Once on Kefalonia much that you have always believed about the automobile goes out of the window. Firstly, shiny is not good. To Kefalonians, dings and blemishes are valued as a testimony to how worthless the car is and how poor its owner must be (as in, please note Mr. Taxman, I have nothing, absolutely nothing, look at the beaten up old car I drive).
Luckily, manufacturers seem to make special cars for the island. The cars are unique in that they don’t need servicing and brake pads never need replacing. Moreover, if the rubber isn’t transparent then the tyres are fine.
Secondly, what others in Europe might see as a requirement, as in, you are required to drive on one side of the road, your true Kefalonian views as a suggestion, worthy of consideration most of the time, but to be ignored without notice if the mood is upon them. Because of this I have advice for any visitor: drive defensively.
Thirdly, selling new cars is not a thing in Kefalonia. The true Kefalonian prides himself on how many kilometers he can get out of his car before it succumbs to a terminal case of rust. There is fierce competition about this. I told a friend about a guy with a taxi that has clocked two million kilometers. “Nothing,” said my friend disparagingly, “I know that taxi driver, he had to replace some parts on that car.”
Then there is the little matter of car licenses. There is grudging acknowledgement that licensing one’s car is legally necessary, but there is no desperate hurry to complete the paperwork; years can fly by; after all there aren’t many police on Kefalonia and besides we know them all.
Parking is also a little different on Kefalonia. Here it is simple, if your car can fit, park there; red lines, yellow lines, pavements, we bite our thumb sir, those rules are not meant for us, we live here. There is an exception to this, taxi ranks are verboten. Do not park on a taxi rank, life is too short.
Then there is the Kefalonian attitude towards traffic circles. In most of the world, at traffic circles you give way to vehicles already on the circle, in Greece if you are on the circle you stop and let other traffic in, in Kefalonia all of this is confusing, so we just give way to no man, he who brakes loses.
Given all of the above, it is fortunate that the island’s patron saint is very active. His name is Saint Gerasimos and he is a very important bloke around here; I love the fact that among many other duties, he is the patron saint of the marginally insane.
Me, I make sure I buckle up and remember that a safe speed limit is between 20 and 50 kilometres an hour. Or you can try praying to Saint Gerasimos.
Every month in Greece has its own character; September is a gentle month, a winding down month. Most tourists have regretfully packed the suntan lotion and headed off to brace themselves for winter, but those who do visit find uncrowded beaches and unless they are very unlucky, glorious weather, and peaceful tranquillity.
September is one of my favourite months. When I go down to the little cove in front of Fiskardo House I feel that the sea is really pleased to welcome me, as if it misses all the boats and swimmers and wants to play. The water temperature is, of course, perfect and the tranquillity suits not only humans; last year my wife Lesley and I were skinny-dipping in the cove and up popped a monk seal right behind her.
Monk seals were revered by the ancient Greeks, who believed that seeing a monk seal was a good omen; they featured in the writings of Homer and Aristotle, and were even depicted on one of the first coins ever produced, around 500 BC. Today monk seals are regarded as the world’s most endangered marine mammal with less than 600 left, so this was a magical moment.
Mostly the weather in September is balmy, not as hot as August but hot enough to tan in a couple of days and to scorch the unwary. The locals are beginning to relax and have more time to chat because the hard work of the busy season is behind them and they start looking forward to the winter, when the lucky ones rest or play and the others head to Athens or elsewhere to work winter jobs.
All the restaurants are still open but the glasses in some of them show signs of too many trips to the dishwasher but the food is as good as ever. A shopping bonus is to be found because all the shops are offering 50 per cent discounts on clothing and souvenirs.
Another bonus is a pleasant addition to the ambient sound. A recent guest asked Lesley who had all the wind chimes near Fiskardo House. Not wind chimes, my wife told her, goat bells. The goats and sheep that spent the summer in the mountains are led back in September and signal their presence by the sound of the bells round their necks. It’s like having moving wind chimes in the fields surrounding the house.
As I write this, it’s September 29 and I am sitting on our shaded patio in a swimming costume with a glorious view of the sea, which is as still as glass. A yacht is slowly heading for the horizon and the sun is creating sharp-etched shadows on the trees.
Ah, the heck with writing, I’m going for a swim!
