Clas­sic beauty from a Greek is­land to the Aus­trian hills

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - TOM CHESSHYRE

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

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