Classic beauty from a Greek island to the Austrian hills
At sunset, mellow beams spread across a mountain covered in pines; the only other structure we can see is a little chapel clinging to its higher reaches
Do not climb high mountains in northern Ithaca in the heat of the midday sun if you are unsure where you are going, do not have enough water and are hung over from drinking Mythos beers in the taverns of the Greek island’s lovely fishing village of Frikes. It’s not a good idea. My brother and I can vouch for that.
Everything seems so simple when we set out at 10am from the hamlet of Lachos after a breakfast of fresh bread, local honey and coffee. We are not perhaps feeling 100 per cent, but we have the best map of Ithaca you can buy (from a little bookshop by the harbour in Vathy, the capital) and something approaching a spring in our steps. We ascend the steep twisting road to Exogi, a sleepy picturesque village with a whitewashed church. We climb a path winding through pine trees marked by a green dotted line on our map and find the peak of Mount Doureha (519m), with its marvellous views of Afales Bay. We traverse a ridge passing ruins of ancient grey-stone windmills. We drink most of our water by a deserted monastery. Then we scramble down a hill, still following the green line on the map, confusingly marked by blobs of faded blue paint on rocks in the arid shrubland, and get thoroughly lost in a pine forest. It takes six hours to get back, red-faced and gasping for water; we expected to be away for three at most.
On the legendary home island of Odysseus (or Ulysses) we have experienced our own mini-odyssey. Not many people make it to Ithaca. The island is too small and hilly for flights — 22km from north to south and 6.5km across at its widest — so there is no airport. People generally fly to neighbouring Kefalonia and stay there in nice villas and swanky hotels by its famed sweeps of gorgeous soft, golden sand. To reach Ithaca you must take an hourlong ferry ride or hop a water taxi for 20 minutes. There is then the option of staying in the north or the south of the island; the latter is where the bulk of Ithaca’s 3000-strong population and its tourist trade are to be found, centred mainly on Vathy.
We are staying in the far north, where about 1000 people reside, on a multi-generational holiday of parents, nieces and nephews (eight in all) together in a charming old stone villa with a garden featuring an ancient almond tree and an infinity pool. The terrace faces a valley in which goats with bells on their necks clank by at dawn and dusk. At sunset, mellow beams spread across a mountain covered in pines; the only other structure we can see is a little chapel clinging to its higher reaches. It is wonderfully peaceful.
It is also the perfect base for a walking holiday that brings to life the story of a figure from antiquity who may (or may not) be this island’s most famous former resident. Odysseus, as described by Homer in his epic poem, leaves his wife Penelope on an unidentified island to fight in the Trojan War in the 13th or 12th century BC; no one is certain of the exact date. He takes part in the faraway conflict, but is caught up in a series of misadventures as he attempts to return, including run-ins with witch doctors, cannibals, six-headed monsters, sirens (maidens who sing to lure sailors to shipwrecks) and the legendary lotus-eaters munching stupor-inducing plants.
Odysseus is away for 10 years before he makes it back to the unidentified island, which is described by Homer 300 years after Odysseus died. “There are no tracks, nor grasslands,” he writes. “It is a rocky severe island, unsuited for horses, but not so wretched, despite its small size. It is good for goats.”
Well, there is certainly no shortage of those in northern Ithaca and in the company of Ester van Zuylen, a Dutch guide who offers Odysseus-themed walks in this part of Ithaca, other clues that point towards the island being the home of Odysseus are soon revealed. Ester is tall, wearing sunglasses, cargo trousers and walking boots. She is holding secateurs (to cut back the foliage on the ancient hill path we are about to take). And she is standing in the shade of olive trees by a statue of Odysseus in the little square in Stavros, the main town in the north. “Did he really come from Ithaca?” she asks, after giving a rundown on the legend’s life. “No one knows for sure if he even existed. I like to think he existed, though.”
With that, we make our way, passing the pretty mustard-coloured church and a corner bar where expressionless old-timers dressed in black regard our progress. We reach the ancient path heading north out of the village, during which time Ester has told us that she came to Ithaca a dozen years ago and fell in love with the island. She had not read the Odyssey until then, but has “not stopped reading” the poem since. She admits she’s become infatuated with the ancient tale.
