An island known worldwide from Homer’s Odyssey, a mythical and symbolic place, the desired homeland of return for King Odysseus and his companions. Ithaca covers an area of 96 sq. km., has a coastline 101 km. long and lies 2 n.m. east of Kefalonia. Its western part is mountainous and treeless, with precipitous coastal cliffs, whereas the east, in contrast, has rich vegetation and slopes gently to the sea.
Myth has it that the island, inhabited by man since prehistoric times, is named after Ithakos, son of Poseidon and Amphimile. During the Mycenaean period it acquired great power, as is attested by the Homeric epics (Iliad and Odyssey). Neverthless, despite archaeological investigations, the Homeric capital of Odysseus and his palace have not been found, possibly because of the catastrophic earthquakes that have struck the region many times since time immemorial. An important turning point in Ithaka’s history was its capture by the Normans and later by the Orsini family (12th c.). During the ensuing centuries its fortunes were the same as those of the other Ionian Islands.
The island’s capital and port is Vathy, a pretty Heptanesian town built on the site of the Homeric harbour of Phorkys, in a gulf that is sheltered and deep (Gr. vathys), hence its name. Inside the enclosed bay is the verdant islet named Lazareto (or Soteras) with a small chapel of the Saviour and ruins of Venetian buildings (in the period of British rule it was used as a quarantine station). The Archaeological and the Folklore-Maritime Museum, as well as the Library of the town are of particular interest, while the Greek Orthodox cathedral of the Virgin has a noteworthy wood-carved iconostasis (of 1793) and belltower (1820). At the entrance to the harbour are the ruins of a Venetian castle.
THE VILLAGES – SIGHTS OF INTEREST
The shadow of the Homeric king still hovers over Ithaca and several place names refer to him. The area of Aetos (a narrow isthmus linking the north and south parts of the island) is well worth a visit. Known as ‘Castle of Odysseus’ (ancient city of Alkamenae), this is where the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, while searching for the ‘Odysseiakon Asty’, discovered remains of walls and temples as well as significant finds, most of which are now in the British Museum, London. Also associated with mythology and the Odyssey is the Cave of the Nymphs, 3 km. west of Vathy. In the north part of the island is the isolated hamlet of Anogi, built on a plateau upon Mt Niritos, with a spectacular view of the open sea and a notable church of the Dormition of the Virgin, decorated with Byzantine wall paintings. Dispersed around the village loom tall rocks, the so-called Menhirs, while a short distance beyond, at an altitude of 600 m., is the Katharon monastery, dedicated to the Virgin. Other pretty villages in the north of the island are Aghios Ioannis, Lefki, built on the west slope of Mt Niritos, with its outport of Ammoudaki, and Stravros. The last is the largest village on Ithaca, 17 km. northwest of Vathy, in an area of considerable archaeological interest. About 1 km. north of Stavros is Pilikata Hill, where excavations have brought to light remains of a small settlement of the third millennium BC, with a section of a Cyclopean fortification wall and a paved street. On the basis of the finds recovered, which are exhibited in a building in the area, archaeologists suspect that the ancient city of Ithaca was situated here.
Close to the small harbour of Stavros, in the Bay of Polis, is the Loizos Cave. This is a very ancient place of worship in which were discovered potsherds with graffiti, that bear witness to the cult of the goddesses Artemis, Hera and Athena. Twelve tripods, reminiscent of the Phaeacians’ gift to Odysseus, were also found here. Further north is Exogi, the remotest village on Ithaka, built at 500 m. a.s.l. and with a superb view. Next come Platreithia, in a verdant landscape with Mycenaean remains in a nearby locality known as ‘Homer’s School’, and the coastal village of Frikes (on the east side), with the picturesque little harbour (from where the ferry boats depart for Kefalonia and Lefkada) and the windmills. Last is the very beautiful village of Kioni (which has been declared a protected settlement), with its cosmopolitan ambience and natural harbour. The villages of Mavronas and Rachi are also located in this region. In the south part of the island is the small inland village of Perachori, to the southwest of which is the monastery of the Taxiarchs, which was founded in 1645. A rural tourism co-operative has been formed in the village, which markets organically farmed produce and lets traditional houses as accommodation for visitors. Hereabouts too are the ruins of the Medieval settlement of Palaiochora, which was capital of the island until the mid-sixteenth century. Visible are remains of stone-built houses and Byzantine churches. Further south, on the coast opposite the islet of Pera Pigadi, tradition has it that the Spring of Arethousa and the Homeric ‘Korax Petra’ ( crow stone) were located, while according to myth the pigsty of Hermaios, Odysseus’ swineherd, was at neighbouring Elliniko.
Ithaca has many lovely beaches to suit all tastes. Close to the town, there is good swimming at Tsirpis, Loutsa, Paliokaravo, Sarakiniko, which is an anchorage for yachts, and Filiatro, the most popular beach in the area. Further north is the superb beach of Gidaki, along with Skinos and Mnimata, while on the Aetos Isthmus is the beach of Aetos. In northern Ithaka are the beaches of Aspros Yalos, the bay of Polis, Afales, Limenia and Kourvoulia (at Frikes) and Sarakinari (at Kioni).
EVENTS – OTHER INFORMATIONS
Numerous cultural events are organized at Vathy: music and theatre festival (July-August), events for Odysseus and Homer (late August-early September). Traditional religious feasts are celebrated in many villages: of the Virgin (8 September) in the Katharon monastery. In August there is a Wine Festival in Perahori with local dances, food and drink. At Vathy and the island’s main resorts there is a wide
choice of places to eat and enjoy oneself. There are also facilities for watersports. Private seacraft can dock in the marina at Vathy, at Polis, Frikes and Kioni, to refuel and replenish water supplies.
Typical local products are olive oil, wine and embroideries.
USEFUL TELEPHONE NUMBERS
Municipality: 26740 32.795
Ithaka Police Station: 26740 32.205
Harbour Authority (Vathy): 26740 32.909
Health Centre: 26740 32.222