Europe

Islands Of The Ionian

Islands Of The Ionian

“Castaway Kefalonia – the Island of Captain Corelli fame – is the unexplored giant of the Ionian Sea,” my teenage daughter began to read from the Thompson brochure, mimicking the voice of a BBC presenter. I had entrusted her to choose our Summer holiday destination but was already beginning to regret it as she continued reading: “A heavenly canopy of endless blue skies cradles the craggy hills, the rolling plains and sticky pine-filled valleys. Turquoise waters lap at dazzling beaches under dizzy cliffs and citrus groves alive with fluttering fauna…”

“Hold on a minute, you don’t want to be taken in by all those floury words,” I interrupted, momentarily dampening her enthusiasm. “You’ve got to learn to read between the lines. Alive with fluttering fauna could mean they have a serious problem with mosquito’s, and rolling plains might be hinting at vast expanses of nothingness as far as the eye can see. Remember they’re trying to sell you something,” I added with a cynicism that the young seldom possess.

“Well, the beaches look nice anyway,” she said, still thumbing through the pages of the brochure. And eventually I had to agree that Kefalonia might just be one of those rare places that actually live up to the holiday company’s somewhat fanciful description.

So we traipsed along to the travel agents and booked a fortnight’s stay for two adults and four children, then we hired the film: “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” so we could see what the island was like before we went. I also bought the book of the same name to read by the pool once we got there.

Watching the film together was pleasurable entertainment, or at least up until the point when the 1953 earthquake occurred. “You never said Kefalonia was in an earthquake zone, Mum!” The kids wailed in unison.

“That’s because I wasn’t aware of the fact until now,” I protested defensively. “It’s not something they would have mentioned in the brochure is it?” I smiled to myself as I thought of a suitable slogan the holiday company might use:

“If the earth hasn’t moved for you in a while – come to sunny Kefalonia…”

“There won’t be an earthquake when we’re there will there Mum?” panicked Sam, my youngest, who would be seven when we were away.

“No, don’t be silly, of course not.”

Cases were packed, cameras loaded and a sitter found for the cat and soon we were off on our first ever family holiday abroad. It was with some trepidation that I actually boarded the plane, and a nagging inner voice kept telling me I shouldn’t have put all my eggs in one basket. I’ve flown all over the world in my youth and never thought twice about it, but felt that being on a plane together with all my children posed a very real threat to my genetic immortality. Of course my fears were instantly forgotten once we’d touched down safely, and I could put away my St. Christopher – at least until the day of the return flight.

The intense heat of the Kefalonian sun greeted us as we left the aircraft and an hour or so later we arrived at our resort – the picturesque fishing village of Katelios in the South of the Island. The surrounding mountainous backdrop was in fact better than its description in the brochure and we all agreed we couldn’t have chosen a more idyllic place for a holiday. Our villa nestled at the foothills of Mount Aenos, the third largest mountain in Greece and commanded excellent views down to the sea and resort centre and across to the neighbouring Island of Zante which was easily visible on a clear day.

Once settled into our self-catering accommodation, the kids headed straight for the pool and hubby headed off in the direction of the local shops which turned out to be not quite as local as he assumed. Our villa was of a reasonable standard, pleasantly decorated throughout with typical Greek pictures and ornaments although I failed to see the significance of a large, ungainly statue of a North American Indian perched on the bar in the lounge, with a knowing smile upon his face.

A few minor hiccups with a toilet that didn’t flush (more about Greek plumbing later) and a kitchen sink tap that thought it was a shower, were soon solved by our perpetually helpful and friendly host. “Is okay my friend… is no problem.” I soon learned that this was the standard reply to guests. The “My friend,” bit was always said first, so one didn’t feel like making a scene or complaining too much. The fridge decided to defrost itself on our first night. “Is Okay no problem… is working,” our host convinced us as the maid came to mop up the puddle on the floor the following morning.

Everything in Greece seems to run in slow motion. I call it GMT – Greek Maybe Time. It makes one wonder when anything ever gets done, if at all. Things grind to a screeching halt for a siesta every afternoon, even when a coach load of tourists with plenty of Euros to spend appear out of nowhere. I couldn’t fail to laugh at the fire engine we got stuck behind on one of our car hire days, which appeared to be in no rush at all, even though its sirens were blaring. Is no problem, I mused, imagining the thoughts of the crew: fire burn itself out before we get there, save us the bother.

