Mon 17 Aug, 2009

The first time I visited Kythira was with my father, when I was 15. My parents were separated and though he was always in my life, we spent little time as father and son. This was a bonding trip that unfortunately did not bring us any closer at the time. My father passed away in 2002 before I got over my anger at him. I was angry for reasons I do not remember any longer. After his death I started developing and ever growing affection and digging deep in my memories, searching for moments together. That trip to Kythira was the best time I spent with him as a teenager. In the summer of 2009, I wanted to get back.

Kythira is not here nor there, in other words it is neither in the Aegean nor in the Ionian sea. Formally it is part of the Ionian islands,  Eptanisa or “the seven islands” in Greek, but actually it is not located in the Ionian see as the rest of the pack. It is located south of the eastern peninsula of Peloponese – Lakonia – and looks and feels different than the other Ionian islands. It is a chimera of an island, half Ionian, half Aegean that looks and feels different, sometimes Ionian, sometimes Cycladic. I guess this is the reason why we Greeks easily overlook it when planning our summer vacation. It is accessible by ferry from Neapoli or by air from Athens. We decided to drive.

The highway from Athens to Tripoli is in excellent condition but right after you turn south to Sparti the road becomes narrow and curvy. It took us five hours to drive 350 km and reached Neapoli in the early afternoon. We had to wait for a couple of hours as there was a fairly long line of vehicles anf the boats are quite small. It was a short 75min hop to the port of Agia Pelagia and finally we arrived. We had booked a hotel in Agia Pelagia where we spent seven nights. The days we travelled around the island going to beaches and places. The English owned the island between1809 and1864 when they handed it over to Greece. By using forced labour of the local population, they built a remarkable infrastructure including a dense network of roads and numerous bridges. Driving around was effortless and most places easily accessible from any part of the island. This is not the case in many Greek islands where the road network is sparse and constraint by mountain ranges and in many cases you need to circle the island to reach a place that is only a few km away on the map.

Chora, the capital town, is charming with beautiful houses and gardens, excellent tavernas and a castle with magnificent views. The castle was built in the 15th century by the Venetians and has a number of churches, the most important being the temple of Panagia Myrtidiotissa, built in the late 16th century. We visited many villages, Aroniadika, Agia Sofia, Avlemonas, Diakofti, Kapsali, Karavas, Kassimatianika. Kythira has a permanent population of 3’500 people and many of the villages radiate a worn-down ambience having many abandoned houses and churches.

This was not the case of Mylopotamos and the nearby springs of Amir Ali. The village has a beautiful kafenio – cafe – under a giant plane tree and a small market with interesting shops. Eighteen kilomentrs north, near Karavas, the springs of Amir Ali are one of the island highlights. They are located in a forest amid lush vegetation, with waterfalls and a natural water pool with cool water for swimming. It can get crowded in August but it is one of the highlights of the island.

The island has a large number of beaches for every taste that are not over crowded even in the month of August. The most famous is Kaladi, on the east coast, south of Avlemonas village. We chose mostly non organised and non crowded beaches where we could really relax and catch up on our reading list. One day we took the boat to Elafonissos, a small island in the straight between Kythira and Neapoli with the now famous Simos beach. I first heard about Simos from a jet fighter pilot while serving in the Greek airforce in the late 80s. Pilot training included beach flyovers to reach a nearby shooting range The first time I came here, in the 90’s it was a paradise with very few people and a single canteen with simple food and great music at the very end of the beach. In 2009 it was very different, with a far larger crowd and umbrellas for hire. Still, it was definitely worth a visit.

Kythira is more than a Ionian-Aegean hybrid of an island. It is not only how it looks, but also how it feels. The people, the culture and the food are different. Especially the local food is very tasty with many local dishes that you can try in very nice tavernas. Even the visitors that come for vacation belong to a different breed. I can’t quite place them but the mix is definitely different than in the other Greek islands I went on vacation, and to say I have gone to many is an understatement.

On the way back to Athens we stopped for a night sleep and next day visit in Mystras, on mount Taygetos, just five kilometers away from Sparti. Mystras, a castle-town and provincial capital was the last center of Byzantine learning. The last Byzantine emperor was despot at Mystras before he came to the throne of the declined empire. the city surrendered to the Ottomas in 1460, seven years after the fall of Constantinople.It was a good opportunity to brush up on my knowledge of byzantine history and immerse in the late years of the Byzantine empire.