In my series of articles about Greece I have been trailing through the Ionian Islands. If you have been following I hope you have enjoyed the journey so far, if you are new to this, there are links at the bottom of the page to take you back through the prior instalments. For now I will continue with the exploration of Cephalonia.
As you head down the coast road further, if you are missing out Lixouri and the western peninsula the road takes you straight into Argostoli. As the capital of the island the town has spread as much as the topography will allow it, and you find business and industry mixed in with residential. The harbour is busy, as the supplies that come in from the mainland and beyond are often sold in the shops and warehouses along the way. There are of course all the normal trappings of a town that has embraced tourism, but there is also a seriousness as the commerce of the island is largely conducted on these streets.
The central plaza is well maintained with tiled walkways, and a multitude of restaurants and bars that spread out from the buildings around to absorb much of the space between. Ornamental lighting and exotic palm trees set the scene for what is the social centre of the town. Here in the day people languish over long lunches and cold beers whilst the sun burns up the day elsewhere, then in the evening the night life takes over and in the bars the drinking and dancing ensue for the night.
An important feature of the town is the bridge that runs across the estuary to the North of Argostoli. It stretches for half a kilometre running low over the water, with a series of low swooping arches that barely clear the calm surface. It is a beautiful piece of architecture that joins the road north and cuts out an otherwise arduous drive around the bay.
I am going to head east now, along the south of the Island where the terrain is somewhat different than a lot of the Island. The road crosses flat lands that reach around the coast to the town of Skala and perhaps the most beautiful beach on the Island. Running the width of the Island the road is sheltered by a mountain range, at its peak the summit of mount Enos, reaching with sheer rock faces 1500 meters above the sea. If you follow the inland route you can make most of the climb to the summit by road, but once off the road you are facing a pretty harsh journey still to the top. If you choose to go from the south, you face a completely different proposition altogether as I will explain.
After all my back packing in Greece I spent a season working for a new Sunsail club set in a picturesque little village called Spartia. The village is set above some modest cliffs, overlooking the Ionian and the Island of Zakinthos in the distance.
I am going to take a moment here to mention the book, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. This is set on Cephalonia, and of you know the book and remember the Captain’s escape from the Island. The beach at Spartia is where he left from. If you don’t know the book this will probably mean nothing to you, but I thought it was worth a mention any way!
The mountains stretch up behind the village, and all spring and summer I had looked up at the craggy hillside, working out the best way to approach the ascent. Eventually I decided the best way to work out a route was to just climb the mountain. I asked around in the club and found one other member of staff who had the interest to come, and arranged it so we had the same day off that week. Cathy was part of the sailing crew, and was used to a bit of scrambling and climbing, always helpful when you set out on a journey like this. Never get caught with someone who is not experienced or fit or preferably both as the climb will turn into a drama, and you likely as will have to turn back. I felt we were both up to the journey, but despite the rather easy path I could seeup the mountain, experience had taught me that the closer to the hillside you get, the more uninviting it actually is.
We set out early the morning of the climb. We had food and lots of water, but not much else. The climb should take a couple of hours we had decided, so we should easily be back at the base for the evening meal and drinks. We followed the local roads on foot until we hit the closest point to start over land. There are few fences as such in these parts so the definition of private land is not as pronounced as it is at home. We headed forward with purpose, winding through the rocks and plants until we reached the foot of the mountain.
In the lower parts the terrain is easily navigated, with gentle climbs cutting through the outcrops to make the journey a pleasant walk in the countryside, but the mountain boasts sheer cliffs to the south side that fall away for hundreds of feet, and make parts of the ascent much harder.
We made good progress for most of the morning, following Goat tracks across the jagged rocks, fighting through clumps of trees and religiously avoiding anything that carried a thorn on it, which is pretty much anything you find growing of course. There are hidden surprises though, with cyclamen plants growing wild, and availing themselves of otherwise dead rocky patches to throw up beautiful flowers among the otherwise harsh flora. Then there are tortoises, similar to the ones that were common as pets in the UK at one time, but much larger creatures, perched on rocks where they seem to have no right to be. They aren’t easy to find, but they do live wild in the Islands.
