The World is the World and Kythera is another World” used to say the Venetians about Kythera. This is justified, as this island, which is bathed by three seas, has many peculiarities. Rich mythology, inextricably linked to the geological history of Kythera that emerged, like the goddess Aphrodite, from the sea. An island, an apple of discord, among the various forces over time, who wanted to control it due to its very important geostrategic position. Nature that takes you to completely opposite landscapes, from waterfalls and verdant ravines to deserted landscapes with low scattered phryganic vegetation. Settlements that have retained their traditional character, as if time has stopped. And finally, old paths, some as old as the Minoan civilisation, running throughout the whole island.
Kythera is an island that before one begins to discover it, one must love it. This is the only way for Kythera to open up… The “Kythera Trails”is a key to discover Kythera…
Kythira adorns the crossroads of three seas, the Aegean, the Ionian and the Cretan, between the Peloponnese and Crete. The area of the island is 278 km2 with a maximum length of 29 km and a maximum width of 19, while its coastline reaches 114 km.
Kythira is an island that is constantly changing forms. It is defined by two ridges, one to the east and one to the west, forming a mound inside with a relatively gentle relief. The highest peak is Mermiggaris at 506 m. The coastline of the island is transformed into a rugged plain with countless folds, steep slopes and inaccessible shores. Gorges and ravines run through the island taking the form of green veins, which hide their rich vegetation. This labyrinthine network of small and larger streams, retains moisture, and composes intense alternations with the arid landscapes of the island.
The climate of Kythera is typically Mediterranean, with prolonged hot and dry summers and mild humid winters. The average annual temperature reaches 18 C, while strong winds prevail, mainly in the northwest and east. The island is vulnerable to climate change and is already facing significant effects, mainly related to the reduction of its water resources. Kythira is an island with rich biodiversity, in which more than 820 species of plants grow, with impressive endemism (55 species). Maquis vegetation covers large areas, about 40%, in all lengths and widths of Kythera, often entangled with the shortes phrygana. Extensive tree planting took place in clusters in the 1960s, with the result that small and larger forests cool the arid landscapes even today. Of these, the Gerakari forest to the northwest is the largest single area with tall tree vegetation in Kythira. The people of Kythera, traditionally utilize a large number of plants, for various uses such as sage, thyme, pistacia etc.
The island is a station for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds in spring and autumn. “More than 200 species of birds have been observed, most of which are migratory and there are more than 20 that live in it permanently. The secluded coasts of Kythera are home to a constantly breeding population of Mediterranean seals, one of the rarest species on the planet. Another endangered species, the Aegean gull, is found on the islets around Kythira.
Large areas of Kythera are under protection for the conservation of biodiversity. There are Special Protection Areas (SPAs), Sites of Community Importance (SCIs), Important Bird Areas (SACs) and a Wildlife Sanctuary.
Volcanic activity is visible in Kythera by the existence of numerous caves. The geological rearrangements that have taken place in the area over time, make many Kytherian people refer to legends that describe cave openings under the ground, which lead to the shores of the Peloponnese, in an underwater tunnel that connects Kythera with Elafonissos, in holes in the ground from where steam comes out and in waters and rivers coming from the Peloponnese. The existence of many fossils in a large part of the island, led the ancient inhabitants to connect the island with the goddess Aphrodite who emerged from the sea.
The sea of Kythera is the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite from where she traveled to Cyprus in a huge shell according to the legend written by Hesiod. Goddess Earth, wanting to punish her husband Uranus for all the harm he had done to her, called their children and asked them to kill their father. Saturn took a scythe from his mother’s womb and killed him by cutting off his genitals, which fell into the sea of Kythera and became small islands (perhaps the Dragonares in combination with the Mountain above Avlemonas). The blood fell, touched the foam of the sea and through the union of these two elements was born the Celestial Aphrodite, the goddess of Love. She did not stay in Kythira. In a large shell she traveled to Cyprus where she settled. In Kythira, due to the fact that Aphrodite fell from the heavens, she is worshiped as Urania, that is, goddess of Platonic love, while in Cyprus, where she emerged naked from the foams that reached there from Kythira, she is worshiped as Pandemos, goddess of carnal love. According to another legend, the Atreid king of Sparta, Menelaus, maintained a summer palace on the island, while Paris and the Beautiful Helen took refuge in the temple of Aphrodite in Kythira, invoking the protection of the goddess of love.
