If you have been reading this series of blogs about the Island of Cephalonia, you will know I left us having struggled to take the journey much past Fiscardo in the North after the last edition. What can I say, a lot of things happened in Fiscardo. If you missed that episode then please click on this link to take you there.
To recap a little, Cephalonia is in my mind the jewel of the Ionian. Corfu is a little more lush, Paxos and Ithaca a little more secluded, Levkas and Zakinthos are busier, more vibrant in the summer but Cephalonia for me has a little bit of everything. The hills are covered in multicoloured flowers in the spring, for a few weeks the tall dominant mountains and covered in colour with a mask that hides the true harsh nature of the wilderness. The little bays and beaches around the coastline, many that can only be reached by boats or a steep climb allow privacy if this is what you require. Mostly though, I have always seen Cephalonia as a wonderful place to explore.
There is nightlife too, but the mainstream tourism is restricted to a few locations and on a Saturday night out in the Capital you find as many locals as visitors in the bars and clubs. These are not the ugly mobs of beer-swilling Brits milling the streets staggering blindly from one bar to the next, singing football songs badly before consuming kebabs and throwing up in a fountain. Cephalonia is quieter, and through that it is an ideal location for families and the more reclusive holiday maker as well.
The West coast is beautiful and treacherous as I have described, with classic views on an average sunny day of both the beaches far below, and of the Western peninsular of land that houses the town of Lixouri and one of the sandiest beaches on the island. The terrain is less mountainous there, and has become a popular stop for package tourists. I have been there once or twice on a moped. Stopped for a meal and for a sunbath on the beach, but I never took to the area as I did to other parts of the Island. Perhaps the tourism is just a little too manufactured to me, as it is on the beaches around Argostoli. Here you can find restaurant menus with egg and chips and bolognaise on them to appeased the less hardy traveller. Bars with names like the Bulldog serving ice cold draught beer that mimics the varieties at home, with large TV screens showing football matches live from Europe. I can enjoy these places like anywhere else, but the real joy of Cephalonia has always been the more traditional parts of the island for me.
Further north about twenty minutes from Fiscardo, and far below the main road, you pass by the little staccato town of Assos. This is set at the base of a small peninsula of land on top of which nestles the ruins of a 16th century Venetian castle. The road winds back and forth across the hillside, zigzagging downward patiently before you are eventually deposited at the water’s edge with the town now seeming somewhat bigger, stretching around the thin strip of land that holds the peninsula firmly to the mainland. There are a few bars and shops, but for the passing trade. It is too inconvenient a location for any real tourism to be based there. Rather just a pleasant stop for a meal, on a journey around the island.
The climb up to the castle is along forested roads where butterflies dance in the sunlight, and crickets beat out a constant rhythm in the afternoon heat. The climb seems much harder than you would anticipate but it really is a pleasant walk on a sunny day, peaceful, tranquil even. The ruins themselves have that feel of timelessness, but they now just holding echoes of the lives that have been lived and the friendships and love now long gone.
Cephalonia with its secluded gems dispersed around the coastline, and with the striking scale of the mountains, its surface etched with narrow roads cutting like whites scars across the steep and parched terrain. Here you can find the traditional sleepy little towns where even the dogs have more commonsense than the tourists when it comes to the mid-day sun, and sleep in shady doorways sniffing the air as you wander by. Car hire is available all over the island, and for the more adventurous traveller there are the blue and white buses that link the locals to the main towns. These have improved with time, and I have seen progression from the open windowed chrome covered works of art with their collections of religious icons and stickers in the front windows, baggage hanging haphazardly from the overhead shelving, to the more modern, air-conditioned types. Function has replaced form and a true Greek experience is now rapidly becoming just memories and photos in old albums.
My preferred transport is the 90cc Honda moped though. It runs on next to no fuel, so works out both cheaper and environmentally aware, and allows you freedom to divert up little rocky lanes that rise to hidden temples and other sights that the more conventional traffic cannot reach. There is a danger of course, there have been countless moped injuries and fatalities over the years, but I have traded this every time for the freedom to wander, and the feel of the hot sun blowing across your skin as you wind down a mountainside. You take in everything from the heat to the strong aromas saturate the air. The mixture of wild herbs, goat urine and the infrequent but fragrant flowers blend into a unique sensory experience that helps define the country as a good soundtrack defines a movie. You can wear a helmet if it makes you feel safer, but the sheer exhilaration of opening up the throttle on a quiet dusty road and absorbing all the feel of the awesome Greek day, wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and some flip flops is a feeling I shall always cherish as long as I live.
The evenings I have spent riding through the silent Olive Groves, with time on my hands to enjoy the sight of every broken down stone wall and ramshackle house, with no more pressing concern than where I should go for my dinner that night. There is so much to see and a moped unlocks these places to the traveller.
I have over a number of trips explored the entire Island. From the towns and villages spaced around the coastline to the reclusive churches hidden in the mountains travelling everywhere by moped. Riding in the sun and the rain and in the morning mist that snugly fits over the mountain tops and then comes to rest within touching distance of the road below.
There are so many days spent with friends on journeys of exploration, sat in remote locations, basking in the sun as you watch cars past by on dusty roads kicking up clouds of white particles that blow gently in the breeze as they settle down to their resting place once again. We have pulled into silent villages in the heat of the day and sat in the shade of a bar drinking beer whilst we watch the chickens run around in the dirt.
In the sun, in the heat of the afternoon, a moped is the finest transport available. It’s cheap to run, can be parked up with no fuss at all, anywhere, and allows you the independence to go just where you want. Of course, when the sun has gone down things can be very different. One afternoon after spending the day with some friends at the beach, we headed back to our base, a journey of an hour or so with passengers doubling up on every bike. The evening was still warm, but our clothes were soaked after a moment of spontaneity that evening that had involved us jumping from some rocks into the sea. It was fine at first, but after a while the breeze flowing past us as started to get into the wet clothes and raise a chill like you would not believe, we rode in the dark for what seemed an endless time, shivering as we went, focusing on the road and it’s many obstacles. By the time we got back we were frozen through, but thankfully a mix of the warm evening, a hot shower, and a bottle of Schnapps put an end to that. Mopeds are great, just don’t get caught wet in the dark riding one.