Saturday 2 May 2020

1996 Ithaca

2.6.96 Fiskardo

We sit on a healthy-sized boat, its prow pointing towards Ithaca.  The stiff breeze blows grilled fish savours towards us.  Brilliant sunshine, temperature in the 30s.  Clear blue sky – outshone by the ridiculous blue of the sea. A 90-minute drive around Cephalonia.  A twisty road surpassed only by that to Kashmir. 

The day began early – 3.15am, almost dawn.  Taxi at 4.15am, at the airport by 5am. Checked in et al., breakfast, then to our gate (after a falsely-stated 35 minute delay).  At the gate, they inform us of the obvious: we had been booked on a flight to Brindisi – same time, same company.  There were seats – obviously not together – but our luggage was on the wrong plane.  The baggage handling system was to be tested…

3.6.96 Kioni

The story continued…

Well, we got on the plane, which was full of sun- and sea-seekers, and vulgar air hostesses.  The flight was bumpy and seemed longer than it was.  But we arrived at the small airport on Cephalonia, and stepped out into real sun for the first time in 18 months (since Sri Lanka).  Miraculously, our luggage did arrive (though carrying it was fun without a trolley, as we made our way on to the coach).  The drive along twisty, half-made up roads was, for me at least, heaven.  It reminded me strongly of that Kashmir road from Jammu, with one breathtaking vista supplanting another.

The village of Fiskardo was picturesque, and busy with restrained tourism.  The ferry to Kioni was the perfect way to arrive – across the straight, and then around the incredibly verdant hills – barely a house in sight.  Rounding the cape of Ithaca (sounds suitably nautical), we passed down to the port, with three ruined windmills to the south.  It was particularly strange to see the place we had pored over in the brochures – and to find it corresponded exactly.

Last night we stared across at infinite shadings of heat haze; and, right to the east, the Greek mainland and various islands (Levkada etc.).  I sit now on our balcony, with the scene below me.  It is 3.30pm, the sun at its most savage, and I'm glad that I am out of it.  The sea is that impossible Grecian blue, boats out at sea (Θάλαττα! Θάλαττα!), below me are olive trees and pines – the latter scenting the air wonderfully.  Near-silence but for distant waves and a few birds' twitterings.

One thing that we were not prepared for arriving here (at Melissa Apartments) was the lack of parking space.  We are on the road south out of Kioni that just stops – the end of the map.  It is also mostly single-track, with no barrier between you and the rapid fall of the olive groves to the sea.  To turn, you must drive to nearly the end, where there is what looks like a disused quarry (small, though).  There you can execute a slightly precarious three-point turn.

The car is a bonus: new (400km on the clock), and superior class.  I hope to explore the island a little in it.  The boat (with an outboard motor) we picked up this morning.  A Greek woman explained how things worked, but as ever, in these things it's more a question of practice and instinct – both of which I lack.  This made our excursion to a very near beach rather fraught, particularly landing.  Stupidly, I did not have suitable shoes, and so murdered my feet on the rocks, stones and pebbles.  Somehow we got ashore.

The beach poor, with much tar (bastards – I can see a tanker out there now, perhaps discharging even as I write).  Well-covered with suntan cream, which seems very effective, thank goodness.  A taverna on the beach – very small and rustic – promises future delights (a man cleaning fish on the nearby rocks).  We stayed a little, and then back to the harbour where we have left the car.  Afterwards to "our" taverna – by virtue of being the first place we ate, last night.  This is right on the harbour, has a large tent-like (permanent) construction outside the small restaurant.  

The menu is the usual incomprehensible Greek/English selection, most of which is unavailable.  It is family-run (it seems): a younger brother, and two elder men.  One of these has a pony tail and striking green eyes – a real Odysseus.

4.6.96  Kioni

As can be seen, I am beginning to lose sense of time here.  Are we AD or BC…?  And I'm getting behind - so much so, that I can't remember what's to tell.  Did I talk about the butterflies here (now extinct in England, it seems)?  Or about the shivering sheets of water, interspersed with patches of calm?  Or the savage black cat – more of a small panther – that claims our terrace as part of its domain?  Did I mention that I was bitten 27 times yesterday, that my left-hand side looks disgusting?  Here there are large black insects that bite; the only consolation is that they are slow and very easy to catch.  We killed hundreds of them.  Although I've brought one of the lethal insect-repellent machines (plug in), we're reluctant to leave it on.

