The village of Fiscardo is the jewel in Kefalonia’s crown, famed for its unique beauty. It borders the Ionian Sea at the northernmost tip of Kefalonia, nestling beneath a dense forest. The Greek parliament awarded it protected status, ensuring that the forest remains pristine and that the traditional Venetian-style architecture of the village is preserved. The village is strategically located at the entrance to the busy sea channel between Kefalonia and Ithaca, an important route for trade with Italy. For this reason it has been a major shipping route since sea trade began. A lighthouse has stood in Fiscardo for so long that no-one knows when one was first placed there.
Fiskardo lies in the extreme north of Kefalonia, between the Ionian Sea and a dense forest and it is the jewel in Kefalonia’s crown. It lies in an area of such beauty that the Greek parliament has awarded it protected status, ensuring that the forest remains pristine and the traditional Venetian-style architecture of the village preserved. Essentially Fiskardo is a cluster of houses around a small harbour. The village is strategically located at the entrance to the sea channel between Kefalonia and Ithaka where shipping bound to and from Italy passes. For this reason it has been on a major shipping route between Italy and Greece since sea trade began. A lighthouse has stood in Fiskardo for so long that no-one knows when one was first placed there.
Fiskardo has been intermittently inhabited from Palaeolithic times with periods where it seems the area was deserted for many years at a time; one possible reason is that pirates made the area uninhabitable. Pirates have been a perennial problem for Kefalonia which is why so many villages are perched on hillsides away from the sea and in areas not easily accessible or visible from the water.
Fiskardo lighthouse. The penisula on which the lighthouse stands is a rich source of Palaeolithic stone tools.
One mystery down, countless to go. As in much of Greece, Fiskardo has tantalising ruins that defy explanation. For example, in the forest that lies behind Fiskardo there is a mysterious ruin dating back to the second or third century BC. No one knows what it was, although archaeologists lean towards the theory that it is the remnant of a temple. Local legend has a more romantic explanation saying it is the site of the throne of the ancient king of Kefalonia, a place where he held court. Certainly as you approach the ruin, up a short incline, you face a recess carved from the solid rock that seems like an ideal place for a man to sit with his back to the forest, elevated above his courtiers who would sit flanked in two rows beneath him. But this is fantasy and perhaps the truth will never be known – like so much about Fiskardo in antiquity there is simply not enough information.
We know much more about Fiskardo in Roman times. Archaeologists knew a Roman naval station existed there, but in the light of recent discoveries, it appears it was more important than previously believed. The remains of houses, a baths complex and a cemetery, all dating to between 146 B.C. and 330 A.D, have been found, mostly as excavations took place for new buildings for the tourist trade.
Undisturbed for two thousand years, when this Fiskardo tomb was rediscovered, the door easily swung open on its stone hinges.
Did famed Egyptian queen Cleopatra and her Roman lover Marcus Antonius visit Kefalonia? Local legend says they did and the village of Markantonata is so named because that is where they were alleged to have stayed. Alas there is no proof.
A village near Fiskardo is today called Markantonata and local legend say it was so named because Marcus Antonius once stayed there with the Egyptian queen. No historical evidence exists to support this assertion but what is certain is that Markantonata is a beautiful and romantic place – ideal for a romantic tryst between a Roman general and an Egyptian queen.
Fiskardo owes its present name to a colourful and enormously successful Norman mercenary called Robert Guiscard. Guiscard is a classic story of rags to riches. He was one of several brothers who went to Italy from Normandy in the 11th Century to work as mercenaries and to seek their fortunes. Forty years after leaving Normandy with only five mounted riders, and thirty foot soldiers, he had founded a sovereign state and was one of the most important people in Christendom. Two emperors had to reckon with him: fro m one he took Rome, from the other he had been on the point of taking Constantinople.
After arriving in Italy in 1046, he served in several military campaigns before taking the place of his brother Humphrey as Duke of the Normans. His power steadily grew as he became involved in the politics of both Italy and the Byzantine Empire. His most famous victory came at the battle of Durazzo on October 1081 where he defeated a Byzantine army. Guiscard went on to become the Duke of Apulia and Calabria and founded the Kingdom of the Two Sicilys. In 1084 Robert Guiscard tried to conquer Kefalonia but he had been ill before the campaign started and he died the following year in the little port, which after his death became known as Guiscardo, eventually corrupted to Fiskardo.
We have a physical description of Guiscard left by the world’s first female historian Byzantine historian Anna Comnena. She wrote:
“This Robert was Norman by descent, of minor origin, in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attacking the wealth and substance of magnates, most obstinate in achievement, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent his executing his desire. His stature was so lofty that he surpassed even the tallest, his complexion was ruddy, his hair flaxen, his shoulders were broad, his eyes all but emitted sparks of fire, and in frame he was well-built … this man’s cry it is said to have put thousands to flight. Thus equipped by fortune, physique and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.”
The ruined monastery on the Fiskardo peninsula. There is speculation that it may have been built on the site of an acient temple perhaps to the goddess Diana.
There are huge gaps in local Fiskardo history after this time. A monastery that was under construction near the Fiskardo lighthouse remained uncompleted; some remnants of the walls can still be seen today. It seems though that the port was deserted, perhaps because it was too obvious a target for pirates. One can speculate that ships still took advantage of the natural haven the port provides but even this is uncertain. In Venetian times there must have been a resurgence of activity because some of the houses around the port that stand today are of Venetian design. The north of Kefalonia did not flourish during the years of piracy and rapacious conquerors and it seems likely that those inhabitants who survived did so by creating homesteads in the forest that dominates the area around the port. Today it is difficult to penetrate the forest because it is so dense but the hardy who do manage to force their way through can be rewarded by stumbling here and there across the remains of houses and wells.