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The island of Cephalonia

An island recently made popular but little known until the book and film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin were released. Having first discovered Cephalonia some decades ago with my husband, who was born there, I rather resented the intrusion into what I had hitherto considered a private domain. One visit was enough to convince me that the island was a place that I could love. The island itself is mountainous, wild and wooded; the people are similarly rugged characters with a great independent streak, which is well documented and accepted throughout the country. I find their pride and dignity refreshing and their individuality endearing. I have been treated to such great kindness and warmth by the Cephalonians which has made the island a special place for me.

Cephalonia and the rest of the Ionian, unlike most of the rest of Greece, spent little time under Turkish domination but far longer periods under mainly Italian and English occupation, leaving the island with far more European influences as well as tangible relics of those times such as the roads and bridges many of which remain today.

The stories I have been told about the wars, what is known as the hungry years, fighting and the subsequent flight to the city of many of the erstwhile residents, makes harrowing but fascinating listening. Stories of the Italian’s being reasonable whilst in occupation and of them defending the islanders after their capitulation and during the subsequent arrival of the German army. I have been told of startling heroism by these men, who had become very fondly thought of by the locals, and who in many cases laid down their lives for the Cephalonians. They have never been forgotten and a great fondness remains for them on the island.
At the close of the Second World War came the Greek Civil war, which lasted for seven years, dividing friends, neighbours and even families. What little reserves of food were left after the world war, were by now long exhausted.

A final devastating blow was to come in the form of the earthquake that devastated most of the island in 1953 leaving little in the way of traditional buildings anywhere but in Fiskardo. Both Argostoli and Lixouri were almost totally destroyed by the earthquakes and were rebuilt in a less than stylish manner, as needs must, in what now seems an ugly utilitarian manner so easily identifiable as that of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Recent innovations however, spearheaded in part by the late Antonis Tritsis, a visionary and much maligned politician of Cephalonian decent, have resulted in face-lifts on many buildings around the island and a new uniformity and style in buildings on the island.

From your arrival in Argostoli, a port of entry and the capital of this the third largest island in Greece, you will find yourself in a large natural bay surrounded by breathtaking mountainous scenery rising from the pine-fringed edges of the bay. A newly completed seafront has recently been added complete with palm trees and walkways as well as a number of buildings, which have also undergone a revamp with new facades added to give the impression of neo-classical buildings that they now replace. After a number of years between visits I was very impressed a few years ago at the change in Argostoli and many of the villages, much of which have seen many improvements. Shopping including Morgan, North sails, Oxbow and other international brand names is on offer here and incidentally a small shop on the seafront is the only place I know in Greece that sells PG Tips tea. We have them ship from here to our offices to keep us in tea when needs must. For those who prefer something else the pedestrian street parallel with the seafront in Argostoli is a great place to linger over coffee.

Argostoli has an excellent Archeological museum but I personally prefer the small Social museum under the concert hall. It contains artifacts from old houses, some old costumes and farm implements. It gives a real insight into the history of the island especially important to the visitor since so much has been destroyed of the islands historical roots. When I first visited some years ago, it was run by a English woman who was married to a Cephalonian and had lived on the island for 35 years having met her husband whilst she was playing in a London orchestra. A charming and fascinating woman who was very knowledgeable, she had been responsible for the very clear translations of the labeling of the exhibits in English. She may not any longer be there but who knows, you may run into someone even more interesting if you visit.

Local produce worth purchasing are the wines; Robolla and Manzavino are both excellent. The island has been awarded three appellations, the largest number of any area in Greece. As is generally true throughout the country, wine standards have risen incredibly in the past years and much of the wine now produced in Greece is of a very high standard and well worth trying. Robolla is one of my personal favourites and can be bought either bottled or by the litre from the barrel in many shops in Argostoli. On the sea front in the area of the vegetable market is a shop which represents the local wine producers, the syneterismos and they sell wine from the barrel. We have always found that the wine travels well. I also like the Feta produced in Cephalonia. It is not in general, my favourite cheese but the Cephalonian kind, more crumbly and peppery than that often found, which seems to lend itself better to eating as a cheese proper and not just as an accompaniment to salad or as an ingredient in a recipe.

Just a short hop away by ferry is Lixouri the second capital of Cephalonia, though not everyone would agree with that statement. Many Cephalonians are of the mind that Lixouri is a foreign port not a real part of the island in any sense. The town itself is a small provincial town which is fairly endearing and has basic provisions. Behind Lixouri the peninsula offers some wonderful anchorages in bays with white sand beaches. Petani is one such with high cliffs rising around the bay and a long stretch of sand reached by land via a very winding and fairly precipitous road. Athera has a fairly remote beach best approached by sea set at the end of a fertile cultivated plain ending in a flat and beautiful stretch of white sand. Further West near Sami is Anti-sami which is also an anchorage for an over night in a quiet, bay, to add to an itinerary. Look and you will no doubt find many more.

Fiskardo and Ag Ephfthimia are of course well known and attractive the former having been left unscathed by the earthquake of ‘53 and the other which had its reconstruction funded by the French, are better established than many other places in Cephalonia but they are not all that is attractive or important about the island.

