The north of Kythera holds as many tales as the central and southern regions and this post tells a few of those stories.
My first story relates to the ruined fortress of Paleochora, the island’s Byzantine capital. The abandoned city can only be accessed by ‘Shank’s pony’ (walking), down and up a donkey track. It was the most rigorous walk we did during our stay and is one of the many marked and unmarked walks of varying difficulty on the island. Many Europeans come to the island in summer just to tramp the ancient trails.
I’m not sure what the M in M31 stands for; I interpreted it as M for ‘mule’. I hope the track is never upgraded as walking it provides a sense of adventure.
The 12th century Byzantine ruins comprise churches and domestic buildings that are perched on the edge of a rugged gorge. Peering out of a window with a gorge view or through a hole that was the result of a wall collapse we realised why the city was built where it was. It was protected on all sides but one by cliffs, hundreds of metres high. Even though its isolated location was a refuge from pirate raids, the Turkish ‘black menace’ of the sea, Barbarossa, managed to reach it and destroy everything and kill everyone within in 1537. It was never inhabited again.
There was not a soul around the day we visited the ruins. It was deadly quiet and it was hard to imagine that the inhabitants of this isolated city could have ever experienced ravages of invading armies and pirates.
The fragility of life in those times would have been constantly on people’s minds and I’m guessing that was why people had such strong religious beliefs. The building of shrines, monuments and churches was in keeping with the religious thinking of the day. There are around four hundred churches on Kythera and based on the average population figures that’s around one church for every nine persons.
One frustrating aspect of Greece today is that churches are securely locked and therefore travellers are denied access. The reason is simply because of the hard economic times some people have come to stealing irreplaceable icons and art treasures held within the churches.
Survival in towns and cities like Paleochora would have been difficult. Obtaining potable water in some regions must have taken some effort borne out by the fact that on Kythera today there are still unusual water gathering methods employed. The structure in the following photographs is indicative of the methods employed.
Rain falling on the massive concrete artificial catchment and surrounding hills runs to the central drain and then into a silt tank which flows on into a sump and then into a huge stone storage tank. The tank is at the front of the structure.
Fortunately these days good reliable water is on tap to villages and towns. Whilst staying at Stavli cottage and not wanting to exhaust our hosts’ valuable tank water supplies completely, we gathered water each day and took it back.
At the ancient city of Paleochora and on other parts of Kythera the production of food would have been a full time hard labour job, especially in times when foreign powers were in occupation. Occupying Venetians treated Kytherians appallingly, farmers were forced to work for nobles and the government for no pay. Government officials and tax assessors at the time would ride through field crops with no regard for damage caused, property was seized, animals and firewood stocks simply taken. Kytherian farmers were forced into the mountains to grow food where they established small terraced plots.
The following photograph shows the extent islanders had to go to establish arable plots.
A stone retaining wall was built along the cliff edge and the area behind the wall was filled with earth. Another method employed was to build retaining walls across creek beds forming small weirs behind which silt built up and formed small plots: a lot of hard work to grow a few veggies.
Once the food was harvested the next hard labour job was preparing the food. The following photographs show the hard labour involved in producing and preparing food for the table.
On one trip out and about we came across an area severely effected by wild fires. The Kytherian ground cover and shrubs are obviously not resistant to fire. However nature fights back, the first plants to establish themselves in badly denuded areas such as shown below are called opportunistic volunteers.
And now to a place born of hard work, the cottage Bev and I stayed in at Stavli.
Some decades ago the grandfather of Aleko (subject of a previous post) built a cottage on a small holding where he lived for some considerable time. During his time he established olive and almond trees and a vineyard, which are all still productive today. In latter years his descendants have restored and added to the cottage and we felt it a privilege to be able to stay there.
The doorways of the original cottage were very low (left door in photograph). We found out on a number of occasions, the door lintels were just above forehead height!
The method of building in the above photograph is worth making reference to: a waterproof membrane (black) has been placed over a concrete structure then a stone veneer (outer skin) has been placed around the outside. I was told the building belongs to a foreigner and the work was being carried out by an Albanian mason. Work stopped during the financial crisis and is at a standstill.
