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Searching for Odysseus in Ithaki, Greece

A narrow white marble stone stood in front of the waterfront house, looking like an out-of-place gravestone. Its fading black lettering commemorated Lord Byron’s visit here in August 1823––Byron, who died less than a year later just across the gulf in Messolongi while participating in the Greek War for Independence. The scent of jasmine, or was it stephanotis, released by the morning sun seemed to pay homage to one who was at once a poet like Homer, and a wanderer and warrior on distant shores like Odysseus. How ironic, I thought: stumbling upon this connection to a real-life hero while following in the footsteps of a mythical one.

Approaching vathyDays before, our ferry had approached the island’s wild coastline, punctuated by low, brooding mountains. Thick green slopes rose from the sea, while terracotta roads slashed across them in a rising zigzag, leading up from our destination, the tiny port of Piso Aetos. So this was the fabled Ithaca.

I have loved Homer’s Odyssey since it was required reading as part of my freshman World Literature course 40 years ago. I didn’t expect to like it, but to my surprise, I became more engrossed in the book as I went on, finding in it the spirit of the action/adventure books that I was fond of at the time.

Since that first reading, I had dreamed of visiting the goal of Odysseus’s wanderings–– Ithaca, Ithaki in modern Greek––but although I had travelled widely in Greece, my travels had never brought me to that part of the country.

Now I was here. But what would I find? I knew that there was little in the way of Mycenaean ruins on the island, to the point that some scholars dispute whether Ithaki is Homer’s Ithaca at all.

There wasn’t much at Piso Aetos, so my wife and I found a taxi and set off up the hill in a light rain towards Vathy, Ithaki’s capital, six miles away. Our driver, who looked like Spencer Tracy in late middle age, began speaking English after I had run out of Greek to speak to him. “You’re here on vacation? They are forecasting rain for the next three days.”

View of Vathy from Mr Neriton

View of Vathy from Mr Neriton

We reached the top of the hill and cut across the thick base of the isthmus that connects the north and south parts of the island. As the road began to parallel the bay shore, Mount Neriton, mentioned by Homer, came into view, its green-black mass rising to blend into the dark gray rainclouds. Our driver nodded towards the mountain. “At the top of the mountain there’s a monastery. Only one monk lives there, and lots of goats. You should go up there to see the view.”

In the course of our ride, our driver told us that he owned a taverna in the town of Stavros on the north side of the island and that he was also the mayor of the town. He invited us to his taverna and gave us his card. “Yiannis: the Best Taxi Driver in Ithaki and the Best Traditional Greek Taverna in Stavros––if not satesfi you do not pay.”

By now, we were entering Vathy, which covers three sides of a deep, narrow inlet. We passed tiny Lazaretto Island, which, with its whitewashed chapel surrounded by trees, seems to float on the surface close to the shore. Soon we stopped at a small two-story house in pale yellow with white shutters, the Aktaion Rooms. Our room, with its white-tiled private bath, was on the first floor with a view of the harbor. For 35 euros a night, it would be more than sufficient for us.

Vathy Harbour

Evening was falling, so we decided to look for a place to eat. About 100 yards along the waterfront in the town square, the Nirito Cafe & Internet Cafe offered a link to home and protection from the rain under its big yellow-and-white striped awning. We sat at a table with a view of the square and ordered bacon pizza and a half kilo of white Kefalonian wine.

Our faces cooled by the mist floating in under the awning, we contemplated our ill fortune at having arrived on the island in a stretch of bad weather, but we decided to make the most of it.

Later, in the guesthouse, I clicked on the TV to see what Ithacan TV offered. On the first channel I tried, the film “The Odyssey,” starring Armand Assante, was just beginning. Did they play this every night for the tourists? No, our subsequent inquiries proved this was only a remarkable––or portentous?–– coincidence.

The next morning brought more rain, but we rented a car and headed to the north of the island. We would first see the monastery of Kathara at the top of Mt. Neriton and then continue up to the town of Stavros and perhaps take Yiannis up on his invitation.

First we retraced yesterday’s drive part way to the ferry dock and stopped at the hill of Alalkomenai, on the southern end of the isthmus. The site of an ancient city, it was Heinrich Schliemann’s choice for the site of Odysseus’s palace. Nothing remains but scattered white rocks on the steeply terraced hillside, so we quickly moved on.

We drove across the isthmus, quickly finding ourselves well above sea level. I had never imagined Ithaca to be so mountainous, in spite of Homer’s description of an island where horses cannot run. After the turnoff to the monastery, we drove hairpin turns to more and more impressive heights. Soon Vathy became a tiny dot far below across the bay. The partly overcast sky lent the scene a preternatural effect, muting the colors of the land and sea into shades of gray. I began to understand Odysseus’s love for this rugged island and his singleminded determination to return to his home.

