I started to read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on the ferry to Kefalonia. I know, I know, you may roll your eyes if you like. I was even surprised to find myself enjoying it.
Kefalonia was a lesson in travel style. I essentially had three different holidays on the Island. All were vastly different and taught me a lot about how I like to travel.
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My First Holiday in Kefalonia
I’d been invited to the island by a new friend, Anna, who I hadn’t even met yet. We’d got chatting on a brilliant Facebook group called girls love travel and had hit it off immediately so we kept in regular contact. Anna lives in London but her home is on Kefalonia. Her family have villas next to their home in the mountains looking across the Ionian sea and onto Zakynthos. It’s paradise. So my first week on the island was all about relaxation and family life. I know I’ve said it before, but Greek people are the best thing about Greece. You can see all the archaeology and swim in all the blue seas that you like, but for me, all of that pales in comparison to the hospitality of people in Greece. This was re-confirmed when Anna’s parents welcomed me into their home.
I’m usually quite busy when I travel. I always have somewhere I want to go or something I want to see, so at first, I was a bit unsettled at the villa. It’s beside the village of Mousata which has a very irregular bus service into the main town of Argostoli and planning outings was a massive chore. I quickly came to realise that as bad as public transport is in Greece, Kefalonia actually reached new lows. Eventually, I decided I wasn’t going to get stressed about it. I would use my second week on the island to discover. For now, I was going to try this relaxation thing that other people do on holidays. I went into Argostoli a few times when public transport allowed or when a lift presented itself, but mostly I promised myself that I was going to sit on the balcony or by the pool and maybe take a walk or two in the mountains or to the nearest beaches. So that’s exactly what I did.
As it turned out, I was working on a job back in London that I’d been managing remotely and things got pretty busy that week. It was one of those jobs that should have been a doddle, but lots of tricky little problems kept cropping up that needed immediate attention. So my lolling by the pool worked out quite well. If you must be on standby, then where better than on your private balcony of a beautiful Kefalonian villa?
Anna’s family are vegans and they included me in family meals. We ate produce pulled straight from their garden. I even did yoga in the mornings, or at least I attempted it. Downward dogs are not man’s best friend. And I slept loads in the most comfortable bed I’d been in for months. It was a restful, healthy and relaxing holiday. I also got to know Captain Correlli’s Mandolin a little better and discovered that it was a great source of information about the island (once you can get the image of Nicholas Cage out of your head). It whetted my appetite to learn more.
My Second Holiday in Kefalonia
By the time week two rolled around, I was fresh and ready for adventure. I got my hands on a rental car and went rural. I checked into the George Molfetas Museum Hotel in the village of Faraklata, a quaint and quirky place great for history and culture lovers.
The car made all the difference. When I met Giorgos from Joy Ride Rent A Car, I was instantly impressed. His first question was not about the car. It was a much more important question for a Greek: had I had my morning coffee? I had not. And that’s how I was introduced to the amazing Freddo Cappuccino. Giorgos took me to a café on the waterfront and suggested I try a coffee the way the Greeks like it – cold and frothy. Well it would be rude not to. We sat for the next two hours, drinking coffee, pouring over maps of Kefalonia with Giorgos pointing out all the ‘must-see’ places, both the tourist attractions and his personal recommendations. He knows his customers. He marked on the map beaches with nice tavernas, cafes or seating areas where I could sit and write for hours. It was without a doubt the most hassle free car hire experience I’ve ever had.
And I loved driving in Kefalonia. That first day, I drove and drove and drove. I turned off my phone after Google Maps tried to kill me and I stuck to Giorgos’ map. I didn’t really care if I got lost. I had a big grin plastered to my face as my little Fiat Panda powered her way up steep, windy mountains and along narrow roads dug into dramatic cliff faces. I was driving for the first time in months and Kefalonia was incredibly beautiful. I visited the beaches Giorgos had recommended. I watched the sun set in a deserted bay and I never stopped smiling. It really was a Joy Ride.
The drive reminded me of my days learning to drive on the narrow Irish mountain roads of Leitrim and Cavan. I learned to drive in a week and loved it because I craved the independence of having my own car and being master of my transport destiny. Turns out I still love it for the exact same reasons. Public Transport bedamned!
