Ordinarily any place in the world that has received as much attention as the beautiful Greek island of Kefallonia would be heaving with expectant tourists. As the exquisite backdrop for Louis de Bernieres’ best selling novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and then the Hollywood blockbuster movie staring Nicholas Cage, Kefallonia braced itself for the influx of Corelli fans, eager to tread in the footsteps of their beloved characters.
Four years after the release of the movie – a quite different story unfolds. Taking a ferry from the sun blanched port of Kyllini on the eastern most tip of the Peloponnese, I stood on deck for most of the one and half hour crossing, keen to get my first sighting of the largest and most spectacular of the Ionian group of islands. Placed south of Corfu and just north of Zakynthos, Kefallonia has a heady mix of rugged mountainous interior, Poplar strewn valleys, long sandy beaches and a history dating back two thousand years before Christ.
As the small ferry signalled its approach to the small port of Poros with a sharp blow of it’s horn, I could see two small adjacent harbours, divided by a mountain outcrop, nestling under verdant mountain slopes. One harbour was for the ferry boat and one for the fishing boats that bobbed lightly in front of the town beach and the stretch of tavernas on the seafront. With the azure sea glistening in the midday sun a more inviting picture of a Greek fishing village could not be found.
As I clattered off the ferry in my rented car, directed by an enthusiastic deckhand with a toothy grin and a strange mix of English, German and Greek, I decided I had to spend my first night in the delightful spot in which I’d just landed. In making my way across the Peloponnese in the previous two weeks, after flying into Athens, I’d stayed in a wide range of accommodation that had cost me between €45 and €80 a night – all of which I’d thought very reasonable. Whether a hotel or an apartment, all were clean and some were in the most wonderful locations right on the beach. However, the hotel I settled on in Poros pipped the lot. Having inquired around the town at various hotels and rooms-for-rent, I was pleasantly surprised at how cheap the prices were. I’d expected Kefallonia to be Captain Corelli central and prices to have risen accordingly, so armed with the knowledge that I could get an apartment in town for a mere €25 a night, I decided to try the imposing hotel that dominated the headland, with views across both harbours.
The Poros Bay hotel was built 12 years ago by a returning son of Kefallonia, bringing his family back from a spell working as an engineer in the Middle East. The air conditioned rooms with large balconies had views to die for and so with a mixture of amazement and delight I hauled my bag into a first floor room that was going to cost me only €35 a night, including breakfast. I spent the first two hours just sitting with my feet up on the balcony taking in the marvellous vista, with the comings and goings of harbour life going on beneath me.
That night, while watching the Greek national football team, inspite of being European Champions, struggle to locate the opposition net, my host explained to me not only the selection failures of the team manager (who had a preference for players from the Panathinaikos club side of Athens) but also why Kefallonia was such a bargain for tourists.
Since the release of the film, mysteriously, bookings all over the island had dropped by something like 30%. Initially people on the island had figured it was due to the slight inflation caused by the arrival of the euro but as visitors in the rest of Greece continued to arrive in the same numbers and even to increase, the islanders came to the conclusion that the success of the book and film had actually had an adverse effect. With the majority of visitors to Kefallonia arriving as island hoppers or independent travellers, the perception was that a significant proportion of them were now staying away as they believed the island would have become more commercialised.
My host shook his head in bemusement when telling me this story. It was clear he was thinking ‘it’s not supposed to work this way.’ So let me put the record straight – Kefallonia is unchanged. It’s as beautiful as it’s ever been. I can vouch for this as I drove from one end to the other exploring the beaches, the towns, the countryside and the many wonderful tavernas and at no point did I encounter one iota of crass tourism.
Where I was staying in Poros, the town had a handful of friendly beachside tavernas with owners that made the effort to welcome the non-Greek speaker. One even tuned his satellite tv into the Lions tour of New Zealand, so a handful of Brits (myself included) could choke on our honey and yoghourt as we witnessed the humiliation of the first test match. Such accommodating behaviour also applied to the menus, where the local dishes were translated into a somewhat mystifying English. Although I hesitate to do this, as it’s kind of poking fun at people who were really trying to help (please forgive me, people of Kefallonia), some of the dishes when translated into English made me chuckle…and I swear these are all entirely true.
Fish Soup (without fish)………I couldn’t find the courage to order this one
Smell Fish……………………….. nor this
Shrimp (frigid)…………………. this was off the menu the day I was there, well it would be, wouldn’t it?
Cuttlefish with Shaggeti………this was everything it claimed to be!
Sand Smelt…………………….. .asked about it…but still couldn’t ascertain what it was
Stuffed Tomatoes Ball’s……….nice and tastey
Staffed Squid…………………… 20 staff – managers and support personnel…one big squid
My first day on the island took me straight to two of its most famous sites and another that came as a complete surprise. The Dhrogarati and Melissani caves are close together in location but totally different in nature. It took me an hour to find the first – the Dhrogarati – as the signposting was eccentric, illusive and on occasions downright absent – and that’s being polite. As I sat at yet another road junction, alone, with just the quiet hum of the cicadas in the olive groves and the occasional passing goat, I thought this in itself illustrates how Kefallonia hasn’t succumbed to the tourist hordes – they wouldn’t stand for such haphazard directions.
