Kefallonia

Get swept away by quaint and quirky Kefallonia

There are some places that are so unique and so vibrant, you’d swear they have a life and soul of their own, a beating heart hidden in the landscape. Kefallonia (or Cephalonia) is one of these rare places – this beautiful Ionian island has so much personality, it infuses everything from its architecture to its art, its stunning beaches to its soaring mountains, its people and their one-of-a-kind humor. Beautiful and stubborn, quirky and quaint, tragic and light-hearted, modern and old-fashioned, friendly and feuding, Kefallonia comes to life with the complexities of a real-life human being.
 
This island’s unique history plays out through the winding streets and lush green gardens of its many towns and villages. Proud and stubborn, Kefallonia and its natives withstood Ottoman invasion, were graced with the peace needed to nurture an illustrious literary, scientific and musical heritage, only to fall to the Great Earthquake of 1953. Razing whole towns, the quake destroyed much of the island’s Venetian architectural roots. And yet some villages were spared, left intact in tribute to Kefallonia’s venerable history and as a way for visitors to get a taste of the centuries’ old Kefallonia. In true Kefallonian spirit, the natives rebuilt the island and stood proud once again from the rubble of destruction – and even though modern, most towns were constructed to conform to the ideals of the past and revive the vestiges of their history.
 
 
 
Once you arrive, you’ll be swept away by the beauty and uniqueness of this island. You’ll find a little version of Paris complete with a meandering river and bridges, a vibrating rock by the harbor that’s a singular geological phenomenon, a gorgeous forest of rare Kefallonian fir trees that can’t be found anywhere else in the world and a stunning cave that covers a lagoon you can only explore by boat. You’ll be able to swim at one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, hike or mountainbike your way through a lush forest that’s home to wild horses and badgers as well as a species of tiny purple flower that’s unique to this island and this particular forest, and go jogging or birdwatching at a lagoon that’s vital for the survival of migratory birds and Caretta-Caretta sea turtles. Let Kefallonia draw you into this very special world, introduce you to the laid-back but sometimes eccentric routines of the locals, and whisper its secrets to you. You’ll make a friend for life.
 
Towns and villages of the past in the future
 
Modern-day Kefallonia shows nothing of the tragic earthquake that struck in 1953. In fact, the locals’ friendliness and humor will make you think that the quake never happened, so make sure to ask them for more details as you sight-see. Begin by exploring Lixouri, the second-biggest town in Kefallonia. Also called Piccolo Parisi, or Little Paris, its charm comes from a river that meanders through town. Lixouri, founded in 1534, is sandwiched between lush green mountains on one side and stunning beaches and dramatic cliffs on the other, offering you incredible vistas and backdrops as you wander through this beautiful town’s winding streets. Make it a point to visit the many historical homes and churches you’ll find along your walk.
 
 
Pop into one of the dark but welcoming churches, adorned with beautiful gold- and silver-gilded icons that glow in the candlelight. Explore the 19th Century Iakovatos Mansion. Built by one of Kefallonia’s wealthiest families, it was donated to the public by the family and now houses a beautiful library that boasts a very unique ceiling. As you’re wandering through rows of tall bookshelves, look up. You’ll see an example of Fatnomata architecture – adorned recesses built into the ceiling that replicate the decorations found on the ceilings of many Ancient Greek temples.
 
Also visit the Iakovatos Museum within the mansion to admire rare Byzantine icons, illuminated manuscripts from the 10th and 15th Centuries as well as antique furniture. Your walks will certainly take you into the center of town where you’ll see the statue of Andrea Laskaratos, a native of Lixouri and one of Greece’s most famous poets. Although this statue is a tribute to the poet, it also symbolizes one of Kefallonia’s quirks – a centuries’ old feud between Lixouri and Argostoli. You’ll notice that Laskaratos faces Lixouri and turns his back on the town of Argostoli which lies across the water, endorsing the Lixourians’ belief that Argostoli unfairly became Kefallonia’s capital in 1757. To this day there’s a friendly feud among the two towns, with Lixourians believing they’re friendlier and more artistic than their neighbors. Ask the locals about this feud and you’ll be entertained with a slew of funny tales over endless glasses of Robola wine.
 
 
And because it’s essential (and highly entertaining) to hear both sides of this feud, head across the water to Argostoli, Kefallonia’s capital. This town was inhabited since Antiquity, razed by the earthquake and then rebuilt in a style that replicates 18th C Kefallonian architecture. Get lost in the meandering alleys and be sure to visit one of the many traditional Kefallonian bakeries. Taste some mouth-watering Kefallonian mandoles, the island’s trademark sweet that was introduced by the Venetians and is made of dyed red almonds and sugar. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to snack on this rich dessert while listening to an impromptu performance by Argostoli’s wandering Troubadours. Music is part of Kefallonia’s rich cultural history and a point of pride for Argostolians, who developed “kantades” or ballads that are sung by groups of men. There’s a unique musical trope in Kefallonia, called an Arietta, which consists of a tenor singing a solo, followed by the chorus sung by a choir. Originally developed in Lixouri, the Arietta has been adopted throughout the island by troubadours who regularly dazzle visitors with their beautiful ballads.
 
