A hot wind buffeted the slate-grey lagoon waters as I followed a bearded priest on a moped – black robes flapping like crow’s wings. We were heading across one of the two narrow bridges linking Aitoliko’s old town with its newer half, on the mainland. Most countries have their “Little Venice”, and Aitoliko is Greece’s very own watery slice of La Serenissima.
Seen from above, this lagoon-surrounded islet, loosely moored to the mainland by its slender crossings and bisected by narrow streets that were once canals, it certainly looks the part. Even from ground level, as the setting sun caught the gondola-like priari fishing boats bobbing in the harbour, there was more than a passing resemblance.
The streets where I stretched my legs after the long and bumpy drive from Preveza’s tiny airport could have belonged to any remote town in Greece, however. Heading for Monomatos taverna behind the Panagia church (where Greek revolutionary Georgios Karaiskakis was tried for treason in 1824), I detected blissful holiday odours of suntan cream, custardy bougatsa and olive oil.
Diving into a web of streets, I passed shops selling evil eye pendants and plaster ballerinas next to pressure cookers and juicers; there were dogs sleeping beneath shop fronts with signs picked out in 1950s-style ceramics; Katzogia, a pastry shop, had family photos on the walls; the butcher’s store had a three-legged wooden chopping block varnished with gore.
“When you cross the bridge you are in another world,” said Georgios, the owner of Monomatos, a spit-and-sawdust taverna with wooden floors and chequered table cloths that has been serving fresh seafood for 80 years. “It’s small, but we have everything we need: post office, shops, banks – there’s even a police station.”
His menu included grilled grey mullet, bottarga and smoked eel. His larder is the Mesolongi-Aitoliko Lagoon National Park, listed on Greece’s national index of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and where many age-old fishing practices are still in use.
“We still have more than 700 commercial fishermen on our lagoons – this is Greece’s biggest fishing ground,” he said proudly, handing me a plate of bottarga (known locally as avgotaraxo or bafa), which resemble hot dogs, but are actually a local speciality made from salted, cured fish roe, which is typically spread on toast. It was a favourite of Lord Byron, when he came here to fight with the local revolutionaries in 1824.
Over breakfast on the waterfront the following day, Vassilis, a guide with Outdoor Activities Messolongi, offered some tips on what to do in Aitoliko. “You can take a boat on the lagoon, you can rub yourself in healthy mud in Tourlida, you can eat caviar – so many things,” he enthused.
Opposite my hotel a fisherman was cleaning his priari. This slender, flat-bottomed vessel looked as if it would topple over beneath the weight of its stafnokari net, which dangled like a giant handkerchief from the stern. Later, in the island’s tiny fishing museum, I learnt that they’ve been using these boats in the shallow lagoons for centuries.
I had lunch at Charalampakis, a sidestreet taverna famed for its kontsouvli provatina, a tender mutton dish. Owner Charalampos showed me photos of Aitoliko as it was before the Second World War. “That’s when it really was like Venice,” he said, pointing at pictures of tall stone houses lapped by lagoon water, each with its own boat tied up outside.
That afternoon I set myself the task of hiking the circumference of the entire peninsula. Back in 2018, Aitoliko briefly hit the headlines when locals awoke one sunny summer morning to find trees, plants – and even boats – covered in giant spider’s webs. Thankfully, there was no sign of the mosquito-munching tetragnatha spiders that gave it a horror-film makeover, but I enjoyed crossing rickety wooden bridges, pausing to watch kids swim from a small shingle beach, and admiring statues of revolutionary heroes.
The Vasso Katraki museum, which houses the Giacometti-like engravings of a local artist whose political opinions earned her a nine-month stint on the barren island of Gioura during Greece’s junta years, was closed, so I struck out along a wild fennel-fringed causeway into the centre of the lagoon instead.
At the end was a panoramic view of Greece’s largest wetland. Herons and buzzards dipped and dived over the lagoon, as boats slid past wooden huts on stilts. Maybe this was what Venice had been like, I mused, back in those hazy days before cruise ships, tourist crowds and street hawkers vending Gucci knockoffs.
How to do it
Double rooms at Alexander hotel (+30 2632 023019) cost from £39 per night, including breakfast.
Outdoor Activities Messolonghi offers boat trips, bike tours and more.