Whether you choose Spain, Italy, France, Croatia or the Balearics, the fact remains that there is no better place to be in summer than Europe. Often taking a back seat yet holding a unique place in our hearts is Greece, a beautiful country that offers sun-drenched islands, azure-blue seas and skies, groves of olive trees, the scent of pine, mouthwatering cuisine and of course an incredible heritage. One woman unable to resist its charms is Claire Lloyd, filmmaker, creative director, philanthropist and friend of Domus Nova.
Here Claire tells the story of how she started a new life on the island of Lesvos and the generosity of the Greek people who have welcomed her and her partner into their small village over the past seven years. Since moving to the island Claire has established her own guesthouse, Ken’s Spiti, and published My Greek Island Home, a book filled with her photographs of Lesvos, its landscapes and people. Exclusively for Domus Life, she gives an insight into the little Greek island she now calls home and reveals everything she loves about it, from its beaches, tavernas and monasteries to the wonderful friends she has made.
“I am so lucky to have found ‘home’ on Lesvos. Seven years ago my partner Matthew and I swapped our London life in Notting Hill for village life on a Greek island. Living on this beautiful island has been a blessing in so many ways. I have become connected with nature, the landscape and the community. My life here is full: the days pass quickly and my creativity has been renewed. I enjoy simple pleasures: breathing fresh air, laughing with friends, flowing with the rhythm of the seasons and watching the stars twinkle in the night sky. A journey that started as an occasional retreat from the big city has become a way of life.
I love the island for so many reasons: its natural beauty, its people, the food and the diversity of its landscape. Lesvos is the third largest of the Greek islands. Its 1,633 sq km, and is known as the 'Emerald Island' because it is so verdant. The topography of Lesvos varies from one side of the island to the other. Lesvos is essentially agricultural and forty percent of the island is covered in olive trees. Tourism is low level.
In the village that Matthew and I live in, the locals have embraced us beyond belief which makes us feel extremely privileged. Our new life is incredibly inspiring. Living in a Greek village has been an enriching experience that has had a great impact on us. There is a real sense of belonging. The days here are governed by the seasons and depending on the time of year we see a little or a lot of our village friends. The winters are cold and wet, and snow is not out of the question. The locals retreat into their cosy homes and life goes on largely behind closed doors. At the first hint of spring, life returns to the village, shutters are opened, wild flowers carpet the fields and blossom lies heavy on the fruit and nut trees. Then, in summer, the village becomes lively and relatives come from the mainland or from as far away as Australia, America and Canada. It’s a wonderful time and our village doubles in size.
Matthew has a sweet little studio on the Platia, the main square. He is an artist and the locals are fascinated by his work. The studio has a small balcony off the top room where you get a bird’s eye view of all the summer activity day and night. It’s truly beautiful. The Platia is the main meeting place; tables and chairs are set out for cards and coffee, ouzo and mezze. One of the most relaxing things is to sit there under the canopy of a 100-year-old tree at its centre, watching the world go by.
There are many places on the island that I love, including Molyvos which is a beautiful town on the north-west of the island. It remains traditional in appearance, with its stone buildings and houses. The town is crowned by a medieval castle, which is a spectacular sight when lit up at night. It also has a picturesque and charming harbour with a scattering of small tavernas, where I absolutely love eating. My favourite spot is The Octapus Restaurant, a traditional, family run taverna specialising in fresh seafood, situated in the most perfect spot. You can relax and enjoy the comings and goings of the local fisherman or watch a spectacular Aegean sunset whilst eating your meal. The food is home-cooked and always delicious.
Brasserie Bazaar is a great place for a cocktail. Perched up high at the entrance to the harbour, it has wonderful views across the Aegean from its small balcony. Amber, a warm and friendly Dutch woman, is the most fantastic hostess. For me, an overnight stay in Molyvos Harbour is a treat as the atmosphere here can’t be beaten.
The Sea Horse Hotel was the place I stayed on my first trip to the island and it is the place I return to over and over again. We stayed there when we were renovating our house, and Dimitri, the owner, always found a room for us. Dimitri would give us a key in the winter when the hotel was well and truly closed, allowing us to come and go as we pleased. The rooms are simple and have balconies overlooking the harbour, so you never miss a thing.
