A Journey Into Greece’s Land of a Thousand Stories
One writer chronicles his voyage to the island of Ithaca, where Odysseus was once reputedly king.
By Pico Iyer
I STEPPED INTO a taxi on my arrival in Athens and mentioned the name of one of the city’s most central five-star hotels. The driver was thrown into a frenzy, and not only because he seemed to speak no English. As we zigzagged at high speed through the jampacked streets, he tapped frantically on his smartphone and started calling friends, none of whom were any help at all. When, finally, we pulled up at the entrance, I was greeted by a wild-haired, gesticulating front-desk man who said, “We’re so sorry, sir. We have a problem, a big problem, today. So we have made a reservation for you in our other hotel. Half a block away.”
The problem, the taxi driver conveyed, was that every toilet in the hotel had flooded.
In the fancy new place where I ended up — it took us 20 minutes to go around the corner thanks to narrow, one-way streets — I walked into an elevator to be confronted by two thickly bearded Orthodox priests in full clerical dress crammed into the same small space, cellphones protruding from their pockets as they wished me, in easy English, “Good evening.” The mayhem of the little lanes I’d just come through, the sunlit dishevelment of the buildings, which seemed to be collapsing as much as rising up, the graves in the middle of the city: I felt, quite happily, as if I were not in Europe but in Beirut or Amman.
The real antiquity in Greece, I thought — and this is its enduring blessing, for a visitor — is its daily life; on this return trip, retracing a course I’d followed 35 years before, from the classical sites of the Peloponnese (ill-starred Mycenae and healing Epidaurus) all the way to Odysseus’ storied home on Ithaca, I was noticing that it’s precisely the slow, human-scaled, somewhat ramshackle nature of arrangements here that gives the country much of its human charm. Yes, you can still see Caravaggio faces around the Colosseum in Rome; along the ghats in Varanasi, India, you’re among the clamor and piety of the Vedas. But in Greece, it’s the absence of modern developments — of high-rises and high-speed technologies — that can make you feel as if you’re walking among the ancient philosophers and tragedians who gave us our sense of hubris and catharsis.
Forget the fact that the Klitemnistra hotel is down the street from Achilles Parking; what really gives Greece its sense of being changeless is that the Lonely Planet guidebook gives you a cure for the evil eye, and a man is crossing himself furiously as he attempts to double-park. The Grecian formula that keeps the place forever young — and old, and itself — has less to do with the monuments of kings and gods than simply with the rhythms of the day: Fishing boats are heading out before first light and the shepherd’s son is leading the priest’s niece under the olive trees in the early morning. Black-clad women are gossiping in the shade and donkeys clop and stop over ill-paved stones in the siesta-silent, sunlit afternoon. At night, there’s the clatter of pots from the tavernas and the sound of laughter under lights around the harbor.
All in a landscape where the deep blue sea surrounds you on every side, and the indigo and scarlet and orange flowerpots are bright with geraniums and begonias. It’s not just that you feel the presence of a rural past everywhere in Greece; it’s that, amid this elemental landscape of rock and cobalt sky and whitewashed church, you step out of the calendar altogether and into the realm of allegory.
MY FIRST FULL day in Greece on this trip — I’ve been visiting the country for more than 50 years — I made my way to Mycenae, the 3,300-year-old acropolis 75 miles from Athens that was the turbulent base for the House of Atreus. After five decades of reading about the slaughter of Agamemnon in his bathtub, I was chilled: by the stubby rocks across the forbidding hillside, by the sound of the wind whipping in my ears, by the silence even amid the crowds. The whole site is monitory and stark, and the watchtower hilltops, made for spotting invaders, go with the tholos tombs and Bronze Age relics that encircle the red-tiled villas of the Peloponnese.
Barely 30 miles away, Epidaurus is tonic light to Mycenae’s shadow, a reminder of why we cherish ancient Greece as the home of harmony and wisdom. I stepped into the sunken dormitory known as the Abaton, inside Asclepius’ sanctuary there — the walls tell of visitors 24 centuries ago being healed by their dreams — and couldn’t resist the curative spell. The amphitheater in the distance offers up perfect proportions and acoustics; yellow butterflies were flitting between groves of trees along the so-called Sacred Way. Mycenae may be the black-and-blood-red landscape of Greek tragedies, but Epidaurus gives us the clarity and higher geometry of Pythagoras. In Homer, of course, both worlds magically converge in stories of how people try to clear their minds of the bad dreams of jealousy, murder and nostalgia.
