‘It is an uncommon island,” stated my pal Yannis, barely self-consciously. “We are a bit different from our neighbours.”
Yannis, a restaurant proprietor, is true: Leros is uncommon, however in a great way. It is just some miles from Turkey, however 1,000,000 vacationer miles from Kos and Rhodes, its Dodecanese siblings. It has largely slipped beneath the holiday radar, which is a disgrace as a result of it has all the things all of us need from a Greek island – seashores, fishing villages, tavernas, ruins – plus a unprecedented fashionable historical past. And for that we are able to thank Mussolini.
The Italians grabbed the Dodecanese in 1912 and Mussolini later poured cash, and cement, into Leros to make it the bottom for his imperial ambitions. An enormous naval complicated was constructed and a brand new capital, Portolago, emerged from a mosquito-ridden swamp.
This mannequin city is without doubt one of the best examples exterior Italy of rationalist structure (assume artwork deco however with out the lightness of contact) and it’s largely intact practically 100 years later. The broad boulevards, grand villas for the officers, condo blocks for the decrease ranks and market corridor are nonetheless right here. It’s not exhausting to think about Italian troopers and sailors parading alongside the seafront
Italian job … the Naval Barracks in Lakki. Photograph: Alamy
The city, renamed Lakki after the warfare, was left to rot for many years however the islanders have discovered to like it and it’s now coming again to life. The cinema (cineleros.com), for instance, now superbly restored, may be very Cinema Paradiso.
The second world warfare left its mark all around the island: in derelict army buildings with wonderful murals painted by bored soldiers; and in tunnels within the cliffs (a historical past informed underground on the War Tunnels Museum close to Lakki, €three). Off the coast lie the wrecks of many ships and warplanes from the Battle of Leros, which impressed Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone (ebook dives at hydrovius.gr).
It additionally explains why most of us don’t know Leros. Mussolini’s former army barracks held political prisoners throughout Greece’s army dictatorship and have become infamous psychological hospitals. (They’re now a refugee camp.) These institutions gave islanders jobs, so tourism wasn’t such an enormous deal. But instances have modified: the prisons and hospitals (although sadly not the camp) are closed, so vacationers now give attention to the island’s extra typical sights.
Mylos restaurant. Photograph: Spyros Kanatas
The Knights of St John reached Leros 600 years earlier than Il Duce, and the Byzantine fortress they conquered and fortified nonetheless dominates the island. It glowers over Alinda bay and its seashore, the longest on the island. It’s a phenomenal spot and the closest little Leros (it’s solely about eight miles lengthy) will get to mass tourism. There are many good fish tavernas within the space however locals fee Mylos, which has an incredible setting on the waterfront by a windmill. Like in most locations on Leros, a meal for 2 right here shouldn’t value greater than €50, typically much less.
I like the close by port of Agia Marina, with its ferries bustling forwards and backwards between islands. It’s excellent for a leisurely espresso and a few people-watching. If you summon the power, a brief stroll up the hill is Platanos, the previous capital, with a jumble of slim lanes and white-washed homes. Panteli seashore, beneath Platanos, is definitely prettier than Alinda and I want it, largely due to its glorious eating places, comparable to El Greco.
Leros has its share of beachside tavernas, comparable to this one on Koulouki seashore within the Lakki gulf. Photograph: George Papapostolou/Getty Images
There are unbelievable walks all around the island and on foot is usually the one option to get to the numerous enticing little seashores. One of my favourites is the primary cove on the south facet of Gourna bay, the place there’ll most likely simply be some goats to look at you swim within the clear water. And that brings us neatly again to Mussolini and Leros’s fascinating 20th-century story, as a result of it passes an enormous second world warfare acoustic mirror, a precursor of radar. The concrete construction has been just lately restored. Mussolini could also be lengthy gone however he has not been forgotten on Leros.
• Eight-room Archontiko Angelou (doubles from €75 room-only) is an enthralling 19th-century villa in Alinda behind the seafront. Bianco (doubles from €55 B&B) is a boutique resort within the city centre. Olympic Air has every day flights from Athens to Leros in summer time for round €100 one-way. Frequent ferries run by Blue Star and Dodekanisos Seaways join Leros with Athens (from about €33), Kos, Rhodes and different Dodecanese islands. Leros Rent A Car in Lakki has mopeds from €10 a day