The stone path leads steeply upwards, surrounded by billowing olive trees, wild pear trees, thistles and myrtle bushes. The smell of herbs fills the air and little blue butterflies flicker here and there. The secateurs are soon put to use and we walk along the 400-year-old paving slabs, reaching a bend with a spring to one side. It is believed that Homer, himself semi-legendary, may have come to Ithaca to cure his poor eyesight, and this spring was said to have been beneficial to vision, according to Ester. The plot thickens regarding the location of the ruins we are about to visit, just up the hill. Odysseus’s palace on the unidentified island was said to be in a high place surrounded by springs, Ester explains, and these Mycenaean ruins are in the only place on Ithaca that fits the bill. Great boulders are slotted upon one another, with steps leading down the hill in this wild, isolated spot.
The site was claimed by archeologists in 2010 to be Odysseus’s palace after relics were found that connected to the legend. “Of course, people say that it’s all made up, but I don’t care,” says Ester, surveying the scene and telling us how the hero supposedly returned to this mountainside, slaughtered his rivals (who had been courting Penelope) and re-established his rule. You don’t often get stories such as this on a holiday stroll.
The legend of Odysseus seems to hang in the air in northern Ithaca, and the handful of tacky tourist shops in Frikes and Kioni are not shy about cashing in with themed tea towels, key rings, mugs and postcards. In Frikes, which is a fabulously quiet place (apart from when the occasional tourist boat drops by with streams of holidaymakers or a sailing flotilla arrives), Odysseus restaurant soon becomes our favourite place to eat. Skinny ginger cats pace beneath the simple wooden tables on a water’s-edge terrace. Mafioso-like priests with prodigious bellies and Blues Brothers shades exchange tales. A group of elderly local women breaks into a joyful song
about unrequited love (Panos, the waiter, is translating for us). We eat delicious red mullet with boiled potatoes, salads of feta cheese, onions and olives, slices of flatbread, and pots of garlicky tzatziki. Then Sakis, the bread delivery man, pulls up in his white van and winks in our direction (you soon get to know the local characters in northern Ithaca). Then Sue, a Brit who runs the only local taxi firm, stops by and tells us about her wedding to Dimokritos at the church on the hill in Exogi. Sue and Sakis seem to be everywhere at all times; we begin to wonder if they have doubles.
The walk from Frikes to Kioni is along a winding coastal road with beautiful pebbly sand beaches and a super-yacht moored in a bay. Celebrities and the superrich love Ithaca because it usually offers so much privacy; Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and the King of Spain have been spotted in recent times.
Kioni, at the dead-end of the long twisting lane, slopes down a hill to a beach lined with pleasant restaurants and the odd cocktail bar and boutique. Several yachts that look as though they have hosted a fair amount of cham- pagne-swilling in their time sit in the bay. Children take dips in the shallow water (my nephew and niece love it here). One day, my brother and I walk up another steep ancient path from Kioni to the picturesque hill village of Anogi, which has a single cafe run by Nicholas Koutsavelios, who tells us he is 75. He brings thick, sugary black coffees to our little wooden table, overlooked by a caged parrot, fading 1960s advertisements for cigarettes and a stuffed vulture. It cannot have changed here for decades. If you ask, Nicholas will give you the key to the next-door church, with its glittering icons and simple pews.
We take a look at the peaceful nearby monastery of Katharon, taking in the views of Vathy to the south across a bay, then walk a long way back through Stavros to our villa at Lachos. It’s nearing dusk and the goats’ bells are clanking. We have hiked for kilometres across a landscape haunted by the ghosts of ancient times. Apart from Nicholas — and Sakis and Sue (who offers us a lift) — we have hardly seen a soul. And, thankfully, this time there has been no odyssey in the pine forest.
Port of Kioni on Ithaca, top; statue of Odysseus in Stavros, above; goats grazing on the island, top right
Church of Panagia in Anogi, above; Odysseus restaurant in Frikes, above right; dining in Vathy, right; township of Exogi, far right