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(Secret) Islands of Greece

Tim Walker Kaladi, a remote pebble beach

Photo: Tim Walker

One of my few cardinal rules is never to eat at a restaurant named Zorba’s—a certain tourist trap. But the only two restaurants I noticed in Hora were Zorba’s and the Belvedere Pizzeria. Despite the latter’s fabulous views of the illuminated Venetian-era castle, I didn’t feel like pizza. So I found myself climbing upstairs to the roof of Zorba’s. I almost fled when I saw Anthony Quinn dancing on the menu, above the quote, "It was from Zorba that I learned to stop fearing life and live." But I stayed, and had the cheapest, most satisfying dinner of my entire trip—perfectly grilled souvlaki, a salad filled with juicy, thick tomatoes, and a light rosé. It was all accompanied by entertainment, as the owner, who, like Zorba, dispenses advice, scolded a guest that fried cheese was "strictly forbidden in this heat!"

After dinner I wandered into the square and found the cafés filled with blue-haired gal pals yelling at their rambunctious grandchildren, and bald guys flicking worry beads. It reminded me of when I was a rowdy toddler, running around after dinner with kids I’d just met while my parents, unconcerned, drank wine out of tin carafes and watched my baby sister sleeping on two taverna chairs they’d pushed together to make a crib.

I was still determined to get out of town and explore some of the island’s best-known sights. So bright and early the next morning, I stood in front of a parked cab until its owner came out of a café and handed me a business card printed yiorgos d. kalogeros, driver. I told him I wanted to visit the cave of Agia Sophia, which I’d seen on a postcard during my first visit to Kíthira. At the foot of a path off Kíthira’s ring road, the cave was used as a church by sailors, who, in 1875, painted icons on the inside. Yiorgos D. Kalogeros, driver, sat in the shade, waiting as I followed a guide through a maze of stalagmites and stalactites. Afterward, we drove to his wife’s hometown, the nearby, picture-perfect village of Mylopotamos. Beneath the town square hides another landmark, the Neraides waterfall, a rushing torrent that ends in an ankle-deep pool shaded by trees that look as if their only purpose were to offer a little privacy to bathing wood-nymphs. Kalogeros seemed to know everyone on the island, from the speleologist giving tours at Agia Sophia to the backgammon players in Mylopotamos’s square, who greeted him with a joy I would have imagined they’d reserve for relatives who had left long ago and only just returned for the summer. All I’d wanted was a ride, and instead I’d ended up on a tour with the island’s unofficial mayor.

On my last day, I decided to try my luck with the local bus, which crosses the island on limited routes. One led to the crescent-shaped beach of Kapsali, which is ringed by tavernas and dotted with blue-and-white changing booths that add a dash of retro-chic to the shore. Lolling about in the sparkling surf, I tried to channel a fittingly retro-chic icon, Brigitte Bardot. Then I remembered I hadn’t brought a cinematic sundress to change into. Improvising, I threw a shirt over my suit and ran to catch the bus. As it chugged up the hillside, I spotted a small turquoise bay hidden between two steep green cliffs; for a moment, until we turned the corner, I had the best view on the island. Sitting in a damp bathing suit on an old velour bus seat next to a grandma in a housecoat, I’d finally accomplished my goal of recapturing my past. I was damp, salty, exhausted, and exhilarated. It was the feeling of my childhood summers. ✚

Eleni N. Gage is the author of North of Ithaka: A Journey Home Through a Family’s Extraordinary Past (St. Martin’s Press).

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