Kastellorizo harbour - one of the most picturesque in the East Mediterranean

Kastellorizo harbour – one of the most picturesque in the East Mediterranean

Well, what can I say? I have fallen in love. Within seconds of making the acquaintance with the object of my new-found affection, I realised that this was serious. And now, having had only 36 hours of contact, I can’t stop thinking about it, I long for it and I am thinking of ways to get back to it…

It? Indeed: my new love is not a girl, but an island. It’s Kastellorizo, the most remote of all Greek islands, located 125 km (78 mi) east of Rhodes, but only 2km (1mile) off Kaş, on the Lycian Coast of Turkey. It’s official name is Megisti, ironically enough meaning “the biggest one”, although the island is truly tiny, measuring only about 12 km2 (5 sq mi) in size. It is, however, the largest within the little archipelago to which it belongs. Across the water, the Turks know it as Meis.

The island's small fishing fleet supplies its tavernas

The island’s small fishing fleet supplies its tavernas

At least within Greece, Kastellorizo is preceded by its reputation as a quiet, beautiful and idyllic place, far away from urban hecticism and from mass tourism. Internationally, it might be best known as the striking setting of the acclaimed Italian movie Mediterraneo, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for 1991.

Both Peter and I had actually been casting some longing glances at it in the past, during various recce trips and on our various escorted cruises in Lycia. It is in the context of my recent walking exploration of the Lycian Way that I have finally been able to spend a little time there, en route back home to Athens.

The fine Neoclassical homes stand witness to the Kastellorizo's past affluence

The fine Neoclassical homes stand witness to Kastellorizo’s past affluence

Before I even stepped off the ferry, I realised that Kastellorizo richly deserves its fine reputation. Its little port town, the only settlement in the island, is of pristine beauty, reminiscent of better-known Symi near Rhodes. Brightly painted Neoclassical houses are picturesquely crowded on the shore and hills around one of the finest harbours in the East Mediterranean, indicative of the island’s former wealth and in sharp contrast to the harsh and rocky terrain all around.

In the second half of the 19th century, Kastellorizo, then part of the Ottoman Empire, was an affluent place of over 10,000 inhabitants, many of whom were engaged in commerce. Colonies of Kastellorizan traders thrived in many of the ports on the nearby mainland, especially in Makri (now Fethiye), Kalamaki (Kalkan), Antifellos (Kaş), Foiniki (Finike), Myra (Demre) and Antalya, but also as far afield as Alexandria, providing the home island with a steady income, permitting the construction of fine family homes, churches, chapels and monasteries.

But the first half of the 20th century had a lot of trouble in store for this remote and exposed place. The island was shelled during World War I, and occupied by the French from 1815 to 1921, when it fell under Italian control as part of the Italian Dodecanese. In World War II, it saw fighting between British and Italian troops and was heavily shelled and bombed by the Germans, leading to the destruction of half its homes and the evacuation of much of the population. Along with the rest of the Dodecanese, it became part of Greece in 1947.

The medieval castle overlooks Kastellorizo harbour

The medieval castle overlooks Kastellorizo harbour

Today, Kastellorizo has only about 500 permanent inhabitants, supplemented in summer by returning exiles, mostly from Athens and Australia. Its economy relies on tourism, fishing and an army base.

But still, the island appears to have found its pace: its inhabitants are immensely friendly, hospitable and helpful, somehow managing a combination of being quite industrious (as indicated by the island’s many excellently renovated houses, its well-kept rent rooms and great seafood) and superbly, even contagiously, relaxed. Every time I asked someone for directions, they would first take the time to tell me in great detail how to get where I wanted to, then add a bit of history or narrative about whatever it was I was interested in seeing, and eventually offer to walk me there!

So, what is there to see in such a small island? A lot, it turns out. The island’s location has exposed it to more history than would be strictly needed for local consumption! In antiquity, it was first settled by Lycians and by Doric Greeks, and later incorporated into the city state of Rhodes, eventually being Romanized and subsequently becoming part of the Byzantine Empire. In the Middle Ages, it repeatedly changed hands between the Byzantines, the Knights of St. John, the Neapolitans, the Venetians and the Ottomans.

Caretta Caretta sea turtles in Kastellorizo harbour

Caretta Caretta sea turtles in Kastellorizo harbour

Remains of all those presences are visible, in the form of archaeological sites and finds on display in the island’s two (!) highly informative museums (one devoted to archaeology, the other to history and folklore). The little castle overlooking the port and the ancient acropolis on a hilltop in the centre of the island are easily reached on foot, as are the fine Lycian tomb and several more recent monasteries. And from nearly everywhere, there are grand vistas, not only of the port town, but of the deep blue waters and multiple islets around, as well as of the Lycian Coast providing an ever-present panoramic backdrop.

It is also possible to take a short boat trip to Kastellorizo’s “Blue Grotto”, a sea-cave that is lit by the reflection of the sun from the sea bottom every morning, filling the space with an unearthly blue light, similar to the better-known (but smaller) cave on Capri. But for me, the highlight of Kastellorizo was to watch the caretta caretta (or loggerhead sea turtles) leisurely swimming about the port – a sight to behold.

As we have stressed before, each of the Greek islands has its own distinctive character. Kastellorizo is no exception, and the visitor should make sure to complement whatever amount of exploration he or she desires with indulging in what clearly is the island’s main resource: serenity!

Kastellorizo is not currently on any of our itineraries. We are working on that. For the moment, a visit there could be easily added to the start or end of most of our cruises along the shores of Caria and especially Lycia (all part of our programme of escorted tours in Turkey), and of course we offer other Greek island atmospheres in the Dodecanese, the CycladesCrete and so on. Meanwhile, I hope to return as soon as I can…

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