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Sailing to Ithaca?

Keep Ithaca always in your mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for. But don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaca to make you rich. Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey. Without her you wouldn't have set out. She has nothing left to give you now. And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.

In his poem ‘Sailing to Ithaca’, Konstantinos Cavafy  uses Odysseus’ adventures home from the Trojan wars  as a lyrical metaphor for the human journey. Ithaca  is an image for final destinations. This island in the  Ionian archipelago, uncomfortably rugged and separated  by a wide, mesmerising passage from Kefalonia, fits Homer’s  story and Cavafy’s poem perfectly. Perpetually basking in a blazing luminous light, Ithaca boasts fine if unexceptional archaeological sites. With its well-signposted walking trails  and numerous fish tavernas, the island is scarcely less than magical. Yet is Ithaca, in fact, Odysseus’ island, where Penelope faithfully weaved, steadfastly waiting for her mischievous  prince in their well-appointed palace? 

Looking out over Vathy, the capital of modern Ithaca. But is this island really the destination that Odysseus strove so hard to find in The Odyssey?

Well, in 1797, the nationalist activist Rigas Velestinlis  (1757-1798) published the first Greek map of his homeland, calling the island we know as Ithaca, Doulichion. Velestinlis was using the name for the island in Strabo’s 1st-century Geography. This fact and the seismic geology of neighbouring Kefalonia – known to Strabo as Sami – has led a British foundation to question where Odysseus’ palace was located. Was it Paliki, the western arcadia of Kefalonia? Owning Odysseus barely exists on the islands themselves. Ithaca assumes it is the Ithaca, and Kefalonia chooses instead to champion its spectacular if spare landscape and crystalline bays. 

Ithaca is not shy about claiming an association with Odysseus: there are many statues or busts of the Homeric hero, including these two from Stavros (left) and Vathy town hall.

Ithaca assumes it is Ithaca

Across the rich screen of this island, ancient and modern names offer themselves to the mind like the translation of flesh into spectral appearances. Busts and statues of Odysseus grace every public space. Old ones convey an anonymous gravitas; modern versions project a lithe, whip-smart survivor. Guided Homer trails are marketed by fliers stapled to telegraph poles. So far so good. Yet the pantheon of archaeologists who have worked on this island are at best no more than faded archive images on sun-bleached site panels. Ithaca’s archaeology itself is left very much to your imagination. Contrast this with Ithaca’s walking paths: these rate  as some of the best signposted trails in the Mediterranean. 

The search for the palace where Penelope weaved and unpicked her embroidery has a long history. The story starts with one of the princes of archaeological history. Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), no less, began his archaeological career on the island, before his journey took him to Mycenae and Troy. In 1868, he deduced that Mount Aetos, the bare cone soaring above Ithaca’s western ferry port of Pio Aetos, was the site of Odysseus’ palace. Schliemann’s excavations were the first to uncover ancient Alakomenai, a town spanning the Archaic Greek to Roman periods. The town itself occupied an extraordinary vantage point. From the saddle of the hill immediately below the cone, the town surveyed Janus views of the Straits of Ithaca to the west and east to Vathy bay. 

Mount Aetos. Schliemann believed this was the site of Odysseus’ palace, a conclusion that led him to excavate ancient Alakomenai. This town was occupied from the Archaic Greek to Roman period, and still preserves traces of its Archaic defences.

Schliemann should be forgiven for his error. Mount Aetos towering above the Hellenistic town is a captivating, ever-present seamark. Sublime though the views are from the summit, the incline is surely too great, though, for the kind of Bronze Age palace found at Knossos, Mycenae or Pylos? And yet the British archaeologist W A Heurtley, excavating in the 1930s, found Mycenaean remains on the slopes. Heurtley was tempted away  from his research bailiwick in Macedonia to pursue several seasons on these sharp slopes. None produced the palace he so ardently sought. Still, the trail to the top is too alluring not to take. Today, follow the red dots, remembering while catching your breath that the Trojan survivor surely scrambled up this steep path too. The dots take you past cyclopean walls of Archaic Greek date to an unimpressive acropolis with its rock-cut cistern. The archaeology scarcely matters. Here, at a heart-beating 378m above sea level, the 360º panorama defies description. Suffice it to say, it feels Homeric, timeless Grecian. The silence is like a discernible pulse – the heartbeat of time itself.

A view from the acropolis of Mount Aetos across the Straits of Ithaca to Kefalonia. But which island was Odysseus’ fabled destination?

The acropolis commands much of rocky Ithaca and almost  all the grey mountainous rib of Kefalonia. In high summer, this is a landscape lying close to the sky, with a palette of rich colours in heavy brushstrokes. The straits that separate the two islands resemble a lake, shimmering in all directions. Only the  coursing yachts, leaving thin white trails, mark the otherwise mirror-smooth sea. 

