Monday, October 15, 2012

Reflections on Laconia and the island of Kythera

 On 3 September I drove the last of my summer visitors, my younger daughter and three of my grandchildren, to Athens airport; they were booked on a nine o’clock evening flight to Gatwick.  Not being happy about long-distance night driving these days I booked myself into the only hotel at the airport, a ridiculously expensive, horribly over-the-top edifice.  Sparkling clean, spacious, 100% soundproofed, air conditioned, sumptuously comfortable and totally without soul.  Back home the following day I began a week of clearing-up, cleaning, washing, putting-away and generally transforming what had become something of a cross between a dormitory and a playground back into my home.  Thereafter I entered a vacuum which, on a whim, I decided to temporarily fill with a few days away.

The unseen hand on my shoulder gently pushed me towards the far south-east of the Peloponnese, an area I had not been but knew to be the home of Homer’s land of the Lotos eaters; I fancied a spot of Lotos.   Goole Maps inform that Neápolis, the principal town of the area, is a two-hundred kilometre, four hour drive from home.  Shortly after lunch on 13 September I left.  Despite my familiarity with the drive, the road to Sparta still visually stuns.  For the better part of the journey from my home to Kalamata, the road skirts the sea; olive groves and market gardens run up the gentle slopes to its left, an impossibly sea, backed at a distance by the majestic Taygetos Mountains (2,500m) over which I would later be driving, laps at the beaches on the right had side of the road.  Beyond the northern suburbs of Kalamata, through a series of hairpin bends, the road rises steeply before dropping down through more hairpin bends into a chasm along the bottom of which the road runs for several kilometres before rising steeply again to its summit from where the descent onto the Spartan plain begins.  It is a breathtaking serpentine decent on a ledge of a road that follows the path of a river through its deep gorge.   In places the cliff has been cut away leaving tunnels and three sided rock ‘C’s’ to drive through. 

There is little in Sparta to evoke memories of its glorious past, it is a modern city, conveniently laid out as a grid of wide boulevards.  The first kilometres of the road beyond Sparta are flat and tedious but the road soon passes into more interesting landscapes as it heads east toward Momevassia and the East coast before swinging south and following the West coast of the peninsular passing, as it rises and falls with the cliffs, occasional fishing villages; in the westering sun it was a delight of a drive.

Neápolis, Laconia

Velanidia, Laconia

At Neápolis I discovered that the hotel I had booked was not in the town but some 9 kilometres north at Biklafia from where a ferry leaves for the barely offshore island of Elephnaos.  This suited me well.  ‘Hotel Boias’ offered all I needed for a base including a good taverna on its ground floor.  I enjoyed my six nights there and my days exploring the wild, empty south eastern tip of Laconia and, indeed, of the greek mainland.

Neápolis, from the deck of a departing ferry to Kythera

I had planned to leave Biklafia on 19 September but, on another whim, I decided that rather than going home I would take a ferry to the Island of Kythera, Aphrodite’s island; Botticelli put me onto her, I have ever hoped to meet her.

Avlémonas is a small village a fifteen minute drive from the ferry port.  I took for a week an extremely spacious, tastefully decorated, well appointed room there on the edge of the village, a five minute stroll from its centre.

Kythera.  Lanscape near Avlémonas
Kythera is an island of mountains, few inhabitants, relatively few visitors, vast empty rocky landscapes and beautiful, empty coasts.  Roads on the island are excellent, far better than the potholed tracks around my home.  Although very close to the mainland, Kythera has a very different feel about it.  Due no doubt to a long Venetian presence on the island the built environment reminded me as much of the south of Italy as anywhere I know in Greece.  Several romanesque, presently orthodox, churches were obviously originally built for worshipers of a  quite different christian persuasion.

My visits to both Neápolis and Kythera have wetted my appetite for further visits to both.  On these first short visits I left many stones to be turned on subsequent visits.