Although Argostoli is the island’s commercial center, nature is never far in this lush green island. Argostoli overlooks Koutavos Lagoon, which was named after an Ancient Sicilian game called “Kotavos” that used to be played at Symposia. After dinner, men poured the remaining wine into a shallow vat and then threw in a piece of gold jewelry. The sound the piece of jewelry made as it hit the wine gave men clues as to whether the woman they were in love with returned their affections. Argostoli’s lagoon is shaped exactly like an Ancient Sicilian vat and is only 5-6 meters deep, which led the history-mad locals to adopt this unique name. As you can tell, Argostoli is proud of its historical and cultural heritage, which is why going to a play staged in the Municipal Kefalos Theater is a must for all visitors. Continue your cultural tour of Argostoli with a visit to the Korgialenio Institute which doubles as a museum. Photographs and artifacts provide a record of Kefallonian life before the earthquake, from Venetian times up to 1953. You’ll get a taste of the architecture, domestic and agricultural life, as well as being able to admire 12th Century manuscripts. Then wander through the cobblestone streets to Napier’s Garden, a unique raised park thick with trees and full of paths that lead you on a leisurely stroll. As you leave Argostoli, make it a point to explore the Castle of St. George, only 7 km away. Remains of the castle date back to the 16th C, while the castle itself was built in 1262 and was the island’s medieval capital.
 
 
 
If you’re a film buff, it is imperative that you visit Sami village, which is where Spielberg’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed. Ask the locals, who doubled as extras in the film or musical consultants for the festival scenes, to tell you all about the impressive sets and the stars, as well as the town’s history during the war. This quaint but busy fishing village boasts a number of excellent tavernas and isolated coves for your daily swim and is one of four Kefallonian towns that played important roles in antiquity. Sami’s ancient residents participated in the Trojan War, while Homer describes this beautiful town in his writings. Remains of Sami’s acropolis are still visible, as are the remains of the 2ndC monastery devoted to Agioi Fanentes. The local legend associated with Saints Fanentes tells of how three Roman soldiers left the army so as not to give up their Christian faith. When all three died at the same time, in the same cave, a local leper called Michael dreamt of the Saints who promised they’d cure him if he retrieved their bodies. Michael found the soldiers’ bodies, founded this monastery in their honor and was cured. The relics of the soldier-Saints are found in Sami’s cathedral.
 
Continue by exploring the beautiful towns of Fiskardo and Asso. Asso will captivate you with its stunning views of the bay and quaint homes. Designed to almost hug the bay, the town boasts a number of gorgeous Neoclassical homes that survived the quake, so make it a point to wander through the tiny streets of Asso’s Riakia neighborhood. Once you’ve admired these fine homes, go to Fiskardo, which miraculously survived the quake unscathed. The beautiful village’s Venetian architecture, brightly colored walls, shutters and doors, and stunning gardens echo the quaint majesty of Venice and Murano in Italy. Be sure to visit Fiskardo’s 17th Century Church of the Virgin Mary of Platyteras, as well as the 6th Century Byzantine chapel that sits close to Fournia lighthouse. If you’re an architecture buff and love to see a record of living history, go to the ghost towns of Farsa, Valsamata, and Vlahata. Although in good shape despite the earthquake, these towns were abandoned. You’ll love the eerie feeling of deserted squares, dark churches and homes where fig and olive trees grow from kitchen and bedroom floors and touch ceilings. For another unique excursion, go to Kourkoumelata village which was rebuilt in a Swiss architectural style after the quake.
 
 
Forests, lakes and caves for sports junkies and eco-lovers
 
Hikers, kayakers, mountainbikers and eco-lovers will fall for Kefallonia’s beautiful and unique landscapes and eco-systems. Begin by standing on the strangest geological formation in the Ionian – a shaking rock found in Akrotiri in Paliki. This huge boulder sticks out of the shore into the Ionian Sea, where its base is formed in such a way that wind and waves cause the rock to shake. Although this shaking sensation lessened after the quake caused the rock to settle, it’s still evident. If you love odd geological attractions, be sure to wonder at the workings of the Katavothres in Argostoli harbor. Seawater enters through these underground rock formations, traverses the whole island below the mountains, and resurfaces in Melissani cave.
 
