No place like Homer

Kate Armstrong embarks on a Greek adventure where the locals never let fact ruin a good myth.

On the Greek island of Ithaca the locals joke that many things run on GMT (Greek Maybe Time). The school bus, which doubles as public transport in high season, arrives and departs as it pleases and shops and cafes operate on the whim of their owners.

The same can't be said for a group of elderly men who gather every morning without fail at the local kafeneio (coffee house). Here, while sipping on short blacks and clicking and twirling their worry beads, they chat and argue over games of cards. This tradition seems as ancient as the Greek myths themselves and these old blokes, as I discover each morning over my own strong coffee brew, can spin a damn good yarn. After all, Ithaca is the kind of place where myths are made.

It is the home of the legendary Greek king and Homeric hero, Odysseus (or Ulysses). If you're not so hot on Greek mythology before you get here, you'll be an expert by the time you leave. According to Homer's Iliad, Odysseus left home for 10 years, fought in several epic wars and then spent another 10 years trying to sail home from Troy to his loyal wife Penelope (as described in The Odyssey). Along the way, he fended off sirens, monsters and tempestuous seas. He made it home.

Sailing is still a popular way to explore Ithaca; keen yachties charter vessels and retrace parts of Odysseus' voyage. My friend and I, however, arrive by regular ferry. The vista before us is stunning. Ithaca looks like two large islands joined by a narrow isthmus - a spine defined by sheer cliffs and steep mountainous passages. The peninsulas are high, dry and rocky, with pockets of green pine forests and olive groves.

The southern peninsula features Vathy, the island's tiny capital, where pretty Venetian-style mansions line the elongated waterfront. Only 30 minutes' drive away, on the northern peninsula, are the beautiful fishing hamlets of Kioni and Frikes with their bougainvillea, wildflowers and small, pebbly coves.

The island's hidden beaches and crystal-clear, turquoise waters attract all kinds of tourists, including Madonna and comedian Rowan Atkinson.

Ithaca's permanent population of about 3700 swells considerably in summer when tourists and expatriates arrive. After an earthquake in 1953, many Ithacans left their childhood villages for South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Many who left for Australia are now returning in their retirement or for lengthy holidays to reconnect with the island of their youth. As a result, the island's myths and mysteries live on.

Over a rovani, Ithaca's traditional rice and honey sweet, Alexandros, a 71-year-old returnee, explains the Odysseus-Ithaca controversy. Homeric enthusiasts, such as the Friends of Odysseus, a group of passionate locals, have little doubt that Ithaca is the island in Homer's Odyssey. Sceptics, on the other hand, claim the island's scant archaeological remains don't exactly match Homer's text with the island location. The debate and conspiracy theories rage; the island holds annual academic conferences and Ithacans whisper about "future announcements" and "proof". Strong evidence exists in the key exhibit of Vathy's archaeological museum - small ancient coins stamped with the image of Odysseus (identified by his pointy hat).

Ithaca's island characters are integral to any traveller's tale. There's Nikos, the owner of the kafeneio in the sleepy village of Anogi, who tries to sell us his well-fingered postcards before handing over the keys to the neighbouring 12th-century church, Agia Panagia. The church's interior is covered in extraordinary Byzantine frescos.

Then there's Fotini, an Australian-Greek who despite her crippling arthritis volunteers at the tiny museum in the village of Stavros. She bellows out information about her ancient hero, irrelevant to most of the exhibits.

Within a couple of days we tick off the important Odyssean sites. There's the Fountain of Arethusa, a small, rocky waterhole on the southern peninsula where Odysseus' swineherder, Eumaeus, brought his pigs to drink; the Bay of Dexa, a small cove west of Vathy believed to be ancient Phorkys, where Odysseus arrived home safely; and the School of Homer - now moss-covered rock ruins. The "school" is tenuously linked to Odysseus; some claim that at this site students may have learned about Homer.

As proud as they are of the sites, locals seem to visit them rarely. As I discover, while picking my way along the rocky goat paths lined by prickly bushes, access to these revered locations is often no more than an overgrown trail with little, or no, signage.

The walks are hot and the sun is blistering but the routes reveal extraordinary 360-degree views of the ocean and surrounding islands. Other (non-Homeric) paths are cleared and marked, thanks to the efforts of the energetic Greek-Australian elderly returnee, Denis Skinari. We head off on one of his recommended trails from the village of Anogi to Katharon Monastery, a white-washed, rustic monastery with twisted olive trees and resident goat herds. Set at one of the highest points of the island, access is via a switchback road and the top affords stupendous views of the island and the neighbouring island of Kefallonia.

Ithaca's cuisine alone is worth the trip. We avoid eating at the line of identical tavernas along Vathy's waterfront, which serve tourist-issue moussaka and souvlaki. Instead, locals recommend Drosia, a modest eatery in Vathy. We lounge at rustic outdoor tables and feast on traditional Ithacan dishes: riganado (slices of bread dipped in water and topped with olive oil, tomato, oregano and white local cheese) followed by a plate of savoro (fried fish marinated in garlic, vinegar, rosemary and raisins). BYO takes on another meaning here. Our fellow guests have brought their own bouzouki, a Greek version of the mandolin, and heartily pluck away.

On our final day I head to my regular kafeneio to farewell my posse of elderly friends. We discuss Australian politics, the soccer and the suburb in Melbourne where I used to live, a mostly Greek neighbourhood. One man pipes up: "You know my cousin? He also live there." Greeks, I realise, often hone in on the background of someone else's family; no Google maps are required to pinpoint their origin. In Greece, a surname denotes where you come from, to the village. Perhaps I do know his cousin, I say. Incredibly, when he names the suburb, I really do know a Mr Moraitis and, as we establish, it's the very same one. As though this type of long-distance connection happens every day, the old man responds: "Yeah, thadda one ... He also come back here every year. He come now but his plane have problem. He delayed."

"Just like Odysseus?" I quip. Delighted, the old man guffaws: "Yeah! Like Odysseus ..."

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Emirates have regular flights to Athens. Ferries to Ithaca depart from Patras, mainland Greece. If you are hopping around the Ionian Islands, ferries run between Ithaca and Kefallonia and Lefkada. See ferries.gr/strintzis-ferries for more information.

Staying there

Captain Panos Apartments has two one-bedroom apartments from EUR55- EUR85 ($112-$173) a day and a studio with private amenities from EUR50- EUR70. Email panosapt@acn.gr. Phone +30 26740 32383.

Further information

See ithacagreece.com and follow the links to "walking tracks" or phone Denis Skinari on +30 26740 31080.

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