We cross a hill near Aghia Elessa then begin our descent into the unknown. There is a dirt track, rocks and stones and the sea. Nothing else. There are no houses, no roads, no telegraph poles. The hills rise up in the distance, the sea is an intense blue and there are no signs of a human presence, apart from an olive grove in a hollow in the midst of the desert, and a copse of cypress trees around a ruined farm. The place is filled with a poetic atmosphere.
Pirates once favoured this region because it was uninhabited, hard to reach, and offered a number of advantages for their business, in particular a number of small creeks invisible from the clifftops.
Pirates didn’t just arrive, raze a village, capture the inhabitants and set off as quickly as possible. They also concealed their booty in any number of caves along the coast. From there, they organised their distribution networks; they had numerous helpful acquaintances among the locals.
Thanks to the pirates, many Kytherans ended up as slaves, but others benefitted from trading with them. It was vital that the local inhabitants never discovered the various comings and goings, or heard about various alliances and the illicit trafficking. And so rumours were spread that such and such a road or junction were dangerous places, as they were haunted. Notably by the xena lahou, a sort of evil elf eager to do all manner of harm to any inhabitant that might dare to venture out at night along the roads they frequented.
And so, terrorised by the threat of ghosts and diabolical creatures, the inhabitants locked themselves indoors at night, leaving the pirates and their accomplices to calmly transport their goods from one place to another in peace.
These legends lived on until the 20th century. There were no longer any pirates, but they were replaced by smugglers, particularly interested in the black market for cigarettes. They used the same hiding-places and pathways as the pirates and kept alive the same terrifying legends, keeping the locals away from their places of work.
One winter morning, a bitter wind was blowing. We had been surprised by torrential downpours since dawn. The rain battered at the windows. And then the sun appeared and got the better of the clouds. Once more, the magic the island is capable of producing emerged wondrously from the land and the sky.
Fivos, my guide, had understood for a long time: “You have to be prepared when you come to Kythera, as the island rejects those who do not understand”.
He was neatly expressing what Kirios Kostas, the manager of the Porto Delfino hotel, had already told me. He too had observed the same thing. “Certain guests who have reserved for a week leave after two days without any explanation. Others who come for the first time will return year after year.”
Fivos went on: “Everyone finds what they’re looking for here. Kythera is the island of “the essential”. And what’s simple is essential, but it’s always the hardest thing to find.”
Melidoni, whch was the name of the place, had been the pirates’ favourite location. We reminisced, trying to capture the memory of those fascinating characters. Fivos told me the story of one of the best-known pirates, yet a man who had remained anonymous.
At the time the pirates “ruled”, during one of their frequent raids they had taken some prisoners among whom was a monk who was also a doctor/healer. The pirate whose property he now was appreciated his talents, and instead of selling him at the slave market, he kept him in his service. The monk became well-known and highly regarded for his skills among the cruel pirates, and as the years went by he attained a certain status that very few captives were fortunate enough to know.
One day, his master fell very ill and was soon at death’s door. He had lost all hope when, miraculously, the monk managed to heal him.
The pirate recovered and wished to show his generosity. He told the monk he would free him and send him back to Kythera. “When you get home, go to the place called Melidoni, but only on a certain day in November when the rising sun shines on a certain point between the rocks. You will go there. You will find a cave, and you will dig in the cave floor and find two pots filled with gold that I left there. Take them, and use them wisely.”
When he returned to Kythera, the monk found the cave one day in November and discovered a pot of gold filled to the brim with gold coins. He used the treasure to build the Aghi Anargyri monastery. When the pot was empty, he placed it high up in the belltower. Since then, the monastery has belonged to the monk’s family, the Megalokomou-Metaxas…
“What about the second pot of gold?”, I asked.
“It was never found”.