Why do I have such a love affair with ancient Greece?
I blame my teachers. Actually no, that’s not true. I blame one particular teacher.
My Classical Studies teacher was a complete anomaly at the high school in the small town I grew up in. While most of the male population were more interested in running around in the mud and grabbing each other’s testicles (see: rugby) or doing laps of the main street in beaten up cars (see: bogan), Dr Jim was striving to shoehorn 1000 years of history into our largely unwilling brains.
From plebeians to pharaohs, amphorae to Aristophanes, the wonder of ancient cultures was bought to life for two hours a week by a dishevelled old teacher who smelled vaguely of mothballs and whiskey. Despite our theory that the reason he was so passionate about the events of the Peloponnesian wars was because he lived through them, Dr Jim sparked a fascination with classical history that stays with me to this day.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that checking out brochures for Greece holidays had been a pastime of mine for as long as I could remember. When an opportunity to sail a yacht in the Ionian came along, I leapt at the chance.
To say that I loved my time there would be one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever made (and I’ve made a few). Blazing sunshine, swimming in the Med, cozy little tavernas, wonderful food and big-hearted people make the Ionian one of my favourite places on the planet. The best of the best, however, had to be the island of Ithaca.
If you know anything at all about classical Greece (or you’re a fan of a leather-clad Brad Pitt), you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Trojan War. Famously ending the conflict via a little stunt involving a large wooden horse, Odysseus’s ten year journey home to reclaim his throne is detailed in the Odyssey – probably one of the most well known stories ever written. Where was our hero trying to get back to, I hear you ask? Why, he was heading home to Ithaca. Yeah, it’s probably fair to say that the place has a bit of history attached…
The village of Frikes was my first introduction to Ithaca, and it didn’t disappoint. Of course that may have had something to do with the fact that my birthday was the following day and we were all drunk before sundown. Regardless of the amount of alcohol consumed, however, Frikes really is a lovely little place, with a few tavernas, restaurants and bars along the waterfront to cater to the sailors who happen to find their way there. It was when we hired scooters and hit the clifftop roads the next day, however, that the island really started to shine.
The hills of Ithaca climb steeply out of the ocean – so steeply, in fact, that the poor motorbike engines were starting to struggle as we ascended towards Katharon monastery in the centre of the island. The views were incredible but it was important to try to keep at least one eye on the road – the wandering goats seemed to think they owned the place and had no interest whatsoever in getting out of our way. Of course on the way back down again, the engines were doing just fine. The brakes, on the other hand? Well, that was a different story…
Speaking of monasteries, Agios Nikolao near the town of Kioni was also worth the visit – and not only because the cool interior of the main church area offered a welcome respite from the pounding sun (and my pounding hangover). The hushed tones of the monks inside the monastery walls were a sharp contrast to the bleating of goats amongst the surrounding ruins – all of the nearby buildings were destroyed by the massive earthquake that shook Ithaca in 1953, and only shattered walls remain.
The churches on the island date back 500 years or more, and yet by Ithacan standards they were practically brand new. Following the occasional signpost along rutted dirt tracks that were plainly not meant for rental scooters, we headed for what I had hoped would be the highlight of our explorations. Although there’s a fair amount of debate about whether the “School of Homer” is where the master poet actually taught, in the end the truth didn’t really matter much.
In true Greek style there is a complete lack of information at the site about what any of the collections of rock walls and excavated ruins might relate to, so we got to make up our own interpretations instead. I’m sure they were hilariously inaccurate, but just knowing that I was walking in the footsteps of Homer – figuratively if not literally – was enough to make all of those hours in the classroom worthwhile. 2500 years earlier, ancient Greeks were standing where I now stood, looking out at much the same jaw-dropping view that lay before me now. Personally I found that pretty damn amazing.
Obviously there is more to Ithaca than just waterside tavernas and ancient ruins. The great thing is, though, that there’s not much more than that. Life on the island goes on much as it has for centuries, especially away from the small pockets that cater to the high season crowd on their two week Greece family holidays. Old men sit and drink strong black coffee at the local kafeneios while kids play in the village streets. Insects buzz lazily around the olive groves in the summer heat, the silence broken only by the tolling of a nearby church bell. If it wasn’t for the whine of a passing scooter or the occasional ferry on the horizon, you’d be hard pressed to know which century you were in. The party islands of the Aegean this most certainly is not.
And you know what? That’s exactly how I like it.
You don’t need your own transport to get to Ithaca – ferries run a fairly regular route from the mainland during summer, and there’s usually enough accommodation to go around. Of course, there’s something about sailing a yacht there that really just can’t be beaten…
[Troy image courtesy of Warner Brothers]