Schliemann returned in 1878 to try his luck again, to no avail.  His extraordinary journey is told nowhere here, more’s the pity. Nor is the relationship of this Archaic town to the Kefalonian Tetrapolis: the sprawling hilltop towns like Krane, Pronnoi,  and Sami on the adjacent island. Does it matter? 

Heurtley’s research assistant, the intrepid Sylvia Benton (1887-1985), had a little more luck. Benton was born in Lahore, studied Classics at Cambridge University, and found a home at the British School at Athens – although she was initially denied a scholarship for the unthinkable crime of hiking alone in the Peloponnese in 1928. Her thesis at Oxford University was entitled The Baronry of Odysseus. Caves rather than palaces were her lifelong passion – in the Ionian islands and her adopted home, Scotland. She found exactly what she wanted 10 miles to the north of Mount Aetos, beside Polis bay. Here, on the north side of the finest sandy beach on the Straits of Ithaca, she excavated a cave sanctuary that had Mycenaean origins and riches from the Classical and Archaic Greek periods. The excavation in 1932-1933 was full of challenges. Part of the sanctuary lay below water, and in many places the cave ceiling had collapsed. Using a pump on an anchored caique, she drained the sanctuary and, with ingenuity, tackled the archaeological deposits. This driven soul, with her Ithacan workmen, filled a good part of the island’s museums with finds. For the first time, Ithaca possessed material evoking the colour  of their hero’s Mycenaean world. 

Sylvia Benton excavated at Polis bay in 1932-1933. She investigated a sanctuary cave, which lay on the far side of the bay and contained material dating back to the Mycenaean period. Rather later activity nearby is apparent from the ruins of a mid-Byzantine chapel (right).

A faded sign within the bathing paraphernalia shows the evocative British School at Athens’ archive photographs of the formidable archaeologist and her dig. Sadly, the cave itself is largely no more: it collapsed after a devastating earthquake in 1953. Polis bay, though, protected from northerly and westerly winds, is a gem. With its glittering waters and happy families, you cannot resist imagining Odysseus beaching boats here. A ruined Byzantine chapel tucked into the hillside makes one wonder, if no more, that later mariners liked to recall their Bronze Age forebear.

Palace intrigue

Above Polis bay, a leafy saddle between peaks is home to the village of Stavros. Odysseus is important to these villagers. In its piazza, under a canopy of tall trees, there is not only a lugubrious bronze statue of Homer’s hero, but also a virtual museum. At first sight, the museum resembles a bus shelter. It does, however, contain a precious new angle on the search for Odysseus. Its centrepiece is a scale model of an archaeologist’s interpretation of the nearby ‘Homer’s School’ as the palace of Odysseus. It makes little sense, except to excite the visitor to find the archaeological site itself. That said, the model-maker spent long hours infusing his or her reading of recent excavations to fit the description of this great palace. The result is a sprawling flat-roofed complex erected from the flimsiest of archaeological evidence. 

Greek excavators from Ioannina who dreamed up this maquette were not the first to associate Stavros with Odysseus’ home. First up was a Derbyshire antiquarian better known for his books on Pompeii, the environs of Rome, and Aegean Turkey: William Gell (1777-1836). His trip to Ithaca was made in 1806 – at the height of the Napoleonic War – when the island had just come into British hands. Gell, as always, settled down at Stavros and not only drew ‘Homer’s School’, but immediately published a book, The Geography and Antiquities of Ithaca, which won him admission into the Society of Dilettanti and the admiration of Lord Byron. 

Not much has changed since Gell’s visit. The site still inhabits a charmed landscape. Finding ‘Homer’s School’ is not exactly straightforward – amazingly. It lies north of Stavros museum (shut in these times) on the east-facing slope below the monastery of Aghia Panagias. Inevitably, hiking trail signs lead you right to the site. Like Mount Aetos, this is a magical place, loud with insistent cicadas and with the faint tinkling of goat bells echoing through the dense groves of olive trees. The calm is absolute. Unlike the cone that detained Schliemann, ‘Homer’s School’ sits on a mid-slope terrace overlooking the deep vales reaching to bays at Afales on the north and Frinkon  to the east. The land is rich in ravishing arcadias, reds, pinks, and white, while far beyond are the dream-like silhouettes of the distant Pindus mountains. Penelope might have weaved  to her heart’s discontent on such a treasured hillside. 

A model of ‘Homer’s School’, presenting the archaeological site as a palace, on display at Stavros.

