Leros is one of twelve islands in the crescent shaped Dodecanese archipelago. According to myth, Leros island was where the ancient Greek goddess of hunting, Artemis, would go hunting, thanks to the island’s large deer population.
We moored on the harbour wall in Lakki which is towards the south west of the island. Lakki is the main port of the island, it has one of the largest deepest natural harbours in the Mediterranean. There was a meltemi wind due to blow through bringing 40-50kt winds and so we were happy to be safely moored here in the protection of the bay.
In 1314, Leros was occupied by the Knights of St. John of Rhodes who governed it until the Turks invaded and took command of the entire Dodecanese archipelago in 1522, which then remained under Turkish rule for almost 400 years.
Italy took occupation after the Italo-Turkish war in 1912. The Italians were interested in Leros due to its strategic position and large, deep natural harbours. It gave them control over an area of vital interest to the allies and was considered a crucial aspect of Italian domination.
The Italians used Leros as a base for the Royal Italian Navy and had a great plan to transform the island into a fortified military and naval base. Important defence work was carried out and military installations were built. Many buildings were demolished and a utopian town was constructed with new grand buildings erected in the modern Fascist ‘razionalismo’ style of the 1930’s.
The Italians remained in Leros for 31 years until they swapped to the allied side in 1943. The Italian forces were reinforced by British troops but the Germans made an immediate attack bombarding the island for 52 days until they finally conquered it. This became known as the ‘Battle of Leros’, it was a harsh battle and the last significant victory of Germany against the allies. The story of the famous novel ‘Guns of Navarone’ is based on the Battle of Leros.
The Germans continued to occupy the island until the end of the war in 1945. This was followed by a two year occupation by English armed forces, until finally in 1948, the archipelago officially became reunited with Greece.
After the war the town of Lakki was largely neglected by the Greek population of Leros due to its Italian connections. However, in recent years a program of restoration has begun with the aim of achieving UNESCO world heritage status. As we walked around the town, the presence of the Italians and war are still very evident.
There is a war museum close to the port, it is housed inside a network of restored tunnels which were originally built by the Italians during the Second World War. Outside there are some decommissioned military vehicles and a fighter aircraft.
Within the tunnels there is a large collection of exhibits, including guns, bombs, helmets, uniforms along with many other items relating to the battle of Leros. The human element of the conflict is brought home by the many photographs of troops from the period. Sounds of the bombings and air raids reverberate through the tunnels making you feel like you are in a war zone.
Obviously some things are essential, even at war.
The meltemi was forecasted to continue all week so we had plenty of time to explore. Leros seemed to be in a calm pocket protected from the full force of the winds around us, so with a cooling breeze and the sun shining, we set off on a long hike across the island.
After climbing up over the hill we could soon see into the bay on the other side of the island. Panteli is a pretty fishing village considered to be one of Leros’ most picturesque spots. There was a very enticing beach cafe which was a perfect place to stop for breakfast.
The castle was visible on top of the hill….surely it can’t be that far to walk up to it?
It was quite a climb up through the town of Platanos as we weaved our way along the narrow alleyways. Once out of the village we followed the path which ‘zigzagged’ up the hill.
There are many clusters of windmills placed along the ridges of the hill looking out to sea. Although the function of windmills today is not the same as when they were originally created they are well known as a characteristic of Leros. Many have been restored and converted into guesthouses.
On the last stretch up to the castle, we came to the most picturesque row of very smart renovated windmills.
Finally we made it to The Medieval Castle of Pandeli. It is a strong fortress also known as the Castle of our Lady, or the Castle of the Virgin Mary. It has commanding views over the mountainous landscape, the sea, villages and harbours of Leros island.
The Castle of Pandeli was built in the 10th century on the site of an ancient acropolis and, at the end of the 11th century, it was donated from the Byzantine Emperor to the Monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos. During the Frankish times, the Castle was reinforced by the Knights of Saint John and was used to protect the island and its inhabitants from invasions.
In the centuries that followed, the Castle served as a lookout post for the Turkish, Italian and German conquerors of the island. As a result, it suffered a lot of damage. Despite this, much of it is still standing and we were able to walk around the different areas of the large castle.
We had followed a rough road up but decided to make our decent down the 500 steps back to the village. We got down a lot quicker than going up!
Before long, we found ourselves back at the beach bar in Pandeli for a refreshing ouzo and beer before heading back over the hill to Lakki where ZigZag was waiting for us.
After a week in Lakki the meltemi calmed down. We were finally able to untie our lines to explore more of the Dodecanese.