Yet in all honesty, it was in Nafplio, my everyday base for these excursions across the Peloponnese, that I heard most consistently the whisper of the past. There was a raggedness to the narrow passageways of its Old Town, the uneven stones along its steep staircases, that jolted me into a sense of intimacy; as I roamed around the climbing lanes, I could hear bells clanging and the sound of cups rattling, a spoon against a pan. The interiors of the little homes were dark, cozy, plain, and there was a Sunday-morning stillness that took me back to the unhurried corners of the world.
Crones were walking, arm in arm, down to the water as the sun declined, past cafes where nine or 11 men sat together, nursing their small coffees in silence. Chants came down to us from a 15th-century shrine to the Virgin, tucked into a crag overlooking the sea. Candles flickered in little memorials along the waterfront, around framed portraits of lost sons, much as they might on the mountain roads of Bolivia.
Returning to my hotel room, I walked out onto my terrace and saw a onetime executioner’s home in front of me, a few hundred yards across the water. Up above was the Palamidi castle, thick with prison cells and “murder holes” through which defending warriors could project arrows and scalding water. Visiting another hotel that morning, I’d stepped out of the breakfast room and found myself on the battlements of a cluster of fortresses known to Venetians and Crusaders. Just down the street, in the incense-haloed church, a painting recalled this as the site where the first governor of an independent modern Greece had been assassinated, in 1831, by one assailant bearing a knife, one carrying a pistol.
GROWING UP IN England, I was encouraged to feel that Greece was the alpha and omega of the ancient world as my friends and I puzzled over its strange letters in our little green copies of Xenophon and Plato. My classmates regularly took off for Mount Athos, the independently ruled peninsula of 20 Orthodox monasteries that British travelers from Robert Byron and Patrick Leigh Fermor to William Dalrymple and, in fact, Prince Charles, have long haunted. Even now, one can watch monks there observe the Julian calendar and tell the hours, as Colin Thubron notes in his recent novel, “Night of Fire,” “in the old Byzantine mode.”
The frescoes on the holy mountain “seemed to return us to a primitive, purer time,” Thubron writes, “closer to scripture,” and this sense of Greece as an antechamber to the modern moment has never seemed to die. “There must be a God,” Bruce Chatwin wrote as he surveyed “an iron cross on a rock by the sea” on Mount Athos. The famously whimsical nomad startled his friends by planning to be baptized on the island; his funeral was held in the icon-cluttered Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia in Central London.
I thought of all this as I began riding buses around the Peloponnese, reminded at every turn that it’s precisely what makes Greece something of an outlier in the European Union that gives it its almost Asian magnetism. The first time I boarded a long-distance bus, for the two-hour trip from Athens to Nafplio, I saw six good-luck charms plastered on its windows and another dangling from the driver’s mirror. The trucks that passed us, as in India, bore hand-painted signs that said “God bless.”
Raucous music was flooding through the aisles, and an elegant matron nearby mumbled prayers to herself every time the driver started up. When I had to change buses at Corinth, the station turned out to be a congested truck stop of sorts, with three “Toy Story” arcade games, a huge picture of James Dean and some cheap plaster statues of Apollo and Athena next to mugs depicting Che Guevara and the logo from “The Godfather.”
Of course, the wish to show off antiquity — and turn it to advantage — is seldom shy in a country that depends on tourism for its sustenance. On arrival in Nafplio, I found myself in a mess of signs advertising “traditional handmade ice-cream” and “traditional hotels” (not a term that inspires confidence). In a town said to be more than 3,000 years old, founded (it’s claimed) by the son of Poseidon, one shop wore the boast “since 1996” and another presented “traditional artist’s healing fidget toy (inspired exclusively since 1999).” There’s a worry-bead museum in Nafplio — not to be confused with the nearby worry-bead workshop — somewhere near the Antica Gelateria di Roma and the “ancient Greek” massage parlor featuring “Thai, shiatsu and reiki” treatments not, perhaps, so familiar to Agamemnon or his wife.
But that was the point, really. The adjectives Homer uses for Odysseus persistently are “crafty” and “resourceful” and “resilient”; it’s only natural that his descendants advertise an “original wood-fired oven” on his home island of Ithaca. Indeed, a modern visitor might easily suspect that one reason the enterprising hero took a decade to come home from the wars was that his ferryboat was constantly delayed.
NO ONE IN GREECE seems in a hurry to get anywhere. It took me a taxi, two long bus rides, two boats and another taxi — 11 hours in all — to get from Nafplio to my next base, Ithaca, not many miles away, and no one I spoke to knew when, or even whether, the bus or boat would ever arrive. After I landed in Sami, on Cephalonia, the island that would lead to its neighbor, where Odysseus reputedly lived, I joined a small group of travelers to wait, and wait, in the sun, water lapping against our feet. Nobody tried to sell us things, as they might in Port-au-Prince or Mumbai. We were back in a child’s box of dazzling crayons, with no signs of industry or modernity to be seen.