As much as the country is beautiful around Stavli the land in agricultural terms would be classified as marginal and eking out a living would have been hard yakka. The planting, gathering and movement of crops would have been done with the donkey. There are few about on Kythera these days, we saw only two. Small tractors do the work of donkeys today.
I think this photo was taken just after WW2 as the truck in the background is a military British Bedford. Above vintage photographs by Chris Lourandos.
The last activity before we left the Stavli cottage was to bury a time capsule. For the past thirty-five years Bev and I have buried time capsules at spots all around the world. We were particularly active in the 1980s when we took our two boys touring in Australia and to Asia and Europe. My thinking was that when our boys travel with their children they can dig them up and read about the activities of their grandparents. They could also add comments and rebury them. There are capsules in stone fences and cemeteries in England and Ireland and one which we always talk about is the one half way up Ben Nevis in Scotland. Another memorable placement was under my grandfather’s headstone at Lone Pine cemetery near Anzac Cove in Turkey where he was killed in 1916.
The contents include: coins of the day, a note as to why and when, passport photographs, our DNA (on the small note book page bottom left) and finally a piece of my dental floss. Bev is always complaining I drop pieces everywhere so I think it appropriate I drop a piece in the capsule.
And now to the metropolis of Potamos, the largest town on Kythera not far from the Stavli cottage.
There are many shops in the main street of Potamos that are in themselves time capsules. I don’t mean any disrespect when I say this as I think they are wonderful. In fact, in one I was able to buy the style of hat that I had searched for at home before coming on this odyssey.
The following photograph is taken in Maneas shop. The shop was a hybrid draper, haberdashery and hardware store, a real treasure store.
Following are a few images of the personalities of Potamos main street.
I take you back to the picture of the Poulos boys: when I removed the frame from the wall of the cottage to photograph it silverfish shot out of the back, not good to have them feasting on such a treasure. I took the frame apart, dispatched the little creatures and then took it into the framing shop. The girl at the shop said she would give it to a carpenter friend to seal it. When I asked if it was Aris the answer was yes. I met Aris some days before when I approached him and asked if I could take his photograph. I collect Jesus look-alike photos and I thought he qualified to be in my collection. And, he is a carpenter!!
Silverfish eat book bindings, carpet, clothing, coffee, glue, hair, some paints, paper, photographs, plaster and sugar, thus their interest in the Poulos photograph.
The photograph of the priests was taken without permission. I make mention of this because during our stay on Kythera a law was passed in Hungary requiring anyone taking a photograph in a public place to obtain permission from all persons appearing in the photograph. Imagine if this law applied to travellers when photographing the Sydney Opera House where thousands of tourists congregate or when photographing the Parthenon in Athens.
This new law set me to thinking what the situation was in Greece and did the same law apply. According to Greek law there is no restriction on the taking or publication of photographs of identifiable people in public places. The law relates to the ‘right to report’ and freedom of speech.
The new Hungarian law has caused an enormous controversy among journalists. They are saying this is a law that has been passed by a right wing government with a severe authoritarian streak that is attempting to suppress any dissent, control the media and suppress the documentation of its actions. If such laws continue to spread, our world is going to be a restrictive place. I’m glad we are on the road now and not in another twenty years’ time.
Even though by Greek law I am able to publish the photograph showing the priests going home for lunch, if they see the image and are offended I will immediately remove the image from this blog.
Unfortunately Bev and I did not get to explore all of the northern part of Kythera in detail because there was so much to explore on the rest of the island. However following are a few images along the northeast coast.
In the 1800s and early 1900s new arrivals on Kythera were isolated in this building. The complex is now owned by a foreigner but restoration work has come to a standstill.
After four weeks on Kythera it was time to say farewell. We left by overnight ferry for Piraeus, the port of Athens. After Kythera we moved on to Thessaloniki and then we flew to Zurich where we are at present. The delay in getting this post up and running has been our difficulty in accessing the internet sometimes and the fact that we have been exploring other parts of Europe.
The next postings will relate to our return to the mainland and a trip to Thessaloniki and the exploration of Halkidiki and Central Macedonia.