When I first went to live in Fiscardo, back in the year dot (July 1976; – see what I mean?), I found the sleepiest village imaginable – just a row of picturesque, crumbling houses lining one side of a small harbour. There were no restaurants and one café neo, a place where you could get thick, sweet Greek coffee and local wine drawn from a barrel. No-one locked anything in those days and the owner, Rene, a friendly soul, magnanimously allowed me to draw wine, day or night whether she was there or not. Her patrons were local fishermen, the postmaster, the harbourmaster the policeman, Maria – my very beautiful Greek/South African girlfriend – and me.
One of the fishermen was called Babbie and he was a little worldlier than most of his fellows having served in the Greek army during the Korean War. Babbie spoke very little English and my Greek was almost non-existent, so communication was a fairly tortuous business replete with massive misunderstandings. But I was always a curious soul and I wanted to learn about the area and so slowly, and with many false starts, I started to gather information.
One of the things that always strikes me about Greece is how old everything is. In most places when you dig in the ground, you dig dirt. In Greece when you dig in the ground, you often dig shards of old pottery and unidentifiable bits of things that were clearly bits of something else in the dim and distant past. This is certainly true of Fiscardo, but the villagers were sadly ignorant of local history and viewed old things as a nuisance that got in the way when you wanted to build a road or dig foundations.
At this point I should explain that Fiscardo is flanked by sea and a dense, almost impenetrable forest. The forest is utterly beautiful and a source of solace for the soul, but it does a rather cover things up. So, when Babbie told me that there was a king’s throne hidden in the forest my imagination ran wild.
A king’s throne?
Yes, said Babbie, when he was a child, the forest was not as dense and he used to walk through it on his way to school in another village and often passed the throne. It was where the old king of Kefalonia used to sit with his courtiers and make decisions. Wow!
There was no way I was going to let this alone so I nagged Babbie until he agreed to take Maria and I on a throne hunt. I want you to understand that this forest is not for sissies. It is full of bushes and trees that learned over thousands of years that the best way to fend off goats, sheep and humans is to make life difficult for them; so it is full of prickly things, that snag and tear and sting. “Ouch” is the word of the day for any forest exploration. Nevertheless, off we went, Babbie in the lead, swearing fluently as we hacked our way to the area where he thought the throne lay. It was not easy to find and, truthfully, I was a little bit skeptical so it was all the more amazing when we found it. In fact, I think the appropriate word is stunned.
Once we hacked away the vegetation that almost completely obscured it, it was immediately apparent that this was … something. There it was, just as advertised.Obviously as old as, well, Greek civilisation itself, roughly hewn from rock; a three-sided … thing… with stone-hewn bench seats on two sides and an elevated seat in the middle.
I hoisted myself up into the seat and it was easy to imagine a king sitting there with his courtiers beneath and on either side of him and the populace gathered before him.
I was absolutely thrilled and told Babbie that this had to be reported to the archeological authorities. Not a chance, was his response, they were a meddling bunch of bureaucrats and besides it was too far from their cozy digs in Athens, they’d never come to investigate.
So, I made careful note of where the throne lay and decided that one day I would make sure everyone knew about it.
The last thing I did before we left was to take my Swiss Army knife and attack a sapling that was trying hard to grow in front of the king’s seat, in a bid to cut it down. But Babbie was in a hurry and, besides, it was a nice tree so I gave up.
Today, of course the “throne” is easily accessible; a short walk from the village and the land around it has been cleared. There is also a fading sign saying that it might have been a temple from the Golden Age of Greece, with no mention of Babbie’s more romantic explanation. The tree, substantial now but still bearing the scars where a much younger David had a go at it remains, a reminder to me every time I see it of my own Golden Age: when I was young and carefree and it always seemed to be summer.
It has long puzzled me why more Americans don’t find their way to the Greek island of Kefalonia. Brits we have aplenty, Italians, French, Dutch and a sprinkling of Germans, but Americans, almost none.
My wife and I spend most summers in Fiscardo in the north of Kefalonia and every year we wonder at the absence of Americans. It really is a mystery because many people’s idea of heaven is summer on a Greek island. These are people who like natural beauty, sun, swimming, eating, sleeping and exploring and who prefer this to be done in quiet, uncrowded places. This description covers most of our friends, which I guess says a lot about us.
If you made a tick box for where we live, it would look like this:
Extraordinary beauty: tick, in trumps. Actually, no words can describe how lovely it is. You have to go there to properly understand.
