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Travel

My Great Greek Adventure: The Epic Journey to Ithaki

December 5, 2021

It is wonderful to think about how a very small island in the Ionian Sea has inspired and was the setting of one of the most remarkable stories in human history. The island of Ithaki or Ithaca was the home of the legendary storyteller Odysseas. The tale of the Iliad and the Odyssey took Odysseus all around Greece and the Mediterranean, while all along he dreamt only of going home to Ithaki.

He was forced into battle during the Trojan War at the command of King Menelaus. After the war had subsided and Troy had fallen, he got swept up in a journey that would take him a decade to complete. Over these many years Odysseus and his ship crew would encounter otherworldly monsters and dangers, fighting off creatures like the cyclops. He was even kept in captivity by the nymph Calypso who was so in love that she refused his freedom from her island for years. In total, he was away from his kingdom in Ithaki for twenty years, which greatly affected the island.

Ithaki: Vathi town. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

His wife had been alone for all of this time and was being pushed to remarry, but she was determined to remain faithful. Odysseus’ return to Ithaki ended his decades-long struggle with one more fight, eliminating the men trying to court his wife. This story imprinted the legacy of Ithaki and Greek culture on human history forever.

There are remnants of ruins that are believed to be Odysseus’ Palace and the School of Homer, but some scholars say that these are not confirmed and that the monuments may be elsewhere in the Ionian. Located in the northern part of Ithaki, the ruins are not visible from the road and are not officially organized. It is a collection of stone wall foundations intertwined with the grass and trees and they are open to walk around and see, but tucked in the mountains between two villages the area does not see much tourist traffic.

Ithaki is located just a few kilometers off the coast of eastern Kefalonia and the Erisos peninsula. Ithaki and its neighboring islands all share a similar history including the origins of their artifacts and languages, and the ancient dangers they faced.

All of the islands at one point endured occupations, pirate raids of their trade ships and ports, and a population trying to prosper. In the 15th and 16th centuries the Venetians heavily controlled the Ionian, which would eventually determine its fate, in contrast to the rest of Greece. During the Turkish invasions in the 16th century, the Venetians fought to retain control and went on to sign a treaty that saved all of the Ionian islands except for Lefkada from being under prolonged Turkish rule.

Ithaki: Monastery of Panagia Eleousa. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

As is common throughout the region, Venetian construction was extensive and thus elevated the look and function of cities and ports. Through the centuries and up until the modern era, Ithaki and its seas would become targets of more occupations and wars. Freedoms and identities were often challenged as various aggressive armies stormed in. Despite this, the island still retains its character and historic significance that cannot be erased.

Ithaki has an irregular shape, being only a few meters wide at its center and then ballooning into mountainous north and south land masses. The way the land curls around the narrow center has created deep bays and inlets.

The capital city Vathy is located at the base of Kolpos Molou bay and has been recognized as a central hub since the 16th century. A branch of the bay becomes pinched between two protruding mountainsides, sheltering the town from the sea in a long inlet. This naturally-protected area became the site of a port, which today has ferry boat connections to Kefalonia and Lefkada. Vathy and its port are significant to the history of events that took place in modern day Ithaki. Throughout the area are ruins of fortress walls, and there are Venetian cannons at the end of the bay, where it opens up to the sea. The numerous characteristic features of Vathy are scattered about the bay and the hillside. One notable sight is Lazaretto island, a small piece of land just meters away from the docks and coastline. The island is only a few square meters and was used for different functions throughout the last century like a quarantine hospital and then a prison. Now only an old church and some trees stand there, but its image is still pleasant to look at from the shores of Vathy.

The town is located on the southern portion of the island and is the most populated and developed area there. Shops and restaurants are built all around the marina and light up the bay every night. The mountains to the west are tall and forested, housing natural and cultural treasures like caves and monasteries. Not many roads traverse the undeveloped landscape and a lot of areas are unreachable or require four wheel drive or a boat. Many of the most popular beaches are east of Vathy just around the hillside and are reachable by updated roadworks. Gidaki beach does require a short hike through the forest, but the long tropical beach is worth the walk.

Ithaki: Gidaki Beach. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

The middle of the island connecting the two bulbous halves resembles a land bridge with unobstructed views from east to west. The single road that passes from north to south offers a front seat view to the east coast of Kefalonia’s Erisos peninsula, which seems so close you might consider swimming to it. On the north end of the island there are more villages but they are modest and scattered throughout the mountainous region. Other seaside towns include Kioni and Frikes, whose footprint consists of family homes, small hotels, and a few traditional taverna restaurants. Along their classic marinas are pastel-colored buildings lining the sidewalk, and small fishing boats filling up the sea. At every glance there is the silhouette of the dense green mountains and the homes that were built along the rolling hills. Down by the water the restaurants have set up tables right on the beach, so you can enjoy your dinner with the sound of soothing waves crashing. Kioni and Frikes are the kind of towns that feel like a getaway into a different way of life, where the landscape and daily habits are intricately intertwined.

The sea, sun, and forest shape the culture, business, and overall wellbeing of Ithaki and its residents. The west coast has houses and restaurants as well, but set along the steep sides of the straight mountain range. It is a smooth cascade down to the beach where the shore is longer and more open to the sea than on the asymmetrical east coast. Ithaki is unique in its shape and in its place in history as the setting of myth and legend. But although its story is grand, the energy and lifestyle on the islands remains calm and grounded.

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