We always take our guests on The Mercury Express, a boat that can be booked at the Sea Horse Hotel. Take a sunset cruise or a trip north along the coast to Skala Sikaminias, a tiny and very pretty little port which is well worth a visit. At the port’s entrance, positioned on a rock, is a small chapel called the Mermaid Madonna. There are also several small tavernas; my favourite is Taverna Skamnia which sits in the shade of a large Mulberry tree. Their recipes are traditional and their produce, which is organic, comes straight from their own fields.
High above Skala Sikaminias is the village of Sikaminia, one of the loveliest traditional villages on the island. It’s like stepping back in time; very quiet, with beautiful traditional houses. It has the most magnificent view across the Aegean to Turkey, which is only five kilometres away. After a walk around the village, the main square is the perfect place to sit and soak up the atmosphere. Be prepared though, the village is steep and you will need stamina.
Ipsilou, a Byzantine monastery, is the oldest on the island. It is situated in the south-west, 511 metres above sea level, and the view from the top is spectacular. The surrounding landscape is volcanic; it’s striking, very barren and has a moonscape feel.
From Ipsilou take the road heading south to the coast where you come to the sleepy town of Sigri. The town itself is small and feels a little deserted. There is a brilliant museum, The Natural History Museum of The Lesvos Petrified Forest, which is well worth a visit.
At the port, the real treat for me is the Cavo Doro Fish Taverna. Yiannis, the owner, is a rather laid-back gentleman who does not miss a trick. He has covered the walls with framed photos from old black-and-white Greek films. He is also partial to the Beatles so don’t be surprised if traditional Greek music is displaced in favour of Hey Jude. Yiannis’ wife and daughter are the chefs and in my opinion they serve the best food on the island.
The crystal waters of Faneromeni, an unspoilt beach just north of Sigri, is where I love to swim most of all. The water is clear and very refreshing and there is hardly ever anyone else to be seen, even in summer. There is a dirt road from Sigri to Eressos and there is nothing better than driving along it at the end of the day. The evening light on the landscape is unbelievably spectacular and it’s a
really uplifting place to be.
Though we are well and truly spoilt with our life on Lesvos, we are also lucky to be so close to Turkey, and for the past couple of years we have enjoyed many a day trip to our nearest neighbour, Ayvalik. There is a daily boat service from the port of Mytilene to Ayvalik and the journey is approximately one-and-a-half hours.
The town itself is not far from the port and the first thing I do is head for Café Le Petit for breakfast. The Turkish breakfast is sensational: olives, cucumber, tomatoes, local cheese, walnuts, sweet homemade preserved fruit, lightly toasted bread and fresh orange juice. Naturally they have freshly brewed Turkish coffee but they also have a selection of tasty herbal teas, which are also good.
Next stop for me is a visit to my friend Tulya who makes the most beautiful porcelain. Her studio is directly across the road from her shop, Mosantimetre, and I am always inspired when I visit her. It’s difficult to leave without purchasing a wonderful piece.
There is a market every Thursday with a smaller one on Saturdays. The markets are exciting and colourful; a photographer’s dream. You can pick up all kinds of beautifully embroidered traditional clothes, fabrics and old homewares. You’ll also find all sorts of utilitarian things, from inexpensive clothing and underwear to kitchen utensils. There is something for everyone. Fresh fruit and vegetables are beautifully and creatively displayed. Nuts, dried fruits and spices are also in abundance. It’s really worth exploring. I also love walking the backstreets where there are wonderful traditional houses which give you an insight into past lives. Sadly some of the traditional buildings are in a state of decay.
Towards the end of the day before heading back, I like to have a cool drink by the sea. If you decide to stay a night or two allowing you time for further exploration, there is a lovely little family-run hotel on the water between the port and the town, called Beyaz Yali. They have a pretty terrace that runs from the back of the hotel to the water’s edge where you can enjoy your breakfast, an evening drink or take refuge from the midday summer heat.
At the end of the day the boat returns to Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, where you can enjoy some of the town’s nightlife in its bars and restaurants. Mytilene is the capital of the island and is worth finding a day or two to explore it.
MY GREEK ISLAND GUESTHOUSE
For an authentic Greek village experience that will allow you discover the island of Lesvos as I did, and to live the pages in my book, I invite you to explore my own Greek island guesthouse: Ken’s Spiti [named after my father]. The beautiful stone guesthouse is situated in Mytilene, far from the usual tourist haunts, featuring white walls, exposed beams and gorgeous natural materials, with a roof terrace looking out towards the Aegean sea for unparalleled Greek sunsets. Matthew and I will be your hosts from the moment you arrive to provide you with meals of fresh, seasonal delicacies in our own house, a short walk along narrow village streets
from Ken’s Spiti.