The symbolism of Aphrodite and Kythera passed through the centuries and has reached to this day being depicted in paintings, to be recorded in poetry and cinema.
The connection of Kythera with Aphrodite has to do with the geology of the island. Kythira has emerged many times from the sea, and it is not uncommon, even in the interior of the island to walk on countless fossilized shells. An island that has emerged from the seabed and is full of shells is definitely an ideal place to connect with the birth of the goddess Aphrodite.
Historically, the worship of Aphrodite did not come to Kythera by chance. The Minoans worshiped their Great Goddess, and after them, the Phoenicians brought to the island the worship of the non-iconic deity Astarte, who is also the goddess of fertility and is associated with Aphrodite. The idea of the great female non-iconic deity seems to be transferred to the worship of Aphrodite, depicted in antiquity via a piece of wood (“xoanon”). This idea seems to exist even in today’s modern religion, where Panagia Myrtidiotissa, who is considered the patron saint of the island, has no visible face. And she is “Myrtidiotissa”, from the sacred plant of Aphrodite, the myrtle (“Myrtia” in Greek)!
The island of Kythera has always been at the crossroads of Mediterranean cultures and has been a hospitable refuge for pirates, settlers, ascetics and the persecuted. Kythera began to be inhabited from the Neolithic era, with many sherds from the Bronze Age, Early Helladic and Early Minoan are located under their soils. The Minoans even before the 2nd century BC dominated the island and brought the surrounding area under their control. On the mountain, near the church of Agios Georgios, archaeologists recently uncovered a very important Minoan sanctuary, spinal vessels, stone carvings and bronze figurines. In the 14th c. BC the island was inhabited by the Mycenaeans. It is unknown when the Phoenicians first came to the island, processing the Tyrian purple and producing the deep red color that is an expensive exportable product. The Spartans have occupied Kythera since the 6th century BC. The Athenians claimed the island several times, especially during the Peloponnesian Wars, resulting in constant changes in the occupation of Kythera by Athenians and Spartans, which finally led to peace after 421 BC. Then follows the era of the Macedonians and successively of the Roman Empire.
Kythera, like the entire Mediterranean basin, belonged to Byzantium from the 6th century and the strong religious element left its mark on at least three hundred monuments and temples. In the 13th c. A.D. the Venetians annexed Kythera along with other islands and areas of Greece, however, under Emperor Michael Paleologos the island was recaptured from Constantinople and continued to “change hands” between the Venetians and the Byzantines in the following years, without, however, violating the Orthodox faith. In 1537 the commander of the Ottoman fleet, Hayreddin Barbarossa, one of the most terrible pirates in the Mediterranean, and admiral of the Ottoman fleet, destroys, loots Paleochora and drowns its inhabitants in blood. In the 17th century many refugees from Crete will come to the island, carrying together customs, habits and culture. In 1715 the Ottomans reached Kythera, but did not remain for more than three years. The island remained Venetian until the overthrow of the Venetian states in 1797.
In 1798 the French in their glorious era also came to Kythera. But after a short time the Russians and the Turks will ally to conquer the island and control the seas. In 1798 a terribly strong earthquake will destroy everything in the area of Kastri, Skandia. The English from 1809 to 1864 will regenerate the island with dozens of engineering works, although through the suppression of locals. During this period more infrastructure projects were carried out for the island than had been done during the past centuries. It is in 1815 that Kythera together with all the Ionian Islands will create the United States of the Ionian Islands – a protectorate of the United Kingdom – with Corfu as its capital. In 1864 the Ionian Islands were united with free Greece. In 1917 Kythera also proclaimed an “Autonomous Administration” for a short time.
During World War II, the inhabitants of Kythira actively participated in the Greek National Resistance. In the village of Potamos, a resistance front is organized limiting the control of the island by the Germans. in September 4, 1944, the island becomes the first area of Greece to be liberated. However Kythera is unfortunately being constantly deserted. Most young people leave for abroad, mainly in Australia and the United States. External migration stopped in the late 1970s, while from the 1950s to the 1990s internal migration took place to the urban centers of Greece, mainly in Athens and Piraeus. The tourist development of the island begins in the 1990s.
