submitted by Odyssey Magazine on 05.04.2005
By George Zarkadakis
Oddysey Magazine Vol 2 No 5 May/Jun 1995.
Kythira has been occupied over the centuries by an inordinate number of conquerors, each of which left their mark on the island. Zarkadakis explores the beauty of a relatively unknown Greek island; in doing so he meets a series of Greek Australians who have returned from Down Under to spend their lives in the land off whose shores the goddess of love Aphrodite was born.
The Beguiling Allure of Kythira
"It was a cool spring day and the multitude of wildflowers, which blossomed like a lush colorful carpet across the low hills of the Byzantine city, filled the terrified hearts of its pious inhabitants with their scent, as they huddled together in the churches praying for dear life." Nikos, a 30-year-old Australian-raised Greek, is reciting the story of Palaiohora, a now-deserted village on the island of Kythira.
"They were terrified because the Turkish pirate Barbarossa, after many failed attempts, had at last discovered their secret outpost, their Hora, hidden for years upon its steep, rocky base by the precipitous walls of the surrounding gorges. Its unique natural fortification had protected the inhabitants from pillage ever since the first colonists arrived there from Monemvassia and Mystras, seeking the refuge of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. It had been their salvation until then, the year 1537-a very bad year indeed."
Nikos, like many Kytherians, has lived the better part of his life in Australia, where his family had migrated in the Fifities. After completing high school in Sydney, he came back to Greece to study farming, only to discover that his heart belonged to archaeology. He returned to his place of birth, Kythira, to become the keeper of the many Byzantine antiquities on the island (officially, he works for ministry of culture as a guard). He has broad features, blond hair, blue eyes, and a warmth of manners, features that carry in them the long and troubled history of his beloved island. He is a mine of historical information.
"Barbarossa was a ruthless character, a menace," Nikos continues. "He raided the city, sparing nobody and nothing. Legend has it that women threw their infants from the cliffs before leaping themselves. The rest of the population was sold into slavery. Palaiohora was never settled again. People thought of resettlement as sacrilege and many still speak of ghosts who haunt its windswept ruins."
A Jewel that Grows from Rock
We sit in a small cafe in Kapsali, the beautifully landscaped natural port of the island's southern tip. Although it is high season, very few people are in the bars and tavernas that circle the peaceful bay. Kythira sternly refuses to fall into the commercial tourism trap, a comforting fact for many, a daunting prospect for others. Nikos salutes a couple of friends as they streak past on their motorbikes, while I cannot help being awed by the cliffs of the Venetian Kastro above and the whitewashed homes and churches that crown Hora, the main town. It is a magnificent view, like a jewel growing out of brown rock, characteristically unexpected.
But this faraway island of the south is full of the unexpected. Minoans, Myceneans, Spartans, Byzantines, Venetians, British, to mention but a few, have all left traces of their passage here. The island, situated off the southeast coast of the Peloponnese and nestled between the watery arms of the Ionian Sea to the west and the Myrtoon Sea to the east, has always been a valuable outpost for anyone with an interest in controlling the seaways to the Levant. It is no small wonder, then, that an assortment of influences can be witnessed in the architecture, the landscape, but most of all in the people themselves-in their character, their music, their warm hospitality.
It was, perhaps, because of all these centuries of invasions and occupation, that Kytherians decided to invade some faraway country themselves, albeit in a more peaceful manner. Kythira has long been called "Cerigo"-a name bearing witness to its Italian heritage-but, nowadays, it is also known as "Kangaroo Island." A brief stroll on the harbor of Kapsali, listening to the accent of the youngsters who lounge lazily on the beach, provides ample testimony to the origins of this strange name.
Of course, there are no kangaroos to be found in the eastern Mediterranean-the only flora on these islands are migrating birds, rabbits, and some rare species of skunk. But thousands of Kytherians have migrated to Australia since the Second World War, people who make an effort, every summer, to bring their memories, their offspring, and their hopes back home. Some estimate that over 75 percent of the population left for Down Under looking for a brighter future. One would probably find it impossible today to discover a family without relatives in Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane, and names like Fatseas, Leontsinis, Megalooikonomou, Stratigos, or Kalligeros are only too frequent in the telephone directories of Queensland or New South Wales. Migration is Kythira's new heritage, another glorious chapter in its uninterrupted history that dates back to the Minoan era.
