Ithaca – sleepy towns and a walk in the night

Scan10040It had taken me a long time of passing by Ithaca before I finally set foot on its soil. From that point forward the island was to feature in my life quite strongly for the next few years. After our summer season working in the islands, my brother and I headed for New Zealand, the country of my Dad’s side of the family. Although I stayed on for an extended period, my brother returned to Ithaca to pick up his job in Frikes for the next season and then just stayed, content with life in Frikes. My mother and stepfather having fallen in love with the Island along the way decided to move there and bought a house and some land and spent a couple of years restoring an old stone farmhouse further up the hill on their property.

So by the time I returned, travel hardened from some serious time backpacking across Asia, My family were living on Ithaca, and it became a regular stopping off point for me over the next few years. The great advantage of having family there is that I was not restricted to the summer any longer, and was able to visit at different times of the year. I even got to spend a Christmas there one year, a completely different experience than those I had grown used to in the UK.

For a start the Greeks don’t really celebrate Christmas as we do. For them it is a religious event, and Scan10002Easter is the main holiday in their calendar, where gifts are given and such. Christmas on the Island was a very low key affair, with the majority of the Islands inhabitants having returned to Athens for the winter. Ithaca for many is just a place to run a business from spring to autumn, they make enough money to live at home in Athens or Melbourne or elsewhere, and avoid the quiet winter on the Island. For those of us there, the company was mostly your hardened farmer, goatherd, or those other ex-pats seeking the quiet life. It was still fun, as all Christmases I have spent around the world are. Over a ‘barbie’ in New Zealand, in a Mexican restaurant in Katmandu, there are so many different Christmases that all hold one thing the same, you, and what you hold inside. We all celebrate Christmas for our own reasons, with our own childhood memories of fun and departed relatives. Christmas comes from within for all of us, as it is just a measure of our expectations. But back to point.

My favourite time in Greece will always be the spring, with the hills such awash with colour and aroma that Ithaca takes on an enchanted feel, and the mountains become perfect for climbing with the mid day sun warming and tanning without the intense burning glare of the summer months.

Scan10016We have climbed directly up from my parent’s property to the summit of the Island. The terrain is as always unsympathetic and unforgiving, clawing at your clothing and exposed flesh as you pass, tearing the skin and leaving little lines of bloody beads across your shins in criss-cross patterns. Thorns and barbs are blended with the poppies and camomile though, with their severity softened by the exquisite mix of colour. You climb upwards with picturesque views back over the channel and Cephalonia beyond, the water lit by the afternoon sun, patterned by the wind driving down from the two opposing mountain ranges, creating a sailing paradise. Eventually the brush thins out and you find yourself truly in another world, where huge white sandstone boulders curl up from the ground in artistic poses as if Picasso himself had designed the lay of the land. Here you find solitude and beauty combined, far from the towns and villages where the roads themselves can’t reach, with nothing else but the wild staring goats for company. Stunning views whichever way you look, Cephalonia, Levkas, the mainland to the East and the Ionian sea filling all that lies between, always seeming calm from that height whatever the sea level swell.

I have climbed across so much of the Island, partly through a need to explore, but partly because Scan10041something in me always wants to find a way to the top of any interesting mountain, hill or random mound wherever I am. Ithaca has always provided so much opportunity to explore, with such challenging and rewarding climbs.

The other side to being on the Island is the sheer relaxation it provides. Frikes as I have described is small, slow and an easy place to spend an afternoon sitting in the shade watching the mix of both visitors and locals, drinking Frappe and ordering bites to eat as you go. A cool afternoon breeze blows through the Eucalyptus trees that line the harbour, gentle massaging the delicate little leaves providing motion in the otherwise static air. True calmness can be experienced that leaves the body and soul relaxed, with time to write ones thoughts down and just enjoy the pure state of being. This is the essence of a true holiday for me.

Scan10001Frikes sits on the North of the Island. Around the peninsula moving East it has a sister town of Kioni, in some ways quieter, but more broken up as a town, with little walkways between the whitewashed buildings, draped in bougainvillea and grape, hiding interesting Tavernas and shops for the wanderer to discover. It has a smaller harbour and is frequented by the Ionian sailing crews and flotillas, but like it’s sister defies the concept of bustle ardently, preferring to bake silently in the sun.

