The home­com­ings

You don’t have to be Greek-Aus­tralian to ap­pre­ci­ate links with the is­lands of Kythira, Lem­nos and Kastel­lorizo, writes Luke Slat­tery

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

UR plane bound for Kythira stands on the tar­mac en­cased in a film of dust. The seats are vin­tage 1968. The right pro­pel­ler shrieks alarm­ingly and the win­dows are as clear as milk. But this bat­tered twin-en­gine shut­tle does the job, and an hour out of Athens we bank around the great paw of the south­ern Pelo­pon­nese, bounce jaun­tily through an up­draft and I am de­liv­ered, with all the thrill of a rodeo ride, to Aphrodite’s isle.

I re­mark on the en­ter­tain­ing flight to the wo­man across the aisle and she shoots back ex­cit­edly: You from Melbourne?’’ ‘‘ No,’’ I say. ‘‘ Syd­ney.’’ ‘‘ You Greek?’’ ‘‘ I’m afraid not.’’ ‘‘ But your par­ents? Greek?’’ I have no Greek an­ces­try but the ques­tion, or should I say as­ser­tion, of parent­age is some­thing I will hear time and again dur­ing the com­ing weeks as I hop from Kythira to Kastel­lorizo via the north­east­erly isle of Lem­nos: three ex­treme out­posts of Greek-Aus­tralia. I have the jet lag and the hole in the wal­let to prove I’ve left home. But in so many other re­spects I haven’t.

The busy bird of a wo­man from the plane ap­proaches as I stand wait­ing for my lug­gage. Anx­ious to en­sure I’m not fleeced by a taxi driver, she bro­kers a deal with one, then spins around to sur­vey the fam­ily re­union be­hind us. ‘‘ See this flight,’’ she says, splay­ing her fin­gers. ‘‘ Twenty from Melbourne. In­clud­ing a priest. All Greek.’’

Af­ter a 45-minute drive south to the hill­top cap­i­tal of Chora along a main road as wide in parts as a don­key track, I ar­rive at the Ho­tel Mar­garita as the af­ter­noon wind whips up. The Aphrodite suite, a lovely room with high ceil­ings and views across an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally steely Aegean, is mine, as is the ho­tel this early May, the start of the win­ter­ing sea­son for Kythirean-Aus­tralians.

Most re­treat to their an­ces­tral cot­tages or ren­o­vated Hel­leno man­sions. The tourist mi­gra­tion is still months away and the is­land feels, in early spring, as if its sun shines for a for­tu­nate few.

Ho­tel Mar­garita is a charm­ing 19th-cen­tury villa, its white­washed walls a checker­board of blue shut­tered win­dows splashed with bougainvil­lea. I take my chair to the veranda and look across the wind-blasted maquis to a roil­ing ocean and a tiny egg-shaped islet. Up here at ea­gle height the air has a medic­i­nal scent of sea salt and wild thyme, but the fine ocean view puts me in mind of a harder age. The is­lan­ders of old, rav­aged by pi­rates, set­tled th­ese cliffs out of fear.

By morn­ing, word of my stay has reached the ears of the hire car com­pany’s owner, Pete from Swan Hill. He wants to share his lone­li­ness — the kids are in Oz and they don’t care for Greece — and to rent me a ve­hi­cle at a fam­ily rate.

So I set off in a mech­a­nised tin can across a largely un­peo­pled land­scape of gorse bro­caded here and there with stands of spring wild flow­ers: pop­pies, marigolds and vi­o­let hy­acinths. For all its raw beauty this is a land­scape that looks as if it misses com­pany. The is­land’s 1907 pop­u­la­tion of 13,000 was re­duced to 3000 in the course of the past cen­tury.

Lunch at a road­side cafe named Maria’s is a gen­er­ous af­fair: a Greek salad piled high with three va­ri­eties of cheese, home-made corn bread, olives, oil and egg­plant dip, fol­lowed by bar­be­cued red snap­per. As I fall upon a dessert of yo­ghurt with lemon zest and pre­served grapes, a Dutch cou­ple takes up the next ta­ble. In­hab­i­tants of low, flat coun­tries, we three dis­cover a shared aver­sion to the more ver­tig­i­nous ex­pe­ri­ence of driv­ing in Greece.

