The distance from Troy, now Truva, in Turkey, to the Ionian island of Ithaca is only about 550 nautical miles. Yet after the Trojan War it took the ancient Greek warrior Odysseus 10 years to find his way home to wife Penelope, west across the Mediterranean. It was a voyage on which, as Homer’s opening paragraph puts it, “he suffered great anguish on the high seas”.
The Odyssey is not, then, an obvious book on which to base a cruising itinerary. For a start it’s fiction and the geography in it is essentially invented. Focus your route, however, on the places believed to have inspired the islands in the heart of the poem (books nine to 12), which are mostly in the Tyrrhenian Sea, west of the Italian mainland, and Homer’s epic has the potential to inspire and inform a Mediterranean superyacht charter that appeals to the most discerning lotus-eater.
The saga starts on the island of Ogygia, home of the nymph Calypso, on which she holds Odysseus prisoner. Several places lay claim to having been the model for Ogygia, not least Gozo off the coast of Malta, and Mljet, off Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Who knows if there’s truth in either, but Homer’s descriptions of the extraordinary “vaulted cavern” in which Odysseus is forced “to sleep with her, cold lover, ardent lady”, the fragrant landscape of cypress, cedar, alder, juniper and vines, not to mention the abundant red wine produced from them, chime with the reality of modern Mljet.
It is an idyllic place, much of it a forest-cloaked national park with two small salt lakes, one containing an island with a 12th century Romanesque monastery. Mljet is well worth an overnight stop if you are sailing in the Adriatic north out of Porto Montenegro or Dubrovnik, or south from Split. It is on Mljet that Odysseus’s prayers are finally heard on Mount Olympus and he’s allowed to escape. From then on the story, told mostly in flashback, is a familiar one. Leaving Troy, Odysseus and his flotilla are “wafted” north toward Thrace – now around the borders of eastern Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey – and Ismarus, “the city of the Cicones”. His behaviour there is not exemplary. “I sacked this place and destroyed its menfolk,” he later relates to Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians. “The women and the vast plunder that we took from the town we divided so that no one, as far as I could help it, should go short of his proper share. And then I said we must escape with all possible speed.”
Need to know: With calm, secluded waters, Mljet offers some of the most idyllic anchorages in the secret islands of Croatia. The village of Polae has a wealth of ancient ruins, including a Roman palace.