Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Elizabeth Mavor
I’ve been traveling for over twenty-four hours. Four airports. Three airplanes. An eight-hour layover turned into an eleven-hour layover. Almost missing my connection in Athens and the discovering the joys of Greek roads for an hour, I am finally minutes from my final destination: the village of Molyvos, in northern Lesvos, a Greek Island in the Eastern Aegean Sea.
The village, boasting a winter population of only 1,000, has a storied history that begins in pre-historic times, but recorded history starts with the Byzantines. They ruled the island of Lesvos from 312 CE to 1355 CE; this is where the village gets the name “Molyvos,” prior to Byzantine control it was known as Mythimna. Both names are interchangeable now, but Molyvos is the official name. The exact date the castle was completed is unknown, but it was built sometime in this period to defend against pirate raids.
The small Citroen flies around the curves in the cliff-side road. It’s dark; I can’t see anything beyond the headlights.
“We’re almost there,” says Lynn Karafilly, my driver and a Brit who has lived in Molyvos for most of her adult life. “Watch for it, it’s just around the next bend.”
We are perched on the edge of a cliff and below us the Aegean laps at the rocks. Across the water, a few kilometers away, the harbours festive lights and the windows in the houses twinkle like stars. I feel like I’m seeing double, because the village is mirrored in the calm water. The castle, standing watch over the village of Molyvos, glows an otherworldly orange. The view alone makes my trip worth every second of travel.
I’ve been lazy. I have already been here over a week and I haven’t been up to the castle yet. The most incredible, historic and rich part of this place and I’ve ignored it. In my own defense, it did rain for the first two days I was here. My goal today is to get there.
I’m visiting my best friend Ranya; her father has spent most of his life in Molyvos. She’s spending a year living with him. His house is east of Molyvos, on Eftalou Road, which is also the name of the town that it leads to. I’ve already explored the farms and fields in that direction so I turn toward town and walk about ten minutes. The sidewalk disappears for a portion of the road.
“It’s the farmer,” says Ranya. “He doesn’t want to give up the land to let them make the sidewalk.”
“Can’t they just take it away from him?” I ask.
“This is Greece,” she replies, as though it’s answer enough. I don’t push it. It’s not like we’re in downtown Athens. The farmland stretches in all directions, but we’re only minutes walking from Molyvos. I wish I could say the same for the castle.
The cobbled streets on the trek up to the castle are narrow and closed off to traffic; the Byzantines didn’t take cars into consideration when they built the village. Not that they should take all the blame.
In 1355 the island was ceded, through marriage, to the Gateluzzi’s of Genoa. They held control of the island for a little over 100 years. In 1462, the Ottoman Empire invaded and took power. Molyvos became the center for administrative and military operations in northern Lesvos. The Ottomans further built up the castle, which had been previously fortified by the Genoese. What remains is a mish-mash of different styled houses. Most of the roofs are red in traditional Byzantine fashion, but the houses are old and many are falling apart.
The streets also reflect the building up over centuries; there is no sense to the layout of the streets. It’s easy to get lost in the alleys, walkways and streets, but going downhill will always bring you back to the main road, and climbing up will eventually bring you to the castle. We climb up. Literally taking the stairs that are the street.
“Hello!” a child’s voice. As I look around for its source, I see the head of a boy popping up over the balcony of a house. He looks about seven; his bright blue eyes shine in the sunlight as his smile beams at me.
“Hello!” I reply. As my camera focuses on him, he disappears. I take the picture anyway, seconds late her pops up again.
“Hello!” He says again. I take his photo and wave at him. We continue on our way up the narrow cobbled street. We are so close to the castle, and yet so far.
I take photos of the rusted hinges on windows and shutters; the odd assortment of bricks covering the walls of houses; and rotted wooden doors with broken locks. I drink in the overwhelming feeling of history that drips off the red tiled roofs and fills the air. I capture it with my camera as best as I can. The details of this village distract me from the looming presence of the castle, but it is always in the back of my mind.
We come across and abandoned, broken, shell of a house. I walk up the steps toward the hulk of fallen bricks and cement. There is a small poppy growing in the corner; next to it lays a broken blue plate, above it chicken wire and a boarded window. We don’t stay long in this broken place, we feel like invaders. We keep our eyes on the prize: the castle.
We continue up the cobbled streets, passing water fountains; cafenions where old men drink ouzo and play cards; children playing; shops full of ceramics, jewelry, and other local goods. We can’t see the castle but my lungs and legs tell me we can’t be far.
Finally we reach the top. It looks more daunting from far away, but it’s still an impressive mass of stone. We walk through the parking lot and around the side to the entrance. The gate is closed and locked.
Cliffs surround the castle on all but one side so we walk around them as far as we can. The view is exquisite. The harbour lays beyond a sea of red tiles and further on the Aegean and the setting sun on the horizon. We may not have gotten what we came up here for, but again, the view makes every second of the trip worth it.