The archaeology is not quite as noble in its promise.  Yes, the rock-cut steps and even a miniature odeon alluringly depicted by Gell are visible below later Greek remains. Set within a farm abandoned in 1953, the most commanding feature is a well-preserved Hellenistic tower-house made of elaborately cut blocks. This was a powerfully built project that surely commanded northern Ithaca and its maritime approaches. The untidy ground around it is peppered with abandoned ‘Wheelerian’ box trenches – some covered with galvanised tin roofs, some open to the elements – exposing stubby lengths of walls of unknown date. Making sense  of these is impossible. The virtual museum in Stavros  piazza identifies each tell-tale block and attributes it to the palace. On site, though, without a plan, the puzzle is infuriatingly incomprehensible. 

This Hellenistic tower-house is the most imposing element of the various archaeological features known as ‘Homer’s School’. These lie within a farm abandoned in 1953.

Why, one wonders, did Schliemann ignore Gell’s romantic description? Was the German archaeologist too taken with the vaunting physicality of Mount Aetos? Did the location of ‘Homer’s School’ appear too effete and sumptuous to satisfy Schliemann’s view of Odysseus as a king from a poor island? 

A view over northern Ithaca, from ‘Homer’s School’.

Vathy, the capital of the island, lies in the centre of Ithaca,  15 miles south of ‘Homer’s School’. When the Ionian islands were under British hegemony, the governor, the Earl of Guilford, proposed a University of Ithaca be created here. The governor’s contemporary Henry Jervis-White-Jervis was not persuaded: ‘Visionary ideas of academical groves and of the birthplace of Ulysses do not form men to be useful citizens; and from one student who would have been sent there, a hundred men would have been turned out upon the world with their ideas confined to a barren rock and a few goats.’ 

The abandoned village of Vlachata. On 12 August 1953, an earthquake devastated this settlement, and many more on Kefalonia. Now the ruins of Vlachata are the setting for an annual folk festival.

Today, the busy little town occupies the head of a horseshoe-shaped bay. Its modest museum possesses a few grave goods from Mycenaean tombs, as well as later Hellenistic pots and grave goods from Alakomenai. Twenty years ago, when I first came here, I recall more cases stacked with objects, mostly from the sanctuary pumped out and excavated by Benton. These, it seems, are in store or elsewhere. Ithaca’s archaeological story has been eclipsed by its status as a yachting hub and with its eye on hikers too. In the port  square, a helpful map encourages visitors to explore the island’s many waymarked trails. Up above Vathy is a path that connects the Homeric-era Grotto of Nymphs, where excavations produced Bronze Age material, and the so-called Fountain of Arethusa. The archaeology is as underwhelming  as the long hazy views across the Ionian Sea to the mainland  are dazzling and well worth the journey. 

The other Ithaca

Was Kefalonia really Ithaca? A British team believes so. It is hard to imagine today. The island is mostly rugged, with wonderful seascapes. In reality, it is also one vast archaeological park, created when the 50-second earthquake on 12 August 1953 left devastation in its wake, as well as thousands of dead. The ferocity and impact of this seismic event is best seen at the abandoned village of Vlachata. This once-prosperous village of 800 souls looked eastwards to Ithaca from an arcadian valley in the grey spine of the island. In those awful seconds, it was reduced to rubble – and that is how it remains today. Standing in the little square, protected by a bower of high trees, the emptied village hums with woodland insects and distant goats rather than villagers. Its church, mill, school, shops, and dwellings were toppled and remain as a stark memorial to a fateful moment. Every August, the ruins are animated for a weekend with a folk festival, called Saristra (https://saristrafestival.gr). For the occasion, coloured streamers decorate a solitary tree in the thick dark woodland that has invaded the gardens behind the village school. Those who survived, moved to the anonymous beachside village of Karavomilos, which looks towards Mount Aetos on Ithaca. 

Abandoned terraces in northern Kefalonia. Until the 1953 earthquake, these were used to cultivate vines.

Almost every village on the island was crushed like Vlachata  on 12 August 1953. It was a searing moment in Kefalonian history. Every inch of this mountainous landscape until that moment was cultivated in breathtaking terracing. Shoulder-high drystone walls that would dazzle any waller from the Peak District or the Yorkshire Dales were the hallmark of the island’s principal industry before tourism replaced it in the 1990s. What grew on these terraces until 1953? Vines for raisins that were exported to Egypt. Vineyards are reappearing in the blissful vales within the mountains, but great emptied tracts criss-crossed with grey walling speak to a lost age, as distant as the world of Odysseus. 

