Ithaca: Hypnotised by the chirp of cicadas
Ithaca’s picturesque harbour at Kioni
In between, we’d wander the pristine whitewashed alleyways of Mykonos and Santorini after “authentic” souvenirs – antique icons, slippers with pom-poms on, or a bust of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine – before hitting a beach to recharge in readiness to do it all again.
As much as we loved it, it’s the more subdued and raw Greece I long for now. I can’t do mass tourism any more. If I see nothing but a goat, a farmer tending his crops, or a fisherman fixing nets, I’m happy. And so, last summer I went to Ithaca, a smallish yet dramatic unspoilt island in the cluster of Ionians off Greece’s west coast.
It’s an island of two halves, just 14 miles by four. The north is rugged and crowned by the deserted stone village Exogi, all but destroyed in 1953’s ruinous earthquake.
The south is more developed and home to the pretty capital, Vathy, whose pastel-coloured houses wind around a bay dotted with bobbing yachts.
I wasn’t starting my trip there however, but heading north to the tiny hamlet of Kolieri. After flying into nearby Kefalonia, I took a water taxi and we sped like movie stars for the 20-minute crossing to Ithaca.
The Penelope and Odysseus villas in the peaceful village of Kolier
Our seamless journey continued by hire car along the high coastal road carved into the cliffs, with dreamy views of Kefalonia. It was tempting, yet foolhardy, to try to take in these views while negotiating the twisting road they would have to wait.
The north’s towering cliffs are carpeted with ancient olive and pine forests – the cool, fragrant air enjoyed by a handful of the population who lead quiet, simple enviable lives. It is silent, bar the melodic tinkling bells on the necks of goats and the chirping of crickets. It’s no wonder ancient Greek poet Homer, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey in 800 BC, decided to build his school on these mountains.
The island was also home to Odysseus, once the King of Ithaca, whom Homer portrays in the Odyssey as famous for going off to war in Troy and conceiving the plan to fill a wooden horse with soldiers. His poor wife, Penelope, had to sit patiently awaiting the king’s return for 10 years.
Their palace sits just above the Odysseus and Penelope villas in the village of Kolieri (pop. 300) where I’m heading.
The island isn’t known as a revered archeological site, yet items dating back to the early Helladic to Roman periods were unearthed in the Cave of Loizos on Polis Beach. The most significant fragment, a clay mask left by pilgrims complete with an inscription “prayer to Odysseus” from 200 BC proves he did indeed exist. Also found were urns, gold jewellery and clay vessels. These now reside in the quaint Archaeological Museum near Stavros village.
The secluded Loutsa Retreat in Vathy
Our base, Penelope and Odysseus, two immaculate two-storey villas bookable through Ionian Villas, are reached via a bumpy road through a village of no more than a handful of houses, all with fine vegetable patches and flower beds. Perched high above glistening Afales Bay, there are no shops, bars or restaurants. I’m relieved.
The villa is a little oasis with pool, beautiful gardens and views that render a sigh from every balcony.
It’s a place to decompress. Owners Zoe and Akis have built a perfect property. Potted succulents surround the pool and citrus and olive trees sit beautifully against white stone walls. Inside, stone floors, a large fireplace (it’s tempting to come late season) and large sofas and open kitchen offer a convivial spot for entertaining. As does the terrace. Perfect for a sundowner, Zoe hasn’t added too much, just the odd well-chosen piece: a Greek icon, a wooden bowl, a small array of paperbacks. It feels fresh and well looked after.
It would have been easy to flop by the pool every day but then we would have missed the stupendous green waters of Afales beach with its blinding-white stones, and the long stretch of Polis beach where we felt spoilt with a sunlounger and umbrella.
What we hadn’t anticipated was a boatload of Germans of a certain age, stripping naked and jumping off the back of their boat. Supermodels they most certainly were not.
Sofia’s store in Anogi
Our supplies were sourced from Stavros, a gentle sleepy village dominated by a yolk-yellow church and a small square. You won’t find big, chain hotels here, just villas and small, well-placed hotels discreetly positioned above shops or in low-rise blocks. Many third-generation Greeks, whose parents emigrated to Australia in the 50s and 60s, are starting to trickle back, searching for their roots. Lured by the quiet life and lifestyle in beautiful surroundings, many are opening up businesses.