Another source of amusement was Greek plumbing which can leave tourists positively flushed with embarrassment; waste pipes are not wide enough to deal with toilet paper, so it’s not supposed to be deposited in the toilet bowl after use, but has to be placed in a hopefully lidded receptacle nearby. But try explaining that to my children who always managed to forget this requirement at the crucial moment. In Greece, men are apparently supposed to urinate sitting down which I, as a woman, found incredibly funny. After a lifetime of conducting the exercise standing up, it must be virtually impossible for a man to achieve this. The three males in my family already experience certain difficulties even though endowed by nature with suitable equipment.

After spending four days relaxing round the pool and taking local evening strolls or “Voltas” as the Greeks call them, we were ready to discover the rest of the island. Cameras and camcorder at the ready we began our first day of car hire.

We drove north along the coastal route towards Skala and the port of Poros where there is a ferry to the mainland. This area is renowned for its archaeological finds and we were able to see the remains of a Roman villa and a temple to Apollo, The Sun God. An Ancient Mycenaean tomb, believed by some to be the tomb of Odysseus because his seal was found nearby, was also not far from the main road.

After Poros the road leaves the coast and passes through the mountains. Here we saw olive trees, thousands of years old and a variety of cypress which is peculiar to Kefalonia. Wild horses can sometimes be seen on the slopes of Mount Aenos but now their numbers are sadly depleted. In the hot dry months of the Summer it is hard for them to find water, and the island has no rivers, all its supply corning from natural springs.

Leaving the mountains we drove back towards the coast to the port of Sami and visited a beautiful underground lake at Mellisani which was mentioned in Horner’s Odyessy. In the same vicinity there is a huge cave called Drogarati which is open to tourists and sometimes concerts are held there because the acoustics are excellent.

Later we travelled along a high coastal road to the north. In the northernmost part of the island, Fiscardo, we saw an abundance of pre-earthquake houses, this being the only place relatively unaffected by the devastation.

Returning along the western coast towards the capital, Argostoli we were able to stop at many secluded coves on route for a quick dip and refreshments.

On another day we caught a ferry to the town of Lixouri, thus saving a long drive around the gulf. It was worth it for the boat trip alone. We travelled in the opposite direction on consecutive days making sure nothing was missed.

Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands so I didn’t expect we’d have time to experience everything it had to offer but we soon found that the main roads were excellent and it was easily possible to visit most places of interest. We covered some 600 miles in the fortnight we were there. Some parts of the island we liked so much we were even able to go back for a second visit and take further photos at a different time of day but the one thing I regretted was not returning to capture the beauty of the setting sun over of Mytros Bay, one of the most photographed bays in Greece. From a thousand feet above the beach, on the precipitous coastal road one cannot fail to see why this is. The sea was the colour of lapis lazuli and the bay swept round in a perfect curve. But even here appearances can be deceptive; from an elevated position, the bleached whiteness of the beach gives every appearance of fine sand, but close up it is obvious it consists mainly of large, white, rounded pebbles which can be treacherous to walk upon.

Discovering the remoter parts of the island wasn’t altogether easy with four difficult-to-please kids in the back of the car who just wanted to jump in the nearest pool and head for the ice cream vendor wherever and whenever we stopped. But we did try to do a variety of things each day so no-one had too much cause for complaint.

The Port of Sami was just one of the places we visited several times, and also the neighbouring beach of Anti-Samos where the views across the channel to Ithaca are magnificent. We swam in the pellucid waters of the bay, shopped in the bustling streets for replica Grecian urns and caught a ferry over to Ithaca, the island of Odysseus. Since studying Greek literature in my schooldays this is a place I’ve always wanted to see. Ithaca is under the prefecture of Kefalonia but life there runs at an even slower pace. And tucked away in mountain villages where the only sounds are the tinkling of goat bells and the constant chirring of grasshoppers, it is easy to spot Greeks who are almost as old as the hills they live in. This is the real Greece as far away from the discos and clubs of Mykonos as one can get.

