Over the years, many Greek Australians of Kytherian background claim jokingly that the island of Kythera is pretty much another Australian state.
To an extent this is true, if one takes into consideration the number of Greek Australians that visit their home island every year, or simply by visiting the island’s sole nursing home which was entirely funded by Greek Australians as is the case with the new Kytherian sports complex and municipal library which are, to this day, funded and maintained by Greek Australian migrants of Kytherian descent.
According to official data from the municipality of Kythera, it is estimated that 80,000 Kytherians left the island in the last century, with the majority now residing in Australia.
“When I think of Kythera, I think of my childhood memories,” says 72-year-old Minas Raisis who left the island in 1961 aged 16 and migrated to Sydney with his family.
“Since the day I left, not a day has passed where I haven’t dreamt of Kythera and for the last 40 years I have visited the island at least twice a year,” continues Raisis, a successful Sydney businessman who, last week with his wife Eleni, organised a big Greek Australian breakfast with over 100 guests from Australia.
“To us, Kythera is our interpretation of paradise; the island reminds us of the people we grew up with and functions as a conduit to our past, a past which defines who we are today,” says 75-year-old Victor Kasimatis who migrated to Canberra a few decades ago and became the owner of a popular café in Manuka.
“We love the island, the one big parea we have made here and the sense of belonging and togetherness when we sit in the plateia in the afternoon,” says Victor’s wife, Effie, a dressmaker, who has ‘dressed’ most of the Greek brides in Canberra.
Strolling down Kythera’s main hora, one can’t help but notice the uniqueness of the island.
After a long period of Venetian occupation during the medieval ages, the island still maintains its vivid Venetian architecture, especially in its main town.
Lying in isolation, opposite the south-eastern tip of the Peloponnese peninsula, the island is a hidden little gem which combines gorges, caves, waterfalls, perfect sands and crystal-clear waters with pebbly beaches, rocky countryside and treeless landscapes.
Kythera is not revered in the same context as the popular islands of Mykonos and Santorini but is still quite popular among the Greeks and Europeans in general.
Nevertheless, when I visited last week, it did seem unusually quiet for a Greek island in July.
“We have had a quiet start to summer due to what were unresolvable issues with our ferry connections but thankfully, we have our Greek Australian friends that come to our island’s rescue every year,” says Maria, owner of a local boutique in the island’s hora.
According to 35-year-old mayor of Kythera, Stratos Charchalakis, there have always been two different ferry boats servicing the island. The first one, known as Vincenzo Cornaros which connects Kythera with Crete, Kalamata, Gytheio and Piraeus; and the second one, a smaller ferry boat that brings tourists from the mainland town of Neapoli.
“Unfortunately, Vincenzo Cornaros was severely damaged, therefore we haven’t been able to welcome visitors from any of those places since last May. Luckily, the ferry out of Neapoli is still in good condition and currently the only ferry boat that continues to connect Kythera to the mainland.”
According to Mayor Charchalakis, Vincenzo Cornaros would normally bring 8,000 tourists per year to Kythera which translates to approximately 30 per cent of Kythera’s annual visitors.
“As you can appreciate, we have had a significant nine per cent drop in tourism this year as a direct result of the ferry boat issues, but the island is still doing well and we are hoping to have the boat issue resolved soon,” says Charchalakis who originates from the little neighbouring island of Antikythera and was elected mayor of the two islands in 2014.
Secluded and famous for its relaxing atmosphere, Kythera appears to be the perfect destination for a summer holiday and the locals are genuinely polite, hospitable and business-minded, displaying a great sense of pride for their island, the birthplace of Aphrodite as they like to claim.
“Kythera is a new upcoming destination and we have all been working hard to market our island to specific regions such as northern and central Europe. We have tourists from all over the world and we make sure we keep the island clean and offer great service, good quality food and fresh produce.
“Most tourists claim that Kythera has a uniqueness about it and that it is a pleasant surprise for those who decide to visit. Of course, we always welcome and enjoy the company of our Greek Australian friends who have always been the greatest support to the island either by visiting, or through their generous donations towards large public works; from cultural centres, to the Kythirian nursing home, the sports complex and by funding for improvements to the island’s general infrastructure,” says the mayor.
“We have around 80,000 registered Kytherians that migrated mainly to Australia followed by the US. We will always look after them and we will do everything we can to keep the strong bond that these people have with Kythera, alive and unbroken,” says Charchalakis who reveals that the municipality of Kythera in collaboration with the Kythera Cultural Association is now in the process of collecting and collating a photographic collection of the Kytherian diaspora in Australia which will also be presented in Sydney towards the end of 2018, under the auspices of the Australian Embassy in Greece.
“The exhibition will be a celebration of the life of the Greek Australian islanders who migrated from Kythera to Australia in the early part of the 20th century,” he said.
“Our dream and hope is that they will always find their way home.”