There are six boats (yachts) turning into our bay.  Strangely, the distant view is clearing now (5.30pm).  This morning there was a glorious Claude haze covering everything.  A wonderful feeling, powering away (-ish) through the opalescent water.  We went round towards Frikes, and then on to a beach (one of two) further north.  This would have been perfect: steeply shelving for the boat, and swimming; surrounded by green hills; trees offering shade.  But it was spoilt by two things: the litter everywhere, and worse, the flies.  We left early, but at least had a swim and fine journey.

5.6.96 Kioni

I sit after lunch facing a landscape/seascape I can only think of as mine.  The weather very hazy and close: there will be a storm tomorrow, I suspect.  We left early-ish with the car, off to Vathy.  First we took the eastern route, passing through Frikes (tiny, less atmospheric than Kioni) and then Stavros, attractive, with a view down to Polis bay, supposedly the site of a sunken city, perhaps of Odysseus.  What a name: Polis, the City, here amidst poor villages (including the bent, gaunt crones in black, the arrogant old men sitting outside dark cafes), symbolic snakes in the road, orthodox churches, many ruined cottages, mules, etc. [the village factotum has just come to fix the blown fuses in our flat – everything is out.]

The road out of Stavros rising through a surprisingly green landscape.  Sharp bends zig-zagged us up the mountain.  We passed through Anogi (very small), and then began a descent after a long level patch.  From the latter, the views were perhaps the best I've seen from an island.  To our left, the distant islands and mainland, to the front, the deep natural harbour of Vathy (Greek: Βαθύ, meaning deep), held in the vice of the foothills of the mountains.  Again, everything very green – and the sea so blue.

Joining the west side road, we suddenly had the sea on both sides of us (and Cephalonia laid out in a stretch to our right).  We also passed the field of Laertes – supposedly of Odysseus' father.  A field of stones, in truth – but see below.

Vathy itself was nothing special.  Like most of Ithaca it was badly hit by the earthquake of 1953.  It has been rebuilt without anything too horrible along the way, but lacks any real charm.  There we bought some supplies, plus a book for me.  Not just any book, but The Book of Western Civilisation: the "Iliad" and "Odyssey".  For long I have wanted a good translation to read here (my Ancient Greek is still far too weak), but looked in vain.  The problem is fundamental: English is just the wrong language.  This is shown by all the previous attempts at translation: either they are flat (like Rieu's for Penguin), or mannered (like Pope's, where the heroes become Restoration fops).

There is an equivalent problem in all languages.  In French, the best you could hope for is a kind of ultimate Racine; in Italian, a heroic Dante.  But in German you have a language perhaps the closest in spirit to Ancient Greek.  Highly analytical, inflected (and therefore able to take certain freedoms with order for emphasis), full of Greek abstractions, so you can hear something classical in it.  So I bought what I had long looked for: a classic translation, by one Johann Heinrich Voss – end of eighteenth century, and so a classical writer himself, and full of the right spirit.  

And this leads neatly on to a theme I wish to consider: the Homericness of Ithaca – and of the surrounding isles.  I have been struck forcibly as never before by that spirit in this place.  Leaving aside the fact that an island called Ithaca almost has to be Homer's/Odysseus', I feel like defining this place as authentic.  Not least because it is just enough off the beaten track to be relatively untouched (the empty, verdant hillsides bear eloquent witness to this).  

Ithaca would also be the perfect base to explore from: Cephalonia, Levkada, Zante, Corfu etc.  Explore by boat, though:  and this is another thing.  Being here, seeing the yachts and their easy, obvious grace, taking a little boat out and feeling the sea wind in my hair and the salt spray in my face ("I must go down to the sea again…") makes me understand Greeks as the archetypal sea-faring race.  Which is why Odysseus, not Agamemnon or Achilles, is the great hero and character of Homer's poems: Odysseus the sailor, the island-hopper.

One day, I would like to learn to sail, such an ancient and yet timeless skill.

