For your average visitor to the Greek islands, or even many a long-time resident of Greece, if you were to mention the name Agios Efstratios you would probably be met with a blank look. It’s not the most well known of destinations and to be honest, is well and truly off the beaten path. You can find this 43 square kilometre hamlet in the Northern Aegean, sitting between Lesbos and Lemnos. The only settlement, and home to more or less all of the 300 or so inhabitants, can be found on the northwest coast. The best way to get there is via ferry, with daily departures from Lemnos taking visitors on the 90 minute, 30 kilometer journey.
The locals call it Ai Stratis, and the origins of the name form part of its fascinating story. It was once a place of exile, where Saint Eustratius was sent in the 9th century for his opposition to the destruction of icons being carried out by the Byzantine emperor of the time. Centuries later, it was once again used as a site of banishment, when the Metaxas Regime of the 1930’s sent political prisoners there. Part of the reason it was an island of exile was its remote location. It’s this separation from the outside world that has meant Ai Stratis has retained much of its character. Not so much in the form of the architecture, as the majority of the original buildings were destroyed in the 1968 earthquake, but the charm of the people. There are few places where the locals are so intrinsically bound to their island home, and where their past is made clearly apparent in the way they proudly talk.
Geographically, Agios Efstratios is a dry, rocky landscape. The arid land receives little rain in winter and the summers can be scorching. As a result, there’s not much in the way of thick vegetation or tall trees, and farming is poor. So instead of bountiful harvests from the land, the locals rely on the sea for much of their fresh food supply. This in turn impacts the cuisine you’ll encounter when here. A visit to a tavern will reveal a menu full of traditional dishes, featuring plenty of seafood.
For tourists, you don’t go to Ai Stratis for resorts, shopping and nightlife. You go there for the complete opposite. It’s a place to escape the chaos of everyday life and be away from the masses. You can sit on one of the many beaches and enjoy the stunning scenery. There are harbour-front cafeterias where you can sip on a cold drink while watching the sunset. For the active among you, why not take a hike or mountain bike ride to explore the island’s interior? Another great way to spend half a day is on a boat tour of the island. If you ask the captain nicely he may even be able to arrange a trip with one of the local fishermen to experience life as a seafarer!