One of my favourite places is the Black mountain, mount Aenos, an impressive, brooding presence to the west of Argostoli and now a nature reserve. Hopefully the destruction of the forest which gave Cephalonia much of her wealth centuries ago, as the local population harvested ice from the mountain and stored it in caves for use year round, supplying even Ithaka with the commodity, has ceased or will be reversed. The later destruction of large areas of the forest, cleared for grazing land, lead to a climatic change, which put paid to the ice industry however. Having said that, I was there in late spring of this year and amazed to find ice by the roadside in one area of the forest! The winding road is a challenge, often unmade, fairly uncomfortable in places but the woodland setting and the view from the top make the whole thing worth the effort. The forest is made up almost exclusively of pine trees Abies Cephalonica, by name. As the name suggests they are indigenous to the island. Aenos attracts a large variety of quite unusual migrating birds too whose song add to the magic of the mountain. 1,628 metres above sea level it is refreshingly cool on even the hottest of days and you can literally see for miles, cloud cover allowing of course, very often you are somewhat above the clouds and the view can be obscured. Even then though there is a magic about the mountain that is captivating and still makes the journey worthwhile.

The summit these days is used for television and telephone aerials, interesting though not picturesque and other vantage points can be found quite easily away from these monsters.

Nearby is the monastery of St Gerasimos, the islands patron saint after whom most Cephalonian families have named at least one male child. The fertile plain on which the monastery is sited gives the impression of a garden laid out in honour of the saint, who’s remains are still retained at the monastery on which, on high days and holidays, they are brought out for visitors to honour.

The Katouvres, now merely a mill on the seafront at the south side of the entrance to Argostoli bay, just north of the town. Here, before the earthquake in ’53, the mills powered by the force of seawater entering a large ‘ swallow holes’ ran saw mills and later before the second world war, the mills ran an ice-making factory and were used for electricity generation. Sadly a result of the earthquake was to reduced the effect and although the mills have been rebuilt they rarely work with the amount of water passing through these days. They do however mark the site of this remarkable phenomena.
It was a mystery until 1963, where the water rushing into the swallow holes went, until a team of Austrian scientists then added dye to the water and discovered that the dyed water re-emerged in the Melissani Caves on the other side of the island near Sami.
Another mystery was the rock at Kounopetra, which rocked incessantly and was a geological mystery. Sadly the earthquake, as with so much else, saw the end of this phenomenon and the rock stopped rocking at that time.
Apart from obviously being of interest having visited the Katouvres the caves at both Mellisani and Drogerati are well worth a visit. The Melissani cave is one of a series of caves, underground waterways and underground lakes in the region, most of which have been closed to the general public for safety reasons. Having lost its roof in the earthquake the lake at Melissani, approachable by small boat, is in the center of an erstwhile cave now with glittering sunlight entering from above making a magical setting for the visitor to this cave believed to have been a site dedicated to the god Pan. The Drogerati caves are a wonderland of stalactites and stalacmites open to the public. A number of other caves exist in the area but entry is restricted for the public for safety reasons.

Assos is one of the very picturesque places on the island that I always find interesting to visit. On a causeway between the island and a small promontory with fortified ruins favourably compared to Gibraltar by Napoleon, lies the small town with its white houses set against the dark hillside, the approach to the village is most attractive. A fascinating climb up to the fort reveals a panoramic view which includes the beach of Myrtia famously filmed in Captain Corelli, a long strip of blond sand beach flanked by dramatic cliffs and approached by land along a 4km winding road or by sea.

On a recent visit I was taken to a frankly unpromising taverna populated by groups of holiday makers from Athens. That a band was promised as entertainment later was not any more encouraging. Having sat through some of the most awful evenings imaginable listening to ‘traditional’ music played so often on a Hammond organ and electric guitar accompanying a off key singer in all sorts of places all over Greece, it was therefore something of a relief replaced by a gradually emerging delight as we were treated to some of the most tuneful and delightful music. Understanding the lyrics adds to the experience as some of them were touchingly beautiful and others very funny but is not completely necessary as witnessed by the obvious enjoyment of some English-speaking friends at a concert of Cephalonian Cantatas to which we had taken them one summer. They, a crew of a sailing yacht, were very impressed and enjoyed the evening immensely, proving perhaps that Cantatas are enjoyable by everyone.

Certainly the local philosophy was impressive. Time seems to have stood still in many of the villages, where life still continues in rhythm with the seasons, simple and stress free. Visiting people in Cephalonia is rather different from anywhere else I have ever been. Visitors are welcomed, ushered in and plied with wine, Tsipouro (similar to Grappa) or Ouzo. At an earlier time my brother had been stunned to come visit a neighbour with me and be offered bread, cheese and wine at ten in the morning. He thought he had died and gone to heaven. A neighbour in my husbands village was a very comely woman, tall and strong with a vivacity that I have rarely come across in women of her age of any nationality she is one of the very few people I have met who is totally happy and content with what she had and recognizes it while she is living the moment. She refuses to eat anything of which she does not know the origin. Her bread is baked weekly in her kitchen in a wood oven from the families own wheat. The cheese is from their own goats and the wine from their vines. The dim, cool, kitchen has a corner walled off, forming a wine stamping area with a pipe at the base to siphon off the crushed grape juice. When it was time for wine making the whole family took it in turns stamping all night dancing, singing and of course drinking what was left of last years vintage. There is a deadline for emptying the barrels and everyone must do there bit in this as with all the tasks in village life. She would point to the view from her courtyard, a view of vines, olive trees, Livathos Bay, Argostoli and Lixouri as well as the open sea beyond. It is indeed a very beautiful and serene view and she would ask where else in the world would be better than this? In many ways I would agree with her and very often on early visits to escape Athens, I would drink in the view, sitting on the stoop, with a simple breakfast, glorying in the still coolness of early morning, the serene calm with just the sound of goat bells in the distance and the occasional cock crowing while I watched the sun slowly rise. It is worth the time to spend in the hills if you can. Just find a quiet village, a room or house and get up early to enjoy the serenity and the views!

Cephalonia has given me such an immense amount I hope that she will give to you much enjoyment too.


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