My Third Holiday in Kefalonia
The third and final part of my trip was actually a last minute decision to stay in Kefalonia a little longer because Anna, the friend I hadn’t met yet, was coming home. She was spending a week helping her family prepare the villa for the summer rental season. So we finally got to meet, drink cold coffees and watch a turtle swimming in the bay at Argostoli. While I was waiting the few days until she got to the Island, I rented a little apartment near the holiday resort of Lassi with a patio overlooking a beautiful little cove with a hidden beach, completely empty of holiday makers. I wanted my third holiday in Kefalonia to be a writer’s retreat. So I sat on my patio writing, reading and living the writer’s dream. It was occasionally broken up by meeting up with Stella, Giorgos’ girlfriend, who I spent even more time drinking wine coffee with.
Rambling Ruth’s Guide to Kefalonia
Kefalonia (Cephallonia) is the largest of the Ionian Islands and is situated between Lefkada to the north and Zakynthos to the south. It’s insanely beautiful with lush green vegetation, every shade of blue water you could ever imagine, impressive mountains, famously beautiful beaches and a richness in history and culture that (in my opinion) surpasses all of the other Ionian Islands. I’m pretty sure that every colour that exists in nature can be found on Kefalonia.
The Island is probably best known in popular culture as the location for ‘Captain Correlli’s Mandolin’ which depicts the Island’s WWII history. It’s just a slice of the many millenia of history that can be discovered on Kefalonia.
Holidays in Kefalonia
Kefalonia is a popular sailing destination and a regular stop on Mediterranean cruises. It welcomes European holidaymakers with a large number of visitors taking advantage of the direct flights from the UK. Most people flying into Kefalonia travel with tour operators as part of a package deal. The Island is also accessible by Ferry from mainland Greece and from some of the other Ionian Islands, but it’s tourism infrastructure is surprisingly lacking for independent travellers.
Transport to and around Kefalonia
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you really need a car to travel around Kefalonia. If you like exploring, public transport is a nightmare. The buses are scheduled for times that really don’t make any sense – for example, at the time I visited, if I caught a boat from the mainland to the main port at Sami, the only buses that could get me to Argostoli (where buses supposedly connect to the rest of the island) finished by lunchtime. That does not make any sense for anybody arriving on any ferries later in the day who might get stuck with a taxi bill of €30-€40 euros. My ferry from Lefkada took me to the beautiful village of Fiskardo in the north of the island. It’s over an hour’s drive from Argostoli with one bus daily at 06:30am. If anyone can explain that one to me, I really do want to hear it. I got lucky that Anna’s parents came to meet me from the boat, otherwise I would have been slapped with a taxi fare upwards of €50-60 that, to be honest, would have put me off visiting the Island at all.
If you fly to Kefalonia, it gets even worse. Shockingly, there is no bus between the airport and Argostoli, or any of the Island’s resorts. If you want to get out of the airport, and don’t have a bus from a resort or hotel to meet you, your only option is a taxi with magic meters that clock up fares faster than the speed of light.
The transport issue really is one that can put a dampener on your trip to Kefalonia if you depend on public transport. I had an infuriating incident at the bus station early in my trip when I tried to decipher greek timetables with rude bus company staff who didn’t seem too interested in helping. It was as if they were trying to disuade tourists from using public transport. I was certainly the only non-local at the station any time that I caught a bus in Kefalonia.
Ultimately, I loved Kefalonia, but if I was let down in any way by the island, it was on my final day when I was leaving. The last bus to get me to the port at Pessada was at 12.30pm. My ferry wasn’t scheduled until 6pm. I met two Japanese girls in the same boat, and so we decided we’d all grab a coffee together and while away our time at the port until the boat was ready to depart. The bus dropped us in the middle of nowhere and the driver pointed down a narrow road. We hefted our bags onto our backs in the midday heat and after the hike to the ‘port’ we discovered, basically, a beach with a boat moored. There was no cafe or taverna. There was no bathroom. There was barely shade. The guys on the boat directed us back up the hill and when we reached the point where we had disembarked from the bus, a local guy told us that the next village was another hour’s walk away.
