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KYTHERA CHORA & KAPSALI
The proper settlement of the Chora of Kythera dates from the time of the abandonment of the early mediaeval capital of the island—then called Aghios Demetrios and now referred to as ‘Palaiochora’—after it was sacked and destroyed by Khaireddin Barbarossa in 1537. The town seems small for the size of the island. Apart from the impressive castle and a couple of mansions and 17th century churches, it consists mostly of small spaces and humble dwellings. The setting and views are magnificent, however. The town beetles along a high ridge which runs northwest to southeast. From the small square of the town hall at the north end, a single main street winds through the centre towards the castle, passing an elegant late 19th century communal market building on the way. A little beyond this, is the church of the Estavromenos (the cathedral of Kythera), with stone campanile and a simply carved door way bearing the coat of arms of the Darmaros family: just to its north lies the church of Aghia Anna. Both churches are mid-17th century buildings and both have interesting iconostases of the same date, as does the church of Aghii Pantes, on the edge of the ridge further to the northwest. The latter has fine views of the valley including the picturesque ruins of the church beside the cemetery far be low. After the cathedral church, the street passes under an arch, formerly the outer gate of the Venetian Kastro. An 18th century mansion on the right beyond the gate has an elegantly carved door-frame and an elaborate and beautiful coat of arms carved in marble above the lintel, with fleurs de lys, crown and palms, flanked below by can non to either side, dating from its use by the French Governorate at the turn of the 19th century.
The Venetian Kastro, impressive from the outside but a little soulless on the inside, presents a well-preserved enceinte of late 16th century fortification walls of the de sign and masonry typical of that period. The site, which dominates the natural harbour of Kapsali and the southern sea-passage round the island, had been fortified since at least the early 13th century, and we have notices of a castle here that was repaired by the Venetians in 1502. But it was only after the torching of Palaiochora in 1537, that the tiny remaining population who had survived Barbarossa’s destruction moved here to settle in what must have seemed greater safety. The site was deemed of sufficient strategic importance to justify for the Venetians the expense which so large and powerful a fortress represents.
Today, the entry is by a broad 19th century ramp which breaches the original walls: below and to the right of it as you enter is the former serpentine tunnel-entrance of the 16th century. The interior of the castle is open and ruined, and encloses a heterogeneous group of buildings in varying states of decay. On the left after entering is a pleasing ruined mansion of the Stai―s family, currently being restored. All around a number of cannon are still in place: they bear the much eroded royal monogram of the British king, George III, and date from the capture of the island by the British from the French in 1809. There are also a few cannon from earlier periods; one, near the church of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, is Venetian and bears the date 1684. This church and the unadorned church of the Pantocrator (further uphill on the right) both belong to the earlier, pre-16th century castle on this site. The ascent is crowned by a building—functional and military in its austerity—once used as the official residence of the British charge d’affaires and known as the ‘Palace of the Overseers’: it now houses the extensive and valuable historical archives of Kythera. Passing through it, you come out in front of two churches, side by side: the larger is the church of the Panaghia Myrtiodotissa, formerly the Catholic church of Santa Barbara, built in matter-of-fact style by the Venetians in the 17th century. Abutting its north wall is the older orthodox church of Panaghia Orphanon (or ‘Madonna degli Orfani’)—with a single (crooked) barrel-vaulted chamber. An extensive restoration campaign is currently under way at the Kastro. The site’s greatest joy remains the beauty of its views down to Kapsali port and towards Antikythera, and, in spring, the abundance of flowering campanula.
