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Meis – the small island with a big story

This article was written for Fethiye Times by Steve Parsley. 

If your native tongue isn’t Turkish then there’s every chance you’ll have already heard about Meis.

Also known as Kastellorizo, the tiny island with a complex history is currently Greek and that means – even though it’s only a mile off the Turkish coast – it counts as “abroad”.

Every year, hundreds visit – but not all just to admire the scenery and enjoy the seafood from the many restaurants around the pretty harbour.

Quite a few will hop on the ferries from Kaş simply to avoid a bit of Turkish legislation.

At the moment, if you’re a foreigner and you have been residing in Türkiye for six months or more, you are supposed to apply for a Turkish driving licence.

However, for those who prefer not to, a simple passport stamp to prove you have left the country – even for just a day – is usually enough to circumnavigate the regulations.

As a result, Meis has become something of a twice-yearly pilgrimage, particularly for those who would struggle to produce documentary evidence that they have completed secondary school education – a proviso the authorities insist upon before issuing a driving licence in Türkiye.

But, although many who book a ticket to Meis will have a few beers in the bars and then board the ferry back to Türkiye just as quickly as they can, there’s actually quite a bit to see and do – and all in a very condensed space.

Indeed, even if you only have a passing interest in learning a bit more about the island, there’s a good chance you’ll end up wanting to stay longer than a few hours.

For example, just how did such a small island just a mile off the Turkish coast end up being Greek territory?

The answer actually lies in relatively recent history; the island was captured by allied forces during the Second World War – a move welcomed by the inhabitants who feared the German forces may reach them first.

Formal cessation of the occupation came when the territory was handed to Greece as part of the Paris Peace Treaties in 1947 – a move few locals protested as many have Greek ancestry anyway.

But, before that, the island was also a part of the Byzantine Empire, a base for crusading knights from France, the property of an Egyptian sultan, an Italian territory, and part of the Ottoman Empire. It was then handed back to Italy at the end of the First World War – with periods of occupation by both Greeks and Turks since then.

As a result, the island wears its chequered history like layers of clothes; the castle on the rock which overlooks the harbour for example was once used as a prison for errant knights.

The crusaders’ castle. Photograph courtesy of Steve Parsley

Below is an Ottoman mosque – now a museum – while there is a Byzantine church on the town square set behind the harbour.

Steep steps from the main town also lead to a monastery and an ancient acropolis while some of the grander houses along the quay can tell stories of their own.

But Meis isn’t just rich in cultural or architectural heritage. The limestone island also boasts some environmental riches – not least the stunning Blue Cave accessible only by boat but well worth the fee most of the captains charge.

St George’s Island and its diminutive Greek Orthodox church is also a delightful venue if you prefer lunch away from the crowds along the quayside – with drop-off and collection included as part of the Blue Cave tour if required.

The views of the harbour and across to Kaş and the Turkish coast are spectacular while visitors to the seafront bars include a couple of loggerhead turtles, who some will tell you have been visiting the harbour for decades.

So, although Meis may well be a convenient port of call for automotive purposes, it’s also much more than that.

It’s certainly small – small enough for some to find claustrophobic in the busier summer months.

But, if you make an effort to get a little off the beaten track or if you can winkle travelling companions out of the bars and restaurants for a few hours, it’s worth exploring in more detail and, believe it or not, you may find that hard to achieve in a few short hours.

This article was first published in 2019 and updated on 20 February 2024

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