Stan Varipatis migrated to Sydney as a young boy before the war. There was nothing for him on Kythira. His father had grown old ploughing a dry and rocky field that yielded less and less with each passing year. There was not enough food to go around. So he boarded a ship and went. He remembers his first days of hardship when he arrived in his new country.
"We could not even speak our language freely," he says. "We had to shorten our names, adopt the ethics of the new society we found there, hide the fact of our origin. There was much prejudice against us and jobs were extremely hard to find. No one would employ a Greek. Things changed dramatically after the war, when waves of new immigrants from Greece and Italy came in. Also, Australians themselves started to travel and gradually became less xenophobic."
"How different is Cerigo now from when you left for Australia?" I ask.
"When I left the island, there were only three cars around but many many people," Stan says with a smile. "Now the place is full of cars but very few people." He looks much younger than his age, despite the hard work he endured for the better part of his life.
For the uninitiated, it seems like the southern hemisphere is round the next beach. It only takes a quick jump and you go from Hora or Karavas to Brisbane or Melbourne. And yet Kythira is a living island. Times have changed since the years of massive emigration and, though the island is still a long way from full development, there exists a sound communications and transportation infrastructure that links Kythira with Athens, Crete, and the Peloponnese. Could there be a real reversal, I wondered? Would it ever be possible for the emigrants to return to Kythira and really breathe life back into the island? If it happened, it wouldn't be the first time in the island's history. Through the centuries, wars and pirates, famine and natural disaster, caused Kythira to be deserted and re-populated many times over.
The Return from Down Under
Metaxia's daughter was born in Tamworth, of an Australian-born mother, and came to visit Kythira for the first time when she was 10. Then she came back for Christmas in 1991, a grown woman with a fledging career in Australian politics and journalism. It didn't take long for her to decide to stay permanently.
"Maybe it was the wonderful natural environment that did it," she tells me. "It's an experience to witness the change of the seasons sweeping across the island. I guess I was fed up with the pace of Australian life, too. It was all too much fuss and very little essence. Here I can be in the land of my ancestors and do my own thing, what I really want to do, in my own time." Metaxia runs a local newspaper and teaches English to children. In the summer, she works part time at a local bar.
Metaxia is philosophical-if not somewhat confused-about where she considers home, Australia or Greece. "Home? That's a strange word! I, like so many immigrant children, suffer from the two-country syndrome. You're in one place and you suddenly miss the other. My family is still down there, my parents; I miss them the most."
Manolis, a 28-year-old doctor from Sydney who's on an extended vacation visiting his father's home country, comes and sits with us. He understands Greek but needs someone to teach him how to speak it. He asks for Metaxia's help. I ask him if he's ever considered coming back to live in Greece. "I still have my Greek nationality, and Kythira's great," he says. "Who knows? Maybe. But I guess I have to go to the army first, don't I?"
The next morning, the late summer weather suddenly cools, and a brisk wind serves as a harbinger of autumn. A thick cloud appears, as if emerging from under the earth, like the breath of a dragon. It encircles the island. The locals call this phenomenon katsifara. It adds to the mystique one feels when viewing the barren fields of Kythira from Aghia Elessa, the monastery of the saint who brought Christianity to the island. One can imagine what it was like in times past, when over 30,000 inhabitants (today there are just 2,000) cultivated most of the island's land, separating their property with stone fences-xerolithies-and living off grapes and olives. I set off to explore Kythira's more remote regions, driving past small, semi-deserted villages with strange names like Drimonas, Kontolianika, and Fratsia.
In Mylopotamos, I stop for coffee under the gigantic cypress tree that towers over the small square. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful villages on the island, with abundant water and thick vegetation. Nearby one can visit the Venetian settlement of Kato Hora and the cave of Aghia Sofia, where Christians sought refuge in the Middle Ages during the all-too-frequent pirate raids of Saracens and Turks. Traveling further north, toward Potamos, the birthplace of the poet Yorgos Souris (Greece's most famous modern-day comic poet), one goes through empty windswept land. An Irish friend who joined me on this excursion noticed how similar the landscape was to that of his own country. We had left the Mesa Dimos and were entering the Exo Dimos, as the island is traditionally divided along an imaginary line that cuts it approximately in half (the line runs east to west). The south has been populated since the 17th century primarily by families of Cretan origin, while the north has a Peloponnesian flavor about it. It is the blend of the two that gives Kythira its distinct cultural character.
