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OUR plane bound for Kythira stands on the tarmac encased in a film of dust. The seats are vintage 1968. The right propeller shrieks alarmingly and the windows are as clear as milk. But this battered twin-engine shuttle does the job, and an hour out of Athens we bank around the great paw of the southern Peloponnese, bounce jauntily through an updraft and I am delivered, with all the thrill of a rodeo ride, to Aphrodite's isle.

Writes Luke Slattery, The Australian.

I remark on the entertaining flight to the woman across the aisle and she shoots back excitedly: "You from Melbourne?" "No," I say. "Sydney."
"You Greek?"
"I'm afraid not."
"But your parents? Greek?"

I have no Greek ancestry but the question, or should I say assertion, of parentage is something I will hear time and again during the coming weeks as I hop from Kythira to Kastellorizo via the northeasterly isle of Lemnos: three extreme outposts of Greek-Australia. I have the jet lag and the hole in the wallet to prove I've left home. But in so many other respects I haven't.

The busy bird of a woman from the plane approaches as I stand waiting for my luggage. Anxious to ensure I'mnot fleeced by a taxi driver, she brokers a deal with one, then spins around to survey the family reunion behind us. "See this flight," she says, splaying her fingers. "Twenty from Melbourne. Including a priest. All Greek."

After a 45-minute drive south to the hilltop capital of Chora along a main road as wide in parts as a donkey track, I arrive at the Hotel Margarita as the afternoon wind whips up. The Aphrodite suite, a lovely room with high ceilings and views across an uncharacteristically steely Aegean, is mine, as is the hotel this early May, the start of the wintering season for Kythirean-Australians.

Most retreat to their ancestral cottages or renovated Helleno mansions. The tourist migration is still months away and the island feels, in early spring, as if its sun shines for a fortunate few.

Hotel Margarita is a charming 19th-century villa, its whitewashed walls a checkerboard of blue shuttered windows splashed with bougainvillea. I take my chair to the veranda and look across the wind-blasted maquis to a roiling ocean and a tiny egg-shaped islet. Up here at eagle height the air has a medicinal scent of sea salt and wild thyme, but the fine ocean view puts me in mind of a harder age. The islanders of old, ravaged by pirates, settled these cliffs out of fear.

By morning, word of my stay has reached the ears of the hire car company's owner, Pete from Swan Hill. He wants to share his loneliness -- the kids are in Oz and they don't care for Greece -- and to rent me a vehicle at a family rate.

So I set off in a mechanised tin can across a largely unpeopled landscape of gorse brocaded here and there with stands of spring wild flowers: poppies, marigolds and violet hyacinths. For all its raw beauty this is a landscape that looks as if it misses company. The island's 1907 population of 13,000 was reduced to 3000 in the course of the past century.

Lunch at a roadside cafe named Maria's is a generous affair: a Greek salad piled high with three varieties of cheese, home-made corn bread, olives, oil and eggplant dip, followed by barbecued red snapper. As I fall upon a dessert of yoghurt with lemon zest and preserved grapes, a Dutch couple takes up the next table. Inhabitants of low, flat countries, we three discover a shared aversion to the more vertiginous experience of driving in Greece.

The conversation is not so much about things to see as things not to. The woman offers a beautifully condensed explanation of why, each year at the same time, she returns to Kythira: "Because it is the last truly Greek Greek island."

It was famous in antiquity as the birthplace of Aphrodite, even though the Cypriots stake a rival claim. The Homeric hymn to the love goddess more or less invites dispute as it has Aphrodite conceived in sea foam off Kythira (aphros means foam), then borne across the sea to Cyprus.

Despite suggestion in the chronicles of an Attic temple to Aphrodite, and the roots of a Minoan settlement on the east coast, it is not rich in antiquities. Byzantium left a more durable stamp with fairytale frescoed chapels and medieval stone villages such as Paleochora, the island's 11th-century capital.

Traditional Kythirean architecture has a split personality. The red-tiled roofs of the western half evoke its years of Venetian rule, while whitewashed Chora and the sugar-cube east coast village of Avlemonas dream of the Cyclades. Avlemonas sits in a gentle cove, a short stroll from a broad beach bookended with sea-hollowed rock formations. The ocean here, its smooth skin caressed by an onshore breeze, is chilly when I wade in. But the sun is warm, as are the shingles underfoot. There's not a soul around. No haute cuisine or hotel suite could offer a more intense hour of pleasure.

At Avlemonas I find Anastasia's, an outdoor cafe just gearing up for the season ahead. A few rosy little barbounia arrive at the table lightly battered, encircled by salad, dips, and beans in red sauce, the whole constellation revolving around a chilled bottle of aromatic white.

