The island of Aphrodite’s ancestors

With Ancient Greek, Venetian, Ottoman and British influences sitting alongside rocky cliffs and sweeping coastlines, the tiny Greek island of Cythera will not remain a secret for long.

In 2004, Albert Blok closed his eyes and randomly pointed to a spot on a map, determined to spend his next holiday wherever his finger landed. He’d never heard of Cythera, a tiny Greek island northwest of Crete, but after visiting, he was smitten.

“It keeps revealing new secrets to us,” said Blok, who ended up emigrating to Cythera from the Netherlands in 2008, and now runs the traditional guesthouse Xenónas Fos kè Chóros in the village of Aroniadika with his partner Anita Snippe. “Places we have never been before, people we have never met before – its beauty keeps on surprising us. On the one hand, we want to share this beauty with everyone, but on the other hand, we want to keep it a secret.”

Blok is not alone. Floating at the intersection of the Ionian and Mediterranean Seas, Cythera – with some 3,500 full-time residents – has thus far managed to remain one of Greece’s best-kept secrets. But with the country poised to see nearly 17 million visitors in 2013, the island’s 65 ancient villages and 30km of coastline will not remain blissfully unburdened by mass tourism for long.

Where history and legend meet
Mythologically speaking, Cythera has clout. Reputedly, it was in the waters off Cythera that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, rose out of the aphrós – the Greek word for foam –after Uranus’s genitals were cast into the water. Other stories relate that Aphrodite, also known as Cytherea, then travelled to Cyprus, which also claims to be the goddess’s home – but tension is no stranger to these waters.

Since naval times, the island’s strategic location has made it somewhat of a cosmopolitan crossroads for sailors, merchants and, of course, pesky conquerors. Inhabited since the Neolithic Era, the island has changed hands many times: notable figures in Cythera’s history include Venetian Marchese Marco Venieri, who claimed to be a descendant of Aphrodite (and whose own descendants still live on the island); and the pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa, an Ottoman fleet admiral who ravaged the ancient Byzantine capital fortress of Paliochora in 1537, the ruins of which remain in the island’s northeast. As a result, Cythera displays hearty remnants of its cultural bouillabaisse, with Venetian, Ottoman, British and Ancient Greek influences coexisting on the island.

Perhaps the most intact example of prior rule is the Kastro, a castle on Spiridonos street in Chora, the island’s tiny modern-day capital. Built between the 12th and 13th Centuries during a period of Venetian occupation, the castle was once called “the eye of Crete”; views from the top allow visitors to see the Ionian, Aegean and Cretan seas simultaneously. Today, the castle –  the former residence of the Venetian governor – houses the historical archives of Cythera. Also in sight is the town of Kapsali, which served as the capital’s port during Venetian times. Located just 2km south of Chora, Kapsali is characterised by a curved waterfront and sandy twin bays where sea turtles are known to swim.

Kapsali is just one of many villages that dot Cythera’s shoreline, with one of the most well known among locals being picturesque Avlemonas, a charming and historic hamlet situated some 18km northeast of Chora that you can reach by crossing Katouni Bridge. A reminder of British rule, the stone bridge –the largest of its kind in Greece at 110m long and 6m wide – was completed in 1826 as part of a project to ensure ease of travel between the seaside village and Chora – or so official records say. Legend has it that the construction was driven by desire: after Cythera’s British governor fell in love with a girl from a nearby village, he decided to build this bridge near her house in order to see her daily. 

Another large relic backed by lore is the Panagia Myrtidiotissa monastery, the largest in Cythera. Situated on the western side of the island near the village of Kalokerines, the monastery – which translates to “The Most Holy Virgin Mary of the Myrtle Trees” – was built next to a myrtle tree where a shepherd, according to legend, found a holy icon of the Virgin Mary in the 14th Century. Pilgrims travel here to venerate the icon on 15 August’s Feast of the Dormition and on 24 September, the day of its finding. The icon is the patron saint of all Kytherians and is on display in the monastery save for Easter, when there is a religious procession to transfer it to Chora.

An island for nature lovers
Whittled away by wind and sea, Cythera is generously composed of steep, rocky cliffs and deep bays – and all of these elements are on display in the lush village of Mylopotamos, situated approximately 13km northwest of Chora. Meaning “mill on the river” in Greek, the village was once home to 22 watermills used for grinding wheat. Today, only one renovated mill remains, situated near the island’s notorious 20m waterfall, Neraida, which is a fount of folklore. Also known as Fonissa (“female killer”), the waterfall was reputedly the site of a murder: legend has it that two women were fighting atop the waterfall when one pushed the other over the edge.

Many hiking paths originate by the Neraida waterfall and loop through the village, incorporating a variety of cultural and scenic elements that illustrate Cythera’s combination of natural beauty and historical significance. Hikers can follow one such monopati (a one-person path often used for donkeys) –  recently signposted with numbers and arrows – that loops 2.6km past ruins of old mills and back to the town, though the more intrepid can choose to break away from the path before it loops back up and descend 2.2km down steep rocks and through the gorge to Kalami Beach, which can only be reached on foot by climbing down the rocks or through the gorge. Another scenic hike starts in the cypress forests of Lourantianika, in the island’s southern region, and passes 4.6km through wild olive trees while affording spectacular views of Chora, the Kastro and the sea.

Such discoveries of isolated beauty remain standard on Cythera, said Fivos Tsaravopoulos, programme coordinator of the Kythera Hiking Project, an organization centred around the creation of trails and sustainable tourism on the island.

“Cythera is a small paradise for walking,” he said. “It combines incredible landscapes – forests, waterfalls, cliffs, gorges, beaches and a Mediterranean desert – and picturesque villages, beautiful churches on the top of mountains and an incredible amount of wildflowers.”