This ghostly transformation of Kefalonia invites critical reflection as far as the other Ithaca is concerned. After all, it is  now more than obvious that the 1953 earthquake was far from unique and, indeed, not the most devastating to hit the island.  This brings us to the Odysseus Unbound Foundation’s project, created in the early 2000s by the (late) energetic businessman Robert Bittlestone, together with James Diggle, Professor of  Greek at Cambridge University, and John Underhill, Professor  of Geology at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh (www.odysseus-unbound.org). No one can doubt that this triumvirate have convincingly joined heady company in the history of Odyssean archaeology. With great purpose, they set out to demonstrate  that Ithaca was not Ithaca in the time of Odysseus. The crux of their argument is as follows. Before the late Bronze Age, the narrow Thinia valley was in fact a navigable channel, described by Strabo, separating Kefalonia from the projecting western arm of the island, which is known as Paliki. This western arm, in their opinion, was a low-lying island Odysseus called home. At first blush, this idea seems preposterous. Yet, like all bold notions,  time is lending it persuasive substance, especially as we grasp  the awesome impact of the earthquake in 1953. 

The nub of the argument by Bittlestone and his two colleagues  is simple. They believe a colossal seismic event occurred late in  the Bronze Age that fused ancient Ithaca/Paliki to Kefalonia. There’s no doubt that such an extraordinary event happened. Its transformative impact was felt far to the north of the islands, as at Butrint in Albania, where lagoon silts show a dramatic change in the coastal landscape. As for Kefalonia, the plates running along the Kefalonia Transform Fault must have moved massively in a Sturtzstrom event. In minutes, the Odysseus Unbound Foundation believe, Strabo’s Thinia passage separating the islands was lost, uniting Kefalonia and Paliki. 

Could it be that Paliki, now the western arm of Kefalonia, was once Ithaca? If so, what is now the Thinia valley must once have been submerged. Here we see the view towards the lost Thinia channel and how this valley appears today (right).

Does the archaeology support this bold hypothesis? If so, should modern Ithaca be worried that it might have to ship its busts of the mariner to towns and villages of their near neighbour? Sadly, very little is known about Bronze Age Paliki. The principal ancient site on the western shore of the placid Argostoli bay lay on a low rise above modern Pali to the north of the modern port of Lixouri. Archaic Pali, the sources show, was apparently a member of the Kefalonian Tetrapolis. Its hinterland encompassed some of the richest arable ground, as well as a protected embayment. Swallowed up by modern Lixouri, the critical remains have been lost. Further north, close to the Thinia channel, lies Livadi marsh. Prospection here in 2019 has given the Odysseus Unbound team hope of finding a Bronze Age harbour to rival Polis bay. As firm archaeological evidence is unearthed, the journey to Ithaca will surely become ever more  hotly debated. 

The swineherd’s legacy

Whichever was Odysseus’ homeland – modern Ithaca or Paliki,  and it is very possible that Homer (or, indeed, the Homers) creatively invented the settings for the epic – some pleasures, notwithstanding the cruel history of seismic events, endure. Let me name two. 

First, coming on this occasion into Ithaca’s harbour below  Mount Aetos, as the ferry slowed, I saw the shadows of a family  of five dolphins gliding silently away. The waters were so smooth  only a few bubbles signalled the path and speed of these creatures. Symbols in the art of the age of Odysseus, dolphins convey a blessing. In an instant, you cannot resist the temptation to smile  and take them as a sign that Ithaca has always been Ithaca.

The Fisherman’s Shack, where diners can enjoy an uncomplicated menu of small, medium, or large fish.

On the other hand, snorkel in these crystalline, clear waters and the precious bounty of the sea is obvious. Of all the many fish tavernas on Kefalonia, the most memorable is at the northern end of the long-lost Thinia channel. As its name suggests – Kaliva tou Psara (‘Fisherman’s Shack’) – elegant it is not. Yet, on the makeshift terrace, you dine (I choose the verb deliberately) while consuming views beyond Kiriaki bay, praying of course the plates don’t adjust again. Why is it so special? In a word, its simplicity is as ancient as the art of fishing. The menu consists of a choice of small or medium or large fish – nothing else. Each size is presented in a battered aluminium tray. All blissfully fresh, from the bay, served with pitchers of white wine and salad. It is a timeless feast for voyagers. One British customer while I was there, appalled by the simplicity and lack of a menu, pompously stalked off in his affected trilby. I, on the other hand, ate like a prince, comforted by the blue miles of sea, the towering white cliffs drifting northwards to Assos with the imperious Venetian fortress on its crown, and mirages of mountains above – the form of things, irregular, refracted, and essentially sublime. 

Eating at this shack, in the shadow of Homer’s story and its archaeologists with their theories, there is only the certainty of the puffs of cloud in the western sky and fare that Eumaeus the swineherd surely served Odysseus after his journey ended.