Sunday, 8 June 2008

Kefalonia and Ithaca 2nd-8th June

Lots of people in Stoke Newington will know Liz Vernon, or her sons who went to Stoke Newington School. We bumped into her in Kefalonia, on the last leg of her trip around the world.

A possible site for Odysseus; palace in Ithaca. Andreas and Doreen are listening in awe to Spiros Arsenes, one of the 'Friends of Homer'


Jane dropped us at Ariopoli for the 9am bus and we travelled northwards 150miles that day, reaching Kefalonia around 9pm. The first part of the journey, to Kalamata was beautiful, the bus passing slowly along narrow raods through villages with houses made of silvery-grey stone; dramatic mountains rising on the right hand side, and a lovely coastline on the left. After spending time in Kalamata we continued north but the landscape got less interesting -flatter, more built up-until we reached the unlovely town of Pyrgos. A few miles further on we were dropped off the bus at Leheinia; took a taxi the 12 remaining km to Killini port and then a ferry to Kefalonia. The public transport system can work very well. We had a windy crossing, and were quite tired by now, and for the first time sat below in the smokey saloon.

We checked in at the only harbour taverna in Poros for the night. Next morning we looked out of the window; the sky was overcast and the sea a milky colour and there in the distance was Ithaca. The island had a misty shimmer around it and we were thrilled with the sight of it. Homer's story starts and finishes in Ithaca and we couldn't wait to go over and see it for ourselves. Investigation of bus timetables soon revealed that we were going to be stuck in the harbour unless we hired a car, so we did -a little blue one- and were soon looking around Kefalonia. Is the largest of the Ionian islands and very beautiful. Gently rolling mountains, covered in oak and cypress trees. Only the highest mountain in the centre of the island, Vounos Aetos (Mount Eagle) was steep and the bare rock shines a silvery white against the surrounding green.

We decided to stay in Sami, as this has the nearest harbour to Ithaca and is the main ferry port. Before owt else, we went to the min-market there and Sabrina found herself face to face, shopping baskets in hand, with Liz Vernon... it felt surreal. She and her partner Nick have been sailing round the world for seven years, and their little boat was moored in Sami harbour. Over tea she recounted some of their travels. The boat is a floating house and means of transport and it is, Liz said, a very economical way to see the world...her teachers pension is stacking up!

Sami is a pleasant but ordinary little town, rebuilt after a severe earthquake in 1953. We found ourselves a very nice apartment with great views over the mountains and the sea (and Ithaca). Our fellow guests were German engineeers who were installing more wind turbines along the mountain's ridges. Doreen, Sabrina's Salford University friend, joined us after a couple of days and was installed in the apartment below us. (a veritable ballroom in size) . As we sat on our balcony eating supper on our first evening together the whole building shuddered around us-a mild earthquake. On out last day on the island there was another bigger quake, whilst we sat on the beach. A strange and rather scarey experience, to feel the ground you sitting on moving. A while later we found out that the tremor had been 6.5 in Patras on the mainland, resulting in two deaths and a lot of building damage.

The three of us explored Ithaca together for two days, taking the ferry over in the early morning and returning to Sami in the afternoons. Ithaca is a small island and these days is part of the municipality of Kefalonia. The reverse would have been true in ancient times, as Ithaca had the most favourable position for trade by sea. Although small, we had to hire a car if we wanted to see all the ancient sites in such a short time. Homer gives very detailed descriptions of Odysseus' s palace, of where he landed when he finally returned to ithaca and where he hid his treasure (in a cave where nymphs were worshipped) There are two major sites which have buildings and artifacts of the right age (Mycenean) which fit the palace descriptions pretty well. The first is on a small hill close to the little harbour where we arrived by boat; the second at Pelicata, close to a village called Stavros. We went to a tiny museum near the latter which had some little bronze figures, pots etc from Pelicata. By some lucky chance there was a party of Greeks who were about to take a tour of the site itself with members of the local 'Friends of Homer'. The leader of the expedition , Spiros Arsenes, an ex mayor of Ithaca, invited us to join them and we spent a fascintaing couple of hours in theiri company. The Pelicata site has only been subjected to limited archeological exploration in the 1930's (by Brits) but now the Friends were raising money to buy the site and do more extensive exploration. It felt like a time-watch programme. Without too much imaginative invention we were easily convinced that this was indeed the palace -with steps down to basement storerooms, a cystern and a bath fed by a fresh water spring, where Odysseus' wife Penelope bathed each day, as described by Homer.

We came back to Kefalonia exhilerated and with lots of lovely photos of what we had seen. Should we have wished, we could also have taken away shards of ancient pottery, which littered the site, but that would have been naughty. Hoepfully next time we come to Ithaca the Friends will have started their digging and found more evidence to support their claims. Our last day was spent on the beaches around Sami. There is a particularly fabulous one called Antisamos where scenes from the film 'Captain Corelli's mandolin' were shot (boo,hiss). The Kefalonians only allowed it to be filmed there if the very anti-communist stuff was taken out.... and they seemed to be happy with the result, and much money was paid over into the local economy. We waited in a harbour taverna for our ferry to Corfu -the last Greek island that we will visit- and indulged in some very delicious fish soup. A fitting farewell to these two lovely islands.

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