An island for all seasons and all stories, the tiny jewel in the Ionian Sea that is Ithaca, is steeped in myth and tradition. It's the seat of the legends of The Odyssey and The Iliad, and carries a theme of separation and loss, nostalgia and reunion. Odd types turn up to meetings of the Homer Society, gently mocked and derided by the locals who go along for the entertaining spectacle of earnest intellectuals debating the whereabouts of Ulysses' lost city:
The strange route by which I have come to know Ithaca so well has given me at least one theory about this much sought after site. It just may be that Ulysses' burial place its directly underneath the home of my friends, Mal and Spero Raftopulos.
Their own story is another strand in the pattern of exile and return to the island where, the locals have it, everyone comes home in the end to "leave their bones on Ithaca." Spero Raftopulos' family has been traveling backwards and forwards between Australia and Ithaca, in common with hundreds of others, for over a century.
Spero is, in fact, a native Australian, who came to Ithaca as a boy with his father to view the land of his ancestors. Later, when he married Mal in Melbourne, he brought her to Greece on honeymoon, and a dream was born.
Abandoning a lucrative building business, which had brought the couple together in the first place, they took their two babies, Kate and Naki, to the island and built their home with their own bare hands on Pilicata Hill.
Here, where three mountains and three seas met, and with one of the most beautiful views on the island, is said to be buried the remains of the lost city. For the first year of their life here, Mal and Spero camped under an olive tree and built their home, delicately negotiating with the archaeological experts dispatched from Athens.
The babies sat through the summer in buckets of water to keep cool and wash off the endless building site mud. The archaeologist took up his post under mother olive tree in a sunhat occasionally waking up to reassure them that they could continue.
My family and I first went to Ithaca on a summer holiday to stay in their local inland village of Ravines, and we met them that year. An embryonic friendship formed at that time has taken me back again and again, at all times of the year. Even that first time, there was an uncannily strong sense that we would be back. Perhaps it is simply the heartbreaking beauty of the place, or perhaps there is genuinely some deeper spiritual significance in the magnetism of the island.
Whatever it is, it quickly becomes unsurprising that an old man in the high mountain village of Exhogi, or another sitting outside the kafenion in Stavros, speaks perfect English. He may have served 40 years as a bus conductor in Queensland, or had a grocer's shop in Melbourne, but he will still talk in warmly nostalgic terms of the days when he walked barefoot the five kilometers to school in Stavros.
Then he'd limp home, his foot bandaged in a strip of his own shirt, having loaf hi, toenail in a game with a football made of rags. The wound would Ii 'vaccinated" with dried, powdered o1 donkey dung, and his mother would clip his ear for destroying his shirt.
It's one of the cal joys of the place that you can tall, to people and hear such stories. We romantic though it is, island life ha, its darker aide. Its mountainous, inhospitable terrain in many ways, 'he sea rarely if ever out of sight and goats out numbering humans by three to one.
Goat fanning and tourism are the two main resources of Ithaca now, though the beauty of the place for travelers x2111 0o that there's no airport and nave: could be. While Captain Corelli hen brought such popularity to neighboring Cephalonia, Ithaca so near and yet so far, remains relatively untouched and it 1s never rooming with people, even in summer.
I argue strongly for visiting such Places out of season. My second visit, having met Mal and Spero, was to stay with them in winter. Getting there is harder, more of an adventure, via Athens and onward by means of a small domestic flight to Cephalonia. Then, as in summer, there's a one hour boat trip across to Vathy, Ithaca's main and indeed only town.
The drama of the climate in winter was much in evidence that first day as we made the choppy crossing in driving rain between the looming snowcapped mountains of both islands.
Huge, mercurial storms erupt frond nowhere as light and shade dashes across the landscape in an ever? Changing cinema. In the space of a day, weather conditions can vary an infinite number of times. The lightning flashing over the mountains was replaced the next morning by dazzling sunlight, the sea navy blue and the garden at Piloting ablaze with wild iris, white freesia, grape hyacinth and the polished bottle green of myrtle.
Yet only 15 minutes up the hairpin bends to the village of Anoghi, we were nagged by Kate and Naki to go up to the snow. Their friends from this mountain village had whirled into school with tales of white fields, impossible to believe as we basked in sheltered spots of sun around Pilicata.
As we climbed, we saw descending cars with miniature snowmen on their bonnets and later found ourselves, though I was conspicuously the only adult female participant, in the midst of a hilarious snowball fight in Anoghi village square. Every man and child in the place joined in, while the women laughed from inside the safety of their windows.
In spring, Ithaca is for walkers and painters, the ground so thick with flowers that it's impossible not to tread them underfoot. In autumn, the tourists gone, the sea's temperature is at its best for swimming, warmed by the summer sun.
You can see golden eagles swoop over Aphales Bay. One or two cafes are still open as well as the year-round "sugar shop", together with the kafenion, the main social center of Stavros. Now you can gossip with the locals, preparing for the olive harvest in November.
The inner resources required for a year-round existence are nowhere better illustrated than by Mal and Spero. once the initial effort of homemaking was over, there followed a period of idyllic basking in their achievement.
Inevitably, a way of supporting themselves had to be found. Though land ownership here is an issue of absurd complexity, and arguments abound, Spero's family still owns, among others, the hillside of his great-grandfather Le
Levendi's home at Aphales Bay.
Levendi, a nickname meaning "a handsome man who excelled and stood out from others", was the first of the family to leave his young wife and children to set sail for Australia. An expert sailor and adventurer, he came and went throughout his life, enduring the six month voyages entailed in doing so.
His little home, in common with 80 percent of the buildings on the island, was razed to the round in the devastating earthquake of 1953. Mal, whose knowledge of island history and horticulture is extensive, used to visit the beautiful spot with Kate and Naki as babies, and dreamed of rebuilding where the ancestral home had stood.
In order to make their living, she and Spero have now built four exquisite holiday cottages here, where some say the view is the best of all in Greece, high above the turquoise waters to the steep cliffs the other side.
The light turns the rock face through a spectrum of colors as the sun sets over the bay, from white to rosy pink and finally deep purple as darkness falls.
In accord with my own philosophy, the houses have been built with year-round occupancy in mind. In winter, small olive wood burning stoves keep you cozy as you watch the tempests rage over the bay, and the same insulation in the roofs that keeps the warmth in, keeps them cool in summer.
Simply yet luxuriously furnished, it is a perfect haven for writers in search of tranquility and inspiration, as it is for the discerning summer visitor whose desires are for solitude end the chance to reflect.
There's no sound but the clattering chorus of cicadas and the echoing of the waves lapping into the bay The other perennial sound, which is more evocative of Ithaca than anything else to me, is the symphony of goat bells which is audible at all times. Walking through my own hallway in North Norfolk, I touch my goat bell in passing and it transports me instantly as a dip of the nose into a bunch of basil leaves.
It's doubtful that anything could occur that will change much about Ithaca. The joy of returning is in its timeless qualities, and I could not recommend more highly a visit when it's at its most Greek, out of the summer season.
Clearly, seasons have reasons, and people will always be drawn to the sun, the water and long evenings under a velvet sky. But for my money, it's hard to beat a four hour walk in clear light, followed by a drink at Stavros' kafenion with Papa Spiro. the eccentric priest who singe like an angel, and a hot supper before a blazing olivewood fire at the end of the day.
Mal and Spero Raftopulos' cottages can be booked by calling 0090 874 31818 or write to Mr. and Mrs. Spero Raftopulos at plurals Hill, Stavros 28301, Ithaca, Greece.