That would have been ok. I could have sat in the tiny spot with shade until I got a niggling feeling. The boat wasn’t as big as most of the ferries I had taken in Greece. It looked a bit worse for wear and, well, old. I looked in my purse. I had very little cash. Back down at the bottom of the hill, the guys on the boat confirmed what I had worried about. They could only take cash. And so, with no public transport options, the only way I was getting off that island was to call a taxi back to Argostoli. The nearest ATM was next to the bus station I had left just an hour earlier. I wanted to kick myself. With a magic meter rolling, the taxi driver waited for me and relieved me of €27 for the priviledge of withdrawing cash for the fare. I was not happy.
What a shame that that was my parting impression of Kefalonia.
Of course my taxi debacle was all in the name of bringing you helpful information about Greece, so all was not lost. I learned that carrying cash (euros) is an absolute must in Kefalonia, unless you plan to stay in close proximity to an ATM. There are plenty of ATMs in the towns and busy resorts, but elsewhere may cause problems. This was when I learned to always have an emergency cash fund at the ready and I’d advise you to do the same.
Kefalonia is generally good value for money but there are tourist areas where you might pay a little higher for lower quality in restaurants or for souvenirs and beachwear. Entrance to most attractions is free, however, so you really can make your money stretch. Ferries, flights and buses are all reasonably priced so it shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg if you plan your trip in advance. As I mentioned, though, the taxis are horribly priced and when you consider the fact that people drive very dangerously in Greece, you really need to take into account whether your safety is worth the payout.
The Odysseus Conspiracy
I ditched Captain Correlli for Odysseus the day I climbed up on the Cyclopean Walls. I’ll tell you more about that in just a bit. For now, let me share a secret. When Homer gave his hero Odysseus a Kingdom in his epic poem, The Iliad, he named him King of Ithaca, the neighbouring Island to Kefalonia. His follow up, The Odyssey famously describes his adventures travelling home after conquering Troy with his giant horse. The story’s been told a million times from kids picture books to James Joyce’s retelling on the streets of Dublin in Ulysses.
But… Homer’s Odyssey is open to interpretation. Many scholars argue that the geographical and geological descriptions of Ithaca in The Odyssey are in fact descriptions of Kefalonia. If you ask scholars from Lefkada, though, you may find that they claim the same thing. It’s certainly questionable whether Ithaca could have produced enough young men to populate Odysseus’ army. The island did not have the natural resources, or indeed the space, to house enough families to produce an army of 6000 men. So all of the other elements of the conspiracy theories aside, it just makes sense that Oysseus’ home would have been Kefalonia.
When I heard this, I was intrigued. It’s been a while since college, but I loved studying Homer’s epic poems and made one of my closest friends when we studied Ulysees together. We barely knew each other to start with, but by the end of the project, we found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences (Hi Laura!). I went on a mission to discover the archaeological sites connected to the legend and I found the Mycenean burial grounds which are understood to be the graves of Odysseus’ descendants. (And flooded Laura’s inbox with selfies of same).
What struck me most was that the burial grounds are barely even noticed. Most people haven’t heard of them. They sit at the end of a dirt road with nothing but a wooden shed built around them. The attendant in a box next to the shed seemed surprised to see a visitor. She seemed more surprised that I asked about a bathroom. I was pretty shocked that there was nothing here at a site that could well be a national monument. If there was any truth to the Odysseus legend, I wonder was he turning in his grave to be so forgotten.
Thankfully, he will never be forgotten on paper or, well, on my Kindle … I downloaded the homeric poems and was glad that I did because my next stop was to be one of my favourite places I’ve ever visited. The Cyclopean Walls date back to 7th Century BC and they were the city walls of the Ancient City of Krani. That makes them just about as old as the Great Wall of China. They are called Cyclopean because the bricks are so big, people in antiquity believed that the walls could not have been built by men and must have been built by giants. And you can’t have a good Greek legend without a Cyclops. (Right Laura?)
