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(Secret) Islands of Greece

Tim Walker Kaladi, a remote pebble beach

Photo: Tim Walker

Every morning I’d climb up to the island’s summit to visit a church known both as the Agia Sophia and the Panagia Odegetria. (As Monemvasía ping-ponged between Turkish, Frankish, and Venetian dominion until 1821, it flipped between being a mosque and an Orthodox or a Catholic church.) My short hike up stone stairs delivered a huge payoff—limitless views of the town’s cupolas, rooftops, and pointed chimneys, down to the rough sea. After descending, I’d swim at the Portello, the Kastro’s only bathing spot. Reached through another arch in the town walls, the Portello is a string of barnacled rocks, submerged during high tide, with metal stairs leading into the sea. It’s no sandy beach, but I loved being buffeted by the waves and then reclining on a rock, letting the tide rush over me.

There are more restaurants on my Manhattan block than on the entire island, but after working up an appetite swimming (it is a remarkably choppy sea), I was able to discern differences among each of the three tavernas that make up Monemvasía’s culinary trifecta. To Kanoni had the most interesting local dishes, such as saiti, a crêpelike spinach pie. Across the street, Marianthi lacked a view but had great specials, including thin green peppers stuffed with cheese. And I ate two dinners at Matoula’s, which had the largest terrace, so I could watch well-fed cats leap across roof tiles below me in the twilight while I ate spicy soutzoukakia (meatballs).

It didn’t take long for me to feel like a native. So I was barely surprised when, as I walked down the street one morning, someone called my name. It was the maître d’ from my favorite hotel in Athens, the Grande Bretagne. "I grew up here!" he bragged. "Well, in a village on the mainland. We would come here for church, for festivals." A good friend of Ardamis, he was building his own small luxury hotel on Monemvasía. "It should be finished by 2008," he said, "God and the archaeologists willing."

KÍthira

I’d been to kíthira twice before, but I’d only stayed for two days each time. Even that was enough for me to realize that I loved the pleasant incongruity of this Ionian island. It has the blindingly white houses, broad beaches, and bright bougainvillea of the Cyclades, but instead of being barren and volcanic, it’s lush and green, like the other Ionians. Best of all, it’s never overrun with tourists. This is partly because it’s in the middle of nowhere—floating at the intersection of the Ionian and Cretan seas—and partly because it’s sizable, with 30 miles of coastline, and mountains filled with wildflowers and Byzantine villages. But mostly, it’s because the locals (3,400 people live there year-round), returning immigrants, and summer residents conspire to keep Kíthira a secret. In the Athens airport, I bumped into the owner of Milos, a restaurant with locations in New York, Montreal, and Athens, and told him my itinerary. "I have a house on Kíthira," he said, frowning. "Be careful what you write. For those of us who spend time there, it’s someplace very special."

Technically, Kíthira is the seventh of the Ionians, but it is geographically far removed from the rest, off the bottom of the Peloponnese, halfway to Crete, which is as close to Libya as it is to mainland Greece. I reached the island via the hour-long car ferry from Neapolis, but in my flurry of last-minute planning, I’d forgotten one thing: the car. Now there were none to be had on the island—even on quiet Kíthira, the handful of rental outfits book up fast in high season—and I was trapped in Hora, the hilltop capital.

Of course, most people who get "trapped" in Hora do so by choice. François Crépeaux and Frédéric Ferrière, owners of the Hotel Margarita, still make their home in Paris in the winters, but after vacationing on Kíthira six years ago decided to live there eight months a year, running the hotel, a 12-room converted mansion. "We fell in love with the island," Crépeaux told me, as we sat on their hilltop breakfast patio. "So we just stayed." Now they spend afternoons hopping on their scooters and zooming off to a quiet cove outside of Hora, which they reach by holding onto a rope and pulling themselves down a path through trees to the beach. Just the kind of place I’d go. If I had a car. Instead, I wandered around town, stopping for iced coffee in cafés overlooking pastures that rolled down to the sea. It was delightful, until I got hungry.

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