This painting, one of the Old Masters, captures travelers about to embark on a romantic journey to the island of Cythera surrounded by idyllic nature. Submitted by French Roccoco painter Antoine Watteau in 1717 to the Royal Art Exhibition, it is unique by the way it captures figures from various social classes on a simple trip with the presence of nature complementing their mood, not overshadowing or overwhelming them. It was the place name in this intriguing painting that has stayed with me since college Art History 101 class. That painting captivated my imagination so much that it has remained on my bucket list since my 20s. When the chance came up to visit the island, I jumped at the chance to make my own journey to Kythera.
Kythera has a magical ring to it; its very name evokes an incantation of sorts. They say that when Chronos was castrated by his son Uranus his bloody testicles fell into the sea generating the froth from which the goddess of love herself sprung completely naked—a mature adult wrested out of the source of generative power and violence. They say that those who bathe in the waters of Kythera will be imbued with the power of eros and the seductive charm of the goddess of beauty to attract a long line of lovers.
Kythera, unlike the other Greek islands that tend to form clusters, lies to the south of the Peloponnesus. There are two ways to reach it: via a long ferry ride from Pireaus, over six hours long or via a four-hour drive to the town of Neapoli to board a short hour and a half ferry. I took the later option as the weekend I chose to go Hurricane Iasonas hit the eastern Ionian and parts of the Pelopponesus.
The port is smartly placed on a man-made jetty called Diakofti, in reference to the strip of land that cuts across the sea connecting the port with the mainland. Most travelers disembark there and then make their way down the stretch of land that leads into the mainland. I could not help but notice the remarkable wreck of a Russian freighter off a neighboring land mass.
Kythera, unlke my native Cyclades, is surprisingly green and lush. It is spotted with olive groves, pine forests, and eve n a cascading waterfall (when it is fed with enough rain water at least). Because its soil is fertile, Kythera enjoys a hearty economic uphold not just from tourism but also from agriculture. It is known for its wheat production, corn and animal feed as well as olive oil, honey, spinach, squash and zucchini, and fruit cultivation, especially oranges. Even without tourists, it does quite nicely just on agriculture. But still, tourism is fast approaching as its primary economic activity.
Another difference: Kythera has historic and cultural ties to the Venetians. Even though it is far geographically from the Ionian islands, the closet island is Elafonisi, it is categorized in this bunch. This is plainly evident in its architecture and color schemes. Unlike the blue and white of my native islands, Kythera sports deep reds, yellows, green and browns. The main town, Chora, is the jewel in its crown. The Fortezza as it is called was built by the Venetians as a citadel to guard against Ottoman invasion. Its strategic location at the highest hill of the Chora provides an incredible view of the surrounding village and the coastline. Within the fortress compound two churches, the Virgin Mirtidiotissa and the Virgin Orphani, used to contain both the gunpowder, cannons, and other ammunition as well as the miracle-working icon of the Virgin of the Myrtles, Myrtidiotisa, as it is known in Greece.
The vibe in Kythera is quite laid back. From the man with an Aussie accent on the deck of the Myrdiotissa I learned that many Greeks from the island traveled to Australia have come back to claim their piece of paradise. From the lovely Dutch couple I met during dinner in the seaside village of Agia Pelagia, there is a small but dedicated community of Dutch ex-pats.
I even chatted with the Cat Lady of Kythera on Sunday in the central square of Plakotos where a local food market takes place. She came to Kythera 13 years ago. She confesses, “I fell in love with the place the minute my feet touched the ground from the airport. I knew it was home.” She lives in the boondocks to the east with a house full of 37 cats. She manages a cat rescue and has planted several cat feeding stations across various villages. She has actually designed her own cat-feeding apparatus. “The cats line up when they know I am coming,” she says, “like clocks.”
The locals make up 2-3,000 full-time inhabitants, not to include the part-time residents that drop in from Athens for a few weeks.
There are plenty of beautiful beaches to take a dip in the lovely waters of Aphrodite including Kapsali, Agia Pelagia, Avlemonas, and Diakofti.
Monastery of Moni:
This monastery is visible from the port just over the ridge from the highest hill. Apparently, the monastery was built with a promise from the revolutionary hero Kolokotronis. He funded it with his own money after his victory against the Turks. A bust with his image in a square on the road to the monastery memorializes the connection. The monastery is not a working monastery, that is, no monks are in residence, but is known as a “Kathisma” a seat that accepts faithful for certain feast and fast periods. During its feast day in August, the day of the Savior, pilgrims and clerics visit and stay for two weeks at a time. The church building is neo-Classical in style with a salmon pink façade built in 1840. From the highest hill of the island, to the west, one can see the entire Peloponnesus and the entire island. It is worth the trek for the view.
Monastery of Mirtidiotiissa:
The most famous monastery of Kythera is the Mirtidiotissa, or the Virgin of the Myrtles. The legend has it that a shepherd that was tending his flock in a cave heard a voice of a woman telling him to find her. Half sleeping, half awake, he walked in the direction of the voice and in a myrtle bush he saw an icon of the Virgin Mary. He told this to a local priest monk Leontius who interpreted this as a sign that a church should be built in honor of the Theotokos. The shepherd had taken the icon into his cave more than once for vigil services. But the next day it would always appear on the same spot in the myrtle bush. They realized that the Virgin wanted a temple built on that spot.
While the building of the monastery was a slow process, eventually it developed into a complex of buildings including monk’s cells, two chapels, and pilgrim’s residences. The miracle-working icon has many tamata, or offerings in return for prayers granted, seen under its protecting glass. A gold with diamond encrusted cross in red came from Queen Sophia of Spain; another diamond ring from Queen Frederiki; and a gold bullet given by a Greek American who had been shot and while undergoing surgery promised to bring the Virgin the bullet in gold should she listen to his prayers.
What I loved about Kythera is that there were very well-marked hiking trails throughout the island. A random walk led me into Kato Chora where I discovered an entire medieval town complete with the Venetian Lion of St Mark over lintels. For nature lovers and hikers, the island offers plenty of opportunity to explore its hidden secrets. Paths that meander through lush forests trickling with waters, paths that weave through seacoasts back into wooded glens and then to beaches.
Kythera is Greece’s best kept secret. For those who want to escape crowds and the hustle-bustle of the packed party-going islands that appear in ads of glossy magazines, Kythera is the off-center destination for those who need the quiet reservation to fill their internal reserves. Unpretentious yet delightfully beautiful, Kythera is worth the trip. Paint your own painting by embarking on your own voyage to Kythera before it gets found out and spoiled.
You can download maps here: https://kytherahiking.com/