Vast sweeping mountains, pastel villages crowded around natural harbours, surrounded by tree covered hills that reach out with arms of hardened rock to protect the inhabitants within. Isolated and secluded emerald watered bays provide playgrounds where suntanned tourists swim from white sparkling yachts with wine and picnics on-board. A shiny capital that boasts a stunning low arched bridge that stretches across the estuary to reach the foothills beyond.
The land is fertile, and good grapes grow locally, but the hills and mountains are not to be taken lightly as they are harsh, like most of Greece, with thorn covered plants of frightening number of variety that grab at the passer-by at every step. Often the scrub land has bushes, tough green topped hardened wood that blocks passage from easier routes as the hillside suddenly sweeps upwards leaving you climbing up handhold ridden volcanic rocks that reach up 30 feet at a time, but then you are left crawling through goat tracks as all other options disappear.
There are sandy beaches with towns filled with hotels, tavernas and shops with beach inflatable displays blowing in the breeze along dusty moped strewn roads. With bike hire shops and supermarkets and bars with neon lighted signs, there is everything the tourist needs on a holiday so the towns are flowing with life in the summer.
The airport is in the South, just outside the capital, extended out across the water to provide stunning views as the flights drift down across the water. This is Cephalonia the largest of the Ionian Islands.
To put this into some perspective though, it takes about an hour and a half to drive from the south of the Island to Fiscardo at the northern tip. This is a journey I have done many times by van, by car but mostly helmet free on a moped, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and some flip flops. The Island is green and dominated by mountains. There are immense almost sheer cliffs along the West coast atop of which a main road, which is nothing more than a dusty piece of crumbling tarmac, winds dangerously around innumerate blind corners. The views are breathtaking though, with Myrtos Bay with its cliffs and cool light blue waters raise surf onto a white sand covered beach, it’s image reprinted a million times, among the sights. Along the way there are small temple-like monuments with religious icons inside and a candle burning for the departed souls, victims of the road illustrating how treacherous a drive it really is.
I have had many trips to Cephalonia as I mentioned before so I will start my journey around the island and see where we get to today. My starting point is the little town of Fiscardo. An idyllic Greek harbour, with multicoloured houses around the curve of the sea front, Tavernas with chairs and tarpaulins out front, gift shops, travel agents and car, bike and boat hire shops footing white painted guest houses. Everything you expect in a Greek town that has built its life around the tourist trade. Ferries come in from Levkas via Ithaca, on a regular basis, with the small streets are suddenly blocked with the recently deposited cars and vans, and milling tourists wandering around taking photos, trying to look like they are not trying to blend in as quickly as they can. It is also a regular stop for the yacht flotillas that swarm the Ionian, all mooring up in the harbour with their O’Neill clad sun-basted sailors, always with sunglasses that once removed reveal panda eyes protected from the glare of the sun and the sea. They jump barefoot onto the harbour looking for food and drink saying things like “pass me my jandles will you mate” (Try it with an Antipodean accent). Many stay overnight as Fiscardo is a regular berthing spot due to its large harbour and abundant tavernas that sit just a few feet from the water.
As the evening sets in the lights come on along the front and the town starts to take on a more vibrant feel. The sounds of Crickets and Cicadas on the hillsides change both the ambiance and atmosphere. As the intense heat of the day drains away to be replaced by the more modest warmth of the night the Tavernas fill with yachties and tourists alike, meals are taken slowly over carafes of local wine, and traditional Greek music blows on the gentle breeze. It is here that I have spent many an evening downing wine under grape and bougainvillea draped trellises talking about life, before bundling onto yachts to play card games and drink steadily into the early hours of the morning. The day is for swimming sailing, and sunning oneself, but the night is for living.
Fiscardo is nestled down into a perfect natural harbour at the Northern tip of Cephalonia, a stone’s throw from its smaller sibling Ithaca. My relationship with Ithaca is different though so I shall return there later but first complete my modest tour of this Island. The road from Fiscardo trails quickly into the hills, elevating you from sea level to the dizzy heights along which the road runs. There is not too much to see as you rise out of Fiscardo, a couple of sleepy little towns along the way. Nothing more than a few tired houses, a shop or two, and of course a local tavern with bearded dusty men sat out front playing backgammon and drinking Ouzo and coffee. This first stretch before you reach the cliffs would barely be worth a mention of it had not been the second closest place I ever came to dying.
It was a few years later, and I was working for Sunsail on the south of the Island, one of the jobs I had every week was to take all the laundry to Fiscardo where it was loaded onto a ferry to Levkas to be laundered and returned a week later. I was working the bar and restaurant, but this job had fallen to me by default after our domestic manager had crashed the works van, and with me having a Bedford camper with me, I had the only other working vehicle on site. The fact I had a good group of friends in Fiscardo and would get to spend the evening there, often followed by my weekly day off helped to sweetening this as a proposition for me. I would also get to fill my tank on company money, another plus when you are living on air and good times.
Late in the evening after the restaurant had closed up, and the club guests had settled into the bar for the night, I would set out, sometimes just a little worse for red wine, and start the drive to Fiscardo. The first part along the south of the Island to Argostoli the capital would be fine, but after that the road would rapidly rise up with the mountainside to wind chaotically along the cliff tops. I was always in a hurry, it would be late and good time was going to waste, so I would drive my van like a rally car, taking all the bends at a slide knowing every one by heart, and pushing to beat my previous time each journey. It was dangerous but the drive was normally fine. Of course there were always obstacles, like the little old local men in their beaten up cars driving at 15kph appearing suddenly as you reached around a blind corner, with the straggly goats wandering onto the warm tarmac and set up home for the day, and of course the boulders, the massive car size rocks that would slip down the hillsides and get caught on the road, too large to move, so they would just sit there until someone could break them up, or find something big enough to push them further on down the hillside. These were the wild cards, the random events set to catch you out and divert you from the road, should that split second decision not be right.
None of these ever got me, it was I am afraid some local red wine, and sheer exhaustion that caught me out one evening. I had felt it all the way up, and had stopped a couple of times to take in some air and walk around admiring the view. I was not breaking any records that night so I had slowed right down. I made it right to the top of the Island, but as the road steered away from the certain-death-vertical-drops-to-the-sea-below, I must have relaxed and nodded off. I awoke with the edge of the road coming towards me and hit the brakes as hard as I could. The van slid forward, the bundles of laundry flung into the cab, pinning me to the windscreen as I screamed to a halt on the dirt, the left side front wheel hanging over the edge, the van rocking back and forwards like some mad scene in a movie. I pushed back and moved some of the bundles back into the van, but I couldn’t risk and more than that. I was away from the sea, but there was still a sheer drop of some fifty feet right in front of me. I sat teetering on the edge in the Greek night, the sounds of the hillside came in through the window, I felt the warmth of the late evening air and a mild breeze was blowing the smells of the night. It occurred to me this would be a good place to die, but just not yet.
The next thing I knew the van was surrounded by locals. I had fortunately had my mishap just outside one of the little towns, and suddenly reassuring voices were coming through the window. A truck was brought out and a steel chain attached to the back of the van. They had me back on the road in moments. I climbed out and thank my saviours, the men were laughing, the women cross-armed were shaking their heads. We all knew I had been very lucky. There was not much I could do but give my heartfelt thanks, efharisto, efharisto poli, and I was back in the van for the short ride into Fiscardo to spend the night telling my story over rapidly draining bottles of wine and Greek food.