Then there were the more difficult moments, sheer rock faces stumbled upon, with no obvious routes around. These we climbed using the freely available handholds of the natural rock, relying on our body strength to pull us up the porous surface. Each time we ascended one, the realisation that the route back would not be as straightforward grew.
After a mornings climb we wandered out onto the summit of the mountain and were afforded spectacular views of the sea and the local coastline, with Zakinthos in the distance bathed in sunlight. There was a flat slab of rock reaching out with an overhang which stands sheer and imposing over the land below. Here we took our lunch, we legs dangling over the oblivion and the exhilaration of the climb still flowing through our veins.
Then of course we had the climb down, so we discussed our options. There was the route we had came by, it was known, but there were some climbs we did not fancy in reverse, and there was another route we could see and from where we stood it looked far more passable. Having used a lot of energy climbing in the morning sun, we opted for door B.
The descent was far easier as we had thought. Rather than scrambling over rocks and negotiating climbs, we enjoyed a more pleasant walk through the trees with time to enjoy the views and take in our surroundings in much more detail. It was lovely for about an hour and then well, it ended. Suddenly the path disappeared over the edge of the mountain. On closer inspection the way was impassable, although we were about halfway down, the remaining journey would take us by cliff face all the way down. It would be an extremely difficult free climb and this was certainly not happening. Neither of us felt the urge to put ourselves in that position so we turned around and started following the path back up. Even though the way was reasonably straightforward, as the afternoon wore on the strength in our legs started to melt away and before long we were straining with the climb. The afternoon was running out fast and despite the growing pain in our bodies we climbed with increased haste as the shadows began to stretch out as the sun neared the horizon.
We made the summit again very late in the day, and quickly decided that the climb down would not be possible after dark, so instead chose to pick our way across the mountain range, and pick up an ascent when the way became safer. We were tired after a full day on the mountain, but couldn’t help taking in the beauty of the landscape, with huge boulders dispersed randomly across the rocky vista. I felt as if we were walking upon the surface of an alien world, a feeling reinforced by the solitude of our location.
Before long the sun set, and when the moon failed to show up we realise how unprepared we actually were for our situation. We had no food, no warm clothes, our water was running out, and of course there was no torch. We couldn’t see anything, the darkness was absolute. The stars were spread out above us, the Milky Way a celestial cloud reaching across the sky, familiar constellations and new ones blending out in the sheer presence of a thousand billion stars. It was amazing, yet afforded us no light to aid our journey. The magnificence of our location had now become nothing more than the backdrop to what had quickly become a potentially lethal situation. As we fumbled our way across the rocks we realised that to one side there was the sheer drop to the rocks lost in the dark far below, and we were forced to head further inland to avoid a potentially lethal accident. In the distance we could still hear the traffic on the road below buzzing between towns, but it was so far displaced from the isolated world we were now in, we were entirely cut off from everything, from everyone. Our situation was our own to resolve, mobile phones were still to become commonplace so there was nothing more we could do than feel our way slowly across our nocturnal assault course and head to the lower hills.
As the night took hold a chill set in and before long we were shivering. We considered sleeping the night where we were, but the cold was too much so we carried on slowly, carefully, bit by bit inching our way towards safety. After a time we started to focus more in the dark, and move faster so we started to warm up which made the journey a little more relaxed so could once again enjoy the setting, and a little later when the moon made its welcome entry, we were both in great humour and the climb was once again the adventure we had set out to have. We eventually found a riverbed and followed it down to level ground and eventually the road. The short walk back to base was spent expanding the virtues of our extended journey as we had far more of an experience than we could have ever planned.
That says a lot about life really. When everything is going well, and you are on top of things, the world seems a great place, but it’s only when things start to go wrong, and you have to reach inside do you start to find out who you are. This is when the great experiences happen, often starting with a calamity, but building into a true life encounter. Enough to write a blog about anyway.
As always, please leave your comments below, I’d love to hear of your own experiences.