A GREEK ODYSSEY; Poetry in Motion? Head F for Ithaca and Kefalonia

Article excerpt

Byline: by Victor Sebestyen

TRUDGING up a steep, 1,900ft-high pretty hill towards the Cave of the Nymphs at Merovigli, we reached a small opening in a craggy rock.

Homer's Odyssey records that this was where Ithaca's king, Odysseus, stored the treasure of gold, precious stones and other luxury goods he had obtained in his epic ten-year struggle to return home.

When we got there, a few thousand years later, it looked like a hole in the ground and, once inside, the smell was not entirely pleasant. What was all the local fuss about? But then I understood.

As we climbed out gingerly and stood still, the view to sea was breathtaking, the silence was as timeless as Homer. A guide had told me the previous day that on much of Ithaca you can idle away hours and the only sound you hear is the occasional tinkling of goats' bells. Right on cue, I could hear a nearby goat -- a cliche moment, but nonetheless memorable.

Despite its status in classical legend, mass tourism has so far passed Ithaca by. At barely 45 square miles in area, it's tiny, tranquil and largely unspoilt.

It gets day trippers -- mostly to its charming main town, Vathy, rather than to the Cave of the Nymphs -- and a few island-hopping sailors.

But it's well worth making a visit to 'dwell in shining Ithaca', as Homer urged, at least for a few idle days of peace and stillness, interrupted only by thegoat bells. In the north-east of the island, Kioni is one of the prettiest little harbours I have seen on any coast -- three windmills on a low-lying promontory, and below, a few old houses in the Venetian style much favoured in Ionian Islands, which in the late medieval period were occupied by Venice.

There are two splendid beaches easily reached by car or foot -- Polis on the west coast of Ithaca and Filiatro on the south.

In both, fine white pebbles turn the clear sea a milky turquoise. Rent a boat in Kioni and find remote bays and inlets where you will be completely on your own.

Vathy, incongruously for such a sleepy place, possesses a hip and trendy boutique hotel, the Perantzada. Originally a rich Greek merchant's mansion in the mid-19th century, many rooms have recently been lavishly refurbished with bold colours, art work and imaginative split-level interiors using the sea views by some of the top modern designers, including Philippe Starck.

It is in the town, a short walk to a dozen tavernas -- the cheap and very cheerful O Zois was our favourite -- but still feels like a seaside hotel, with wonderful sunsets from the hotel balcony.

There's a great literary association in Ithaca's sibling island, just 45 minutes away by (slow) ferry: the far bigger and busier Kefalonia. It is altogether more contemporary, though.

Author Louis de Berniere's bestselling novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin and subsequent film starring Penelope Cruz and Nicolas Cage raised a fledgling tourism industry into a vibrant, thriving one.

KEFALONIA was devastated by an earthquake in 1953 and rebuilding work did not begin seriously until relatively recently. …