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Famous in Antiquity as the island of Aphrodite, and immortalised as such in the European imagination of the 18th century by Watteau’s celebrated painting L’Embarquement pour l’Isle de Cythere, Kythera still possesses something of the quiet enchantment which Watteau evoked. There is nothing particularly grand or showy here, yet no visitor can fail to be struck by the island’s charm, or by the den sity and variety of its sights for its modest size: churches, landscapes, ruins, houses, caves, ravines, villages—there is no corner that is not rich in interest and beauty, natu ral or man-made. A longer visit than would at first seem sufficient for an island of this size, may well be necessary.
A glance at the map of Greece reveals why Kythera has had an enduring importance throughout history: it is the first refuge for ships heading into the eastern Mediterranean after rounding the often perilous waters off Cape Matapan, and is the obvious provisioning stop before the crossing to Crete and points further east. Today Kythera stands somewhat apart from the other Aegean islands: it belongs to no clear geographical group, although for a long time in its recent history it was administered together with the Ionian islands; nor is it on the ferry routes to any of the other islands, except for eastern Crete, whose colony it was in earliest Antiquity. It is close (20km) to the coast of Laconia, but its life and character are quite separate from that of the mainland; and today it is ad ministered as a distant eparchy of Piraeus in Attica. All these links have in different ways enriched the island, but none has ever compromised its quite distinct cultural in dependence.
Kythera’s most remarkable heritage lies in its numerous Byzantine remains and paintings, hardly surpassed in quality or variety anywhere in the Aegean outside Naxos . They have survived so well here because the Turkish occupation of Greece scarcely touched the island. They include not only unusual painting and architecture—such as the freshly preserved 12th century figures in the frescoed cave-church of Aghia Sophia below Mylopotamos, or the curious composite church of Aghios Demetrios at Pourko—but also whole settlements, such as the stunning site of the deserted Byzantine town at Palaiochora and the tiny Kato Chora of Mylopotamos. Other Byzantine remains—for example the enigmatic fragments of mosaic floor in the church of Aghios Giorgios at Vouno—go back as far as the 7th century, if not earlier. Often, too, what is mediaeval covers ancient antecedents: the primitive and quite extraordinary interior of the church of Aghios Kosmas at Palaiokastro, which stands on the probable site of the ancient Sanctuary of Aphrodite, is dramatically fashioned out of Archaic columns, capitals and fragments. And the church of Aghios Giorgios, mentioned above, rises over the site of a Minoan hilltop sanctuary almost 3,000 years its elder.
Kythera has numerous villages of great charm, with an attractive vernacular architecture. There are waterfalls, mills and verdurous streams at Mylopotamos and at ‘Amir Ali’ near Karavas; tranquil springs below Viaradika; and hidden grottoes and beautiful beaches, at many points around the coast. The island has good wine; the climate and vegetation foster a notably aromatic wild oregano and, above all, the island’s exceptional honey which was famous even in Antiquity.
Kythera Island, Greece