Throughout all my years as a tourist in Greece, and in the two-plus years that I’ve lived here, most of my island visits have focused on the Cyclades–the island group south of Athens famous for its iconic villages of blue and white cube-shaped buildings, tumbling precipitously down rocky, bone dry mountainsides. Santorini and Mykonos are the best known of these but others–Paros, Naxos, and Syros, to name a few–are all uniquely interesting, while sharing the characteristic Cycladic look.
I had been interested in exploring the Ionian island group–the islands on the Italian side of Greece–ever since I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set in Kefallonia, back in the mid 1990s. We finally got the opportunity when friends invited us to stay with them at the home they built many years ago in Kefallonia. Like most Athenians of middle class or higher economic status, they maintain an exohiko spiti–an “outer” house, a home outside of Athens to which they can escape the summer heat. The exohiko is, in most cases, not a luxury vacation home, but often a simple place where extended families can gather. As in the case of our friends, it is often actually a family compound–in this case, two adjacent small houses, one occupied by our friends and one by her parents. The exohiko is usually located in the village from which one branch of the family originates and to which they return, keeping close to their roots despite their residence in Athens.
We decided to take advantage of our visit to Kefallonia to see the neighboring island of Lefkada as well. (We did not visit the best known island of this group–Corfu, or Kerkyra as the Greeks call it.) I was pleased to finally have a chance to get to know this part of Greece but my bottom line feeling about these islands is mixed, with some distinct pros and cons for the independent traveler. While the natural beauty is fabulous, with stunning beaches, mythically turquoise, clear waters, and lovely green mountains and forests, there is not a whole lot that is attractive about all that is man-made on these two islands. Both islands have been pummeled by earthquakes repeatedly throughout their histories and, therefore, have little in the way of historical architecture. Further, Lefkada, in particular, is overrun with tourists, even in the shoulder season of early September. I can’t imagine what the crowds must be like in July and August, but I know I wouldn’t want to find out.
In this post, I will share a few photos and observations about Kefallonia and will follow-up with another post about Lefkada.
We stayed near the pleasant town of Argostoli, a stone’s throw from the small airport. It was entertaining to see planes flying just overhead, seemingly barely clearing our umbrellas, as we sat on the local beach. But the quantity of planes bringing visitors directly from the UK and other northern climes explained the presence of the long stretch of package tourist-oriented shops and restaurants all along the coast. Argostoli itself was a happy surprise, with pleasant pedestrian walkways throughout the downtown, a lovely palm-lined main thoroughfare (also closed to traffic at night), and a good supply of fine restaurants. We ate very well there, particularly at Casa Grec and Oinops, both serving fabulous sea food accompanied by good local wine.
The beaches on Kefallonia are lovely, especially Mirtos Beach, which boasts the very definition of turquoise waters alongside stunning white cliffs. Unfortunately–very unfortunately, given the spectacular setting–the beach is also the home to a massive colony of wasps, who may not sting often, but are a tremendous nuisance. I don’t know if this is a constant problem, but traveler forums suggest that it is a frequent concern on both Kefallonia and Lefkada.
The Ionian Islands are not particularly known for their wines, but the Gentilini Winery on Kefallonia offers both nice wines and a very pleasant environment in which to taste them. Friendly staff, nice wines featuring the local Robola white grape, accompanying platters of cheeses and olives, and picnic tables under the shade of pretty trees makes for a great outing. The only disappointment was discovering upon examining the bottle of their “Red Blend” that most of the grapes were Agiorgitiko from the famous Nemea region just outside of Athens, where we buy most of our wine, with only a trace of locally sourced fruit. Oh well…it was still very tasty.
We took the ferry from the pretty, but unremarkable, little harbor town of Fiskardo. It is known as the place on Kefallonia where historic buildings still stand, having not been hit so devastatingly by the 1953 earthquake as the rest of the island. So, yes, there are a few old buildings there, but it is mostly a collection of tavernas catering to those of us getting ready to hop on a boat to Lefkada or other spots, with the sort of mediocre food and surly service that one expects from such places.