I've seen tiny Ithaca, one of the seven Ionian Islands, every which way and in all weathers. I strongly argue the case for visiting places out of season, and finding what it is that really sustains them. Every time I've been there, I have found it equally compelling, and thought I first met my friends Spero and Mal Raftopulos in summer, I have returned to stay with them in the winter and in autumn.
Ithaca, the seat of the Homeric legend of The Odyssey, is steeped in its tradition of exile and return, separation and nostalgia. The yearning for Ithaca is not the exclusive province of its own people though. I brought it home with me after my first visit, and I kept going back.
Spero Raftopulos returned with his Australian wife Mal to the island of his forefathers. They bought a piece of land on the top of the hill where Ulysses' lost city is supposed to be buried at Pilicata, where three hills meet and three seas can be seen. Together they built a home there.
With two small babies they camped under an olive tree for a year and laid the foundations of their future home, now a stunning manifestation of Spero's vision and his and Mal's extraordinary talent as builders. Kate and Naki played in mud and sat in buckets of water to wash it off, and kept cool in the hot weeks of summer.
The thousands of Ithacans in Australia or America dream of the time they will return "to leave their bones on Ithaca", as the locals say. Thus many wizened old chaps speak fluent English and can tell you endless tales of how life used to be here, when they had no shoes and lost their toenails kicking a football made of rags before walking 10 kilometers home from school. When this happened, they'd apply a tetanus vaccine of dried donkey dung to the open wound and bind it with a bandage made from a strip of their shirt.
Spero's ancestor, Levendi, a nickname meaning "a handsome man who excelled and stood out from others", was one of the first whose need to support his young wife took him in 1895 to Australia. Levendi - real name Efstathios Raftopulos - was a merchant adventurer who had regularly sailed his small boat to the Greek mainland towns of Zaverda and Preveza to trade wheat and olive oil for fresh produce and contraband tobacco. His expert seamanship and courage had given him his nickname. Everyone in Ithaca has one - mine, now, is "The Correspondent", on account of my endless letters to Mal and Spero.
Levendi and his descendants continued to come and go from Ithaca. Spero's own father, Nakissos, left at the age of 14, and didn't see Ithaca again for 40 years. When he arrived back at the main port of Vathi, he knelt and kissed the ground.
In 1953, Levendi's family home at Aphales Bay was, in common with 80 percent of the buildings on the island, razed to the ground in the earthquake which was to change a timeless way of life forever. In the aftermath thousands of people left, unable to face the task of rebuilding theirs lives, though many did through sheer guts.
Mal used to explore the area with the children, and kept going back to Pigathaki (Little Well), where Levendi's house had stood in a heart-stoppingly beautiful spot above the bay with its sheer limestone cliffs and emerald green waters.
You can scarcely believe the colour of the water, even in winter. Mal was drawn to the haunting beauty and sense of history of this spot, and gradually the idea of building Levendi's Cottages was born. They began the project of building four holiday cottages at Pigathaki, and despite problems which would have defeated lesser mortals, have created a paradise for visitors. their vision is of a year-round haven for guests - and I can vouch for the island's attraction out of season.
All Mal's knowledge of the history, traditions, and horticulture of the island has been brought to bear on the project. Together with Spero's genius as a builder, the cottages are as snug in winter with their wood-burning stoves as they will be in the summer with their terraces, big windows, and fly screens to allow constant fresh air.
In summer the attractions of Greek islands are obvious - hiring boats to visit the glorious isolated beaches inaccessible by the perilous mountain roads, fishing with the local fisherman with his traditional boat, long romantic dinners in the many tavernas under the start in the velvet sky.
Golden eagles circle the Aphales valley at this time, and you might glimpse one as you tread the silent little goat path on your way down for a swim in the translucent waters beneath the cottages
In autumn, without the throngs of summer, the light is at its clearest. Form the cottages the sunset on the limestone cliffs on the other side of the bay turns them from natural light gray through orange, pink and then mauve as the sun sinks. You can walk comfortably now, and also in spring with its mind-blowing display of flowers.
It's a painter's, botanist's and walker's dream in both spring and autumn, but not too hot to move around and explore the spectacular mountain scenery.
You can immerse yourself in the olive harvest in early November, the grape harvest in late August and watch the sheep shearing in spring. there are the festivals with women turning spit roast lamb, and halvas and romani (the traditional local rice putting) are carried in by the tray-load. All to be washed down by quantities of local wine.
In winter it's the writer's haven - I wrote a whole book there. You get your bread from the olive-wood fired baker's oven in Stavros, walk an hour or two, and sit in your snug cottage to look at the tempestuous drama of winter over Aphales, and draw your inspiration.
Nothing could be more romantic than the winter seas pounding off the cliffs. In the evening, wander into the village for long talks or card and backgammon games in the kafenion or visit the social center of the village, the "sugar shop".
Mal and Spero had a dream, and it has been realized. Impossible, now, that I won't be constantly drawn back to this island of nostalgia and the Sons of Levendi.