Reasons to Fall in Love with Kythira
Located off the south coast of the Peloponnese
, Kythira has its own unique vibe, fantastic beaches and a wealth of villages, each with its own character.
has long had an air of romance attached to it. It is evident in the myths of the birth of Aphrodite off the coast of the island; it can be seen in cultural references to the island, such as the 18th century painting by Jean Antoine Watteau “Pilgrimage to Cythera” depicting cherubs flitting around besotted couples against a lush, idyllic backdrop.
They say that when traveling, each person brings their own personal perception. On Kythira I didn’t see the romantic island that I had in mind, but a land that was down-to-earth, agricultural and green – a place that reminded me of the Cretan countryside, with a plethora of villages, each with its own distinct character. Some are incredibly beautiful, while others are so quiet that not even a prowling cat disturbs the stillness.
I also discovered that it is one of the most interesting islands that I have ever visited, with a rather confused sense of identity: it is located off the south coast of the Peloponnese, is considered to be one of the Heptanese islands of the Ionian and administratively belongs to the Region of Attica.
Interestingly, the island also has a unique framework regarding public lands: thanks to a system inherited from the onetime British rulers, whatever land is not private belongs to the “Enchoria Periousia” (meaning “Domestic Wealth”). This means that the central government has no claim over non-private lands, monasteries or nearby islets; instead these are controlled by a committee that represents the local residents.
According to the painter Manolis Charos, a permanent resident, of Kythira, this has meant that each village was able to maintain its own distinct character. Unlike in much of Greece, illicit building has been kept to a minimum as non-private expanses do not belong to the Greek state in general but directly to the local population Kythirans. As such any illegal building would be met with a severe local response.
Aside from maintaining their traditional characters, it appears that Kythira’s villages have also often been resistant to large changes in their populations. “The same families always inhabit the same villages. The Sklavos family has lived in Mitata since the age of pirates. The Zervos family has been in Mylopotamos since 1300. Kythira was never one community, it was North and South” Charos says, an claim many other locals confirm.
Beyond that, Kythira also appears to enchant outsiders, many of whom have abandoned their former lives to move to the island. Our hotel is owned by a Frenchman, we meet a herbal-therapist who is is Italian-Scottish, an artist originally form Athens and many others over the course of our three-day stay who have made Kythira their home.
What else does should a visitor know about this multifaceted island? Two things. The first is that the points of interest are not in one area but scattered about (eg. the Chora is 25km from Diakofti, the island’s port, a roughly a 40 minute drive away) so to get around Kythira you need to bring / rent a car. The second is that, unlike other destinations in the south of Greece, Kythira has a short tourism season. If you want the hubbub of high season come in August; if you prefer quiet serenity opt for other months.
The island's castles
Kythira resembles the neighboring Peloponnese in having plenty of castles. These include Paliochora (the onetime capital of Kythira that was sacked by the Ottoman pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa), Mylopotamos (a Venetian castle full of charming ruins), the 16th century ‘Kastelo’ of Avlemona and, of course, the Castle of Kythira (aka Fortetsa) in Chora, a 13th century Venetian fort that was rebuilt in the 16th century and is one of the island’s best sights with stunning views.
One of the most notable features of the last, is an exhibition of the coats of arms of the island’s various noble families. It may be small but the explanatory texts shed light on the island’s history and the powerful families that arrived from Crete in the Middle Ages.
The stories hidden everywhere
“Up to here… No further,” one tourist says to his wife a short distance before reaching the Castle of Kythira, out of breath from the (not particularly demanding) uphill route. But even the spot the tourist stopped to catch his breath is worth exploring, because right there, a short distance away from the castle’s gate, are two houses across from one another – one white and one pink – that form part of the town’s history.
As one can read on the plaques outside, the pink house belonged to the family of Roza Kasimati, the mother of Yakumo Koizumi (aka Lafcadio Hearn), a Greek-Irish writer who spent part of his life in Japan, fell in love with the country and wrote several great books about it. Across the narrow street, the white house once belonged to Nikolay Filosofov, a Russian admiral who lived a turbulent life and who fled Russia and the Bolsheviks with his family following the October Revolution. He ended up a lighthouse-keeper on the nearby island of Antikythera. And so a small alley just outside the castle gates proves to be unexpectedly cosmopolitan.
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