In Stavros, the taverna is run by Aussies, as is the kiosk in the filmset village of Kioni, set around a small harbour and hugely popular with yachties. Some have opened smart cafes and boutiques offering pretty Greek sandals and jewellery.
By night Kioni is where it’s at for this quiet island, with people descending on the arced bay to sample the islands’ top food.
At the Three Mills taverna, where tables sit practically in the clear waters, try their take on chargrilled octopus with a feta mousse. And at the busy Calypso, where we order wine by the litre and lamb baked in paper, we watch a succession of inflatable rafts bringing Brits to wine and dine and greet staff like old friends. By night, the port takes on an ethereal glow, with lights from little stone houses and grand neoclassical buildings that line the quayside casting a shimmering golden hue over the water.
A different landscape is found on the road to the Kathara Monastery. Up here we felt like the last beings on the island, save for goats and a lone fireman sitting atop a cliff in a sweltering sentry box.
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The small church is rather spectacular with an icon thought to be painted by Loukas the Evangelist and an impressive wooden carved icon screen. On the return we stopped at a little grocery store in tiny Anogi, opened in 1930. Old cabinets are laden with washing powder and beans, honey, herbs and biscuits. The tiled floor is original and the walls are adorned with evocative black-and-white photographs from the 1930s.
The owner Sofia will cook whatever your heart desires, from spinach pie to grilled fish or a hefty moussaka.
It’s a place where locals take coffee every day. A living museum that’s too good to miss, this is just one of the gems that has escaped modernisation’s clutches.
We reached Vathy before sunset.It’s a working town of neoclassical houses with wrought-iron balconies painted in fresh pastel tones. A farmer from Kefalonia arrives with a pick-up loaded with tempting fresh produce including peppers, huge melons and soil-dusted potatoes. Who would have thought women could get so feisty over tomatoes?
Vathy is a big city compared to where we’d just been and yet still charming with a sleepy vibe.The Loutsa Retreat villa is at the end of Vathy’s port road which hugs the bay and narrows as it winds around the port.
And what a villa it is. Secluded and shrouded by a fine landscaped mature garden of pines and olive trees, the property has a vast open living cum dining area, with offshoots where you can relax on pebbles under pines, by the pool, or the terrace overlooking the bay.
This is a serious party house, with a shaded outdoor dining area and a little cottage in the grounds with bathroom and mini kitchen. The main house features two en suite bedrooms. Downstairs are two other rooms. The books, paintings and China collection on shelves reflect the owner’s personal touch.
It’s homely and yet a bit posh. Maid Mimosa will not only sort the place out, she’ll also cook you the most incredible dinner and serve it.
All you hear is cicadas, children splashing in the sandy beach opposite and the gentle whirr of the boats chugging into port. Bliss.
A tiny white church sits halfway up the hill opposite, which appears to have no roads leading to it, and beyond that there’s nothing but the green hillsides and deep blue sea. We could be the only inhabitants.
Our stroll into Vathy takes 20 minutes. It’s in a time warp with 1970s nondescript buildings, shops selling Greek eye door frames and garish beach dresses. Tavernas with ubiquitous blue and white furniture on the pavements come alive when the flotillas are in town.
This is the Greece I love. Though I do still reminisce about those heady nights in my 20s
THE KNOWLEDGE Ionian Villas (01243 820 928/ ionian-villas.co.uk) offers seven nights at Penelope & Odysseus (sleeps four) from £590 in May, self-catering.
Seven nights at Loutsa Retreat (sleeps eight) from £3,820 in May, self catering.
EASYJET (0330 365 5000/easyjet.com) offers return flights from London Gatwick to Kefalonia from £53.
Holiday Extras (0800 1313 777/ holidayextras.com) offers seven days parking at London Gatwick from £46.
Bloc Hotel (020 3051 0101/ blochotels.com) offers doubles at London Gatwick from £59. Greek tourism: visitgreece.gr