100 Coffee Houses and a Travel Agency

(Pandora Travel, Lisvori)

Quite a few people coming to Mytilini in this time of crisis will be wondering why all cafes are so crowded. Night and day the catering establishments around the harbour are bursting with young people. I guess you could say that it’s Greek culture: business deals are concluded and friendships are sealed in cafes. Their only difference from their fathers and grandfathers is that the young people have swapped the old dusty kafenions for bigger and more modern places. No crisis can keep a Greek from having his coffee or another drink in the café.

To whichever village on Lesvos you go, you’ll be surprised by the number of kafenions in their centre. A few of them will have been closed for years, as the Lesvorian villages have slowly emptied. The closed kafenions are a poignant reminder of a time in which the agora was the lively centre of the village. Whilst those village squares and main streets are no longer busy with people, they remain the beating heart of the village and many a tourist will have a faint heart driving through such a village, weaving around the tables of the still-open kafenions, afraid of driving over the big toe of one of the customers.

The mainly male customers (you will find the women seated on the front steps of their houses) enjoy seeing tourists carefully winding their way through the narrow streets of their villages. They are there to comment on whatever is happening and every event leads to discussion. In the coffee shops friendships are made, life is discussed, thanks are offered for a job well done or sorrows are expressed.

In many villages modern cafes have not make an appearance because the young people have moved to the big cities. That is why the elder men have to hang around in kafenions that, who knows for how long, have not changed a bit. In a few villages trendy bars have been established, just to please the tourists. For example in Molyvos there is no old traditional kafenion anymore. Here the men have to retreat to restaurants such as Alonia or Angelos where they still are welcome to sip their coffee for hours and to comment on the world.

In Molyvos virtually all the old kafenions have been lost: mostly all buildings have been renewed and all vestiges gone forever. This is different in most other villages, where you can still peep through dusty windows and discover the interior of an old kafenion that should be put into a museum. I feel that they all should be classified as monuments because of their historic interiors with old pictures and artifacts hanging on the walls once freshly painted in awful colours (I say awful, but I guess that once these poo-beige and turquoise-green colours must have been à la mode).

Together with the old kafenions, the national beverage ouzo – with coffee the most consumed drink in a café – seem to be neglected: young people prefer to sip a frappé (cold coffee) or to nurse a colourful cocktail all night long. In an attempt to make it more fashionable an ouzo-festival has been organized in three different locations on the island: in the ouzo-strongholds of Plomari (July 6 & 7) and Mytilini (July 13 & 14) and in the faraway port of Sigri (July 10). Music, an exhibition of ouzo labels and snacks (ouzo should never be drunken without food) are some of the fixtures of this travelling ‘happening’, along with a slideshow of photos of the old kafenions of Lesvos, made by Tzeli Hatzidimitriou, known for her beautiful book 39 Coffee Houses & a Barber’s Shop, a book that has secured at least the images of a lot of these disappearing kafenions. 

People may ask what is the best ouzo, but there is only one answer: Lesvos ouzo. The question of which of the many ouzos Lesvos produces is the best, I will not answer, because that is according to your own taste. I can only refer to an ouzo tasting, of which the criterion was personal taste: ouziotary. The cherry-ouzo that will be presented during the ouzo festival, was not on that menu but I am very curious about this odd combination.

There are very few old kafenions that are lucky enough to get a new life. In Lisvori (close to Polichnitos) one of the many kafenions (the coffee house from the cover of 39 Coffee Houses & a Barber’s Shop) has been taken over to use as a travel agency. A friend of mine has rented the shop, installed her computer on the counter (kylikio), replaced the bottles of booze on the shelves (teziakia) with books about Lesvos and hung some attractive pictures between the old tools that should be in a museum: and now the office was ready.

Not only is the office special, so too is her concept: she organizes tailor-made excursions and works with people on the island who mainly offer independent activities, like kayaking, hiking, boat trips, horse riding or coaching with horses, herb and orchid hikes and her own speciality: safaris. When you visit Pandora Travel, settling some business or participate in an excursion close to Lisvori, you will not escape the tradition of the kafenion and will be received in a beautiful old coffee house conveying all the authenticity and hospitality of the island of Lesvos.

(Meanwhile Pandora Travel doesn’t exist anymore).