Scan10004Further North from Frikes you have the bay of Afales. This is a large harbour bordered by sweeping hills but backing on to wetlands and fields. The bay boasts a little beach that is frequented by the locals from the surrounding towns in the afternoons. Mostly it is filled with the pretty little fishing boats that mass around the security of its natural protection. A picturesque Taverna, serving basic local food and drinks, provides the only place to spend your Euros. Afales is not frequented by the tourists and you are more likely to find backgammon playing fishermen drinking at the tables outside than bikini clad Italians.

The roads from all these places reach up into the hills and meet at the town of Stavros. Supermarkets and restaurants crown a tiny central square, the highlight of which is the cream and white painted Orthodox Church with its terracotta domes standing proud amongst the trees. In the daytime Stavros is a place to stop and pick up supplies for the day, in the evening the Tavernas fill out and life fills the cooler air with laughter and conversation.

At the other end of the Island, to the south is the capital of Vathi as I have mentioned before, but between is little else than the mountains. As you drive the road that winds along the mountain side, there are little roads that take off up and down the steep terrain periodically, which will lead you to secluded villas filled with repeat booking visitors, those quiet little private havens discovered once and remembered a lifetime.

On the east of the Island you can climb up to the monastery at the summit of the mountains for a visit. chris01A little road takes you upwards, and from there take photos from the silent bell tower overlooking Vathi below. Otherwise there is little else really other on the whole central range other than the goats and rhythm of the crickets basking in the daytime heat.

I had to walk across the range at night once. Not cross country as with my later experience on Cephalonia, but following the road. It was my first trip to Ithaca and I felt I needed to acquaint myself with the place, so I followed the road out of Frikes one night, heading for a small port to the south of the range, where ferries run from in the morning to Sami on Cephalonia. It was amazing at first, the environment completely free from man-made light, the stars spread out above me. The moon was out so I had some light and followed the road quite happily as it wound up the mountainside. The air was full of the sounds of the night, the choruses of the crickets, the far off buzzing of mopeds, and the gentle rustling in the bushes of goat stirring in their sleep.

This was before I had got used to the route and in the dark I made the mistake of picking up the small monastery road in error. I knew at some point I had gone the wrong way, but carried on regardless out of pure inquisitiveness. I could tell I was nearing the top of the mountains as the terrain began to flatten out somewhat. I could see the silhouette of the bell tower, and finally the shape of the monastery, dark and silent came into view. Suddenly I was surrounded by a pack of barking stray dogs. They seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, running around me in circles, cutting off all routes of escape. As first I felt a little panic, but quickly calmed myself. I took the Mag-light from my bag and shined it at them, the barking ceased almost immediately, and the franticness of the moment calmed down. They had gone from aggressors to companions. No movement had come from the monastery buildings, so I turned and retraced my steps back down the mountain until I was back on the correct road again. The night seemed somewhat friendlier from that point on, and I made my way slowly down to the port by the sea.

Scan10028That just leaves Vathi really, in size probably the equal of the rest of the island’s population. Vathi reaches out into the surrounding land consolidating its position as the island’s capital. From the sea Vathi looks tidy and organised, with a consistent sun faded terracotta feel to the town. In reality up close it has the same dusty unfinished feel of all Greek towns. By this I mean, that Greek oddity, where buildings seem to always be topped with a flat roof bordered by the twisted reinforcing steel that pokes out of the concrete walls below. I have heard many reasons behind this, the top two seem to be that Greeks pay less tax on unfinished buildings, my personal favourite, and the other that they are often just left to be expanded as the family inside grows over time. This is perhaps just a little more romantic.

Vathi greatest feature is the peninsula it sits on. From the hills above is makes a breathtaking view, with the main bay, and the surrounding coves, nestling in the Ionian Sea. The town does have great places to dine in along the front, and has the islands business laid out in the streets beyond. The lower lie of the land means the surrounding coast is filled with little villages and beaches for the traveller to explore. It’s a sleepy town, but the biggest the island has to offer, and that in a way sums up Ithaca. Ithaca is a place you go to be, not a place you go to see. But don’t get me wrong, the island is beautiful. It is just not set up for the mass tourist found on the surrounding Islands. If you like your privacy, but still enjoy a friendly night out in town, Ithaca is for you.

If you want to read back over my previous blog, please follow the link below.

Ithaca – finding our way to the Islands of the gods

If you want to go back to the start of this series, here you go!

Greece – and the start of a love affair

As always, please leave your comments below, I’d love to hear of your own experiences.

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