Good Weather: tick. Perfect weather a lot of the time, hot sunny days, warm nights – no need to wear clothes really.
Unspoiled: tick. It can’t last.
Warm sea: tick and how. (“How to relax”, by me: go to sea, loll in waves until crinkly, lie on beach, read book, get hot, go to sea, loll in waves. Repeat until hungry.)
Good food. Tick. For example, I have a mate called Odysseus who looks a bit like Obelix, the cartoon character. He runs a taverna on a beach where his mother (who also looks a bit like Obelix) is the cook. She cooks whatever’s fresh and to hand from local ingredients. Man, put it like this: you have never tasted tomatoes like that in your life – promise – and the bread Oddy puts on the table is freshly made, stuffed with olives and tastes like a Greek myth. Besides, I challenge you to name a more romantic evening than a moonlight boat trip to a taverna on a beach where the evening entertainment is listening to the lapping of the waves and a steady supply of local wine.
Other islands to explore: tick. Homer’s island Ithaca is a five-minute boat ride from our front door: we often go there for lunch. The island of Lefkada is 20 minutes in our speedboat, when I’m driving. My wife takes longer.
Uncrowded: tick. Thank heavens, it’s set to stay that way; the north of Kefalonia is so beautiful the Greek parliament agreed it had to be protected and passed laws to protect it “as an area of great natural beauty.” That makes it unique because it’s not easy to gets Greeks to agree on anything.
A little off the beaten track: Yup, but that’s another thing that makes it special
Fiscardo is not one of the most beautiful villages in Greece it is THE most beautiful. The area around the village is densely forested almost to the sea, the coast is dotted with small, secluded coves, the sea is calm and warm and perfect for swimming. There are extraordinary views in every direction and the islands of Ithaca and Lefkada form spectacular backdrops.
Given that it is so beautiful and life on a Greek island is so delightful, you’d think we would have more US visitors. I asked some American friends who visit us nearly every year, why they thought we have so few American guests.
There was a simple explanation: Americans don’t know about Fiscardo and no one’s told them how great it is. Our friends took the view that this is a good thing, because it’s their secret and they like it that way.
Northern Kefalonia’s charm has not gone entirely unnoticed in the US, because one US demographic that is well represented is the mega-rich, who in summer, form up in a flock of mega-yachts and cruise the Med, pausing for a while in Fiscardo. Americans, Russians, Arabs and Europeans anchor happily side-by-side just outside the port waited on by dozens of crew prepared to cater to their every whim. My observations on this: the Arabs hardly ever come ashore, the Russians have a lot of long-legged, very attractive, blonde female crew members, and the Europeans seem to be losing ground in the “my yacht’s bigger than yours” competition. Entry level for this competition these days is a yacht with built-in submarine and two helipads. Can you imagine what a thing like that costs to run?
Another US category well represented in our hood is famous people: We get quite a lot of famous Americans, the kind who really want to chill and be left alone “unrecognised” and undisturbed.
The locals know how to play this game and never recognise any famous person under pain of ferocious scorn from others. Obviously it is not easy to “unrecognise” Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks having breakfast at a local taverna, for example, but common politeness demands no less than an honest attempt to remain ignorant.
Behind the scenes it’s a different story, with strutting boastfulness on display: “Ok, so you had the King of Belgium in your place last week, I had Hugh Grant and Gwynneth Paltrow here today, so what about that, huh?” and so on.
Of course you don’t have to be famous to enjoy Kefalonia, you just have to be discerning. So if you want to discover the island, we’d love to see you.
We have four villas in the north that we rent in summer – check them out at www.dolichavillas.com or email me at email@example.com
By the way, the best breakfast in the world is Kefalonian honey and the local yogurt.
If you are thinking of visiting Fiscardo then you might consider the following as a public service announcement like the warning on kids’ water wings saying ‘caution; this is not a flotation device or on airplanes: ‘we advise you to keep your seatbelt securely fastened throughout the flight.’
My public service advisory goes as follows. Beware of making plans when on holiday in Fiscardo. This is because of what I call the Dolicha effect.
I will give you a real-life example. Last year a family came to stay at Villa Dolicha. Mother, father and a beautiful daughter, who had my sons competing in vain for her attention.
