On my journey through the Ionian I have got a little involved with the Island of Cephalonia for the past couple of weeks. I step now across the narrow channel of sea to its smaller sibling, Ithaca. Here I have made a lot of visits, and had plenty of time to explore almost every inch of this small island at various times of the year. My brother made Ithaca his home for seven years, and my parents followed suit, later in the day, but stayed longer, such is the attraction of Ithaca.
The Island is a mountain range, reaching up from the sea, largely with room only in tiny coves for the towns that surround its coastline. Natural harbours create safe havens for yachts to birth, there are flatlands, but these are largely just olive groves and natural countryside and at the south of the Island does the terrain shrinks down to allow the capital town of Vathi to spread out somewhat. There is restricted tourism on account of there being no airport, but there is a flow of travellers coming by boat for various reasons, normally revisiting year after year. For this reason there is an air of familiarity about everyone, and a quiet respect born out of mutual solitude.
I describe the Island as that of the gods, this is not really true, Ithaca is the home place of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, where she awaited the return of Odysseus whilst he was off fighting at Troy. Although the work is one of fiction, and the true whereabouts of the Ithaca referred to is subject to the debate of scholars, the Island has the essence of a land that once held great importance and adventures. The mountains cry out with the essence of a great history, and one can easily believe that the Gods happily exist in some alternate plane on the summit of the Island. I have sat looking across from Fiscardo and felt drawn to the Island like it once was the birthplace of all man, such is its influence on the mind. I can tell you I am not alone in these thoughts.
Back on the mortal plane though, my first visit was very brief, I was travelling from Levkas to Kefalonia by ferry, and we stopped off in the main town, Ithaki town on our way. The ferry entered what is a one of the world’s largest natural harbours, the hillside on both sides covered in pine trees, pink houses and villas dotted between them, massing around the main town as you move closer in and I was instantly struck by the sheer beauty and scale of the vista. A tree covered Island guards the town, the site of a disused leper colony still well maintained covers its surface. Ithaki town is clean and coordinated unlike most towns in the Islands and it gives the impression of somewhere a bargain backpacker would not be welcome to sleep upon its beaches. So we let it go that first trip and headed on to Cephalonia.
The next year, travelling with three of my friends we also caught a ferry from Levkas, this time it took us to the town of Frikes, a town that only seems to exist for what small tourism fills the villas dotted around town, and for the yachts that cram into its small harbour. I have many experiences of Frikes, I am particularly fond of the steep hills that rise up from the town on either side, and have made climbing them an art form in my time. This visit though we had not planned to stop and moved on to Fiscardo and Cephalonia, leaving this Island still to be explored.
I made two more trips back to the Ionian Islands over the next couple of summers, and both times Ithaca was missed out. In some ways I think this was my haste to get to Cephalonia, and reveal its wonders to me companion of the time, but also, Ithaca sat dark and silent as we passed, and failed to invite me at the time. It remained undiscovered like that tiny Christmas present on the floor at the back under the tree, hidden from view and missed on Christmas day, to be found later in the week when the vacuum is being put round and once opened reveals a surprise that makes Christmas seem just so much more complete all of a sudden.
It was the following year, 1994 when I made my first visit to this charming little Island, and then it was more by chance than design. My brother and I had been travelling around Northern Europe in a Camper Van, working in Holland, and then France through the late winter and early spring. This is a tale to be told at a later date. We had always planned to go to Greece, but had avoided heading straight there as there was so much else to see and do. We had a quick trip back to Amsterdam with a friend we had made working on campsites in France, and in a state of complete relaxation we felt the need for some sun, so drove down through France and Switzerland into Italy and boarded a ferry out of Brindisi headed for the Greek Islands.
When we arrived we got off on the mainland town of Parga and drove down the coast, enjoying our first spring in the Islands, realising that the dry harshness of the summer is always preceded by a spring time of colour. The hills are covered in Poppies, Camomile and all measure of colour and fragrance for a few short weeks before the heat of the sun kicks in. The Islands take on an alpine feel and you can find all measure of things growing, from the early onset of the Sage to Almonds and Carob beans. The days are still fine though, and for those of you who prefer the heat more temperate, April is the ideal time to visit the Islands. On top of the climate you have the peace and quiet of the pre season Greece, and you will find yourself dining with the locals, with ample opportunity to chat at length with the Taverna owners about their lives and their other homes in Athens. It’s a great time to make friends with the Greeks before tourism sweeps away their attention and you become just another visitor ordering Dutch beer and asking what that funny looking fish thing is.
