We had left Crete on the 8th of May and were sailing towards the Ionian Sea. 24 hours later Crete was still looming on our starboard side as if we’d gotten nowhere. It is a big island, but our progress was very slow indeed. We were sailing close-hauled, and a lot of the time the wind was so light we had to motor.
Often, the first passage of the season – for us, anyway – is a real shakedown cruise. The sort of a test you might not pass with flying colours – we don’t, anyway. Feeling antsy after a long winter lull, you head out to sea with impatient hopes and ambitious plans. You forget it takes time to adjust to the movement of the boat and the erratic appetite and sleep schedule. All your “sailing muscles” start to ache with the sudden, heavy use. In the Mediterranean, the spring winds are sometimes unreliable, often very light, and very often from the wrong direction. Usually, they’re more adverse than forecast – for us, anyway!
When the sun came up at sea after the second sleepless night our exhaustion was becoming very evident. Right next to us, we saw the rugged-looking island of Kythira. Not particularly tempting, but there was a good anchorage marked on the chart. We would take a short break here and let the Ionian wait for a little bit longer!
As we approached the rocky coast we began to see capes and spits with little coves behind them. We anchored in front of a half-moon beach in the fairly protected bay of Kapsáli. There was only one other sailboat in the anchorage and a coast guard vessel moored to a ferry dock. Later, a few boats came and went, but there was no rush of tourists yet.
Kythira lies off the Peloponnese mainland, south of Cape Malea, the easternmost of the three fingers. Surprisingly, it’s one of the Ionian islands. The connection is only historical, though – geographically we’re still in the Aegean Sea. It’s a rather small island, 30 km by 18 km in size, but the strategic position along an important sea route has warranted its long and eventful history. Not to mention the fact that goddess Aphrodite herself emerged out of sea foam on this very island (some say it was Cyprus, but I don’t believe them)!
The island has been ruled in turns by the Minoans, the Myceneans, the Dorians, the Phoenicians, the Spartans and who knows who else. The Phoenician colony traded with a colour pigment found in sea snails native to Kythira. They say you would need 10 000 snails to make one gram of dye, and that’s why the famous “Tyrian Purple” was reserved only for the robes of emperors. Later, the island was part of the Roman and then the Byzantine empire. Then, Venice took over. Kapsáli was an important harbour for the Venetians. They built a strong fortress on a nearby hill above the bay in the 13th century. From there, they could observe all the marine traffic in both the Ionian and the Aegean seas, as well as Crete.
After our morning arrival, we napped until the afternoon before dinghying into the Kapsáli village. There are seaside restaurants and drink bars side by side along the main street, and a few souvenir shops. Still, the atmosphere is cosy and pleasant, very unlike many tourist traps we’ve seen along our travels – Mykonos with its sky-rocketing prices comes to mind. There are many holiday apartments and small hotels in the village, but no large resorts. A perfect place for a beach holiday, even if you’re not a real beach holiday person. There are only 3000 permanent inhabitants on Kythira. During the holiday season, the number triples, but it’s still far from a mass tourism destination.
The next day, we climbed up to Chora, the main town – in the Aegean islands the capital usually goes by the same name as the island itself but is mostly called “chora”, the main town. It’s only a couple of kilometres from Kapsáli, but it’s steep uphill all the way. Chora is a very pretty, densely built old white mountain village. The narrow alleys and little plazas offer beautiful views and are full of historical details from the Aegean Greek world as well as Venetian towns.
Our first visit to Chora was enough to convince us that Kythira was worth a more thorough visit. A longer stay suited us weatherwise, too, because the forecast showed only westerly headwinds for the foreseeable future. We were in no hurry to get back to beating against them.
Fortezza – the Castle of Kythira
Naturally, we had to see the Chora castle. We put on proper hiking shoes and packed water bottles in our backpacks. Before long, we reached the castle gates. There was no one in the ticket office and only a handful of visitors inside the castle walls. It’s surreal how anyone could have built this mighty castle on such a steep mountain, and that it has stayed there through all these centuries. It still commands the landscape with its majestic power.
