. What you will find, however, are lots of little bars where you can drink and dance until dawn if you wish.
On more than one occasion I found myself in Savanna at wrong o’clock in the morning. Located on the quayside at Pandeli, it’s run by two British guys, Simon and Peter, and is a great place to get to know some of the local characters who drink here.
To benefit from Leros’s deserted beaches and intimate nightlife it’s best to avoid July and August. During this period the island receives an Italian invasion of a different kind – in the form of the tourists who come here every year. One of the things that attract them is the fact that a large number of Lerians speak the language.
This is yet another legacy of the Italian occupation; locals were banned from speaking Greek and forced to learn Italian instead. Consequently, there’s a whole generation of older Lerians who are fluent in the language. Despite this encroachment on their culture, the Lerians I spoke to who lived under the occupation hold no bitterness about the way they were treated. A classic example of this is 72-year-old Stamatis Filippidis, who has run the grocery shop on King Pavlou Street for more than 30 years. “The Italian schools were actually really good,” he says, “and I was never afraid of the Italians. I had genuine friendships with many of them.”
With an attitude like this, you might think that Stamatis is simply one of the more mellow figures on the island. However, you’ll find this philosophy everywhere here, even among those who suffered more than just the loss of their native language. Someone you might expect to bear a grudge is 76-year-old Kostas Koumoulis, who lost his right arm when a mine exploded next to him. “I don’t have any bad feelings about the occupation. The Italians were not tyrants. When they took the [Lerians’] fields in Lakki and built shops on the land, they gave those shops to the people who had owned the fields.”
It’s impossible to tell whether the Lerians’ live-and-let-live attitude is a by-product of their unique history, but it seems to attract people back here year after year. One glance is never enough.