Ithaki (Ithaca): Home of Odysseus
As you set out for Ithaki
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
"Ithaki," by CP Kavafy
The poem is a picture of Ithaki as a haven one comes to at the end of life, after life's adventures have been lived. It's a sort of picture of heaven, which is fitting, since Ithaki is an idyllic, peaceful, happy place. It mirrors the symbolism of the Odyssey, in which one comes home after years of trial and difficulty.
Just 2 km off the northeast coast of Kefalonia, and just south of Lefkada, Ithaki is much smaller and much quieter than its near neighbors. Second smallest of the Heptanese, Ithaki has about 3,000 inhabitants. It's capital, Vathy, also called Ithaki, has a deep, large harbor ("vathy" means "deep").
This small island is green, peaceful, and, indeed, a haven from the stresses of life. It's only about 25 km long, and 5 km wide, but its shape is unusual. It's like two islands, one north of the other, of approximately the same size, connected by the bendy, mountainous isthmus of Aetos which only 600 meters wide. Despite claims to the contrary from both neighboring Kefalonia and Lefkada, Ithaki is generally regarded as the home kingdom of Odysseus. Coins found on the island minted as long ago as the 3rd century BC depict the head of Odysseus wearing a pilos, a conical helmet without a face guard. There are several other ancient depictions of Odysseus wearing such head gear.
Ithaki has been inhabited at least from the Neolithic period, around 4,000 BC. During the Mycenaean era (1600-1000 BC) it reached its height. Based on the Odyssey, and tradition, Ithaki became the capital of the Ionian archipelago with authority reaching into mainland Greece. Ithakans were famed for their seamanship and ability as navigators. The Odyssey, composed in the 9th or 8th century BC, gives some information about Ithaki's political reach, and the rule of Odysseus.
After the collapse of Mycenaean Greece, Ithaki's role in the region diminished. According to excavations at the ancient town of Alalcomenes, on one of the highest points in the island, is where the Hellenistic-era coins with the island's name and the image of Odysseus have been found, which would indicate that the island was still an independent kingdom.
As time went by, Ithaki changed hands among several different local and regional powers, most notable the Byzantine Empire, as did the other Ionian Islands. It's population remained stable at a few thousand, decreasing due to pirate activity during the Middle Ages (5th-15th centuries AD).
The Ottoman Turks arrived in 1479, displacing many of the islands original inhabitants, who did not want to live under Muslim rule. Many of those who stayed moved into the mountains to avoid them, as well as to escape from pirates who continued to harass towns and shipping in the channels of the Ionian Islands. After 1500, Ithaki fell under the control of Venice. A 1503 treaty stipulated Venetian rule in Ithaki, Kefalonia and Zakinthos, while the Turks would rule Lefkada.
The French took over in 1797, and quickly became unpopular with their heavy taxation of the locals. Russia and Turkey succeeded the French 10 years later, and the Ionian Islands were granted semi-autonomous status, with an elected legislature meeting in Corfu. In 1815, after a blockade of the Ionian Islands, Great Britain installed provisional governments, and in 1815 set them up as a protectorate called the United States of the Ionian Islands.
Finally in 1864 Ithaki and the other 6 Ionian Islands were united with newly independent Greece when Britain turned them over voluntarily as a goodwill gesture backing their choice for the King of Greece, Denmark-born Prince William, who became King George I of the Hellenes.
Places to Go, Things to Do
Ithaki attracts only a few thousand vacationers every summer, which makes for a quiet holiday for those who prefer peace to noise and activity. One of the undiscovered Greek islands, Ithaki has many hiking and mountain bike trails in its mountainous interior which wind their way through olive, cypress, pine and oak trees.
The waterfront of Vathy is long, with its main square, Platia Efstathiou Drakouli, full of color and activity. It's all relaxed and comfortable. Vathy has narrow streets to explore, a statue of Odysseus, and Poseidon, and a few nightclubs.