Here, we will also invite you to meet some of the dogs, cats, kittens and puppies we have befriended and care for. For the rest of your stay, you may choose to have a day with Matthew painting or drawing in some of his favourite locations, a cookery class in a village kitchen, an evening of Greek music, visits to ancient monasteries and early churches, or a day trip to Turkey where you can browse the market and soak up the atmosphere.”
Originally from Australia, Claire Lloyd arrived in London in 1983 after two-and-a-half years as an art director on Vogue Australia. Since then she has worked on a variety of fashion lifestyle and interiors magazines, and in 1988 was art director for the launch of British W. She has also art directed for advertising agencies and design groups, provided identities for clients through packaging, brochures, design and film, and worked on commercials, promotional films and image projections in public spaces.
Claire’s first book, Sensual Living, was published in 1998 by Conran Octopus. She wrote, designed and photographed her latest book, My Greek Island Home, published by Clearview Books. Over the past 18 years Claire has also created living spaces, buying and selling properties in London, Sydney and Greece and transforming them into beautiful homes with a combination of simplicity, light, space, comfort and sensuality, elements that reflect her unique style.
"The moment she sees a space, she knows what to do with it" - Australian Vogue Living
We caught up with Claire again to find out a little more about her inspiring past, present and future...
Claire, with ties to Sydney, London and Lesvos, where are you currently living?
At the moment I am spending most of my time in a village on the Island of Lesvos. Though I still get to London, I am spending more and more time in Sydney. I get the best the best of both worlds.
You started your career in fashion, what prompted you to work in interiors?
I’ve always loved buildings and interiors and I found myself more and more absorbed in trying to create the perfect living environment for myself. Also I had the experience of working on The World of Interiors, Vogue Living and Elle Decoration magazines.
How do you relax?
I relax by walking the dogs down a dirt road through the countryside to the sea. The walk takes just us over an hour. I love the view, the way the sea meets the sky and I can see Turkey in the distance.
What has been your constant career motivation?
My motivation is life and doing what feels natural. I am strongly guided by my intuition and have a fundamental need to create which spans across everything I do.
Your work often takes you abroad, what do you miss the most when you are out of London?
My friends, the cinema and galleries.
What’s your drink of choice?
My healthy drink of choice is a green juice with avocado, green apple, lemon, mint, cucumber and lettuce with some super green powder thrown in. My alcoholic choice is a chilled white wine.
How do you like to unwind when in London?
Getting together with friends at home or in one of the great restaurants on my doorstep. Also going to the cinema and to exhibitions.
What are you currently reading?
Elinika Tora, my Greek text book while SLOWLY learning this difficult and beautiful language.
Who are your design idols? Who did you look up to in your early years as a designer?
I think my inspiration comes from growing up in Australia. My focus is purely with space, proportion and light. These are the most important elements to me. I aim to breathe life and emotion into the spaces I create.
Which home do you wish you had designed?
Every care home I have ever been in. I would love to be able to completely renovate a care home. Old people get such a raw deal and it seems so short sighted as we are all going to be old. I would take all the elements I use in my living spaces and create an environment that promotes internal peace. I would love to make a working garden to be tended and enjoyed.
What is your ultimate summer tune?
Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison.
What are your favourite design spots / shops in London?
You can't beat Noting Hill for great shopping in London, it's so eclectic. From the markets to unique one-off boutiques and delicious eating places, there is something for everyone. It's colourful and real cultural melting pot: I love the variety and creativity.
What is your favourite place in West London?
My sitting room in W2.
If you could work with any designer, who would it be?
I’m a bit of a control freak so although there are many people I find inspiring I am better on my own. I find the work of the artist Anish Kapoor visionary and love the emotional effect it has on me. To present him with a space to work or live in would be wonderful. A space that reflected the work he creates; a space with huge skies, amazing views and ever changing light.
What are your plans for the summer – to remain in Greece or are you venturing elsewhere?
My beautiful island of Lesvos.
My Greek Island Home by Claire Lloyd is published by Clearview Books and is available to purchase through Amazon
clairelloyd.com / clairelloydloves.com
[The majority of photography featured on this page is by Claire Lloyd]