The Odyssey: In Search of the Muse on the Greek Islands of Ithaca and Kefalonia

The Odyssey: In Search of the Muse on the Greek Islands of Ithaca and Kefalonia

While seeking inspiration for a novel, one writer retraces the mythology, the mood and mentality of the Greek islands of Ithaca and Kefalonia.

This article first appears in Vol. 27:

have a boundless appeal. There’s something about being
cut off from the mainland that stirs the senses and invokes a
distinctive state of mind. They signify both limitation and escape,
retreat and return. I grew up on a tropical island – Singapore –
and have long been enthralled by the faraway, magical islands of
Greek myths and legends. My first novel, Ponti, was set entirely in
Singapore, and my home island shaped the territory and soul of the
story – it was its own narrative force and character. This spring,
I’m working on a novel that interweaves aspects of classical and
Singaporean mythology. I’m interested in the paradox of
placelessness and the overwhelming aura of spaces real and
imagined. It’s with this in mind that I set out on a journey to
retrace the mythology and explore the mood and mentality of the

Greek islands
of Ithaca and Kefalonia, which have long
captivated my imagination.

I arrive in Kefalonia after nightfall. Lit-up homes and small
churches dot the mountainous terrain and even with half the
landscape obscured, the island has a quiet grandeur. In the port
town of Argostoli I am welcomed at the Kefalonia Grand Hotel with a
cool lemon drink. Commanding a view of the harbour, this boutique
hotel is airy and modern with a sleek, monochrome facade – but I
don’t have long to explore. In the early morning I rise to catch
the half-hour ferry to Ithaca. Approaching its sun-tipped mountain
ranges, the stresses and structured rigour of city life give way to
pure awe. Time slows down and seeps into the roots of its olive
trees, while ancient history is pocketed in its ruins and ocean
coves. It’s hard to separate Ithaca from Homer’s epic poem, The
Odyssey, which cemented the island’s reputation as the idyllic
homeland the hero Odysseus returned to after 20 years at sea. Homer
famously describes the “wine- dark sea” and “bright Ithaca”, and
I’m looking forward to seeing how much the reality matches up to my

As the ferry docks into Piso Aetos harbour, the landscape thrums
with mythic resonance. Sun glitters off the surrounding waters.
Snaking roads encircle evergreen woodland, lush and diverse. The
Ionian earthquake of 1953 devastated Ithaca and its surrounding
islands, resulting in a landscape of newer Venetian and
English-influenced buildings mixed with the shells of ruined, yet
strangely beautiful, Renaissance architecture. The island covers
roughly 118 square kilometres and its mountains are peppered with
ruins, caves, springs and small villages. It is ideal for leisurely
hikes, although a car or bike is still necessary to get around.

Since the 16th century Vathy has served as Ithaca’s capital and
main harbour, a postcard-pretty village of colourful houses
clustered around a crystalline bay. For the next two nights I’m
staying at the Hotel Familia, a bed and breakfast boutique hotel
housed in a renovated 1890s former olive press building of stone
and wood. After a delectable breakfast spread of home-cooked
Ithacan pastries, marmalades and creamy Greek yogurt, I choose a
random uphill path and end up in front of the serene Church of the
Theotokos-Gardelaki, its sprawling cemetery flanked by a
contemplative view of the mountains. For lunch I find my way to the
local favourite MPatis – endorsed enthusiastically by the governor
of Ithaca himself, the warm and hearty Mr Spiros Tsintilas – for
tangy tzatziki followed by fresh-from-the-net, grilled squid and
sea bream with a squeeze of lemon.

Vathy is a convenient base to explore the traditional villages
nearby. The quaint and pastel-hued Kioni is a short drive away and
is made up of tile-roofed houses overlooking a port of fishing
boats and docked yachts. Taverns, trinket shops and restaurants
line the waterfront, including the terraced Lizzy’s Restaurant-Bar,
overlooking an expanse of water of a shade so distinctively,
dreamily blue that it has its own name in Greek: “galazios”. In the
cinematically quaint village of Frikes, I devour zingy berry ice
cream at the Dodoni dessert parlour before setting off toward
Stavros and Exogi in search of Homer’s School. The archaeological
ruins are said to be what remains of Odysseus’s palace and have an
appropriately majestic view of the surrounding terrain.

Hiking up a dirt path, I stumble upon a rusty, old well and
crumbled antechamber and think about Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful
and wily wife, weaving and later unpicking her absent husband’s
burial shroud to stall her greedy suitors. I consider whether
there’s a worthwhile analogy to be made between weaving and
unpicking, and the meticulous repetition and purposeful deletion
that comes with novel writing. I also wonder about all the fabled
and unknown people that have lived here, these stately stones their
only trace. Before returning to Vathy, I stop off at the Kathara
Monastery, which has a breathtaking and poetic aspect of the Ionian
Sea, although as dusk begins to fall I find its quiet grounds a
little eerie.