The gate to the monastery’s outer courtyard was open, and goats, as Yiannis had predicted, were everywhere, but not a human in sight. We rang a bell at the iron door of the monastery enclosure, reading the admonition on a sign to leave the door closed to keep the goats out. Shortly thereafter, a monastery worker opened the door, let us in, then disappeared. A swarm of cats met us as we got our first look at the monastery’s interior.

Like many monasteries in Greece, it is built on a rectangular plan, with the church in the center of the courtyard. Plants grew everywhere, from assorted clay pots lined up along the church wall, from pots hanging from balconies, from holes cut in the pavement.

Wanting to visit the monastery’s gift shop, we rang the bell on the outside of the church. Soon Fr. Theodosios appeared, tall and stocky, wearing a bushy black beard and black robe. He speaks English well; his mother was born in the U. S. and, like many of the Greeks we met, he has been to the U. S. many times. He has lived in the monastery since 1992. From the small selection of icon prints and handicrafts, we decided on a couple of books about the monastery and Ithacan history and a few bars of white olive oil soap. “It’s made by a friend of mine from the best olive oil. That is why it is white instead of the usual green,” Fr. Theodosios said.

After descending the mountain, we drove towards Stavros on the coast road cut into the side of the steep terrain on the west coast along the narrow strait dividing Ithaki from its neighbor, Kefalonia. Entering Stavros, we stopped at the town park, where converging gray stone walks led to a larger-than-life bust of the bearded Odysseus in weathered bronze atop a tall white marble pedestal. The mythical Odysseus had, it seemed, obtained a physical form, as the Greek gods once had.

We found our taxi driver friend’s taverna in the heart of town. It being mid-October, there wasn’t much activity there or in the surrounding streets. But soon we saw Yiannis in the door gesturing for us to come in. He invited us to take seats at a table deep inside. “You have tried the rest, now its time for the best. The number one taverna on Ithaki,” the menu read. As he was preparing our Ithaki-style chicken and pastitiado, a sausage and spaghetti casserole, Yiannis talked about himself and his triple profession.

“I am one of the few people in Stavros who was actually born here, so they made me mayor. When the tourist season is over, they go to stay with their relatives in Athens for the winter. That’s why there aren’t so many people here now. And the population on Ithaki has declined a lot over the years. Quite a few people from other countries are buying property here, especially the Dutch. It’s easier for them because of the European Union. The Europeans come here with big cars, four-wheel-drives . . . .”

Our lunch was perfectly set off by wine from Exogi in the very northern part of the island. “It’s made from nice grapes, organic ones, crushed by foot.” We were thoroughly satisfied, so we did not ask for the promised refund.

The next morning brought improved weather. We drove back through Stavros to the Archaeological Museum, located a little north of the town on Pelikata Hill, now a residential area barely recognizable as a hill. It is a candidate for the site of Odysseus’s palace, a claim reinforced by the ability to see three harbors from the hill, described by Homer. The exhibits here are in large part votive offerings from Polis Cave, one of the possible sites for the cave where Odysseus hid his gifts given him by the Phaeacians, located on the coast a short distance southwest of Stavros. Damaged in earthquakes over the centuries, it is not accessible to visitors.

Another road back to Vathy leads over the east side of Mount Neriton through the village of Anogi, with Byzantine frescos in its 12th-century church. Approaching and leaving Anogi, the road treated us to panoramas of the chalk cliffs of Lefkada and the other islands to the north and east shining white in the afternoon sun.

The Cave of the Nymphs is a short drive out of Vathy, up a long narrow road that winds its way up the hillside. This is a rival to the Polis Cave’s claim as Odysseus’s hiding place for his treasure. Next to us, an olive tree, its silvery green leaves shimmering in the breeze, showed clumps of its purple-black fruit, each covered with a sky-blue frosting. I could easily imagine Odysseus pausing in this spot to admire his island––the greenery leading down to the shore, framing Mount Neriton as it rose from the water on the opposite side of the bay.

Arethusa’s fountain and Eumaeus’s Field lie behind Vathy on the south side of the island; we would have to leave our car and trek many kilometers on a dirt path to get there. With the changeability of the weather we had seen over the past couple of days, we could quickly face a miserable slog through the mud.

On our last day on Ithaki, our walk through the town after breakfast revealed another monument to Byron. For Odysseus, as was true during my wanderings about his island over the last few days, I had to use my imagination.

But the next morning, I rose early in our harbor-view hotel room in the town of Sami on the island of Kefalonia. The day promised to be clear and dry. The light clouds extending across the strait to Ithaki and beyond glowed a pinkish-orange from the rising sun: Homer’s “rosy fingers of dawn.” A tangible connection to Odysseus had eluded me while on Ithaki, but here, at last, the natural world brought him to me in that ethereal dawn light.

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