Greece: Odyssey to ancient isles

By James Frankham

The Greeks invented the most enduring, most popular, most commercially sophisticated and prescient system of governance ever devised, but the nation that perfected democracy seems to be struggling to preserve its economy. James Frankham embarks on a voyage to the mythical centre of the Greek soul in search of answers

Assos on the Island of Kefalonia in Greece. Photo / Getty Images
Assos on the Island of Kefalonia in Greece. Photo / Getty Images

The air smelled sweet as we drove northward over Kefalonia, a craggy isle jutting from the Ionian Sea that was the ancient homeland of Odysseus, the greatest of Greece's classical heroes largely credited with the defeat of Troy. (The horse was his idea.) He was the protagonist of Homer's account of that war, The Iliad, and the eponymous hero of the sequel The Odyssey, the tale of a man trying to get home that Homer draws out over 472 pages of more or less indecipherable prose.

The poems were penned at the height of Athenian power. But Hellenistic culture, born in Athens, was soon subcontracted to its neighbours - the Thebes, Macedonians and Romans - and Greece set a course for political ruination that seems to play out to this day. But, as I was to find out, the Greek identity remains alive and well in the provinces, and no more so than in the mythical homeland of its archetypal hero, Odysseus.

The sun cast long shadows from the masts of yachts moored along the harbour's edge in Fiskardo, a picturesque fishing village at the northern tip of the island.

Our craft bobbed gently before us - 10m of fibreglass that would provide a home away from home for a week and a vehicle to explore the islands beyond the breakwater.

The vessel, the handful moored alongside it and dozens more fleets of similar charter boats that frequent the coasts of Greece belong to enterprising New Zealander Barry Neilson. Originally a motorcycle mechanic from Invercargill, Neilson came to Greece in the 70s and fell in love, first with cruising the Mediterranean coast, then with a British girl who would become his wife and business partner. From a fleet of seven boats they scrubbed, sanded and painted their way into one of the largest charter operations in the Med, offering bare-boat cruising to anyone with a sense of adventure, sailing experience or not.

We set out from Fiskardo, cutting through water the colour and clarity of Bombay Sapphire gin, to head south down through the narrow channel that separates the east coast of Kefalonia from the smaller isle of Ithaca. The passage is renowned for katabatic winds that tumble down from the high peaks above and siphon between the islands, laying vessels flat. But conditions were rather moderate and, after a few hours, we tossed lines ashore at Sami, a prosperous and powerful town in the Hellenistic era.

I sought sanctuary from the sapping heat in a Greek Orthodox church. Inside, stained glass windows cast a dappled light upon the apse, which echoed with the baritone drone of half a dozen Greek men singing the liturgy and swinging thuribles belching plumes of incense. The devoted rose to their feet and sunk to their knees according to the well-practised rituals of the orthodox Eucharist. They crossed their chests.

The church-goers find, I suppose, security in their certain salvation in Father God, even as their economy crumbles under the burden of unassailable debt, under the weight and expectations of Mother Europe. As incomprehensible as the service seemed to me, it was moving. And walking through the enormous cypress doors into the heat and noise and brilliant glare of downtown Sami felt like passing through a portal from one world to another.

A good breeze cut through the Ithaca Channel the next morning, so we wasted no time casting off. Bubbles rolled down the waterline like glass marbles, winking in the morning light. But as quickly as it appeared, the breeze died again, the Ionian Sea an undulating mirror casting pearly reflections upon the underside of our yacht's bimini cover.

We continued east and north along the coast of Ithaca with the thrum of the diesel engine, past great escarpments of granite flanked with scrub and tortured structures of golden stone projecting from the sea like tombstones. Cypresses rose from the landscape like rockets.

Around the corner was Vathi, where granite walls fell, fjord-like, into the sea, and houses with deep windows and tiled roofs were scattered like small pastel cubes.

As in all of these seaside settlements, the waterfront real estate was occupied by lurching, impromptu constructions of creaking, rough-hewn timber and iron roofs, sparkling with the nail-holes of previous creations. Yet on the rickety tables of these beach-side tavernas, in cracked crockery, arrived food experiences that challenged my notions of food.

Lamb surrendered instantly, falling off the bone as one approached with a fork. Aubergines - a troublesomely soggy vegetable in the hands of a novice - had a creamy quality, and fruit - apricots, prunes, olives - were baked until they forfeited their structure and oozed, syrupy, into the dish. Hunks of feta, fresh bread (ropey crust, cotton interior) and bright, smart red wine. A hot breeze, sparkling water, the clatter of olive leaves. There were many things to recommend in the poorly constructed taverna.

The next day, dark threads of breeze weaved

through bright channels. The sails, so long hanging limp, snapped into shape, gossamer wings to the building zephyr. The boat shouldered aside the chop as a rolling wave of bubbles formed at the bow, whispering old secrets as it plunged into each wave, hissing and spitting as it rose out.

There's an unusual feeling of triumph when sailing like this. You're aligned with the forces of nature, turning them to your benefit. Your past is in your wake, a receding dot. Your destination - your future - before your plunging bow. It feels like you're really getting somewhere, unhindered. It feels like ... like you're winning.

We entered Sivota with speed and panache, dropping sails and lashing up to the dock just inches from diners at waterfront tables enjoying souvlaki and icecream sundaes.

Further down the dock, a Greek woman who looked to be in her 70s heaved on a rope, threading lead weights that would take a net to depth. Beside her, her son stitched on floats. Beside him, his son worked tiny fish out of a gill net: three generations living off the bounty of the sea and sharing the same dock as a flotilla of 50-foot charter yachts with rich Italians jabbering loudly and sloshing prosecco. Europe's glitterati and Greece's subsistence fishermen exist here cheek by jowl, each ignoring the other - those who have benefited from the Union, and those utterly indifferent to the machinations of international politics.

This is the tragedy of rural Greece. The family tend their nets, water their geraniums and watch, year by year, as the boats get larger, the tourists get richer and more numerous, even as their fish is worth less and less. The tavernas across the bay multiply each season and their children turn their back on the piscatorial tradition for a new industry - their fate linked no longer to the blind indifference of the Ionian Sea, but to the whim and fancy of tourists, like me.

We left Greece the next day, but I watched on with new interest and rapidly developing horror as wild fires broke out clear across the country. Then, political infernos: The austerity measures proved unpopular. Athens riots. The Prime Minister resigns. Greece defaults.

Suddenly it seemed as if all of Europe was bellowing smoke. The divide between Europe's rich and poor that was obvious in Greece - the indifference, the contempt - proved combustible.

I think of the old woman of Sivota, the tanned Italians in their gin palaces, the tourists and the orthodox devotees seeking joy in such different places. It seemed inevitable. Whatever would Homer have thought?

Perhaps there's a clue in The Odyssey. When Odysseus finally reaches Ithaca, the goddess Athena - the embodiment of Greek aspiration and pride - warns him of the forthcoming trials he would face to wrest his family and his homeland from the clutches of greedy suitors, durable advice from the great poet that rings down through the centuries to the citizens of contemporary Greece facing similar hardship:

"Endure them all. You must. You have no choice."


Checklist Kefalonia

GETTING THERE: Emirates provides daily services from Dubai to Athens with connections from its three daily flights from Auckland.

DETAILS: Sailing Holidays Ltd runs flotilla yachts around the Ionian, Saronic and Sporades Islands of Greece.

Conditions are largely calm and previous experience is usually not necessary.

Bareboat charters are available in Greece, Turkey, Croatia, Italy and Spain for those with a New Zealand Boatmaster's certificate. sailingholidays.com

- NZ Herald

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