I started writing this post last week, on a gulet moored in the Bay of Lakki on Leros, one of the finest natural harbours in the Eastern Mediterranean and one of the stops on the just-finished Cruising to the Cyclades tour. Looking across the water, I was presented with what might well be the strangest view in the Aegean Sea: the seafront of the town of Lakki.
Leros is a smallish island with a long and chequered history, still virtually completely sidelined by the established tracks of tourism. The few visitors that come to Leros usually stop by while cruising by yacht or gulet, anchoring off the eastern shore of the island, near the coastal towns of Agia Marina or Panteli, charming villages distinguished by their elaborate Neo-Classical architecture of the 19th and early 20th centuries and overlooked by a stunning medieval castle. The island is quite green and very beautiful, offering great vistas of the Turkish coast and the neighbouring islands of Kalymnos and Patmos. It also possesses a wealth of fine beaches.
Today, however, I write about the largest settlement on the western side of Leros: Lakki – one of the most unusual places in all of the Greek islands. Travellers in the Greek Islands, including our current guests, quite correctly expect to find beautiful port towns dominated by Neo-Classical buildings of the 19th century, labyrinthine villages made up of quaint traditional dwellings, serene monasteries, gleaming white chapels and perhaps the occasional ancient site. Indeed they get to see all of that on our cruise, but not at Lakki. What awaits them there is unexpected: a planned town, dominated by striking monuments of early 20th century modernism – a surreal sight among the blue waters of the East Aegean.
The Italian Dodecanese
Nearly all of Lakki’s architecture belongs to a 1930s architectural style known as razionalismo. The consistency of urban design is a most unusual feature not just in Greece: due to Europe’s long and complex history, a unified urban architectural ensemble of a single modern style is a rarity in the town and city centres of the Old World.
The strangeness of Lakki is due to the peculiar history of the region and the island, namely to the fact that the Dodecanese archipelago was under Italian occupation for three decades. In 1912, Italy rather opportunistically exploited the weakness of the crumbling Ottoman Empire by occupying the islands off Turkey’s southwestern shores. It managed to keep them until its 1943 capitulation in the Second World War, and the islands were eventually ceded to Greece in 1947.
Lakki is one of three major examples of urban design from that period, the other two being the historical cities of Rhodes and Kos. Each of them is different in character: The Italian additions to the medieval city of Rhodes are dominated by a grandiose faux-historicism. Kos town, rebuilt to a new design after a major earthquake in 1933, is characterised by a highly eclectic and quite attractive form of Art Déco, with a strong flavour of expressionism. In both those cases, the Italian interventions concerned cities that had been in existence for millennia.
An artificial town
In contrast, Lakki was an entirely artificial new foundation. Its original name was Porto Lago. The locals of Leros had largely avoided the area, probably mostly because of its swampy terrain and the resulting prevalence of mosquitoes. What attracted the Italian occupying forces to the area was of course its bay, one of the safest and largest natural harbours in the Aegean. Initially, in the 1920s, the Italian state developed its southern side as a port for sea-planes, then a cutting-edge technology and an important economic and strategic stepping stone to North Africa and the Near East.
A decade later, with Italy firmly under Mussolini’s control, it was decided to drain the swamps and to develop the flat area beside the bay into a major naval base, capable of berthing a large fleet and housing its sailors, officers and technical staff as well as their families. Porto Lago was a physical representation of Mussolini’s expansionist Fascist state, but also of its eventually futile attempt to italianise the Dodecanese.
Razionalismo – an expression of early modernism
The Italian Fascists’ “house style” in architecture was razionalismo, one of the various expressions of the modernist movements that had sprung up in Europe and elsewhere since the Great War. Razionalismo is perhaps best defined as somewhere between Art Déco and Bauhaus, and can be seen as a precursor to the “International Style” that was to dominate much of the 20th century, for better or worse. Full urban ensembles in the razionalismo style are exceedingly rare, the only two other examples being Sabauda near Rome, and Asmara in what is now Eritrea.
