Wednesday Nov 30

The Greek island of Kefalonia is a green jewel set in the lapis lazuli of the Ionian Sea that separates Greece and Italy. It is a popular holiday destination for boat loads of European tourists that come to sizzle on its dozens of beautiful beaches.

The rugged peaks of the island are forested in native Cephalonion fir trees that generously offer their shade from the white hot sun. In the valleys and around the ports are colourful towns packed with Tavernas serving local white wine and Greek specialities with a nod to European palates. With many package holiday deals to choose from, a trip to Kefalonia is inexpensive and very easy, and visitors return to this welcoming island over and over again.

Kefalonia is also a land of myths and fairy tales. The island is rich in tales of abandoned castles guarded by dragons, and love struck cave-dwelling nymphs. There are stories of goats with gold teeth and snakes that have black crosses on their heads who slither to the icon of The Virgin Mary in mid-summer. Some of these stories have some truth to them. The soil in some parts of the island is rich in elements that gives the teeth of grazing animals a gold appearance, and the small native snakes are attracted to a lily that only blooms in August, and is frequently planted in front of churches. The more I read about this mystical and beautiful island, the more I wanted to visit it. A call from our friends Julie and David saying they had booked a week here in September was all the convincing we needed.

The first humans settled on Kefalonia six thousand years ago, but our ancestors further back in the evolutionary chain were living here fifty thousand years ago. The Romans arrived in 187 BC and Kefalonia became one of the world's first holiday destinations. Wealthy Romans were building holiday homes here when Christ was just a glimmer in God's eyes.

Like all precious jewels, men have coveted Kefalonia since time began. Through the centuries the island has been claimed by the Romans, the Venetians, the French and the British. And during World War II, Kefalonia was the site of a notorious Nazi massacre. In 1943 Hitler was becoming more and more psychotic and he joined forces with the Italian megalomaniac Mussolini. This Nazi-Fascist alliance sent German and Italian troops to occupy Kefalonia, but it did not last long. When Mussolini was arrested, the Italians came on side with the British and American Allies and the two occupying forces found themselves suddenly at odds. The unfortunate and under-trained Italians were wiped out by the Nazi's, and five thousand men were slaughtered in a matter of days. 

By 1953 the bloodstains had begun to fade, and the indigenous Greek population were finally getting back to tending their goats and producing their olive oil. On August the 12th a monstrous 7.3 earthquake struck, levelling every building on the island, save for a handful of homes in the northern-most port of Fiskardo. In 1953 there were 125,000 people living on Kefalonia, but in the months following the quake, 100,000 of those moved away. The few that remained were left to the slow task of rebuilding, but donations poured in from Kefalonia admirers all over Europe. Today there are no traces of those tragic events, and the island is once again a vacation paradise. There are a few very old locals that still dress in black, and look suspiciously at the non-Greeks that are here in their thousands. We saw weathered old men in their little fishing boats meticulously arranging their fishing nets, oblivious to the modern world around them. Trolling the back streets of a small town, we saw an old woman that resembled a sea hag. She wore the remains of a dead goat, and a permanent wrinkled scowl. It made me smile to catch a glimpse of the old world of rural Greece, here on an island that has happily sold itself over to low cost air travel.

Our hotel called The White Rocks was built into a rock face above a gorgeous sandy beach in the town of Lassi. The four star hotel offers a private beach, a lovely pool, and an extensive breakfast and dinner buffet included in the price. We rented a car for just 200 euros for the week. This is a must if you want to see the many attractions on the island. That said, there were plenty of grey haired patrons that happily never left the hotel grounds all week. To each his own.

The four of us went out exploring every day. The main town is called Argostoli, and is only a couple of miles from Lassi. All roads lead to and from this central port area with its lively waterfront. The main square has some trendy cafes and bars and is the only place with a smattering of nightlife. However, don't bother turning up in the afternoon, as the entire town is deep in siesta mode from 2:00 to 6:00 every day. From Argostoli we took the winding road over the mountains to the Eastern side of the island and another pretty fishing village called Sami. This town was the setting for the Nicolas Cage/Penelope Cruz film, Captain Corelli's Mandolin. (Being a huge fan of the book, the film was a disappointment for me, but if does have some gorgeous cinematography of the island). We had a drink at a cafe in the harbour guessed it... Captain Corelli's. Just a mile or two from Sami is the Melissani Cave Lake. For seven euros we were rowed though the haunting, deep blue water by a jolly, singing Greek. His baritone voice bouncing off the stalactites as he sang the song of a nymph called Melissani who drowned herself in the cave when her lover Pan rejected her.

Another day took us to the exquisite town of Assos. We had a good few giggles at that name, as we drove up the rugged coastline with jaw-dropping cliffs and sprawling vistas. The town is just a sliver of colorful buildings around a gently lapping green bay, and a perfect place for a cocktail. Beyond the town is the most beautiful beach on the island. The much photographed Myrtos Beach always makes The Top 10 Best List of beaches in the world. The sand is ground down super white marble, and the waters of the bay reflect the sun in shocking shades of peacock blue and turquoise. The west facing cliffs above this gorgeous spot are the best place on the island to watch the sun set.

The old capital of Kefalonia is Kastros. This is a hilltop village outside the ancient fortress of Agios Georgios. In the Middle Ages this castle was the center of life on the island, but it was badly damaged by a series of earthquakes in 1663 and 1637. The quake of 1953 finished the job, and the ruins are now home to nothing more than mythical dragons and swarms of swallowtail butterflies.

My favorite day out was a visit to the northern most town of Fiskardo. This is the most picturesque town on the island, as it still has many buildings from the 18th century, all dolled up in pastel colors and surrounding a pretty harbour full of yachts. We rented a speed boat for just 50 euros a day, and we had a spectacular afternoon exploring out-of-the-way bays and beaches. Across the straight to the east is the small island of Ithaca. This is the historical home of Odysseus who lead the Greeks on their conquest of Troy in the 12th century BC. The Trojan Horse was his brainchild, and the final blow that ended the ten year Trojan War. Homer mixed fact and fiction in The Odyssey and The Iliad making the classic poems required reading for thousands of years. Odysseus had to fight giant cannibals, poisonous witches and a Cyclops or two on his ten year Odyssey back to Ithaca. When we dropped anchor in a private cove on Ithaca, the only beasts we had to battle was a herd of goats who were taking a break from foraging on the rocky beach.

When we watched the sun set on the last day of our week in Kefalonia, I could see why Odysseus spent ten years battling to come back to these spectacular islands. We spoke to fellow holiday makers that have been coming back year after year. With all the history, the myths and the magic...along with those cheap flights, I have no doubt we will do the same.