The Southeast Peninsula & the Gera Thermal Springs

(For excursions in this part of the island, Mytilene centre is 0.0km for distances given in the text)
From Vareia, a loop may be followed around the tranquil southeastern extremity of the island. Two kilometres after passing the entrance to the airport, opposite a stand of venerable pine-trees on the hillside, a solitary example of a wooden Ottoman-style yalt, with ornate metal eaves and woodwork designs on its seaward front, has survived—sole reminder of many which once lined the island’s eastern shore.

Visible across the water to the east of this point, beside the Turkish coast, are the three islets of Arginusae, off which in 406 bc the Athenians won a naval victory over the Lace daemonians. The Spartan admiral Kallikratidas was killed and 70 of his ships sunk or captured. The Athenians lost 25 ships and were prevented by the weather from rescuing the crews. For this omission eight of the Athenian commanders in the battle were recalled to Athens, tried, and six of them executed. This drastic action was a factor in the Athenian annihilation at the battle of Aegospotami.

At 16km is the picturesque bay of Aghios Ermogenes, divided by a rocky promontory on which sits the homonymous church with its wide, canopied forecourt; just to the west is the narrow entrance into the waters of the gulf of Gera. There is a deep rural tranquillity to the eastern shore of the gulf and its villages of stone houses immersed in dense olive groves. There are pleasant beaches for swimming (at Skala Loutron) and tavernas (at Koundouroudia). At the northern extremity of the gulf are the *thermal springs of Gera which, of all the many hot waters of Lesbos, best combine a minimum of functional organisation with historic and atmospheric pools. (Open daily 8–6. Separate men’s and women’s sections: no bathing suits permitted and towels required. Shower facilities provided.) The water is plentiful and of a gentle temperature (39– 41° C), and pours from worn marble spouts into a large rectangular pool about 1m deep, lined with Proconnesian marble, beneath a vaulted roof. The waters contain radium and their therapeutic qualities were known in Antiquity—when the springs constituted part of a sanctuary of Hera, it is believed. In the 1790s, the British antiquarian James Dalloway, and the French traveller and writer, Georges Olivier, separately mention the spa and its therapeutic qualities: the main vaulted piscina-chambers must have been constructed not long before their visits. (The baths are beside the shore at the northernmost point of the gulf, and lie just out of sight below the road. The turn-off— poorly signed for the ‘Estiatoria Thermia’—is easy to miss; the entrance is just before an abandoned stone building on the south side of the road, at the top of a low rise.)

No island of the Aegean has a greater wealth of geothermic springs than Lesbos. Given the predominantly volcanic terrain, by comparison with neighbouring Chios, Thasos or Samos , this is perhaps not surprising. Amongst the springs on Lesbos, there is a variety of temperature, colour, and mineral qualities, as well as a wide range of settings. Of the dozen or so sources, at least seven are accessible to the visitor for immersion (partial or complete); all have remained simple and rustic in nature, and have so far avoided being upgraded with expensive or pretentious facilities. The array of curative qualities attributed to them is impressive; these were noted and praised in Antiquity by Theophrastus, who came from Lesbos, and by Galen and Aelius Aristides who were from the mainland opposite. It was out of the use of such natural hot springs by the Ancient Greeks and by the Etruscans in Tuscany, that the rites and culture of bathing established themselves in the daily routine of Roman life. The Turkish hamam, which is a similarly social and quasi-religious ritual in the Islamic world, is the direct descendant of this, through the intermediary of Byzantium. Hot water bathing was an important factor in helping to break down social divisions in Ancient Rome and Byzantium; it united society as it does in the Islamic world today. The rustic pools of Lesbos are likewise restorative places— sometimes for social bonding; at others for solitary reflection.
   Rising at 81.5°C, the brilliantly coloured and steaming efflorescences at Polychnitos and the marginally cooler waters at nearby Lisvori­o are amongst the hottest springs in Europe; those at Gera flow at blood temperature, but in greater quantity, and the marble pools in which you bathe still have the atmosphere of ancient thermae. At Eftalou, near Molyvos, the small hot and mildly radioactive pool is by the shore in a covered chamber; at Megala Therma, a little further east along the north coast, the waters rise on the shore, but are so hot that it is only possible to swim in the seawater with which they mix; while at Panaghia Kryfti­, on the south coast, the hot waters fill a minuscule pool under a shadow of the rocks beside the sea. Most extraordinary of all are the Artemidos springs at Thermi­, where the decaying Sarlitza Palace Hotel partially covers remains of the sanctuary of Artemis Thermia, and the spring house behind the hotel is a vaulted cistern incorporating columns, fragments, inscriptions and decorative architectural elements from Antiquity. Of all these, perhaps the two most accessible and enjoyable for the visitor are those at Gera and at Eftalou.

Near the summit of the steep, rock escarpment to the north of the main road, 1500m west of the Gera springs, are the Larissai Petrai—remains of prehistoric ‘Pelasgian’ walls, possessing a strategically panoramic view of the Gera inlet. Below, on the face of the cliff, the line of the Roman aqueduct bringing water from the foot of Mount Olympus to Mytilene (see next section) can be traced cutting almost horizontally across the cliff, about one third of the way up, at the point where the scree stops and the rock face begins.
   At the foot of this same hill, in the area between Keramei­a and the shore of the bay, is an alluvial plain whose reed-beds constitute a habitat ideal for a variety of migrating birds and winter visitors. Water-rail breed here and among the visiting waders in the migration seasons are Little bittern and a variety of more unusual herons (Night heron, Purple heron and Squacco heron), as well as Green and Wood sandpipers near the shore. In the winter egrets and grebes (including the rarer, Black necked grebe with its characteristic ‘snub-nose’ profile) can be seen, as well as a wide variety of terns in the air. In warmer weather the unmistakable sound of tree frogs can often be heard.

Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
The southeast Peninsula & the Gera Thermal Springs. Lesvos’ hot waters.

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