A plan to develop Porto Lago as a town was approved in 1934. Only five years later, it had over 7,000 inhabitants, making it one of the largest Italian bases in the Mediterranean and one of the most populous settlements in the Dodecanese.
The result of this unique background is still plainly visible at Lakki. Naturally, the visual impression is utterly unlike the traditional settlements found in Leros and the neighbouring islands. The whole urban lay-out with its white streets and viewing axes is the virtual opposite of the more organic architecture of the Aegean islands. In fact, most of Lakki’s buildings, featuring whitewashed concrete and bare metal railings, look strangely international, even mid-20th century American, to the modern visitor. The street grid is highly peculiar, following what might be best described as a butterfly shape, based on the coastal avenue and a curved main road joining it at both ends.
A compartmentalised settlement
Porto Lago was planned to a highly rational and functional design, with different areas serving strictly compartmentalised separate purposes. Buildings serving the administration and public representation were placed along the seafront, a shopping district was situated just behind, and services such as army barracks and a hospital were located at the edge of the town, to its northwest. The residential districts were separated according to the occupations and ranks of their inhabitants, with strikingly different homes constructed for each group. The workers’ quarter, near the modern port, was characterised by uniform and rather low-key blocks of flats, the commissioned officers’ quarter near the barracks was made up of very stately villa-like homes of various designs, and the non-commissioned officers’ area, to the east, consisted of less individualistic semi-detached houses. Many of those dwellings are still inhabited.
The most striking aspects of Lakki are its seafront and centre, dominated by a series of monumental buildings serving varying practical and representative purposes. Along the coast, the most visible part of town to those arriving for the first time, there is a whole array of impressive and ambitious structures, all lined up to be visible side by side.
The centre of the promenade features the ruins of the once grand city hall and the central hotel (Albergo Roma). To the east, these are followed by the Roma theatre, an ambitious structure with a striking circular lobby. The theatre originally had a folding roof. Renovated recently, it now serves as an open-air cinema. It is followed, in turn, by a striking curved line of shops and a police station. The east end of the seafront is marked by the still-functioning elementary school, a structure that attempts to unite modernism with Byzantine elements.
Behind the seafront, two buildings dominate the centre. One is a church, formerly San Francesco, now Agios Nikolaos, perhaps the most modernist religious edifice in the whole country, not least as the Orthodox tradition usually favours historicist styles. The other is the market building, made up of a circular open atrium and a brick-and-concrete tower with a massive clock, dominating the entire town. The clock tower is perhaps one of the most original of Lakki’s buildings from an aesthetic point of view – but in a Greek island it looks entirely out of place.
After the Italian capitulation and the “Battle of Leros” in late 1943, the island fell under German occupation, was British-held from 1945 onwards and finally became part of Greece in 1948. Although the bay lost its function as a major naval base and thus the town was deprived of its raison d’etre as a military settlement, the town and structures continued to exist, now with new inhabitants. To this day, it is a stark and strange physical reminder of the three decades of the “Italian Dodecanese”.
Another kind of archaeology
The people of Leros appear to never have embraced Lakki. For many decades, the town hosted an infamous mental hospital while its monuments slowly crumbled away. Some efforts at renovation have recently been made, but altogether, today’s Lakki is little more than a village rattling around within what was meant to be a major population centre. That said, it is a unique place, an unmistakeably clear representation of the particular historical context that created it, its aesthetics, ideology, and functional requirements. In that sense, it is very much an archaeological site, as we tend to show our guests the very same aspects when visiting the remains of Greek or Roman cities.
To see the tangible expression of a reprehensible ideology (some buildings still bear painted tile crests featuring the fasces, the rod-and-axe symbol of Mussolini’s fascist state!) now functioning as a peaceful Greek town means to get a direct insight into the complex interplay of continuity and change that is history. In other words, Lakki may be an oddity, a curiosity among the many wonderful sites on Cruising to the Cyclades. But like all our destinations on that very varied cruise, it is a place that permits us to tell a story, to explore and experience aspects of the region’s unique culture and history hands-on. That’s what we do on all our tours wherever we go – in our programme, Lakki is part of both Cruising to the Cyclades and Cruising the Dodecanese.