If you’re an avid hiker and mountainbiker, be sure to explore Ainos Mountain and its extraordinary fir forest. Standing at 1600 meters, Ainos is the tallest mountain in the islands of the Ionian and constitutes the smallest National Forest in Greece. The thick forest of Kefallonian firs is a one-of-a-kind natural phenomenon and supports a vital eco-system. These Kefallonian firs are non-hybridized and can only be found in Kefallonia, while the forest floor supports the fragile growth of Viola Kefallonica, a rare purple flower that’s carefully protected in the forest, so be sure to look out for them as you hike. The fir forest of Ainos Mountain offers the perfect habitat for wild horses, badgers, eagles, rabbits and foxes.
 
 
Another ideal location for walkers, cyclists and joggers who want to combine a sports-high with an eco-activity is Koutavos Lagoon. You’ll fall in love with the eucalyptus forest and brightly colored wildflowers that hug the lagoon itself, while birdwatchers will enjoy watching the ducks, geese, and swans that make the lagoon their home. Koutavos Lagoon also plays an important role in the reproductive and breeding habits of Caretta-Caretta sea turtles, while many rare fish also support this important eco-system. Another important spot for birdwatchers and hikers alike is Karavomilou Lake near Sami, where there are many ducks and the edge of the lake gives the illusion of merging with the sea. This lake also boasts another unique feature – sweetwater flows into it and is replenished by underground rivers that begin across the island.
 
Spelunkers, you’ve chosen the perfect island for your passion and hobby. Kefallonia’s geology and rock formations created interesting caves throughout the island, especially around Sami village. The island’s two most stunning caves are Melissani and Drogarati Caves. Melissani is a stand-out cave, as it can only be visited by rowboat. The cave domes a beautiful lagoon, and you’ll be able to visit two chambers of the cave by boat. Located close to Sami village, you’ll have to follow a narrow tunnel to get to the cave and then row in.
 
 
 
The first chamber is the largest and is an open-air cave as the ceiling caved in over 5000 years ago, which now allows the sun to shine in every day, giving the illusion that diamonds and sparkles float or rain on the surface of the turquoise lagoon. Of interest is the fact that the lagoon water originates across the island from Argostoli’s Katavothres, and is replenished every 14 days. The second chamber is closed and features an islet of archeological importance.
 
This Islet of Pan is where the Ancient Greek god was worshipped, and is also where the Statue of Pan and the Nymph Platter were found. In fact, the mythological origins of the cave are equally intriguing. The cave was named after the nymph Melissanthi, who was in love with Pan. He, however, did not return her feelings, and she killed herself in the cave. From Melissani Cave, head to Drogarati Cave which is located nearby. This 2,000,000 year old cave boasts stunning floor to ceiling stalactites and stalagmites which grow about one centimeter every hundred years because of the perpetually dripping water. At a constant 18˚C with 90% humidity, the cave is an eco-system of its own as it provides the perfect habitat for moles, bats and a species of tarantula that’s only found in this cave and at a few locations in Crete. Make it a point to ask if there will be a concert or play performed in the cave’s big chamber – Drogarati’s perfect acoustics beg for the use of the biggest chamber for recitals. This, however, is a rare event in order to protect the cave’s structure and eco-system.
 
 
Beaches, wines and kayaking in Kefallonia
 
You’ll be stunned by the sheer number and variety of beaches in Kefallonia – and they are all beautiful. Begin by taking a swim at Myrtos beach, one of the most magnificent in the world. You’ll have to follow the path from St. Efimia to get there, but the white sand beach coupled with sparkling blue waters will no doubt reward you. Atheras beach is the place for you if you’re looking for a quiet swim, and you’ll also be able to visit St. Spyridon Church. Platia Ammos beach is a real gem that native Kefallonians like to keep secret, while Lagadakia beach boasts sparkling white pebbles and deep waters and is little-known to visitors. If you’re a sea kayaker, Kefallonia is the perfect place for you. Whether you love day-trips or week-long kayaking trips, you’ll be able to explore the island and all its hidden coves.
 
If you’re a wine enthusiast, Kefallonia’s famous Robola wine and the many wineries and vineyards around St. Gerasimos Monastery will definitely impress you. Make sure you taste Kefallonia’s Robola wine with dinner at a quaint tavern by the sea, and visit some of the vineyards for a first-hand look at the cultivation and aging process.
 
 
Kefallonia is multi-faceted, quirky, quaint, beautiful and stubborn. This island has personality, and like any interesting person, Kefallonia is wonderfully complicated. As you visit towns and beaches, forests and caves, you’ll get a peek into the heart of the island as it comes to life before you. And Kefallonia will live on in your heart like a good friend after your holiday is over.
 
NOTE
 
The Kefalonia TopoGuide, a fantastic new hiking app, has just been released for the island of Kefalonia, the biggest island of the Ionian Sea. Great images, 16 wondrous hiking routes, geological curiosities and even roadmaps will guide users on amazing island journeys. www.ecotourism-greece.com is proud to have contributed its insights to this app! You can download this app from Google Store here!
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