Leros (Λέρος) is a wonderful and usually neglected Dodecanese island in Greece. It has a long history that starts in prehistoric times and played a important role during the World War II. The Dodecanese, except Kastellorizo, were occupied by Italy during the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. Italian interest in the islands was rooted in strategic purposes and the intention to expand Italy’s long range policy. The islands of Leros and Patmos were used as bases for the Royal Italian Navy. In this context the Italians of Leros were generally employed by the army and lived in the new Italian-built model town of Portolago, modern Lakki (Λακκί).
In Portolago the Italians wanted to create their utopian town. The locals of Leros had largely avoided the area, mostly because of its swampy terrain but the Italians were attracted to this area, because its bay was one of the safest and largest natural harbours in the Aegean. Initially, in the 1920s, the Italian state developed its southern side as a port for sea-planes and built barracks along the shore. A decade later the Italians, now under Mussolini’s fascist control, decided to drain the swamps and transform the area into a great naval base, capable of hosting a large fleet and housing its sailors, officers and technical staff as well as their families. They wanted Porto Lago to become a physical representation of Mussolini’s expansionist Fascist state.
In 1923 Mussolini sent his to leading architects Rodolfo Petracco and Armando Bernabiti to design and built his ideal town in Leros. Their Italian fascist house style was called razionalismo and it was one of the various modernist movements that were developed in Europe after World War I. Italian rationalism could be described as a mix of Art Deco and Bauhaus. Its purpose was a redefinition of the urban landscape in an ideal connection to the Roman past. The two architects based their plans on the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, the geometry of ancient temples and the optimistic modernism of Art Deco.
In 1939 the new town had 7.000 inhabitants, making it one of the largest Italian bases in the Mediterranean and one of the most populated areas in the Dodecanese. It was named Portolago after Mario Lago, the Italian Governor of Leros from 1922 to 1936. Portolago was built based on rational and functional design, with different areas serving different purposes. All the administrative buildings were placed along the seafront, a shopping district was situated just behind and services such as army barracks and a hospital were located at the edge of the town. The residential area was separated according to the occupations and ranks of their inhabitants, with different styles of houses for each group. The streets were wide with large pavements and roundabouts. Finally all the unoccupied areas were planted with numerous trees.
The most characteristic buildings were (and still remain) the elementary school, whose style attempts to combine modernism with Byzantine elements, the theater with a striking circular lobby (with a roof that opens during summer), the central hotel and the market building, with a circular open atrium and a tower lock, dominating the entire town. Finally a church was built, formerly San Francesco, now Agios Nikolaos, which is an important modernist religious building mixing the Orthodox tradition with Catholic and modernistic elements, creating a unique and impressive construction. Portolago is considered to be the only true rationalist town outside of Italy.
In 1947, the Dodecanese were returned to Greece. Portolago was renamed Lakki and the town was largely left to decay. The town became to symbolize the Italian fascist occupation and was brutally neglected. Nowadays it has been classified as a monument of national significance and efforts have been made to restore some of the public buildings. Also there is a strong movement from Greeks and Italians to gain UNESCO World Heritage status for Lakki, like the Eritrean capital Asmara, known for its striking Italian modernist architecture, which was awarded World Heritage status in 2001. At the same time an increasing number of visitors of all nationalities come to the island interested in learning about the town.
Finally a video which will drive you along the wide streets of Lakki and help you understand the uniqueness of this town on a Greek island :
We will return again to this beautiful and historic island, in order to present its other beauties and its modern history, because this article was only dedicated to the Italian origins of Lakki.
*(All photos are from iStock)