However, I finally arrived and descended into a subterranean world of stalagmites and stalagtites, lit like a scene from Lord of the Rings, that culminated in a vast chamber who’s acoustics are so perfect Maria Callas the famous opera singer, once came here to perform. Undoubtedly, millions of years old, the chamber is a constant 18C all year round and has an air of mystery, as the guide explains that there are many more miles of caves beyond this one but they just haven’t been able to remove the mud that has blocked the way.
Melissani cave is a totally different proposition. A crystal clear underground lake, fed with brackish water from an underground fault which runs the full length of the island. The colours that are created by the light shining through the collapsed roof of the cave produce a truly magical effect, as your boatman takes you across the chilly water from the irridescent light into the far recesses of the chamber. My boatman went through his full repertoire of not particularly funny jokes, while simultaneously shaking the back pocket of his jeans, full of loose change, to illustrate that access to a comedy boatman comes at a price. Having trailed my hand in the icy water and crossed the boatman’s with a little silver, I went searching for a café Freddo – which in Greece is an iced capuccino – whereupon I stumbled upon Lake Katavothres.
Barely mentioned by any guide book nor by my host, who’d given me a list of must sees, this lake also of brackish water, that receives the waters from Melissani and mixes them with the Ionian sea , took my breath away. As I sipped my Freddo in the one waterside taverna, I could hardly believe the beauty and tranquillity of the place. Towering green poplars lined sand and pebble beaches, as green mountains rose off into the interior. Exquisitely clear water lapped the shores, with the quiet shush of the tide-less mediterrranean lulling me into what turned into a long and luxurious lunch right on the beach.
Going north from Katavothres I headed for one of the most famous beaches in Greece – and the best on the island, I was assured by my host. First, though I had to drive through the quaint fishing village of Ayia Efimia, which I had been told was where the film crew had hung out during the making of the Captain Corelli movie. Although pretty, I decided to eschew the delights of the Captain Corelli taverna and the local club, invitingly called Paranoia, and head on up to Myrtos Beach. At the end of a four kilometre hike, with just one taverna, from above or below this is one of the most dramatic beaches in the Ionian islands. A splendid strip of pure white sand and pebbles, its one draw back is a complete absence of shade – so bring your beach brolly. I opted for a quick paddle and a return to the quiet contemplation of the taverna.
Kefallonia’s beauty would be enhanced even further if hadn’t, like so much of Greece, actually suffered at the hands of nature. With a history of settlement that includes Mycenaeans, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Venetians and Turks, there existed layer upon layer of thumbprints from the passage of different civilisations. Most notably there were grand Venetian townhouses in Poros that like so many of the buildings on the island were left in rubble after the 1953 earthquake. They’d survived the tribulations and bombardments of the Second World War, and the occupation of the Italians and the Germans and the well documented slaughter of the Italians by the Germans, around which the Captain Corelli movie was based – only to disintegrate in the quake.
The capital of the island, Argostoli, is a pleasant modern town, in a lovely location but which has been completely rebuilt and so bears none of the gravitas and majesty of old that it so deserves to possess. However, Argostoli has an enjoyable streetlife that remains defiantly Greek, especially during the evening volta around the Platia Metaxa – the nerve centre of town – and along the pedestrianized Lithostrotou, which runs parallel to the seafront. It reminded me very much of the Laconian town of Sparta – a people rich in history and pride but who just don’t have the marbled edifices to show for it.
Having taken in the best beach on the island I wanted to sample some of the glorious countryside. Winding through valleys of olive groves and vines (Kefallonia has a famous and reasonably expensive white wine called Rombola) that are speckled with clusters of straight dark poplars, I sought out Mount Enos. 1632 metres high, the mountain has been declared a national park to protect the Abies Cephalonica firs (named after the island) which cover the slopes. There was absolutely nothing up there except me and a group of Golden Eagles, soaring on the warm currents, but the views across the neighbouring islands of Ithaka and Zakynthos were breathtaking.
As I wound my way down from the mountain, I stopped at the road-side stall of a seller of honey and olive oil. I’d been trying to find the famous Thyme honey of Greece, as I’d been travelling, but for some reason the bees had been on a go slow the previous year and so it had mostly sold out. So I was delighted to find a collection of unlabelled jars which I was allowed to taste in order to prove that it was the famous variety. I knew it would be expensive to buy – but I had to laugh when I found myself paying €15 for a pot of honey, almost half my nightly accommodation costs.
When I finally took the ferry back to the Peloponnese – I left Kefallonia with a heavy heart. As I watched the wonderfully hospitable Poros Bay hotel fade into the distance and the hills and beaches of Poros and Myrtos became just a pleasant memory, I felt glad that on this occasion the heavy hand of Hollywood hadn’t spoilt one of Greece’s truly wonderful treasures. Therefore, in the interests of my friends back in Kefallonia, I urge all independent travellers to reassess their holiday schedules and maybe pencil in a bit of time to visit the beautiful, and very reasonably priced Kefallonia.