The next day I seek out Anogi, one of the oldest and most
mountainous villages on the island. It’s a rustic and sparsely
populated place surrounded by prehistoric natural rock formations.
The largest of these, known as Araklis, is nine metres tall and
otherworldly to behold – the clearing of prehistoric stones fringed
with dried-out trees and shrubs resembles the site of an
extra-terrestrial landing. Hiking through sunny Perachori, I make
my way to the ruins of the medieval settlement of Paleochora, whose
denizens were once so afraid of pirates they built their houses
without windows. Its three churches house Byzantine murals and are
havens of meditative calm. Toward sunset I follow a winding path
down to Ioannis Beach. I have the entire white-pebbled stretch to
myself, so I compose a smug Instagram post and then lie on a towel
reading as I enjoy the lapping of the waves. I try to write down
some fragments for my novel, but all I can come up with are paltry
descriptions of paradise. Ugliness and grit, I feel, are easier to
depict than overwhelming beauty.

The next morning I take the ferry to Sami on the island of
Kefalonia, where I make a beeline for Myrtos Beach, frequently
listed as one of the best beaches in the world – and for good
reason. Dramatically framed by steep cliffs, it’s a curved stretch
of meringue- white sand and cerulean sea blended into foam green by
the surf. It’s so pretty I get optical overload, as if my jaded
city eyes can scarcely believe so much beauty. I have a beer on the
beach before setting off for Assos, a small town built
amphitheatrically around a peninsula. Feline lovers take note: I
have never seen a larger quantity of adorable cats basking than on
these sunlit streets. I leave the cat gang and stroll along the
Fanari trail, going past ascending layers of sloped gardens
blooming to burst with vivid flowers and monstrous succulents. The
passage opens out to a panorama of the surrounding islands rising
out of the sea like giant green humpbacks.

Towering over the village is Assos Castle, a Venetian fortress
accessible by a pleasantly winding stone path. The ruins and castle
grounds at the top of the rocky hill are plucked straight from a
fairy tale, all cobbled pathways and enchanting herbs and flowers.
I end the day with a visit to the impressively regal Saint
Gerasimos Monastery, decorated with shining frescos and murals
depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the Last Supper.
Gerasimos is the patron saint of Kefalonia, famous for his healing
powers. According to local legend, there were numerous visions and
sightings of him around the island after the 1953 earthquakes.

Driving to the other side of Kefalonia, I check into F Zeen, a
family-run boutique hotel built into the hillside next to Lourdas
beach, with space-age, yoga-chic vibes – I half expect Tilda
Swinton to appear in a grey tunic telling me I have completed my
mission and can finally rest here. I peer out of my bay window over
the Ionian Sea, a broad shimmer smudged in pinks and oranges as the
sun sets. There’s no questioning that the Ionian horizon is deeply
romantic, and when I make my way to the restaurant I find myself
surrounded by young, canoodling couples. “Oh, fresh love!” I think,
the serenity of the space making me more benevolent than usual. I
would probably roll my eyes if we were all on a tube carriage.

After a breakfast feast of locally sourced honey, figs and fresh
fruit with strapatsada (scrambled eggs with cherry tomatoes and
feta), I visit Melissani Lake, a lacustrine cave and subterranean
pool. I feel like a poor soul being rowed into the underworld as a
singing ferryman guides my boat through waters in changing shades
of lucent blue and teal, past a narrow opening that leads into a
dark cave and a small island with its own vegetation. The
stalagmites and mineral formations give off an ominous atmosphere,
exacerbated by the ferryman telling me there are eels in the water
and huge bats in the air. Fortunately, I see none of either before
the boat makes its way back into the exposed chamber and the sun
hits the rock wall right on cue, setting off a jewelled chiaroscuro
on the lake’s surface.

I drop into the nearby Drogarati Cave, which was discovered 300
years ago and opened to the public in 1963. Huge stalactites and
stalagmites are suspended from a high ceiling in what is known as
the Chamber of Exaltation, which is the size of a vast banquet hall
and contains a sense of mystery and adventure. I later learn that
the cave is around 150 million years old and has an unreachable
extension that goes even further into the earth.

On my final morning in Kefalonia, an almighty rainstorm renders
the once bright-blue sea as grey as steel. I think of the gods Zeus
and Poseidon waving their staff and trident around for the fun of
it. I go through the notes and sketches I’ve made about each island
and what marks them as particular. Despite being so close together,
they both have their own distinct character: Ithaca feels palpably
steeped in history, mythology and a kind of timeless, unvarnished
magic, while Kefalonia is all exquisite natural beauty and
storybook-like whimsy. The experience has proven to be majestic,
transportive and grand. As my plane ascends steadily above the
islands and the sea, I pick up my pen and begin to write.

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