Ithaca seduces with a sense of history

The ferry rounds Ithaca’s rocky headland into a secret cove where pretty, rustic houses cluster on the slopes of low hills surrounding the horseshoe-shaped bay. It’s not until you enter the harbour itself that you even know the town of Vathi is there.

Ithaca is an island that “happens” to you. Its curious atmosphere eludes those who would try to pin it down with facts, archaeological or otherwise. Along the island’s rugged coastline are pebbled beaches of moonlike opalescence with water shining like platinum. The ocean, mirror-still one moment, can turn to a raging tempest the next. Ithaca’s hillsides are scented with wild sage and oregano, dotted with vibrant wildflowers and silvery olive groves. And surrounding the tranquil orchards and vineyards are high menacing mountains. The epic poet, Homer described it as “an island of goat pastures rising rocklike from the sea.”

Life here is quiet. There is no nightlife, and very few buses run between the villages. Consequently, taxi drivers do a brisk business. Many of the island’s 3,000 inhabitants are retired or elderly. Most young people leave, preferring life on the mainland. Those who remain combine agriculture with tourm jobs, but the tourist season lasts only two months. Ithacans want to develop the tourism industry by appealing to a mature public who can appreciate the island’s unique history as the legendary home of Odysseus, or Ulysses as the Romans called him.

Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, written in the 7th century BC, recounts the wanderings of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, after the Trojan War, and depicts the political, cultural and social life of the island during that time. Homer was able to describe Ithaca in great detail because, according to legend, he had lived on the island as a child.

Developing new infrastructure
The mayor of the town of Vathi on the south end of the island is Telemachos Karavias, a burly man with reddish hair and a beard who looks as if he could be one of Odysseus’ sailors. Through his secretary-interpreter, he explains the problems facing the islanders. An earthquake in 1953 destroyed most of the old buildings on the island, and modern architecture is limited by strict building codes.

The island has an acute water shortage, and every building must have its own septic tank and cistern. Increasing the water supply and developing a new infrastructure poses political and economical risks. Shall they extend facilities for tourism or not? For certain, Karavias says, camping will not be allowed. The islanders want the kind of tourists who are well versed in Homer and really want to be on the island of Odysseus, and who also enjoy a connection with archaeology, literature, diving, yachting and relaxation.

He introduces me to Sarantis Symeonoglou, founder and director of the Odyssey Project, which began in 1984 under the auspices of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Teams of archaeologists have been digging around the island, looking for evidence of Homer’s Ithaca and Odysseus’ Bronze Age city.

At the Cave of the Nymphs where, legend has it, Odysseus hid the gifts given to him by the Phaecians, a team of American archaeologists and students is busy sifting and sorting through rubble brought up from a 10-metre pit, where the original two caves on two levels have collapsed into one in an earthquake. Symeonoglou is trying to connect the cave directly to Homer and Odysseus: with its two entrances, the cave fits the description in Homer’s Odyssey, and it has been used as a religious site in the past, again conforming to Homer’s assertion that the cave was dedicated to the Nymphs.

Next page: Bronze age history

Bronze Age history
On our way to the town of Stavros, the mayor drives past the rock-strewn remains of what is believed to be the Bronze Age city. According to Homer’s description, Odysseus’s palace overlooked three seas and was 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 he could resist the sirens’ seductive song.

Back in Vathi, I walk along the port to our pension. Cafés animate the harbour. The summer evening is scented with the smoke of grilling kebabs and freshly caught fish. In the harbour are yachts from all over the Mediterranean. I dine at a taverna on fresh calamari and salad topped with thick slabs of feta cheese accompanied by Robola wine from the vineyards of neighboring Kefalonia.

I am reluctant to leave this extraordinary place, but the next day, I travel by taxi to the northern port of Frikes and board a ferry bound for the island of Lefkada.

As the ferry sets sail across the straits, a pod of dolphins frolics alongside. Ithaca’s limestone cliffs are striped by silvery pink and blue lights. I will not soon forget this journey. Ithaca is a place that will draw me back year after year.