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STORY WILD KEFALONIA


Words by Diana Pappas
Photographs by Diana Pappas & Tom Bland

Eyes closed, my senses are already happily overwhelmed. The air smells like honey, perfumed by wild fennel, Greek mountain sage, and the yellow flowers of Spanish broom. The chattering of barn swallows is an almost constant refrain and every so often you hear the gentle sound of bells worn by a herd of goats in the distance. Eyes open, and the beauty of Kefalonia is almost too much to bear. The whole place invites exploration – overgrown paths to secret beaches, dirt roads over the mountains, through thickets of wildflowers, past ancient olive groves and Venetian ruins scattered throughout the extreme landscape. We’re here for an adventure and fittingly, this is Odysseus territory.

Ninety-four years ago, my grandmother and her mother came to Kefalonia on a very different kind of adventure, as Greek refugees from Turkey. How long they were here, or where on the island they were housed, those and many other details are lost to history. Although she was caught up in post-WWI geo-political upheaval and forced migration, my grandmother remembered Kefalonia as a beautiful place with delicious fruit and it’s this handed-down memory that has brought us to the island all these years later.

To find that memory in present day Kefalonia and see what she might have seen, we seek out the wild places to find those things that haven’t changed with the passage of so much time. We have to look beyond the resorts, full-service beaches, and sunburnt English tourists, and beyond the luxurious yachting destination of Fiskardo. The mountainous topography and dramatic coastline, the thousands of wildflowers and the blinding sunlight, those would be as they once were. With a stick-shift rental car and a map, we seek out wild Kefalonia.

Immediately we are in awe of the Ionian Sea with its astonishing gradations of blue from navy to cobalt to turquoise to cerulean to sky blue – no beach looks the same. Some beaches are sandy, others rocky, some you can drive down to but the most peaceful coves are the most remote, only accessible on foot or by boat.
We swim into a coastal cave and shelter in its cooling shade and when we get too cold we swim out into the brilliant sunshine. The crystal clear water seems especially salty and we effortlessly float in surrender to this Greek paradise.

At higher elevations we discover ruined villages, abandoned and left to nature and goats after a catastrophic earthquake in 1953. We wander amidst the overgrown mulberry and fig trees, and see the remnants of the colorful stucco and ornate iron balustrades of the Venetian architecture that was once ubiquitous on the island, now gradually returning to wilderness.

At even higher elevations we wind our way through switchback after switchback, gaining elevation and watching the composition of wildflowers and vegetation transform before our eyes as we climb. Mount Ainos towers over the island, and we park as near as we can to its mile-high summit. We spot the rare Kefalonian violets and hike through the forest of equally rare Kefalonian fir trees. The intermittent cloud cover occasionally gives way to staggering views of the island and sea below, an almost vertiginous sight.

At a certain point, our reason for coming here, my grandmother’s memory from 1922, fades into the background. Yes, Kefalonia is a beautiful place and the fruit is indeed amazing. I had the best strawberries I’ve ever had in my life here. But Kefalonia is also full of kind, generous people, eager to offer you a handful of apricots from their tree or a bag of fresh-picked lemons, or a slice of walnut cake. If you’re lucky, a local will tell you where to get the best grilled fish (that’s Lithero Fish Taverna, in case you are curious). Here you can spend your days driving all over the island and letting curiosity lead the way. Visit a beach when you need to cool down, try a strong Greek coffee or freddo cappuccino for a boost in the afternoon, wander down the lush path towards the lake and count the beautiful demoiselle damselflies flitting about by the stream, their colorful wings as blue as the Ionian Sea. Driving home in late evening sunlight, you catch your reflection in the side mirror of the car, just another traveler falling in love with wild Kefalonia.