Kythera is one of 1400 islands belonging to Greece, 169 are inhabited. Kythera with a population hovering around 3300 is in the Ionian Group.
Readers of this blog know we were not attracted to Kythera because of a travel guide description. We came with a mission, to gather information about the life of Aleko Georgopoulos (see previous post for the Aleko story). Gathering the information took us to every corner of the island. We visited his friends, acquaintances and places where he used to haunt when a child and youth and after a few days of travelling around the island I realised the most impressive feature of the island, other than the friendliness of the locals, was its complicated geological landscape. The contorted ancient landscape has formed and influenced its mythology, history, architecture, agriculture and, in more modern times, its tourist agenda.
An example of Kythera’s spectacular geology is shown in the following photograph. It was taken at the most southern tip of the island.
The island in the distance is know as the ‘Egg’ because locals contend that when clouds hang over the island it looks like steam rising from a pot when boiling an egg. A rare plant, Sempreviva, with an everlasting yellow flower, grows on the island and the flowers are gathered once a year. The yellow flowers have become a symbol of Kythera and are used in many dried arrangements and decorative souvenirs.
Cape Trachilos was where a WW2 German command headquarters were built and it comprised an observation tower, fuel bunkers, radar, anti-aircraft gun emplacements and a two storey officers’ quarters. Today there are no intact buildings on the site; all were destroyed by the Germans as they retreated north from the island in August 1944.
On the day of demolition all available vehicles were taken to the cape, where serviceable equipment including radar, communications equipment and armaments were dismantled and taken to two German ships waiting in the bay nearby. Once the equipment was removed, local Kytherians working at the Headquarters were told to leave and then demolition charges were detonated turning the command post into a pile of rubble.
Bev and I explored the ruined HQ in a somewhat sombre mood, musing over the futility of war. A few days before visiting the site I finished reading ‘The Book Thief’, by Markus Zusak, which tells the story of Liesel, an extraordinary and courageous young girl sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany. She learns to read with encouragement from her new family and Max, a Jewish refugee who they are hiding under the stairs. For Liesel and Max the power of words and imagination become the only escape from the tumultuous events happening around them. It is a life-affirming story of survival and of the resilience of the human spirit. It’s an inspiring read even if you are not interested in the WW2 period. Having just read the book, conditions of WW2 were fresh in my mind so it was easy for me to visualise WW2 scenes as we walked around.
Near the HQ there was an anti-aircraft gun emplacement and when standing in it a number of Greek jet aircraft broke the sound barrier. The resounding booms certainly made us jump and shattered the silence and solemnity of that once potentially hostile place.
Not far to the north from here is an area called the ‘Black Water’ because the water is so deep at the base of the cliffs it appears black. I was told that during WW2 submarines were able to approach the cliffs without surfacing and disappear into the face of the cliffs. Apparently there are naturally occurring underwater tunnels and caverns in which they hid.
The circumstances as to why and how Greece was drawn into the WW2 conflict and the subsequent invasion of Kythera need to be explained.
In October 1940 German troops invaded Romania to the north of Greece and this, along with the fact that Italian dictator Mussolini was demanding the use of Greek naval bases in the south, was of great concern to the Greek government and people. When Mussolini was denied access to the naval bases he attacked Greece through its northern border with Albania. Bev and I passed through the area in 2012 during our Encountering the Past Odyssey Part 1.
The Greek army fought determinedly and pushed Mussolini’s forces back into Albania and in the process they regained one quarter of what was originally Greek territory. This action caused alliances to be drawn: Bulgaria, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia joined with Germany. However the people of Yugoslavia rebelled against their pro-German government and this forced Hitler to put large numbers of troops and equipment into Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian army was defeated in just twelve days. After the fall of Yugoslavia the German army then focused on Greece and the resultant action drew Greece into the conflict. Greece sided with Britain and its allies.
On the 27th April 1941 (almost 73 years ago as I write) German airplanes attacked Kapsali and Avlemonas, two of the larger towns on Kythera and on the 10th May German soldiers came ashore at the northern town of Agia Pelagia and moved towards Potamos where they took control of the town. In May 1941 there were over four hundred German soldiers on Kythera but the battle for Crete drew most of the soldiers away. In September 1944 after the defeat of the Germans the last of them left the island and a new era began for the Kytherians. Soon after the war ended many of them migrated to Australia, Canada and the United States.
The access track to the WW2 German headquarters is not signposted so it was a matter of guessing which track to follow. However, after a couple of false starts we found the right one.
The walk could be described in no better way than exquisite; wildflowers were in full bloom and Bev, who has a keen eye for the miniature, found many new plants, including orchids. As we walked through the flowering meadow I wondered whether the aggressors during WW2 stopped to smell the flowers. Perhaps if they had they may have asked themselves ’what is this war all about’. I suppose, it’s all right to be a philosophical romantic but the reality is, it’s all to do with expansion of one’s empire, greed, ego-tripping and wanting to turn the clocks back. Mussolini wanted to recreate the Roman Empire and Hitler’s desire was a supreme Europe under Aryan power. Unfortunately, if you stand in the way of such fanatics and or unable to repel them and their followers you are dead.
Following are a few more images of flowers along the track.
During our fifteen-day stay on Kythera we visited the southern area on a number of occasions. On one of our visits we met with the mayor in Chora and talked about Kythera’s past and present.
There are a myriad of back lanes, alleyways, nooks, crannies and oddities to discover and explore in Chora.
There are many cats on Kythera but this stone one took my fancy. The rock was very carefully chosen to simulate a curled up cat, it had just the right curves and indents. Whoever conceived the idea and painted this had a great imagination. Brilliant work. On a personal note, I included this image for our Kate, an artist and cat lover. All around Kythera there are subtle pieces of artwork in stone, glass and wood.