6.6.96 Kioni

Last night was different.  We ate at home (partly to save money, since meals here are not cheap in the tavernas).  We also slept in the living room – putting the mattress on the floor in an attempt to harden our sleeping surface (the bed is hopeless soft).  In vain, but we see huge illuminated liners passing in the night (and the night before, what must have been a satellite zooming across the sky).  

Today was also different, but very holiday.  We rose early, and walked down to the village.  When we came back, we took out boat ("Rosmary"), later then usual.  We went beyond the beach we first visited, and found a gem: cleanish, shingle (not just pebbles), perfect water – and no flies.  Yesterday we went back to the beach in Kioni bay – but disliked the dirty water here.  The sun soon went in, with very high, thin clouds.  We expected a storm or bad weather today, but although hazy, it is fine and hot. Before leaving for the beach, I read Book III of the "Odyssey" – for the first time, now that I have found the right translation.  Very interesting.

9.6.96 Kioni

What happened to the 7th and 8th?  The days begin to merge in a rather fine fashion.  The rhythm is starting to define itself.  Awake at 6am to 7.30am.  Feed ourselves, then down to the boat, and off to the beach.  The heat, even at 8am, is pounding in these days.  Fortunately, none of us is burnt, unlike many of our lobster-coloured compatriots.  Return about 12.30pm.  We eat, rest in the afternoon, perhaps visit a village before the evening meal (Frikes yesterday, Stavros today).

Of course, there are slight variations.  Like today, our boat full of water and very slow (engine very low in the water).  And as we leave, we lose our anchor.  I think I have more respect for the sea than anything: nobody messes with it with impunity.  Yesterday, a sinister man in a black scuba suit zoomed up to us in a fast motorboat, asking if we were OK.  Er, why? we asked.  It turned out the wake from his boat had filled two others…

Today is the clearest we have seen (pity, then, the battery of our camera is flat – idiot me).  The view before me is just utterly amazing.  Not only is the main island clearly visible, so are the mountains on the mainland.  And the view of the sea is, if possible, even more majestic.  In fact, I have an increasing impression of this great flat, blue plain between lordly mountains, traversed by boats (and some big ships) like skaters.

Managed to read a couple of the "Cephalonian Tales" by Skiadaresēs.  So different from the way I write – and nice for that.  Renewed (and belated) sense of the Ionian isles as the most European parts of Greece, not least because they were occupied by the Big Three – Venice, France and England, and so little by the Turks.

To Stavros and the church.  Full of the smell of incense, and flies. Crystal chandeliers, nineteenth-century iconostasis, and eggshell blue everywhere.  Now in the bar in Stavros.  Before, we had gone down a long, 1km track to Polis – a beautiful bay set at the beginning of a flat valley plain.  Ten or so fishing boats, a couple of rich yachts, a desolate, semi-ruined café – and a view to die for.

11.6.96 Kioni

The days start to play hop, skip and jump.  

Yesterday, after the usual morning and afternoon, we drove to Stavros, and then to Exogi.  A road for goats, an eternal up.  And so narrow that you can't turn, and thus it seems that all there is to do is to keep going until you fall off the top, or enter heaven (or both).  Little to see there, except houses perched along the road, a church (locked) and stunning views to three seas.  I love driving to the end, discovering that maps finish, petering out rather than always leading to the next village, that theoretically at least, space may be open…

Afterwards we stopped in Frikes for a drink and a meal.  Although Frikes is the main ferry port for several islands, it is smaller than Kioni (but its bay perhaps deeper) and far less picturesque.  It is at the end of a valley between two hills, with windmills (disused) on either side.  There are fewer houses, and more showing damaged from the earthquake.

Apart from a few people waiting for the ferry (shades of the Orkneys, which seem so distant from here), there were practically no tourists.  We ate in Odysseus' bar (where else?), fish (expensive here as everywhere, because of the crazy overfishing), as well as a new sweet, very sweet and greasy.

Today, rose at 6.45am, left at 7.30am to go to Vathy in the cool.  A few errands there, notably buying a new battery for the Canon EOS 100 we have : one boo-boo was to let the old one run out last week, which meant no pix here.  The second mistake was to let the local tourist shop (run by the daughters of the formidable supermarket woman) try to get it – and fail.

I'm now on the balcony, which, though in the shade, is like an oven.  And only mid-June.

The thing we miss most: music – and Radio 3.

More destinations:

Moody's Black Notebook Travels

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