You don’t have to be Greek-Australian to appreciate links with the islands of Kythira, Lemnos and Kastellorizo, writes Luke Slattery
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.
Asserting its whites: Village on Kythira; Stan Sarantis on Anzac Street, Lemnos