My birthday odyssey
The Oldie Magazine|December 2020
As he turned 70, Nigel Summerley followed in Odysseus’s footsteps from Italy to Ithaca
Nigel Summerley

If three score years and ten is a milestone on life’s journey, where better to spend one’s 70th birthday than in Ithaca – especially after my own 4,000-mile odyssey, much of it in the wake of the Big O himself?

Odysseus was plagued by Poseidon; I travelled in the face of a pandemic – not easy when criss-crossing between Greece and Italy in late 2020. After sailing around the Aegean, I traversed the Peloponnese, took boats and trains across Italy to Sicily, went north up Italy’s ‘Odyssean coast’, then doubled back to Greece to make landfall in Ithaca.

My odyssey really began in the Cyclades with a beautiful Greek woman called Helen (or Eleni) – no, not that one, but a friend on the island of Syros. It may surprise you (it did me) that so many sites linked to Odysseus are in Italy. But Eleni knew the connection and played me music from a 2002 EU project, Ulysses’s Ports, involving musicians from Greece and Italy celebrating their common Odyssean heritage.

Sailing back to the mainland, I took a boat from Patras via Corfu (home of the Phaeacians who helped Odysseus home) to Italy.

At Brindisi a zealous border cop told me I could not enter the country as a tourist; it was so long since he’d seen a holidaymaker that I think he genuinely believed they were banned. Only when I invoked the name of Odysseus, waved my negative COVID-19 test result and explained my mission did he relent.

I sped south as fast as unreliable Italian trains allowed to Sicily, land of the Cyclops. Here too was the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and Italy’s toe, where Odysseus faced the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis.

There was no sign of Charybdis’s foul whirlpool; the water was warm and still as I swam out from Messina, the sun burning hot. But 90 minutes later, after a ferry across the Strait, I arrived in the town known as Scilla to the sound of mountain thunder and rain flooding the streets.

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