I fell in love with Ithaca (Itháki) 48 years before I went there. In my last year at the prep school that tried so hard to ruin my life, I was forced to study Latin and Greek and it’s quite worrying that to this day I can still recite all the prepositions that take the ablative. I hated those lessons – but there was one consolation. I began to read Greek myths in translation, and at the age of 13 came across the Odyssey, still one of the greatest stories ever told. It’s got everything: Cyclops and lotus eaters and Circe turning sailors into swine. It’s a fantastic adventure, a quest, an affirmation of life – and it all ends in Ithaca where Odysseus finally returns home.
I loved the bit where he murdered all “the suitors”, a motley crew who were trying to marry his wife, Penelope. Even more memorable was when he carried an oar into the hills, “to the land that knows nothing of the sea”. This was the symbolic end of his travels, the end of adventure. He had found peace.
Over the decades, Ithaca has been whispering to me with that same message. Even the name is poetic; the sound is close to “mythical”. I’d always wanted to go there, and this summer I finally did, even though I was worried I’d be disappointed. After all, most of the island was destroyed in the earthquake of 1953 and there are hardly any buildings left from before that time. Would I be arriving in the Greek equivalent of, say, Milton Keynes? Would any of the ancient magic be left?
I flew from Gatwick with easyJet, direct to neighbouring Kefalonia. One of the advantages of the Ionian Islands is that they are less than three hours from London. It was a 40-minute drive to the town of Sami, a rather ordinary, sleepy little place with the usual panoply of restaurants and tourist shops facing the sea. From there I caught the ferry for the 20-minute crossing.
Ithaca is just 18 miles from top to tail and although it offers various Odysseus-themed attractions – a cave, a spring, the ruins of a castle – there’s no point rushing to any of them. There are hardly any decent beaches. If you come here, you come for the island itself and my first impression was that it was far more beautiful than anywhere I’d been in Greece. It rains a lot in winter, making it lush and verdant for the rest of the year, with trees that couldn’t grow anywhere else.
The island is clean, with no sign of the three horrors that have blighted Greece: rubbish, half-built houses and graffiti. It has a purity, a peaceful quality, a sort of permanence. “This place I’ve reached, is it truly Ithaca?” Odysseus asked. I felt the same sense of wonder.
I stayed in the capital, Vathy, which was entirely rebuilt after 1953 and which therefore has a sense of harmony and orderliness that you don’t see on many islands, with all the buildings pale cream, yellow and pink. It’s also wonderfully situated on a sort of bay within a bay with the water that intense blue which the Greeks call galazios. Everything is very low so you feel particularly close to the sea. There is almost no traffic and, during the day, very little life either, although the town square and the quayside come into their own after dark when the restaurants and cafés fill up.
I’d chosen a quite expensive hotel. Greece is still great for budget travellers but for this personal odyssey I’d decided to push the boat out. The Perantzada is set above the bay with lovely views. It’s a boutique hotel in a 19th-century mansion with narrow staircases winding between the terraces and a small swimming pool. Staff are helpful and friendly. Rooms are attractive, breakfasts outstanding… I’d certainly recommend it.
The best thing to do in Ithaca is to walk or hike, and on my first morning I set out for the Gedaki beach on the far side of the town. A narrow path winds down past a very private house, supposedly rented by Madonna, and then begins to rise through wonderful forests of pine trees and cypresses – the scent hangs heavy in the air. On the other side of the hill you’ll climb down to a lovely pebbly beach and if you make the journey early enough, you will have it entirely to yourself. I stripped off and swam with just a couple of fishing boats chugging past and, in the distance, the hills of Kefalonia no more than paint strokes on the horizon.
In the afternoon I visited the semi-deserted village of Anogi and looked into its small, atmospheric church to see the Byzantine frescoes. For some reason – Madonna again? – there’s a helipad nearby and if you park here, there’s a well-signposted track that will lead you through lovely countryside to the extraordinarily pretty and peaceful village of Kioni. I always find something very special about walking to the sea, especially when there are so many cafés waiting to greet you.
From here I hitchhiked to the next village of Frikes. Back to my student days! But in Ithaca, someone will always stop to give you a lift or, failing that, it’s easy to persuade a local to become an unofficial taxi driver for 10 or 20 euros. That was how I eventually got back to my car but not until I’d had lunch at Ageri, which – for food, service and its location on the sea edge – may well be the nicest restaurant in the world.
The Greek poet Seferis wrote a wonderful line: “Wherever I travel, Greece hurts me” – and that’s how I feel about Ithaca. I spent just two days there before moving on to Kefalonia but as I sit writing this I feel a sense of loss and wish I’d stayed longer. There are other bays, more challenging hikes, more villages to discover, more churches and monasteries, an atmosphere to soak up. It goes without saying, of course, to avoid the place in high season, particularly in August when Athenians who have second homes descend on the island in droves and the roads become snarled up with cars and coaches.
But one day I’ll go back. And next time I’ll carry an oar.