The first thing the family did was to stand and stare awestruck and open-mouthed at the views (which, I have to say, are really spectacular) and then the beautiful girl’s father bombarded me with questions. Which restaurants? What beaches? Could they get to Ithaca for lunch and be back in Fiscardo in time for supper? I tried to be a good host and tipped them off about my favourites restaurants, advised them about ferry times and speedboat hire and the best walks and wished them well in their explorations.
The next day I saw them heading towards the little beach the foot of our land – a very short walk – and stopped to hear their plans. Just a quick swim, then they were off to Myrtos Beach tomorrow and Ithaca the next day; all very exciting.
The next day I noticed them spread-eagled around Dolicha’s pool, paperback books and suntan cream much in evidence and periodically I heard the sound of someone collapsing into the pool. Myrtos beach was obviously on hold.
The next day the same thing happened and so I wandered over to say hello and find out why they hadn’t followed through with their plans. I found a languid group slightly glazed over from the sun and the sea and the bread and honey they ate too much of for breakfast, gazing lazily at me like a pride of lions after a good meal of antelope.
I asked if they were going to go to Ithaca that day and the father lifted his head from the sun lounger, gazed at the island just across the strait, sighed and said: “It’s so far …”
That was that. They never got further than the village, the pool and the cove and even getting to the cove was a stretch. That is the Dolicha effect.
They are visiting us again this year and I shall be interested to find out if Ithaca etc. are back on the schedule. But I doubt it, once the Dolicha effect kicks in you are hooked for life.
You have been warned.
Most people don’t stray far from the coast when they visit Fiscardo and you can understand why. Its hot, the sea is warm, there’s a taverna right there.…
But if one day, you wake up early and decide to take a walk before the sea starts calling and the sun seducing you, well, not only can I tell you of a good walk, I can tell you a story too.
On the forest side of Fiscardo village there’s a path through the forest heading inland. If you want to find it, ask the way to the Kastro Club (more about that another time). You will pass Kastro on the left and then you are in the forest proper, walking on the remains of what used to be the only road connecting Fiscardo to the rest of the island.
The path leads to the abandoned village of Psilithrias, once the biggest and most important village in the area, today a picturesque ruin – roofs fallen in, gardens overgrown by feral fruit trees, streets filled with rubble. Yet here and there a glimmer of once was – rusting but beautiful wrought-iron gates, a graceful entrance. You can tell it was not a poor village.
When I first discovered Psilithrias many years ago I was told the Great Earthquake of 1953 drove the people away and that seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation to me.
It was only recently that I learned the truth. It seems that 150 years ago the authorities decided to build a proper road between Fiscardo and Argostolion, the island capital 52 kilometres away. This was something that was about 100 years overdue so it was the cause for considerable rejoicing… except in Psilithrias.
When Psilithrias residents discovered that a road was to go right past their village, they freaked out. The road would bring strangers, they said, their women would not be safe, they said, they wanted no part of it, they said. They lobbied so ferociously against this new-fangled idea that the island government capitulated, at which news the villagers killed a goat in celebration.
The road was redirected through the tiny village of Antipata. As predicted the road did indeed bring strangers and they needed food and a place to drink coffee and buy shoelaces, cigarettes and similar items. Antipata met those needs and grew, while Psilthiras, cut off from the road, wasted away to become just another Greek ruin slumbering in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Once you have explored the village keep walking on the new tar road (if only the Psilithrians had waited another 150 years!) You will see a church and the village graveyard with tombstones recording names you still encounter locally among the living. From there it’s a gentle stroll to Antipata where you will rejoin the main road. That part of the walk always startles me because the forest path, the ruined village and the church have taken me back a few hundred years and I am slow, relaxed David. A busy road with cars and buses is an abrupt jolt back to the present.
You join the road right next to Picnic, owned by former Zimbabweans Liz and Joe. Liz is a wonderful cook, Joe very good at front-of-house and they make wonderful breakfasts.
There’s another walk extending from here to a great beach called Lafnoudi, but if you decide it is time to return to the village, head down the hill and you will soon be back in Fiscardo.
As you walk you might reflect, just for a moment, on the moral of this story. Be careful of what you wish for; you might get it.
I went on this walk yesterday and to my enormous astonishment, my eye fell upon.. a swimming pool. Someone has renovated one of the old houses and put in a pool. Psilithrias is coming back to life!