The Origins of Seduction
In the evening we found ourselves in a taverna in Logothetianika, listening to Gabrilis and Nontas (thirtysomethings who enjoy island-wide fame) playing the rembetika, while Australian-born children danced around us together with their Greek-born cousins. Gabrilis, on the guitar, is a doctor working at the local hospital, though it's hard to deduce this from his rock-star looks. Nontas, the bouzouki player, is a painter. They both came to Kythira from Australia, loved it, and decided to stay. Like Metaxia, they had discovered here a world that suited them best, a place of human proportions. They didn't want to be anywhere else. Their resolution frightened me. Could it be that Kythira was the original home of the Odyssean Lotophagoi, where one taste of its fruit was enough to ensnare the unsuspecting sailor forever within its confines?
It took me days to arrive at a possible answer. It was on the caique of Captain Thanassis. We were fishing in the deep waters around Antikythira, an island halfway between Kythira and Crete with just over 100 inhabitants. Thanassis's uncle Babis was at the helm, carefully steering the wooden vessel, as it slowly encircled a volcanic rock that emerged from the water like the petrified head of a sea monster. Captain Thanassis was born in Avlemonas, where he now lives with his family. He and his two brothers are professional fisherman. He is a tall and imposing man of 35 and his absolute mastery of his trade shows in his every move.
"These are very good waters," he tells me. "Only in the last few years has intensive fishing begun to take its toll. We have boats coming here from Kalamata, Crete-even Arabs and Italians. They don't care about next year. They go for the biggest catch. They kill sea turtles for fun." He stops and feels the long plastic thread, the petonia. He gives it to uncle Babis to feel it too. "Ah, he got away!," the uncle says in disappointment and goes back to the helm.
"Some creatures have to live," Captain Thanassis muses. "Life is precious in every form and everything plays its role-tortoises, dolphins, even that Mediterannean monk seal that comes and destroys our nets every now and then. She has to eat too. If you don't respect it, if you don't protect it, then sooner or later it will take its revenge on you."
I ask him about his life in Kythira, about what made him want to stay and make a living here. "I can't stand big cities," he says. "I do not understand how people can actually tolerate life there. But life in Kythira isn't easy either. You should be here in the winter to really see what I mean. We don't even have a gynecologist on the island, so I have to take my pregnant wife to Athens every time she needs something. Successive governments have promised much but have done nothing to dissuade people from abandoning the countryside. If one could give incentives so that Kythira could be developed touristically, then new jobs will be created and the island will flourish again."
Captain Thanassis had made his choice despite the hardship he has to face, as had Metaxia, Gabrilis, Nontas, and Nikos. For them, like many others-including the thousands who remain in the "Big Kythira" of the far away Antipodes-Cerigo wields an unyielding grip on their hearts. But why?
As we made our way back to Avlemonas the sun began to slowly set. The sea became like a velvet gown that rippled around us, softly caressing the fearless boat of Captain Thanassis. As we approached the old port of Avlemonas-where back in 1802 the ship "Mentor" was wrecked as it carried, under order of Lord Elgin, the Parthenon marbles-we were all silent, our minds empty. To our left, the view of the beach of Paleopolis arrested our imagination, taking on mythic proportions with the golden sunset shimmering on shore and sea.
And then it struck me. How could I have forgotten? It was here that, according to mythology, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born of the froth. She came upon that very shore, carried there on a shell, changing the life of mortals forever after. Kytherians, like all of humanity, were her children, born of the same froth.
Who could ever resist the love goddess's own birthplace? As we reached the shore, the air was filled with the bittersweet aroma of honey and seawater, and Aposperites, the evening star, twinkled its eye and took its place onto the purple dome of the glorious night sky.
[Numerous colour photographs accompany this article. All have been posted to the kythera-family web-site.
Photographic reproductions are of superior quality in Odyssey, and readers are encouraged to obtain original "hard copies" to gain a full appreciation - not only of the production standards of Odyssey - but also the beauty of Kythira].
When Published: bi-monthly
Publisher: Odyssey Magazine
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