However the walls got there, the amazing thing is that they are still standing. Sort of. Time has taken its toll and they are crumbling and in a state of ruin, but a large part of them is still standing. Like the Mycenean tombs, they are neglected by the powers that be. They haven’t been taken care of like their Chinese counterpart. It’s a terrible shame. It means that any old clod, like me, can stumble upon them. That is, if you can find them just outside the village of Razata. There is a sign leading down a dirt road. Don’t give up if you think it leads nowhere. The road gets narrower and dirtier, but it does lead somewhere. You’ll know it when you see it.
If you’re so inclined, you can actually climb the walls. Climb to the top of the hill and mount the walls. You can see them continue over the hills on either side and if you have an active imagination, you can see and feel what once stood here. Me and my imagination climbed to the highest point on the wall and breathed in the magnificence. We wondered (but just for a split second) whether it was damaging to climb onto this kind of history, but quickly decided that it needed a bit of appreciation. We just picked our steps carefully.
I sat for most of the day with my kindle which usually makes me feel like a traitor to books, but not any more. At first, I wished I had a paperback, then I thought of papyrus, then stone tablets… and I realised that my device was just another development in keeping stories like Homer’s alive. The point was that the stories were still alive. I got stuck into tales of Lotus Eaters, Cyclopses, Storms, Shipwrecks and Greek Gods and I watched the sun set over the oldest wall I’ve ever been able to sit on.
And it was perfect.
Where to go on Kefalonia
Kefalonia is a pretty big island with a lot to do. There are 365 villages on the island, so unless you plan to spend a year visiting one each day, its unlikely you’ll get to know all of the island. I took in as much as I could in my few weeks there and while this guide is certainly not exhaustive, it’s a list of what I consider to be Kefalonia’s ‘best bits’.
Kefalonia’s main town and commercial centre, Argostoli is a pretty seaside town with a huge variety of sea-front cafes and restaurants. It’s the island’s transport ‘hub’ if such as thing exists, as this is where all buses go to and from. Many cruise ships also stop in the town. I was pretty impressed with the Drapanos Stone Bridge. It’s a walkway built across the entire bay which connects the town with the coastline less than a mile across the sea.
An absolute gem in the North West of the Island. Assos is spectacularly beautiful because it’s surrounded by the bluest sea and filled with the greenest forests you can imagine. It’s also jam packed with history.
I spent an afternoon climbing up to Assos Castle, the Venetian Fortress at the peak of the peninsula. I walked through the ruins and it wasn’t hard to conjure up images of streets thronged with courtiers and scoundrels of the 16th century. I was mostly alone as I sat at the top of the old castle walls and watched the sailboats pass by on the Ionian sea below. I was there for hours before I met a couple exploring the area and after they had left, I was reluctant to head back to my car. In the end, it was the hot sun and an empty water bottle that gave me the push I needed to make a move. I wandered slowly back to the village and pottered around the picturesque streets and beaches before I moved on to my next slice of heaven.
It’s the most well-known beach on Kefalonia and one glance at it explains why. The beach is beautiful and the waters are pristine, but beware appearances! For those who love some sand between their toes, you may be disappointed as Myrtos is a pebble beach and home to pretty big pebbles at that. If, like me, you don’t bring the correct footwear, walking the beach may turn out to be a less than pleasant experience.
Myrtos is close to Assos, but make sure to check for road closures. There were repairs being carried out on the main road between the two destinations during my visit because of earthquake damage. The journey between both ended up being quite a trek through mountains, weaving in and out between goats and rocks that had fallen from the steep mountains. It’s not a drive for the faint of heart, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The cave of the nymphs… of course it was! There’s definitely something mythical about Mellisani cave. When Kefalonia was devastated by an earthquake in 1953 that forever changed the face of the island, the roof of Mellisani cave collapsed and for the first time in living history, the people of Kefalonia knew it existed. It’s now one of the main tourist attractions. It’s very beautiful and on a clear day, the midday sun makes the trip worthwhile as it illuminates the cave. Don’t expect to be able to spend a long time inside though. Once you’ve dropped your €8 entrance fee, you’ll quickly be herded onto a boat for a speedy trip around the lake and through the adjacent cave before being deposited back on dry land as quick as you can snap a token selfie.