The con­ver­sa­tion is not so much about things to see as things not to. The wo­man of­fers a beau­ti­fully con­densed ex­pla­na­tion of why, each year at the same time, she re­turns to Kythira: ‘‘ Be­cause it is the last truly

Greek is­land.’’ It was fa­mous in an­tiq­uity as the birth­place of Aphrodite, even though the Cypri­ots stake a ri­val claim. The Homeric hymn to the love god­dess more or less in­vites dis­pute as it has Aphrodite con­ceived in sea foam off Kythira (aphros means foam), then borne across the sea to Cyprus.

De­spite sug­ges­tion in the chron­i­cles of an At­tic tem­ple to Aphrodite, and the roots of a Mi­noan set­tle­ment on the east coast, it is not rich in an­tiq­ui­ties. Byzan­tium left a more durable stamp with fairy­tale fres­coed chapels and me­dieval stone vil­lages such as Pa­le­o­chora, the is­land’s 11th-cen­tury cap­i­tal.

Tra­di­tional Kythirean ar­chi­tec­ture has a split per­son­al­ity. The red-tiled roofs of the west­ern half evoke its years of Vene­tian rule, while white­washed Chora and the sugar-cube east coast vil­lage of Avle­monas dream of the Cy­clades. Avle­monas sits in a gen­tle cove, a short stroll from a broad beach book­ended with sea-hol­lowed rock for­ma­tions. The ocean here, its smooth skin ca­ressed by an on­shore breeze, is chilly when I wade in. But the sun is warm, as are the shin­gles un­der­foot. There’s not a soul around. No haute cui­sine or ho­tel suite could of­fer a more in­tense hour of plea­sure.

At Avle­monas I find Anas­ta­sia’s, an out­door cafe just gear­ing up for the sea­son ahead. A few rosy lit­tle bar­bou­nia ar­rive at the ta­ble lightly bat­tered, en­cir­cled by salad, dips, and beans in red sauce, the whole con­stel­la­tion re­volv­ing around a chilled bot­tle of aro­matic white.

It’s to this sea­side cafe that I re­turn on my last day in Kythira. Two vis­its and I’m a reg­u­lar: this time Anas­ta­sia wants to share her sto­ries; the lo­cal fish­er­man, too. As I drive slowly away from Avle­monas for the last time I glimpse a group of teenagers link­ing hands in a folk dance, spin­ning though a pool of green­gold light be­neath a per­gola canopied with vine leaves.

A week ear­lier the wo­man at the air­port had flapped her arms as I closed the door to the taxi, shoo­ing me away like a mother hen. ‘‘ Off you go,’’ she said.

You’re a Kythirean.’’ It’s only now as I wait to board the same plane, which car­ries the name Homer in ar­chaic let­ter­ing on its fuse­lage, that I get it.

Though not Greek, I’m the next best thing. I’ve come a very long way to visit her birth­place. I have her bless­ing. So I’ve be­come, for the du­ra­tion of my stay, part of the ex­tended fam­ily.

As the plane reaches cruis­ing al­ti­tude I feel as if its bless­ing car­ries some weight, not least be­cause the right pro­pel­ler no longer emits its dis­tressed squeal.

Later that night I board a flight for Lem­nos on the Aegean’s north­ern rim. Lem­nos is not the most ro­man­tic Greek des­ti­na­tion but it has some­thing that most don’t: un­du­la­tions of green. It’s a gra­nary renowned for its wheat, corn and bar­ley, its thymeflavoured honey, kalathaki cheese and dry mus­cadet. But I’m not here for the plea­sures of the ta­ble or the scenery. I’ve come for the an­nual Anzac Day cer­e­mony.

Pic­ture: Photolibrary

As­sert­ing its whites: Vil­lage on Kythira; Stan Saran­tis on Anzac Street, Lem­nos

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