Vathy is home to the Maritime and Folkloric Museum, interestingly housed in an old electrical generating building just behind the town's main square. The museum features complete bedroom, sitting room and kitchen, plus hundreds of everyday objects from life as it was on the island during the 19th century. and the Archeological Museum, featuring coins with the likeness of Odysseus. Objects from many small settlements which dotted the island are gathered here, including statues, jewelry, and even vases from the Geometric Period (11th-8th centuries BC).
The Stavros Museum
Located near the northern village of Stavros, this museum has finds from that area covering the time period of early Hellenic up to Roman times. Among the items is a theatrical mask inscribed "votive offering to Odysseus, and so dedicated," from the 2nd century BC, further strengthening the claims of Ithaki really being Ithaki, and a stone relief of dancing nymphs. Many of these artifacts were found in Polis Cave.
Polis Cave (Spilia Lizou)
This location on the north side of Polis Bay (near Stavros), on the northwest shore of the island, was a center for worship for many centuries dating back to early Greek civilization. The cave itself collapsed in the catastrophic earthquake of 1953, but before that the site had been excavated by British archeologists in the 1930's. All of these objects were placed in the Stavros Museum. With some evidence of activity during the Mycenaean period, and evidence of an unbroken line of worship from the 8th century BC on into the coming of the Romans.
The village of Stavros is on a hundred meter rise about 800 meters inland from the cave, and the bay.
At an elevation of over 500 meters in the approximate center of the northern half of the island, this old village in need of some repair was the capital during the times pirates raided the island. It's like stepping into another century, and it's elderly inhabitants won't be around forever. There is a restored church of Agia Panagia (12th century) that features some beautiful late-Byzantine-era frescoes, along with a Venetian-style bell tower. The next door cafenio is said to have the keys.
Situated on a hidden bay in the northeast corner of Ithaki, Kioni is a picturesque fishing village that also attracts visitors in yachts. It's tiny harbor, bars, restaurants, and tavernas are a photographer's delight.
Monastery of Katheron
17th century monastery built on Mt. Neritos, the mountainous spine of the isthmus between the two sections of the island and dedicated to the Panagia Katharotissa. At 600 meters in elevation, the monastery provides stunning views of both northern and southern halves of Ithaki, as well as neighboring Kefalonia. Vathy is to the east, as well as the Gulf of Patras.
Fountain of Arethousa
South of Vathy about 6 km, and reportedly hard to find, the Fountain of Arethousa, where Odysseus' swineherd, Eumaeus, watered his pigs. Eumaeus was the first person Odysseus saw after his 20-year absence. Although Odysseus was in disguise, and Eumaeus thought Odysseus a poor beggar, he took him home, fed him, and treated him as an honored guest.
It is located on the heights of Mount Aetos (eagle) on the southern part of the isthmus, and affords an excellent view of the narrow isthmus stretching away to the bulb of the northern part of the island like a giant half of a dumb bell. Locals call the ruins the palace of Odysseus. Its altitude is nearly 400 meters. Not far from Alalcomenes are the ruins of the settlement of Aetos.
Aetos, excavated in the 1930's by the British School of Athens, was found to be a chief sanctuary site in use at least as far back as th 9th century BC. Corinthian votive offerings have been found dating from a later period. Some of these objects have come from as far away as Sicily, Macedonia, and Crete.
Cave of the Nymphs
This cave, west of Vathy a few kilometers, is also called Marmarospilis (marble caves). Signage on the main road make it easy to find. Found in the 13th Book of the Odyssey, this was said to be the place where Odysseus hid the gifts of the Phaeacians, a hospitable people who crewed his ship from the last part of his voyage and had left him on the beach after taking him home to Ithaki. After hiding his gifts, he hid out at the hut of Eumaeus. There is another cave just across the strait to the west, in Kefalonia, on Sami Bay, that more accurately fits Homer's descriptions. This is not unusual as sites from the Odyssey are claimed by Ithaki, Kefalonia, Lefkada, and even Corfu.
Ithaki is an island full of mythology, ancient tales, quiet hiking paths, picturesque villages, and peaceful beaches. It is an excellent place for a family vacations or anyone looking for a getaway without the crowds often associated with other Greek islands.