Travel

As well as its important place in ancient Greek mythology and history, Kythera has an association with Australia going back a hundred years. By Karen Halabi.

The Greek island of Kythera

Avlemonas, a village on the idyllic Greek island of Kythera.
Credit: Argymeg / Flickr

When George Miller’s latest Mad Max fantasy collected six Academy Awards – the most to date for an Australian film – the biggest celebrations might well have been on the Greek island of Kythera.

Miller’s family, like that of thousands of other Greek Australians, originated here, in a migration that started in the 1890s. Kytherians opened cinemas, milk bars, cafes and fish and chip shops in Sydney, Melbourne and small country towns. In her book Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill: Greek Cafes in Twentieth-Century Australia, Toni Risson describes the Greek cafe as an Australian icon, and writes of the many owned by Kytherians, with names such as Andronicus, Poulos, Cassimatis and Cominos.

Kythera has a permanent population of fewer than 4000, but many Greek Australians return regularly. Subsequent generations have fallen in love with the island that their ancestors left. Many have headed back in search of a Dionysian existence. 

One of the lesser-known Greek islands, Kythera has been historically idealised, a utopia that defined the metaphorical journey. In his 1717 Rococo work, The Embarkation for Cythera, Jean-Antoine Watteau depicted a mythical, pastoral pleasure. In the late 1800s it became fashionable for the Romantics to make a pilgrimage to Kythera. It wasn’t easy to get to, however, so for most writers, artists, painters and archaeologists, it was more a romantic narrative; something special and mystical for which we are all searching.

I arrive at the start of the grape harvest. The whole village near where I’m staying at Agia Anastasia comes together on the Saturday for a grape-stomping party with a lamb on the spit, plenty of the local wine, cheese and moustalevria (a sweet made from grape juice and semolina).

Young men dance in a circle, clapping, around a small ouzo glass. All ages and sizes dance the Greek style, in a ring or a line, stepping shoulder to shoulder. The celebratory circles get bigger and bigger as people join in. It’s simple fun. Greek dancing is all about kefi – a love of life, merriment without drunkenness. Eat, drink, then dance it off.

When I get back to my lodgings late after the festivities, footsore but sparkling, a herd of sheep blocks my path up the driveway. Dark brown and long-haired, they are nothing like Australia’s familiar white merinos. There’s a standoff before the sheep shuffle agreeably to one side. Another day, there’s a herd of cows.

On Sunday I head to the markets in Potamos, a busy village and a hub where locals sell the produce from their gardens. Everyone makes their own olive oil and wine and it’s on sale along with bread, figs, tomatoes and the thyme honey Kythera is famous for.

Sitting in the platia, among old ladies in black and men with weather-beaten, craggy faces, drinking ouzo and nibbling on octopus – a local tradition – I can imagine the Greek god Dionysus would have loved it here.

This is the Dionysian ideal, a “land of milk and honey”. I’m getting my water daily from a nearby spring, thyme honey from Mitata, figs from my host George’s backyard trees, and wine in old soft drink bottles and tomatoes from my other neighbours.

Somehow Kythera has escaped the tourist hordes that invade other picture-postcard islands such as Mykonos, Santorini and Ios each summer. There are no nightclubs or flash hotels, just simple guesthouses, spectacular walking trails, breathtaking views, 65 tiny villages, crumbling ruins and empty pristine beaches along 30 kilometres of coastline. Many visitors come to hike its many trails and unspoilt nature.

The island is so laid-back that to see the frescoes inside Agia Sophia, the cave chapel at Mylopotamos, I have to call the caretaker with the key to come and let me in. One of two caves of this name on Kythera, it contains murals from the 11th and 12th centuries, amid the stalactites and stalagmites.

As my local companion Helen Tzerzopoulos, formerly of Sydney, tells me: “No one’s in a hurry on Kythera. Things happen slowly here. You learn to appreciate the basic things in life.”

Kythera has recently been in the news because of an exciting archaeological project: to recover the Mentor, a British brig that sank off the island in 1802 while carrying Lord Elgin’s plundered Parthenon Marbles to England. The marbles were recovered then, but 17 crates of antiquities remain in the wreck. A member of the recovery team, John Fardoulis, tells me a Greek–Australian foundation, supported by Greece’s ministry of culture, is attempting to raise the Mentor. For Greeks this is a hugely significant project – reclaiming their stolen heritage – and it’s being partly funded by Australians from Kythera.

Kythera is also famous for another shipwreck off the coast of a satellite island called Antikythera. Discovered in the early 1900s, it contained the parts of an ancient clockwork device some 2000 years old – the world’s first analog computer. Apparently designed for astronomical and astrological calculations, the Antikythera mechanism has puzzled scientists wondering how the ancient Greeks managed to conceive and construct such a machine a millennium ahead of its time.

In mythology, Kythera is also the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and pleasure, although Cyprus would contest it. Also known as the Lady of Cythera, or Venus to the Romans, Aphrodite was born from the sea when Cronus severed his father Uranus’s genitals and tossed them into the deep. Aphrodite arose in a shell and was blown to Cyprus by Zephyrus, the god of the west wind.

Kythera is known for its strong winds and at certain times of the year the island is enveloped in a foggy mist the locals say is Aphrodite wrapping herself around the island.

I spend my time on Kythera trying the great local tavernas, driving down rocky cliff roads to wild pristine beaches and exploring the cave churches and white monasteries that dot every mount, including a Minoan peak sanctuary. Were that not enough, there are ancient watermills, Venetian castles and Byzantine chapels.

All too soon, it’s time for the annual street dance at the beachside town of Agia Pelagia in the north of the island that marks the end of summer and the start of the winds. It is turning cold. A mist moves quickly in over the hilltop on the brisk breeze, wrapping itself around the rocky cliffs. It hangs in the air.

After weeks on the island lost in another, simpler time, it is time for me to leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 23, 2016 as "Matey Aphrodite". Subscribe here.

Karen Halabi
is the editor of The Luxe Traveller.