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George Vardas


It was the winter of 1973 and it was my first trip to the island of Kythera. At once I was drawn to the intriguing history and architecture of this island and to the beautiful vistas of what was then a cold and wind-swept landscape. Although based in Livadi we ventured out to explore the island and one of the towns that stood out and which has always remained vivid in my mind was the village of Mitata in the verdant centre of the island. As the author Peter Prineas in his recent book, Katsehamos and the Great Idea writes:

“Mitata, my family's village, is high up in the centre of the island. It sits on the edge of a plateau above a verdant ravine filled with orchards and garden and watered by an unfailing spring. From the village square or plateia you can look down on lemon trees and funereal cypresses, and follow the line of the dry watercourse as it passes beneath the hill of Palaiokastro to the olive groves at Palaiopolis and the sea."

Incredibly green ravines and gorges lie below the plateau that is the town square. The church of Aghia Triatha (Holy Trinity), the focal point of the local parish, dominates the plateia. To one of Mitata’s famous sons, the Greek-Australian movie director, George Miller (Miliotis) the church always had a special symbolism. As is recounted by the journalist Anthony Stavrianos, every time George or one of his three brothers returned to the island their father, James Miller, would take that son up the belltower and ring the bells in a joyous celebration of their reunion. The sound of the church bells would resonate down the valley and the ravines from this natural balcony.

The Mitata town square enjoys wonderful views to the splendid gorge of Tsakonas below and to the town of Viaradika on the opposite side. It also is the setting for the traditional Mitata Wine Festival in August each year when islanders and tourists alike come together in a Bacchanalian-like wine and dance festival that has become one of the island’s most famous and popular festive celebrations.

For the walker, the forest and ravines of Mitata present as an unspoilt natural environment and the chance to contemplate. The gorge is a delirium of dense vegetation as well as plentiful spring water with place names such as the the Stamnareas well, the vrisakia and potistra. There are also the ruins of nine watermills and an old Byzantine chapel which once housed the hidden school of Aghios Georgios. Mitata is also famous for a unique variety of nectarine grown in the region, known as "breasts of Aphrodite", which feel nice and taste great.

Mitata is one of the oldest settlements on Kythera. It is thought that the name Mitata (which is also spelt Metata) is derived from the Homeric word “Mela”, meaning place of pasture. Over the centuries the name gradually evolved to Mitata. There is evidence that after the Minoan settlement in Kastri near Avlemonas, Mitata became an important centre on the island as it was regarded as a safer settlement in the hills and not as exposed to the sea. During the twelfth century the fertile land around Mitata was controlled by a Monemvasiot, Georgios Pachys, who was a powerful if unofficial governor before the island passed into Venetian control. According to Peter Vanges, the author of Kythera: a history, the original family names of Mitata are Firos, Sklavos, Protopsaltis, Samios, Miliotis and others. Another family name is Prineas who feature prominently in the eighteenth century census records of the island.

During the British occupation, the villagers of Mitata were renown for their hard work. The English Resident on the island in 1825 was moved to praise Ioannis Feros, the proestos of Mitata, for his work in stimulating the “zeal of the good people of Mitata in the construction of the Mitata bridge and road” and noted that the villagers had worked tirelessly and without payment to complete these projects.

Earthquakes and Kythera are no strangers. The island lies on the edge of the Hellenic arc where the African and Eurasian tectonic plates interact. In 1903 a catastrophic earthquake measuring 7.3 struck the island and Mitata in particular suffered considerable damage with most buildings flattened although there was minimal loss of life. According to the Greek seismologist Vassilis Papazachos in his book Earthquakes of Greece, a loud noise, similar to the firing of a canon, preceded the earthquake. In Mitata, rifts were created in the ground, one as much as 200 metres long. The church and some of the schools collapsed. One exception was the single arch stone bridge built by the British in the late 1820s linking Mitata with Viaradika which emerged unscathed.

The intermediate depth earthquake in January 2006 which struck the island, registering 6.9 on the Richter scale, had the potential to cause extensive destruction if it had occurred closer to the surface. As it was, the earthquake’s force was nowhere more apparent than in the severe damage to the church of Aghia Triatha. The structural system of the church and the belltowers was extensively damaged and the domes and arches suffered major cracking. The most dramatic pictures from the village were of the tragic landslide in the village square that resulted in the detachment of part of the famous balcony of Kythera onto the road below. According to Greek seismologists the extensive damage to Aghia Triatha in Mitata was largely due to the fact that the church was constructed of porous limestone blocks cemented with lime wash without reinforced concrete columns. The two belltowers were apparently added on at a later date and, as a result, the different mass and height caused out-of-phase vibration leading to the detachment of the two sections of the building.

The collage of photos above depicts various scenes of the Mitata town square during the Wine Festival and the wonderful vista that beholds the visitor from the plateau in front of Aghia Triatha. The splendid view from the plateia is there for all to see. Unfortunately, the 2006 earthquake severely damaged the church, possibly rendering it beyond repair. Part of the town square also slipped onto the road below. In the wake of the earthquake the gorge and ravines below Mitata had in a sense become a “weeping meadow” (to borrow from the title of Theo Angelopoulos’ latest epic).

But the town of Mitata will surely recover from this setback, as it did in 1903, and will forever remain in the hearts and minds of Kytherians as the “balcony of Kythera”. As an old Kytherian verse reminds us:

“Μητάτα όμορφο χωριό όποιος σέ λησμονήσει
Θά χάσει άηδόνια καί δροσιά καί τό νερό στή βρύση”

George Vardas
May 2007

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