“We approached the coast of this island and brought our ship into the shelter of the haven without making a sound. Some god must have guided us in…” Homer: The Odyssey.
The ferry rounds Ithaka’s rocky headland into a secret cove. Pretty houses cluster on the slopes of the low hills that surround a horseshoe-shaped bay. The town of Vathi is hidden. You don’t know it is there until you round the arm of the harbor.
Ithaka is an island that ‘happens’ to you. Its curious atmosphere eludes those who would try to pin it down with facts, archaeological and otherwise. Along the island’s rugged coastline are pebbled beaches of moonlike opalescence with water clear as platinum. The ocean, mirror-still one moment can turn to a raging tempest. Ithaka’s hillsides are scented with wild sage and oregano, dotted with vibrant wild-flowers and silvery olive groves. And surrounding the tranquil orchards and vineyards are the high menacing mountains. Homer described it as: “an island of goat pastures rising rocklike from the sea.” Although there are no remains to confirm that the plateau of Marathia was the site of Eumaeus’ pig sties, or that the port town of Vathi corresponds to ancient Phorcys where the Phaecians navigated Odysseus, to most of the island’s inhabitants, Homer’s legend is enough to sustain the imagination.
Life on Ithaka is quiet. There is no nightlife and very few buses run between the island’s villages. Consequently, taxi drivers do a brisk business. Of the population of 2500, most are elderly and retired people. Most young people leave, preferring life in mainland cities for school and work. Those who do remain, mix agriculture with tourism, but the season is only for two months. The Ithakans want to increase tourism, but they hope to attract mainly a mature public who will appreciate the island’s unique history.
Ithakans are known as great navigators and explorers. The Odyssey, written by the blind poet Homer in the late 7th century BC, depicts the political, cultural and social life of the island during that time. According to tradition, Homer had lived there when he was very young, so he was later able to describe it with such great detail.
An earthquake in 1953 destroyed most of the old buildings on the island, and modern architecture is now restricted by rigid building codes. New buildings are, therefore, erected according to tradition. There is also an acute water-shortage on the island, which requires that every building must have its own septic tank and cistern. Increasing the water supply and developing a new infrastructure poses great political and economical risks. Shall they go for tourism or not? For certain, there will be no camping allowed. It would be too difficult to control because of the water shortage. In fact, they want the kind of tourists who are well versed in Homer and who want to be on the island of Odysseus so there would be a clear connection between archaeology, literature, diving, yachting and relaxation.
Is Ithaka the Homeric Ithaka? German archaeologists have claimed that the island of Lefkada is really the island Homer described. And the question persists, why would Odysseus build his kingdom on a small island such as Ithaka?
Teams of archaeologists have been digging around the island, looking for evidence of Homer’s Ithaka and Odysseus’ Bronze Age city. I visited one of the digs at the Cave of the Nymphs where a team of American archaeologists and students were busy sifting and sorting through rubble brought up from a ten meter pit. This cave is believed to be the one where Odysseus hid the gifts given to him by the Phaecians when he returned home after his long, arduous voyage. There were originally two caves in two levels, but they have been collapsed by an earthquake. The cave has two entrances, just as it was described in The Odyssey. Homer indicates it was a cave dedicated to the Nymphs. This cave has been used as a religious site, so in this way it fits with The Odyssey. These excavations can help identify the location of Homer’s Ithaka for the Ithakans. The site, four kilometers from Vathi, is closed to the public, but I was allowed entry into the dank, cavernous mouth to look down into the deep pit where the treasures were hidden. I was not allowed to take photos, and specific questions, such as, “Have you found anything yet?” went unanswered.
Near the town of Stavros is the rock-strewn remains of what is believed to be the Bronze Age city. According to Homer’s description, Odysseus’ palace was located at a spot overlooking three seas, and surrounded by three mountains. This location, on the Pilikata Hill, fits the description.
At the market town of Stavros, I am introduced to the curator of the museum who gives me a personal lecture about all the artifacts. She shows me various objects with roosters, symbolic of Odysseus, and bits of boar’s tusks fashioned into helmets. From the cave of Loizos which collapsed in the 1953 earthquake, there are bronze tripods of the type Odysseus was supposed to have hidden and a fragment of a mask marked “Blessings to Odysseus.” There is also a statuette depicting Odysseus tied to a ship’s mast so that he can resist the Sirene’s seductive song.
Back in Vathi, I walk along the port to my pension. Cafes animate the harbor. The summer evening is scented with the blue smoke of grilling kebabs and fresh-caught fish. In the harbor are yachts from all over the Mediterranean. I dine at a sea-food taverna on a scrumptious meal of fresh calamaria and a Greek village salad topped with thick slabs of feta cheese. And, I also enjoy a bottle of Robola wine from the vineyards of neighboring Kefalonia.
I am reluctant to leave this extraordinary island. Ithaka is clearly a place that will draw me back year after year.
IF YOU GO:
Ferries run daily from the port of Patras, or neighboring islands Kefalonia and Lefkada.
Buses run daily from Athens Kiffisiou Street depot, connecting with the ferry at Patras.
Accommodations are available in private homes and hotels on Ithaka. No camping is allowed on the island.
Written by and photos by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com