We ended up on Levkas, here we found the most superb beach you could imagine at Porto Katsiki, secluded and white pebble covered, the weather was perfect and we were alone with our thoughts. It really was so ideal, with our evenings spent in Nidri, the home of much of the Islands tourism, we probably would have stayed if we could have found work, but no matter how many doors we knocked on, we were out of luck. Then one day as I was doing the rounds, my brother Chris went off on his own to try some of the bike hire shops. He’s a Volvo trained mechanic and can turn his hand to any engine so we thought it was worth a shot. I met up with him a little later and he had found a lead. Someone in a rental shop had put him on to a lady called Kiki on Ithaca who was looking for someone to maintain her mopeds and boats that summer. We caught the next ferry out.
Our haste worked out well for us, and this is where I have to say, Karma exists, and I could write a whole chapter on coincidences that have lead to good things. Before we set out on our travels we were told to give away half our possessions, we were selling everything as we were really heading out for good, but a friend of the time told us to give away half, so we did, some went to needy friends and some went to charity, and we sold the rest. In nine years of travelling and exploring the globe, I was never stuck for a place to sleep or a meal, and in this case I got chatting to an English lady on the ferry who started asking what I was doing. When I explained I was looking for work, preferably bar work it turned out she was pulling together the staff for a new Sunsail operation based on Cephalonia, and I was hired on the spot. I had to report in three days to Spartia on the south of the island. Fantastic. You may not believe, that’s your choice, but a lifetime of experience is that we receive what we put into the world.
We turned up in Frikes, to find the hire shop was right on the small harbour front, Chris was hired on the spot, and had started working before I had time to order my second Frappe! From that moment on Ithaca was a part of our lives.
We didn’t explore much those first couple of days, Chris was bedding in to his new job and lifestyle, and I just found nice places to rest in the sun, and began to feel my way into the surrounding hills that I would get to know so well. I was driven to a tiny ferry port at the south of the Island a couple of days later and made my was down to my own new life.
During that summer I headed back a few times to catch up with Chris. He had started a relationship with Kiki, and was enjoying the Island life so much. Each time I visited he was more absorbed into the local culture more to a point where even the old men started to think of him as a Greek. He was always busy, but we always found time to have a meal and enjoy a beer or three. Other than that I would occupy myself by working out the routes up the hillsides that surrounded the harbour at Frikes, discovering old windmills and good camping spots hidden from view from the town, and isolated by the inhospitable countryside. I think I became a bit of a novelty to the locals as I would disappear in my flip flops into the bushes to re-emerge high up on the hillside free-climbing a boulder for the hell of it. I love to scramble, and Ithaca is abundant in good locations for doing just this.
Frikes itself is just a row of shops separated from the water in the harbour by the chairs and tables of the various Tavernas. It’s a tiny town, with two roads that run off into the hills beyond, lined by houses set in scruffy gardens full of chickens and fruit trees. The main trade of the summer comes from the yachts that moor up in the small harbour, and the behemoths that anchor further out. You know; the boats that have helicopters, and Ferraris on board! These are the play things of the rich and famous. Arab sheiks, Ex US presidents and the likes of Spielberg and Hanks are to be found dining in those scruffy little Tavernas along the front. The town’s isolation is perfect for those seeking not too much attention!
Generally though the yachts that anchor in the harbour for the night are of a more modest scale, with charter boats and flotillas forming the backbone of the passing trade. Although the town is small you can get most things you might need from cash to clothing and water to jewellery. You can even hire a shower if the salt is getting too much.
And that was my early experience of Ithaca, Frikes and the surrounding hills. I had arrived on Ithaca and there would be plenty more time to get to know the Island. In my next blog I will continue the journey, but for now we shall leave it here.