According to Wikipedia, there are over a million olive trees on the small island of Cephalonia (aka Kefallonia). That's about 3333 olive trees per square mile and over 25 olive trees for every person. I suppose if you ran the same statistics for spruce trees in Nova Scotia you would come up with equally large numbers, but somehow, to a Canadian, the concept of a million olive trees has a magic that even 10 million spruce trees couldn't begin to match.
We almost missed the whole thing. After two unsuccessful attempts to get our anchor set in the rocky little bay at Euphemia, Rick was threatening to head for Ithaci. On our third attempt, we finally managed to get dug into a little patch of sand just off the breakwater. Then, before we'd even flipped the tab of a near-beer, we'd become the preferred party destination for the neighborhood wasps. With Aisling rocking back and forth like a roly-poly in the swell, this wouldn't be our favourite anchorage ever, but at least we weren't planning on spending a lot of time aboard.
Euphemia is a sleepy little place that doesn't even rate an entry in our Lonely Planet guidebook. Predictably, there is a "Captain Corelli''s café, (this being the area where the book and the movie were set), as well as several tavernas, a bakery, a few small supermarkets and happily, a motorbike rental agency. We paid 25 euros a day to rent a bike, which was double what we would have paid in a larger town, but at least it was a good-sized one with a comfortable seat.
A sign in the shop warns us sternly that wearing a helmet is required by law, and failure to do so could result in an immediate fine of up to 350 euros. As Canadians, we accept helmets as a part of life when you ride a bike, but the Greeks are defiant. Driving bare-headed seems to be the norm and we aren't at all surprised to see a carefree young man steering with one hand while having an animated conversation on a cellphone; his helmet dangling by its strap from the handlebar. One might think that the sheer number of roadside shrines around here would give him pause for thought, but apparently not.
Since Cephalonia is only about an eighth of the size of Prince Edward Island, distances are short. Still, the 33 km to Fiscardo is a long ride as we slowly navigate the sharp switchbacks and steep grades. The reward is the spectacular scenery, with limestone cliffs and cedar forests plunging down to water of intense and varying shades of blue and turquoise. We stop at a lay-by overlooking Myrtos Beach (billed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world) and literally gasp at the beauty.
When we finally reach Fiskardo, it is a bit of a disappointment. Having read Rod Heikell's charming description of the village, which was the only one to remain unharmed by the 1953 earthquake that devastated the island, I was expecting something quaint and authentic. There are clearly more tourists than Greeks here, and the quay is crammed with souvenir shops on land and charter boats on the water, but the pastel colours of the houses make an attractive backdrop.
We decide not to linger, and instead head back toward Assos, where a Venetian fortress looms over a tiny town that seems to have flowers dripping from every wall and balcony. I never tire of bougainvillea and here they have multiple varieties (magenta, pink, white and peach) as well as oleander, trumpet vine, hibiscus and a thriving array of other garden blooms. We settle in the shade at Platanos taverna for lunch and share plates of briam and Cephalonian meat pie. "This briam is not as good as mine" says Rick, then catches himself and says "or I should say, it's not as good as the briam we've had elsewhere". It's true that the briam is not as good as the recipe he makes at home, but the meat pie is delicious, chunks of meat mixed with rice and herbs (and cinnamon?) and covered with a flaky crust. When we pay our bill, we ask if the service charges are included. "No" says the owner. "On September 1st the tax on food was increased from 13% to 23%. We are worried that this is very bad for business, so we decided to give up our service charge". These are tough times for Greece.
The view from the fortress is said to be fantastic, but our time is marching by and we have other places to see. Onward to Argostoli, the capital of the island, population roughly 10,000. On the outskirts, we pause to look inside a small church, and find painters at work, carefully restoring the ornate gilt that highlights the artwork and moldings. We peek under one of the sheets of plastic and find a painting of Agia Marina, with little gold and silver votive plaques portraying various body parts lined up underneath. We continue along a eucalyptus-shaded road into the town, which is a bustling spot, with an attractive square and a busy waterfront. We pause for a "freddo cappuccino" and wonder who owns the huge yacht with a helicopter on deck that is docked on the waterfront. Later, we read the blog of our friends Sandra and Chris on Deep Blue (see their blog here Deep Blue
)and learn that the Emir of Qatar is in town.
The strong cappuccino keeps us on our toes for the drive across the island toward Sami. Even though we have climbed high into the hills, it is so hot that at times we feel like the vent of a raging furnace is blowing heated air over us. In places the hillsides have been ravaged by fire. But we also pass through fertile valleys, where huge bunches of grapes drip from vines. Perhaps these are the robola grapes used to the highly-regarded wine of Cephalonia.
Next stop is the massive, 2 million year old Drogarati cave, where we are the only visitors. We creep down the slippery steps to the huge cavern, where the huge stalactites are illuminated by lights that are causing a gradual erosion. The damage is obvious, but the cave is magnificent; an unforgettable experience. No photos allowed, and although Rick, true to form, snapped one anyway (without a flash) it didn't really come out so we'll have to leave it to your imagination.
We continue on to the nearby Melissani cave, with its subterranean lake. Apparently, back in the 1950s, some scientists put dye into the water of a stream that disappeared underground near Argostoli and the dye reappeared in this lake, indicating that the water traverses the island underground and emerges here. We walk down a steep carpeted ramp toward the lake, which has an intense blue colour when viewed from the ramp but is less dramatic close-up (perhaps because we have not visited between the recommended hours of noon and 2 p.m.).
An oarsman helps us into a wooden rowboat, where we are soon joined by a Greek family with a teen-age daughter who is clearly delighted by the lake. As the oarsman slowly paddles us around the lake, I can't shake the feeling that I am on a Disneyworld ride, and the song "It's a Small World" plays and replays in my head for the rest of the afternoon. Our Lonely Planet had been right to suggest that the lake is over-rated, but if we hadn't checked it out for ourselves, how would we have known?
After a quick drive through Sami, we arrive back in Euphemia before sunset and return the motorbike to the shop. Leftover pasta for dinner and an early bedtime seem a bit of a let-down after such a fantastic day. Cephalonia is clearly worthy of a longer visit at a more relaxed pace, but we are happy to have had at least a glimpse of it. Next stop Ithaci!