Another windy, narrow road will take you close to the highest peak on Kefalonia, Mount Ainos. From the uppermost carpark, it’s a 10 minute walk to the summit. On a clear day, you’ll be able to make out Lefkada, Zakynthos, Ithaca and across to the Peloponnese. It’s a nature lover’s dream as the mountain is mostly national park with plentiful indigenous flora and fauna. For the more die-hard hikers, there’s a walking route from Digaleto to the summit which stands 1096m above sea level, or a distance of 6.5km each way.
The Western Peninsula of Kefalonia
To the west of the Island, when you round the Gulf of Argostoli and make your way towards Lixouri, you’ll enter a very different kind of Island. Gone are the cruise ships and the tourist stalls. You could do worse than taking a drive through the coutryside and getting lost in the rural villages that are dotted around the farmland you’ll drive through. It’s quiet and peaceful. This is the part of the Island claimed by literary historians to be the real Ithaca of Homer’s Odyssey.
Lixouri is the main town on this part of the Island and a ferry to and from Argostoli will save you the long car journey. I avoided the town and continued my joyride to the gorgeous Lepeda beach with it’s red sand and rocks that rise up from the shoreline in weird and wonderful shapes.
On the west coast of the peninsula is Petani Beach, a beach similar to Myrtos but smaller. I preferred it because it’s mostly sandy, there are tavernas right on the beach and the sunset is to die for.
The Lassi to Argostoli Walking Trail
It’s probably a bit of a stretch to call it a hike, though the local maps suggest it’s a hiking trail. It is, in fact all on reasonably level ground and all following roads that lead from Lassi, around the tip of the Argostoli peninsula and back to the town itself. It’s an easy route and takes in the beautiful Fanari Lighthouse, incredibly clear water at the coves and beaches along the route and the natural phenomenon at Katavothres. If you wondered about the colour of the water at Mellisani, then you might be even more fascinated to learn that it comes from Katavothres. Don’t ask me the geography of it! It seems that tests were done because the unusually turquoise colour of the water at Katavothres matched the colour of water that appeared in the lake on the other side of the island. It turns out that it’s a geological phenomenon that is way over my head, but it’s pretty cool!
This is a gorgeous little seaside village on Kefalonia’s east coast, just north of the main port town of Sami. It has an upmarket kind of feel to it, without the upmarket prices in the bars and coffee shops dotted along the harbour. You’ll find yachts dropping anchor in the bay and water sports and activities are plentiful. While the resort towns of Skala, Sami and Poros heave with holiday makers taking full advantage of beach activities, Agia Effimia is a little more sedate.
A little fishing village at the very north of the Island, Fiskardo was the first part of Kefalonia that I saw as my ferry from Lefkada docked here. It’s quaint and pretty and relatively untouched by tourism. There’s still a very communal, fishing village feel to the area and as it’s quite remote in relation the the commercial and tourism activities on the island, it takes a little planning to get there. It’s well worth the visit.
Rambling Ruth’s ‘Likely To’ Guide to Kefalonia
Likely to see in Kefalonia: Dramatic landscapes and every colour nature can produce.
Likely to do in Kefalonia: Watch a beautiful Sunset
Likely to hear in Kefalonia: Stories of hidden histories.
Likely to taste in Kefalonia: Freddo Cappuccino. This is a good thing.
Likely to discover in Kefalonia: Breathtaking views around every bend.
Mosquitos and Other Creepy/Crawly Info
Mosquito Bite Count: 4. That’s a pretty good tally for me on a trip lasting over three weeks.
Snakes spotted: Just the one! In true Indiana Jones style, I leapt across him as soon as I realised I was about to step on his head. In very un-Indiana-Jones style, I then ran away. Fast.
To keep those mossies at bay, I thank the following items:
Dare I say Kefalonia was my favourite Ionian Island?
I definitely loved it and felt very happy once I had some wheels under me. It’s an Island that deserves a bit of exploration. I particularly liked picking up a few bits and pieces about the Island’s rich literary history and would like to go back in the future to learn more about it. I felt like I only tapped the surface. Next time, I’ll also take in a trip to Ithaca. Maybe Laura will come with me!
As always, I love to hear from you. Comments, emails, messages and carrier pigeons are all appreciated so don’t be shy. What did you like about Kefalonia or what are you looking forward to visiting?