When we arrived on Kefalonia in late July, it hadn’t rained since April but on our second Saturday it decided to make up for it all at once. The heavens opened, the rain fell in torrents, washing the earth out of the flower beds and into the swimming pool, turning its clear, blue waters into a mud bath. “Is no problem… okay tomorrow,” smiled our host cheerfully but next day the pool was even muddier and was fast becoming an attraction for frogs.

The man at the mini-market said it was the worst July weather in twenty years. Thunderstorms persisted and worse was to come…

As we sat round the dining tab1e that evening, after completing our final day of car hire, I browsed through the island guide to see if we’d missed anywhere and decided to write some postcards.

“Hey, cut it out will you… stop shaking the table, I’m trying to do my cards,” I scolded the children who always take such delight in annoying me.

“BUT WE’RE NOT!”

Then everything else started shaking too and there was a thunder-like rumble in the distance. Panic-stricken, we leaped to our feet and ran out of the building – all except Sam who was too interested in the egg and toast he was eating to be bothered about a mere earthquake.

Standing bewildered on the patio we tried to regain our composure as the earth became still once more. The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds. The villa was still intact, and everything seemed normal, but there was no one else around and we needed some sort of reassurance. It soon came in the shape of our host who peered over the balcony from his accommodation above, uttering those oh, so familiar words of comfort. “Is okay… is okay… is no problem… is no problem.”

“Is anything ever a problem on this island?” I muttered to myself. “Earthquake come… house fall down… never mind, no problem… we build another.”

“You said there wouldn’t be an earthquake, Mum!” complained the kids accusingly, once our host had calmed our nerves.

“Well, anyone can get it wrong now can’t they?” Great. I’ve shouldered the blame for a lot of things in my time, but never an earthquake. It was only a baby apparently, at 5.2 on the Richter scale but still proved to be the main topic of conversation on the island for the remainder of our stay. Our Thompson rep said she lives on the fault line and can hear the earth rumbling away all the time. Just one of those things one learns to live with, I suppose. I wondered if the bad weather the day before might have had something to do with the quake but dismissed the idea as silly. Although later I was told that sometimes a sudden wet spell after a long dry period can have this effect.

According to the owner of the mini-Market we should have stayed in the villa and not ran outside because, since the 1953 quake, all buildings on Kefalonia and Ithaca have been built to certain quake-proof specifications. Structures can be no more than three storeys high on the former and only two on the latter. This requirement has saved the islands from the ravages of over development and thankfully their shorelines will never be marred by the monstrous hotel complexes one sees elsewhere.

The local food and wine on the island were excellent. I stocked up with some Robola wine when we arrived and purchased a few bottles from the winery to take home. Kefalonian honey was the best I’ve ever tasted and the local specialty – “Kefalonian meat pie” – pork and beef with rice and tomato encased in the local pastry was well worth a try. But it isn’t to be found in the shops and is only available as a home-made dish from tavernas. The fruit was excellent due to the temperate climate and plenty of sunshine and at Katelios the fish was always as fresh as possible.

On our morning of departure I checked our apartment to see we hadn’t forgotten anything and the only things I couldn’t find were two disposable cameras which the kids had somehow managed to dispose of prematurely. I gazed at the many sun burnt tourists as they sat outside their apartments, waiting for the coach to arrive and then I waved goodbye to the statue of the American Indian as I closed the door behind me. I get it, I mused, we’re all pale-faces to start with and now we’re all red-skins, like you. Perhaps he’d been put there as a warning. And there could be an element of truth in this analogy. We English, who put up with a lack of sun virtually all year round, suddenly bombard our skin with fierce sunshine all in one go when visiting warmer climates, invariably burning however much lotion we slap on. It’s too much for our Caucasian skin to adapt in the space of a fortnight so we end up with painful sunburn and sometimes even do some permanent damage.

Kefalonia is a place I could easily return to, in fact I could happily live there. When our plane landed at Manchester on a dreary afternoon in August and the pilot informed us it was 8 degrees outside with torrential rain over the Pennines, I decided, like our Thompson rep, that I would perhaps be willing to put up with the threat of earthquakes, just to see a blue sky once in a while.

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