Nowhere in Europe is really isolated any more, but Ithaca remains hard to reach. The boat from Patras takes 4 hours. Patras itself has no airport and is four hours by road from Athens, or fourteen hours by ferry from Bari. We came through Bari, which involved long waits between connections and a lumbering run along the waterfront to the ferry in Patras, with wheeled case bouncing behind. Worth it, though, to avoid eight hours in Patras, a town of determined, industrial ugliness.
When you reach Ithaca, there is only one easily accessible town. It is delightfully untouristed. There are very few remains, and no uncontested Homeric sites: that’s to say that there are places that are certainly Mycenaean, but none that can be firmly identified with sites in the Odyssey. We know Odysseus must have been there, if he was king of the island, but we can’t know where he would have thought he was.
So one afternoon we drove to the North of the island, to a place known, on no good grounds, as the School of Homer, where there is a Mycenean wall topped by the ruins of a Venetian fort. People lived there 4,7000 years ago, and the mountains around can hardly have changed at all. They may have changed a bit, since this is earthquake country, and one promising site for Odysseus’ hall vanished into the sea, as a Byzantine city, in 973AD.
The School of Homer is not developed as a tourist site: you reach it down a mile or so of dirt and rubble track that runs through scrub forest. At the end there is a metal sign, which has been blasted with a shotgun and so has swung round to point further down the road. We walked for about a kilometre further down the track through the delicious spicy heat of a Mediterranean hillside before giving up and walking back to the sign. Far beneath, the sea had been put through God’s vivid filter, and at one bend in the road the goat bells swelled from the woods below us.
Returning to the sign, I noticed the tiny track up into the woods to the School of Homer, and climbed to it. Byron was here, on August 14 1823; but this was not nearly as odd as the feeling that any king of Ithaca must have stood where I was, and looked across these valleys. To see with physical eyes the view that Odysseus saw is quite incomparably strange, and more strange because I am so used to seeing it with Tennyson’s eyes:
bq.. It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an ag