Whilst in Chora we went searching for information about the Tree of Liberty around which French administrators and Kytherians danced during the occupation by the French in 1797. Prior to the French arriving on the island Kytherians had been under 250 years of oppressive Venetian domination. The French army arrived and brought with them Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood. Under the new regime there was no master, no servant, no aristocracy or peasantry, everyone had equal rights and ‘Liberty’ was the cry. Orders were given to destroy every crest or symbol of authority; taxes were abolished and because of this new freedom the people of Kythera danced around the Tree of Liberty. There were two dancing sites, one in the square at Chora and the second at Potamos.
After reading about the trees of Liberty I began to wonder what species of trees they were and whether there was a plaque to commemorate the place where the trees grew, a logical question for an amateur historian and one with an interest in botany. No one I asked in Chora had ever heard about the tree of Liberty but I finally tracked down a lady who knew and she told me there was no actual tree, it was a symbolic one.
Thanks to Greg for the use of your painting. To see more of Greg’s work go to artandarts.com
According to E. Cobham Brewer in The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1894), the “Tree of Liberty is a tree set up by the people, hung with flags and devices, and crowned with a cap of liberty. The cap of liberty was worn by freed slaves during Roman times. For anyone with an interest in etymology and the origins of phrases a very good web page is http://www.bartleby.com
Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood lived on for a while on Kythera. Everyone became known as ‘Citizen’, even the bishop was Citizen Bishop. As time passed it was necessary for taxes to be reinstated but, as is the case with most governments, tax receipts are never enough so the government sold off positions of public office to the highest bidder and as a result nepotism and corruption came to the fore and Equality and Brotherhood left the equation.
The next era in Kythera occupation was when the Russians and Turks arrived. They were worried about the power that France had in the Mediterranean. In September 1798 forty Russian and Turkish ships arrived at the port of Avlemonas and the French, obviously feeling threatened, fired their cannons at the armed fleet. The Russians retaliated and eight cannonballs hit their target.
A cannon of this size was capable of firing a 15 kilogram cannonball two hundred metres and it could penetrate a one metre thick oak plank.
After the fortress was bombarded by the Russians the French soldiers evacuated from the fortress to Chora Castle and again the Russians bombarded them but this time, with two hundred cannonballs and three thousand bullets, the French surrendered and so ended French rule on Kythera.
The castle was built in the 13th century by the Venetians. Portion of the castle has been restored and one building is used to house Kytherian archival records.
There is a distinct shortage of public toilets in Greece. At railway stations for example, if you need one, you have to seek out a security officer who will escort you to the loo and let you in. Visitors to the castle taken short used the dunny-style sentry box above for the said purpose. Bev may be smiling but she was holding her breath as well.
When a building deteriorates to the state of this one, repairs can be easily made, by calling in renderers with cake decorating skills.
The views from Castle Chora are very Cycladic, particularly towards Kapsali. Following are a few images of Kapsali town.
Whilst in Chora we heard there was a black Madonna in one of the churches and because I became interested in black Madonnas when we were visiting the Camargue in southern France during our Odyssey Part 1, I thought we had better seek her out and add her to my list ‘Black Madonnas I have seen”. We asked a local where the church might be and he replied, ‘Down that way, mate’. Our informant was Australian/Greek born in Albury NSW. I am sure there is not one Greek on Kythera who doesn’t have a relative living in Australia or who has not lived there at some stage of their life.
The icon of the dark-faced Madonna and child was in the Church of Estavromenos, which was built in 1660 on the ruins of an old temple. The Church of Estavromenos is dedicated to the day of the crucifixion and the day of its celebration is Good Friday.
The representation was nothing like I imagined it would be, however how it came to be revered is an interesting tale.
The original icon is much smaller than this one and was found by a shepherd on a hillside near a small myrtle tree. He took the icon home but when night came it made its way back to the tree. During the shepherd’s sleep an angel visited him in his dreams and told him that the Virgin Mary would like him to build a small church next to the myrtle tree.
The Madonna of the Myrtle shown in the photograph does not reside in the church at Chora but spends most of her time in the Monastery Myrtidiotissa, the site where the original small church was built; however, just prior to Easter she goes on tour.
After paying our respects to this special icon and lighting a candle and making a wish for things to improve for the ordinary Greek people I was, waylaid by a lady pleading for help. I followed her, thinking maybe she was having car trouble but no, she took us into a room and asked me to lift down a large bell from the top of a cupboard.
Due to a communication problem I was unable to get its full history other than it was made in 1738. The lady photographed it and then I replaced on the top of the cupboard. It was cast steel, not bronze as most bells are, and weighed a good 12 kilograms. No need for me to go to do weights if I do bell lifts like this.
That’s Kythera for the present. The next post is about ‘Mythical Religious Matters of Kythera’ and it includes where the Madonna of the Myrtle originated, martyr Elessi (very much in the thinking of Kytherians), the sex organs of Uranus and the birthplace of Aphrodite….all riveting stuff. I hope you stay with us as we continue to explore Kythera.
When researching The Liberty Tree I came across a quotation I would like to share with you: “There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.” ~Linda Hogan
Linda Hogan is a Chickasaw Indian and has many beautiful quotations to her name. If you get tired of reading my ravings, look her up on the web.
A beautifully written, true and wonderful presentation of a Greek island off the beaten track! We will follow your odyssey with much interest. Safe travels.
Sia and Alexander
Thanks for the positive comment, I regard it as more than just a comment as it has come from a Kytherian. Keep plugging.
Fred and Bev