When finally I did set foot on Ithaca, the site that was somewhat wishfully said to be that of Odysseus’ palace consisted of a hut and two buildings set across a barren hill. I managed to cadge a shared ride in one of the island’s only taxis, and when I arrived in the central town of Vathy, I asked a friendly travel agent about getting around. The bus, he told me, had likely finished its run for the season (it was mid-September).
I decided, therefore, to rent a car, and as I steered along the precipitous, one-lane road that soon placed me high above the sea, a sheer drop before me — no guardrail quite often — I was shocked, again and again, by the heart-clenching beauty of the place. A huge black dog stretched out behind the locked gate of a villa, waiting for a modern-day returnee from the wars. No traffic was visible save for two black goats strutting across the asphalt and, many minutes later, a man in a hard hat chugging along on his scooter at around six miles per hour. I came to the Kathara Monastery, a remote chapel on a hill overlooking the sea, and the silence extended for miles.
As ever, the specific sites on Odysseus’ island were enigmatic at best. Getting out of the car on my way to the stunning mountaintop village of Exogi, I walked along an unpaved path to the “School of Homer,” to be rewarded only by a ravishing view of olive trees and blue-green coves far below. In the small village of Stavros, a set of display boards featured an essay titled “Ithaca: Conceptual Place.” On Ithaca, the piece began, “the past nor the present exist. The present is not what one would consider contemporary, but it is situated in a limbo. A reality that would choose to be up-to-date but is unable to be so.” Noting that nobody really knows what existed here or didn’t, the author went on, “On the island, there is Nothing! … Nothing …”
As it happens, I’d brought along with me an American novel to complement all the classically trained Englishmen who’ve romanced Greece, and as I went through Don DeLillo’s “The Names” for the third time, I was chilled once more by a sense that Greece represents something distant and strong in our collective memory. A single rock, the haunted novelist wrote, has “a power like a voice in the sky.” “The light was surgical, it was binding,” he writes early on. “It fixed the scene before me as a moment in a dream.”
It’s the wildness of Greece that overwhelms, the writer seemed to recognize, not the so-called civilization. “I feel I’ve known the particular clarity of this air and water,” says one of his expat characters, very possibly a spy. “I’ve climbed these stony paths into the hills.” To which another replies, “There’s a generic quality, an absoluteness. The bare hills, a figure in the distance.”
The novel came out in 1982, and during that summer, I spent a whole month traveling around Greece, writing on the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands for the $5-a-day student guidebook “Let’s Go: Greece.” It was a pivotal moment in my life; I’d just turned 25, and I was leaving grad school at last to get a job in Manhattan. As I prepared for adulthood, I woke up before dawn most mornings in a no-star hotel, went out to catch the first bus and rode along the coast to the next small town to look in on its sights and facilities before heading off the next day. I’ve seldom known a more dreamy and contemplative time.
At the end of my trip, my girlfriend of six years came over to Ithaca from Boston to join me. She looked more beautiful than ever, arms and legs golden in her pink sundress, and that was because she’d come to say goodbye. I was heading off into a new life, we both understood. We spent our days on the island of Odysseus’ homecoming preparing for a separation. After a long evening at a taverna, under colored lights and grape leaves, she descended into a boat with a new friend while I trudged back to our small hotel alone.
Now, as I looked around the island at the other end of life, I was amazed at how little it had changed. Yachties had discovered Vathy, the little main town gathered around a port, and blond Knightsbridgeites encircled the bust of Homer. There were boutique hotels now, and swimming pools. But the Circean rhythms and mythical features were no different from before. I went into a market to buy peaches and chocolate and juice for a quiet dinner in my room one evening and the bill came to the equivalent of $2.30, as if I were back in my grandfather’s time.
On neighboring Cephalonia, at the idyllic edge of Agia Efimia known as Paradise Beach, a whole scatter of pastel villas has come up since “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001) was filmed on the island, transforming its fortunes. But the wonderful little taverna founded by Stavros Dendrinos still stands here, as it did 37 years ago, and when I asked if I could stay in a small room above the restaurant, as before, Dendrinos’s son Nikitas, who runs it these days, said, “Now, no more. But if you want, you can stay in my uncle’s house next door.”
Four days later, back on Ithaca, I sat on my terrace one morning to watch the island wake up. It never happened. Were Odysseus to come back next year, Penelope might hardly look up from her loom, even as Telemachus asks the old man if he knows of any good jobs in the city. In the absence of neon and traffic, we were back in something like Asclepius’ sanctuary: a place in which to fall asleep and wake up, inexplicably clarified.