Kythera has been at the crossroads of civilizations for millennia, bridging the East and the West. The geographical location of the island decisively determined its historical course. Kythera was loved by conquerors, inspired poets, musicians and painters, and today they seek to leave their mark in the modern era. Kytherian culture is a unique alloy, a complex of influences, which at the same time has a local, authentic and unadulterated character that is reflected in the way of life of the inhabitants, in agricultural products, gastronomy, worship habits, songs, poetry, dance, storytelling, traditional environmental management and more.
An important element of the cultural and artisanship heritage of Kythera are the numerous watermills and windmills of the island. In the past, mills were an integral part of social and economic life, supplying the local community with flour, a basic material for making rusks, pasta, bread, etc.
Although Kythera is best known for its watermills, which were more numerous, it also had a scattered network of windmills along all lengths and breadths of the island. These are cylindrical tower mills, 4.6 to 5.4 meters high with characteristic arched entrances, crowned with alabaster. About 70 watermills have been recorded in different locations of Kythera. Each mill was a self-sufficient production unit with the mill facilities, the house, the oven, the stable, the storage and the orchard in a single designed space. The watermills operated exclusively on the power of water.
The traditional architecture of Kythera is based on experience and practice of many centuries, being a continuous source of knowledge, both in terms of the use of local materials and in terms of harmonization with the local environment. The traditional buildings of Kythera have common elements with those found in areas of Crete, the Peloponnese, the Ionian Islands, the Aegean islands, etc. However, the long period of Venetian rule was the historical and social context in which the unique architectural identity of the island was formed. Visually, one can easily understand the difference between the south and the north of the island from the roofs of the houses. In the north, the houses are tiled (influence from the Peloponnese) while in the south they have flat roofs (influence from Crete). On the coast of the island, the few traditional buildings that can be found are the long narrow stone arches, probably a style borrowed by the locals from the Saracens who used to loot the shores in the past. The mansions of Kythera have generally simple lines, do not have a large volume, and usually have a defensive character on one side and a mild, hospitable character on the other. On the island, the limestone, without any layer on top of it, emphasizes all the openings of the buildings, doors and windows.
The countless churches of Kythera, scattered in every corner of the island, adorn the island landscape, and as the Kytherians say “sunny spread stones of all times, with traces of culture left on them”. Monasteries, pilgrimages, cave churches and chapels testify to the rich and long religious tradition of Kythera. The most important church is that of Agios Theodoros near Potamos village, which honors the patron saint of the island, while the icon of Panagia Myrtidiotissa is the most valuable relic of the island and is the ubiquitous patron saint of Kythera. The people of Kythera still follow the local cult traditions such as ‘Decapentism’ and ‘Gyra tis Panagias, the procession of the image of Myrtidiotissa to all the villages of Kythira on foot.
The castles of Kythera are erected imposingly, protecting the island for centuries from any threat. The sea roads in the south of the island are supervised by the castle of Chora, also known as the “Eye of Crete”. The most characteristic image of the castle is the “Fortezza” (the Fortress), perched on the cliff, with the high fortification walls. However, the castle has a second fortification, at a lower altitide, which protected the Mesa Vourgos neighborhood, with its mansions and its 14 Byzantine churches. The Venetian castle took its current form in 1503. To the west, the castle of Kato Chora, near Mylopotamos village is located in a magnificent position between hills and slopes, offering a beautiful sunset to its visitors. Its monumental gate, which is still adorned by the winged Lion of the Venetian Republic of St. Mark, reveals an entire fortified settlement and nine churches. To the east, the “Castello” of Avlemonas village is a special octagonal coastal fortress, which inside has 14 arches into its perimeter wall. It was built in 1725 during the Venetian occupation and in the past a tower was erected in the center of the building. Finally, in the bowels of Kythera, Agios Dimitrios, the medieval capital of the island, known today as Paliochora, dominates a hill sandwiched between sharp cliffs. It was built in the 13th century by the strong Monemvasian family of the Evdaimonogiannis and was destroyed in 1537, when it was besieged and looted by the commander of the Ottoman fleet, Hayreddin Barbarossa. This catastrophe marked the history of Kythera and gave life to myriads of local legends.
The authentic folk color of the island comes to life in the local festivals and celebrations. Music gives moments of joy to neighborhoods and cafes, while songs praise the love for the island, everyday life, humans and love. The meeting point of the whole island is the traditional open air market in the islands largest village, Potamos, which takes place every Sunday, all year round, for hundreds of years.