It's to this seaside cafe that I return on my last day in Kythira. Two visits and I'm a regular: this time Anastasia wants to share her stories; the local fisherman, too. As I drive slowly away from Avlemonas for the last time I glimpse a group of teenagers linking hands in a folk dance, spinning though a pool of green-gold light beneath a pergola canopied with vine leaves.

A week earlier the woman at the airport had flapped her arms as I closed the door to the taxi, shooing me away like a mother hen. "Off you go," she said. "You're a Kythirean." It's only now as I wait to board the same plane, which carries the name Homer in archaic lettering on its fuselage, that I get it.

Though not Greek, I'm the next best thing. I've come a very long way to visit her birthplace. I have her blessing. So I've become, for the duration of my stay, part of the extended family.

As the plane reaches cruising altitude I feel as if its blessing carries some weight, not least because the right propeller no longer emits its distressed squeal.

Later that night I board a flight for Lemnos on the Aegean's northern rim. Lemnos is not the most romantic Greek destination but it has something that most don't: undulations of green. It's a granary renowned for its wheat, corn and barley, its thyme-flavoured honey, kalathaki cheese and dry muscadet. But I'm not here for the pleasures of the table or the scenery. I've come for the annual Anzac Day ceremony.

Lying in sight of the Dardanelles, Lemnos was a staging post for the ill-fated Gallipoli landings of 1915. About 30,000 Allied soldiers left the island in 200 warships; 4000 broken Diggers returned in the weeks that followed to convalesce and, too often, to die.

I meet another Greek-Australian at the airport. Stan Sarantis, Lemnos-born and Melbourne-based, returns each year with his wife, Tessi, to honour the Anzacs.

The next morning, after a spin around the attractive Castro-crowned harbour of Myrina, Stan takes me on a tour of the island's principal sights.

Though modest and few, they include a Bronze Age settlement built around the foundations of a civic meeting place.

"Europe's first parliament," boasts Stan.

I've only one must-see request: the cave of Philoctetes. A peerless archer in Homer's Iliad, Philoctetes is abandoned by the Greek forces on Lemnos with a suppurating snake bite.

But as the Trojan war drags into its 10th year, a seer predicts it can be won only with Philoctetes's sacred shafts, one of which will fell the much-loathed Paris.

Stan is a handsome man in his 60s with a head of hair as good as Bob Hawke's and a great love of a cigarette. He laughs softly as I strip down and plunge from the rocks into a sea whose currents are fed by the snow-clad mountains of Thrace. It doesn't so much chill the skin as numb it. The wounded archer's sea cave turns out, predictably, to be gloomy and cold and not a lot of fun. So I restrict myself to a bit of theatrical bellowing after Philoctetes and am soon walking back to the car with wet clothes and shivery, salted skin.

Each year for the past decade, the people of Lemnos have marked their own Anzac Day with a ceremony held a month after the mass observance at Anzac Cove. Few gather on Greek soil to hear the eulogies. Only a band of Greek-Australians, such as Stan and Tessi, and the relatives of those Anzacs buried in two military cemeteries honour the memory.

That night the locals put on a splendid feast for the pilgrims. My lasting memory is of the roly-poly bishop, his grey hedge of beard reaching below the table, plucking the eyes from the fish and leaving the flesh for others. He spends much of the evening dipping battered zucchini into thick garlicky aioli. I'm left praying for his health.

A few weeks later I climb aboard a gulet in the Turkish port of Kas for the 20-minute crossing to the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo, most easterly of the Dodecanese. Once again I find myself an observer with a front-row seat at the tragicomedy of exile and return.

A Perth woman with Kastellorizan roots is coming home. She plans to meet a relative at the port, in its day one of the Mediterranean's finest. But that was before the Luftwaffe got to work, reducing it to a pile of ash.

Sent into exile by the devastation, many of the islanders came to Australia, made their small, and in some cases large, fortunes and began to keen for home. Today about half the restored pastel mansions on the bijou harbourfront are owned by Kazzies.

"I've never seen this relative," explains the Perth woman as our gulet shudders to a stop, her face set tight with anticipation. "He's from the American side of the family. But he's promised to take us to the villa where Dad was born, to hand over the keys."

At the dock there is a kerfuffle between this Kazzie and a heavy-set Customs official who points out that nobody can enter from Turkey at this edge-of-the-Greek-world islet and hope to stay.

"But we were told at Rhodes ..." is all I catch of her protest as I squeeze past on to the quay. Mending their nets in the shade of a passageway are two fishermen. Their creased faces are straight out of Zorba; their accents straight out of Richmond.

I sit down to lunch at a harbourfront restaurant owned by an Australian woman and her Greek husband, whose mother rules the kitchen and much else besides. And as I take my first glass I notice the woman from the gulet dart by, unshackled from the Customs official. She carries a heavy set of keys and wears a girlish grin as she plunges into the heart of old Kastellorizo in search of her past.
www.gnto.gr

Saturday, August 16, 2008