Having spent over a week in a strangely separated from the world environment of a beach camp-site near Gythio, and after a not-inconsiderable hassle and expense of having the back window in the increasingly more battered Skoda replaced (the back story to this one is too long and painful, but it involved keys, children and a silly drilling attempt), we pack up and leave. Amazingly, we seem to have more room in the boot despite having more stuff. We drive to Gythio and manage to get tickets for the afternoon ferry to Kythira. The boat arrives on time but things take a little longer in Greece and it's at least 45 minutes before we can drive on – a very long time to wait in a car in over 40 degrees heat. At least, we park up on the car deck and find ourselves some outside spaces.
Most of the 3 hour journey is in the Lakonikos Kolpos, the Gulf of Laconia, and the route takes us closer to the first finger of the Pelopnesse – the Laconia: even more wild and desolate looking, if not as high as the Mani.
We arrive at dusk, and the island raises from the sea in steep, raggedy cliffs, the rock-sides covered with scrubby bush, wind swept and storm beaten. According to the ancient myth, Aphrodite emerged from the waves near Kythira (others say it was near Cyprus), but the beauty of the island is of a wilder and more rugged kind. The empty landscape between the ferry port and the main road through the island resembles a British moor, although the plants are – obviously – different.
The ferry moored at Diakofto, one of the island's main ports, and the newest one: it's actually located on an islet connected to the main island by a bridge. Near another islet, a wrecked ship sticks its aft end from the water at a precarious angle.
It's surprising how different Kythira is from the Pelopnesse mainland and other Greek islands we have seen (mostly the ones near Athens). The wild moor-like landscape becomes tamer when the road from the port joins the main road that runs north-south along Kythira's length. We don't have much information, but decide to go south, to the Chora (Kythira), the traditional capital of the island.
Chora is a maze of white-washed alleys and flat-roofed, blazing white houses with blue shutters just like one sees on countless Greek postcards and posters, architecture I associate with Cyclades and didn't expect it here. Kythira is nominally part of the Ionian islands (although nowadays it officially belongs to the Attica prefecture), but more because of historical factors than geography or culture.
We find a lovely studio, available for three days at last-minute prices (the beds look very beguiling, and so does the air-conditioner, but then it would after over a week of camping in a very small tent) and the wander down the labyrinth of white lanes, past a couple of picturesque churches to the main street of Chora, for the best (so far) souvlaki we had in Greece.
The next day, after a lovely, soft-bedded, air-conditioned sleep we climb up to the Kythira castle, a rambling assemblage of ruined and half-ruined buildings sitting atop a rock that overlooks Kypseli harbour below. In the distance, a rocky shape that we take to be Anti-kythira, and beyond, a darker shade of cloud indicates the mountains of the western end of Crete. Below, small coves and rocky islets surrounded by water in all shades of blue. Yesterday's strong wind has somewhat subsided and it's hot again, but as it's still before the noon, it's not quite baking yet.
Kythira's records go back into the darkness of the prehistory. Archaeological finds indicate presence – or at least trade contacts – with the Minoans, which is hardly surprising considering that Crete is fairly close. After that, the island was under the Spartan and then Athenian rule to become a Venetian possession for several hundreds of years. Ottoman rule was relatively short lived on Kythira, but piracy was common in this part of the Mediterranean and Barbarossa among others turned up here. In the late 18th century Kythira passed into French hands (as did the rest of the Ionians) and after Napoleon's defeat, it became a British protectorate to then join independent Greece in 1860's.
The castle bears marks of all those recent layers of history, but at the moment is mostly a well-maintained but very picturesque ruin and a fantastic vantage point to look over the surrounding area.
The island is dotted with churches and monasteries, some dating to Byzantine times. There are also castles and forts in addition to the most impressive Chora one, but substantial ancient remains are few and far between. And yet one gets the feeling that people have lived in some part of the island for thousands of years. We drive towards Paleopoli one day, and between craggy mountains, the valleys are greener and cultivated and clearly marked by old terracing. What looks like building foundation hewn into the rock is visible behind a walled vegetable garden and drystone walls, some clearly very old, divide the hillsides. The temple of the Aphrodite was somewhere nearby, and on the highest hill overlooking the area, Minoan remains have been discovered: now a white chapel marks a continuity of human yearning for the heavens.
Another day we take a dip in a swimming hole under a tumbling waterfall, a clear, cold water that leaves one refreshed for a long time afterwards.
Kythira abounds in beaches, both sandy and shingle, often reached by a winding dirt track tumbling down from a high hillside. Some are completely uncultivated, others offer basic service (i.e. brolly hire and a bar), others are in coves surrounded by picturesque villages.