Kefalonia, the largest of the Ionian islands, was the fulfilment of every vision I had of what a Greek island should be like: clear, azure waters perfect for diving, stunning salmon pink sunsets, olive trees around every bend and warm, open hospitality from everyone we met, all making for a lovely, quiet beach holiday. I visited with a friend in 2007 and stayed near Skala beach. The geology of the entire island is unique and filled with caves, rocky shores and sandy beaches. Even before Myrtos beach was made famous by the 1994 Hollywood movie ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ it was the most photographed beach in the world thanks to the unique limestone pebble sediment that slopes off from the beach into the Ionian waters, giving them a bright turquoise glow.
I also visited Melissani Cave lake, which is a large underground lake with a part of the roof open to the sky where it caved in years ago. Sunlight streams in from here, onto the waters below giving them a curious, shimmering blue hue that immerses the lake in a sense of mystery and enchantedness. From here, you can climb down into the lake’s edge where, for a fee, boatmen will row you around the small lake so you can see the bowels of the cave. The most fascinating thing about the lake is that archaeological revelations found in the lake sediment, dating back to 3-4th century BC, confirm that a cult of Pan and the Nymphs had once worshipped at this site.
The Drongarati Cave is another famous tourist spot, that was discovered about 300 years ago after an earthquake revealed its present entrance. It has a large central chamber where concerts are sometimes held, because of the exquisite acoustics the cave provides. There’s an arresting array of stalactites in the chamber, but I was curious about what looked like bullet holes dotted around the walls of rock. I was told by a guide that during World War II, German soldiers used the cave for target practice and some of the bullets are still firmly wedged into the rock.
A few days before 12th August 1953, some villagers recalled that their dogs had been barking all night for no apparent reason and others noted that their donkeys, sheep and other animals had been restless and agitated without cause. On Sunday 9th August, at 9.40am, the first of a series of earthquakes that was to ravage the island, hit Skala village and its environs. Stores and shelves collapsed, walls cracked but no lives were lost. On Tuesday 11th August, at 5.30am the ground began to convulse and opened up to swallow houses whole into large gaping holes that appeared in the Southern part of the island. Houses and their outer walls collapsed outwards onto streets killing people, instead of inwards in the way earthquake resistant housing should be built. People didn’t realise until later that the entire Southern part of the island, including the nearby islands of Ithaca and Zakynthos, had been affected. Those who survived watched in despair as their homes, families and livelihoods disappeared into craters that opened up in the ground or as rubble fell atop everything. The villagers across the island believed that the worst had been done and fell into the rhythm of burying their dead and trying to deal with the losses they’d incurred.
On Wednesday morning 12th August 1953, an earthquake with a measure of 7.2 on the Richter scale, rocked the North of the island leaving even more vast areas of rubble and death in its wake. This time, all the buildings and other structures in the Northern part of the island were destroyed. Geologists have recorded that there was a 60cm rise in Kefalonia’s land area upwards, thanks to this earthquake. Between 500 and 800 people died, many were missing and many others were severely injured. An Israeli military ship was the first to respond with relief and other assistance when the SOS was sent out, followed by the British Navy soon after as they were recalled to port, stocked up with emergency aid and sent to Kefalonia. A worldwide appeal was sent out with graphic images of the effects of the devastating earthquake on the island. Australia, Canada, the USA and South Africa responded by offering Greek refugees who had lost all their possessions and means of livelihood, migration opportunities and many of the islanders literally shipped out, causing a brain-drain of sorts on the island as Kefalonians escaped to countries where they believed the ground would never shake.
Oddly enough, as a direct consequence of this earthquake, there is a handful of villages, including the quaint town of Fiskardo, where traditional architecture is still intact and a huge tourist attraction now. The lovely harbourfront is lined with expensive restaurants and high-end jewellery and crafts shops.
If you visit the Korgialenos museum in Argostoli, Kefalonia’s capital city, you’ll see a fascinating display of pre- and post- 1953 earthquake photographs showing the scale of devastation on the island’s landscape, villages and structures. They also show the huge ships that docked into broken ports with relief for refugees who were living out in the open without facilities or fresh water for days on end.
One of the reasons the island is a diver’s paradise is the clarity of the surrounding water; the calm, clear water gives visibility about 50 metres deep which means that snorkellers can see beautiful coral and colourful fishes of quite a variety. Kefalonia will always be a place that holds a fond memory for me because it was the first time I went snorkeling (and I enjoyed it so much!) and also, the first time I tried Planter’s Punch and decided to make it one of my favourite summer cocktails to order whenever I’m on holiday.
Lord Byron lived for four months in Metaxata in Kefalonia, where it is said, he wrote ‘Don Juan.’ If you visit the town’s central square, you’ll see a bust of Lord Byron and next to it a plaque that commemorates the site of his house, which was destroyed in the 1953 earthquake.
Stunning natural beauty, an intriguing history, great food, and comfortable accommodation made this a really great holiday. Writing this vignette reminded me of how quickly this wonderful break actually flew by and made me wonder if it isn’t time for another Greek holiday.
Visited in summer 2007