The castle was the inner stronghold of a larger complex of civil habitation which clung to its northern and eastern sides. The walls of this outer area can still be seen in part on the slope which drops down towards Kapsali; and the densely populated area within them was known as Mesa Bourgo, ‘the town within’. This is a fascinating and picturesque site; it is small and the lay-out is simple. It is reached by any one of the narrow alleys that descend from near the entrance to the castle, down to the steep eastern slope below the castle walls. Apart from stretches of the walls, only the churches now remain, and most of these are from the 14th and 15th centuries, indicating that this area was inhabited before the destruction of Palaiochora. The first church on the path is the church of Aghios Athanasios, which has fine 16th century moulding around the door on its south side. Further to the south and on the right, is the tiny single-aisled church of Aghia Triada (with small belfry): there are some relatively late wall paintings in this church from 1610, with a well-preserved inscription, beside a diminutive figure below and to the right of the Pantocrator on the south wall, beseeching the Lord to ‘Remember the soul of ‘... Kasimatis Sanudo’, the church’s benefactor. Just beside and to the south is the church of the Panaghia Mesochoriissa (with double belfry). The ruined church of Aghios Demetrios, just beyond this, is the most accessible of the group: only its apse and the south wall of the nave still stand, but these both bear (eroded) early 15th century paintings of interest. With some clambering it is possible to get close enough to the paintings to see the remarkable fineness of execution of the faces. At the furthest point of the path (southern extremity) are three churches: Aghios Giorgios of Kaloutzis (with double bell-tower) and, slightly below, the two intercommunicating chapels of Aghios Philippos and Aghios Ioannis Chrysostomos. The first has paintings in the two blind arches on either side of its interior chamber: a rather ill-proportioned Archangel Michael of the 15th century, above the burial-place of Neophytos Kaloutzis (whose name has given the epithet to the church), and a beautiful Dormition scene painted perhaps a century later. The second (middle/south) church (Aghios Ioannis Chrysostomos) has an interesting ensemble of paintings on its north wall, with a small inset of a lady benefactress (in ?late 16th century costume), just below the finely modelled head of the horse of St George. Higher up the slope above these churches is the abandoned chapel of Aghios Ioannis Drapanezis. Returning towards the centre of Chora from Mesa Bourgo along Odos Kaloutzis, you pass a fine patrician Kytheran house, with garden and stone-mosaic patio in front.
Kythera’s one-room Archaeological Museum (open 8.30–3.30; closed Mon) is on the edge of the Chora, just to the right of the road which heads north to Livadi. The museum is currently awaiting an overdue modernisation.
The artefacts here are few and not displayed to their best advantage, but they are not without interest. A strikingly beautiful vessel in steatite, as well as a small lamp, are evidence of the sophisticated Minoan presence on Kythera in the 2nd millennium bc, and of the fine materials they brought from elsewhere: there are also fragments of an unusual clay cooking-grill. Most of the exhibits, however, come from the coastal area of Palaiopolis (see below) and the site of Palaiokastro above it in the interior of the island. The room is dominated by an Archaic (6th century bc) lioness from Palaiokastro, with her tail curled neatly inside her right flank in a manner stylistically characteristic of Archaic design. There is no visible inscription—just later graffiti on the back of the head. The piece must be approximately contemporary with the lions/lionesses of De los, but the rough cutting of the hind paws and the slightly awkward realisation of the shoulders mark it out as being of a less skilled workmanship. There are also many storage amphorae exhibited which come from different locations on and off-shore around the island.
The beautiful double harbour of Kapsali lies 2km be low Chora: it has shops, lodgings and several tavernas. At the eastern edge of the inner harbour, behind imposing iron gates, is the Lazareto, or quarantine station—a group of low early 19th century buildings around a cob bled courtyard, centred on a well-head and now picturesquely overgrown with figs, palms and bougainvillea— once used during epidemics and for mariners deemed to require reclusion. Looking back up from here towards the castle, the whitewashed face of the mountainside hermit age of Aghios Ioannis sto Kremno, is clearly visible in the cliff face to the north. (This is reached by taking the road signposted ‘Camping’ to the right as you re-ascend towards Chora: just beyond the campsite entrance, a path leads up through the trees to the hermitage.) The outer gate (with a marble plaque bearing a dedicatory inscription of the 16th century) leads to a low tunnel and to a steep flight of steps that climb up to a group of caves, the deepest of which has been rather roughly adapted into a church. This cave stretches some way into the hillside to the north. The rather dilapidated iconostasis runs flat along the east wall, facing you as you enter, and a tiny door at its south end leads directly up steps to a ledge which was the hermit’s place of prayer. From all points there are striking views. The church is dedicated to St John the Theologian, and a tenuous legend relates that he began writing the Book of the Revelation here. This is the first of an unusually large number of cave-churches on the island (see box pp. 74–75).
Kythera Island, Greece