The oldest fortress of Kythira, Palaiochora, was situated in the island’s northern part. It was built during the Byzantine era, in the 12th century. Barbarossa, the notorious Turkish admiral, destroyed Palaiochora and many of the island’s inhabitants in 1537. The incident still has a major role in the island’s folklore. After the destruction of the old castle, the focus moved to the southern fortress, Fortezza. Most of the structures visible today date back to the 16th century.
Of the four churches inside the walls, the church of Pantokrator – the Allmighty – is the oldest, from 1545. The layers of lime wash of many centuries have softly rounded its corners. Inside the church, there are fantastic murals. My particular favourite was the one depicting Eve’s temptations with the snake in Paradise – pretty steamy, if you believe the artist’s interpretation!
We hiked back down along an offroad trail through a steep valley. The views were wonderful – we could see the snow-capped mountains of Crete in the distance. As we descended the hillside we had to watch our step: plenty of steep curves, loose gravel and prickly thorn bushes!
East coast of Kythira and Avlémonas
We were so excited about the Kythiran landscapes we decided to rent a car for a day and drive a little further to see the island. Another reason was the weather, again – we might need to get a little more fuel if the headwinds persisted, and there was no fuel station in Kapsáli. We found a car and headed first towards the eastern shore and a small fishing village called Avlémonas. It’s a nice place to anchor, too, when arriving on a boat. There was a beautiful natural swimming pool, with the tourist village around it just getting ready for a new season. A couple of restaurants were open, so we had a lunch break.
We took a spin around Diakófti bay to see the ferry terminal. Ferries from Piraeus and Neápoli land here. The water is Bahamian blue. The island’s airport is also nearby.
Then we headed across the island towards the opposite shore. Near the centre, close to the town of Livádi, we passed a handsome arched bridge. Katouni Bridge was built by the British in 1826.
Near the western coast of Kythira, we parked our car under a bush and continued on foot into a lush forest. It was shady and quiet, but after a while, we started hearing a soft murmur of water, then a louder hiss. It was the waterfall of Fonisa.
Kythira is an island of opposites. It looks dry and barren on the outside but boasts fertile valleys, olive groves and hidden fairylands with rivers, streams and waterfalls in its interior. If we had sailed past Kythira, as our original plan was, briefly checking it out through binoculars, we would never have known what a little paradise we had missed. Not surprisingly, this island quickly made its way to our list of potential retirement homes, for that distant day we no longer feel like sailing and living aboard. It’s not every day you come across places like that.
We continued deeper into the woods and found an old water mill at the end of the footpath. The water is led to the mill far above the stream’s level and ends up in a kind of a stone tube funnelling into the building, with the water wheel and grinding stones inside. What a place this would be for a restaurant!
We stopped in the village of Mylopotamos for coffee. There’s a nice, cool terrace under big old trees by the river, next to a tall bell tower. Below, the river meanders under fascinating arched tunnels and bridges.
Kato Chora Castle
Click the image above to see it in a bigger window!
From Mylopotamos, we drove a short distance to the village of Kato Chora. There’s a small fortress from the 16th century, also by the Venetians. This teeny little dot on Google maps turned out to be a real gem we could have spent a whole day exploring! We roamed around wondering at the numerous churches and church ruins – originally nine of them” – dreading the steep edge of the gorge at the foot of the buildings. It’s a dangerous place to be lost in your daydreams for sure!
On our way back home we stopped to enjoy the evening sun over the western sea. It was a good spot for making passage plans: I could see the whole Peloponnese, the Ionian Sea, and maybe as far as Sicily if I tried. Go west! That was our plan, and we would head out to sea very soon!
I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does… I wonder how the road beyond it goes – what there is of green glory and soft, checkered light and shadows – what new landscapes – what new beauties – what curves and hills and valleys further on.L.M. Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
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