Friday, September 28, 2012
Back in April I wrote a guest post over on the Unstitched blog about Kefalonia - the island in Greece where my family is from. I thought I'd post it here too, you know, in case you're planning a trip there anytime soon. Let me know if you go!
Kefalonia is the largest (and most beautiful) of the Ionian Islands off of the western coast of Greece. And it’s not just because my father was born and raised there, and that I’ve spent almost every summer of my life there – well maybe. In all seriousness, it has so much to offer for almost any type of traveller. There’s always something new to discover and if you have the opportunity to stay for at least a week – you should. With a permanent population of 45,000 people (which almost doubles during the peak tourist season in August), Kefalonia is just small enough to quickly feel at home, but large enough to be fully entertained during your time there.
One cannot talk about Kefalonia’s long history without mentioning the devastating earthquake of 1953, which profoundly influenced the island and its inhabitants. Nearly every structure, many of them dating back to the 1500′s, was completely destroyed, and it is said that 100,000 of the 125,000 inhabitants left the island soon after seeking a new life in Athens or abroad. My grandparents were of the few who stayed behind to help rebuild their island brick by brick. Literally.
Fast forward 59 years, and you see an island that is progressing and growing. Kefalonia didn’t become a major tourist destination until the late ’80s and early ’90s, unlike other popular Greek islands of Mykonos and Santorini, which have been welcoming tourists since the ’60s. In a way, this is what makes Kefalonia so special and unspoiled by droves of tour buses and cruise ships. The true Greek experience can still be felt everywhere in Kefalonia – even in the capital of the island, Argostoli, which is relatively small and can be explored on foot.
THINGS TO DO
Ainos Mountain – The highest point in all of Kefalonia at 5,341 feet high, and it’s a national park. Ainos is known for its wild horses and a forest of rare black pine trees found only in Kefalonia (Abies Cephalonica). Follow the signs to the peak on the paved road, and you can hike the mountain trail and literally see a 360 degree view of Kefalonia and the surrounding islands when you get to the top.
Assos Castle – Assos is a quaint and picturesque village situated on a vary narrow isthmus that connects a small piece of land with the rest of Kefalonia. A 16th century Venetian castle sits high on the piece of land facing the village. Drive through the village of Assos towards the castle, and park as close to the castle as you can. A 10 minute hike up the hill will take you to a vantage point where you can literally watch over the village down below and experience an incredible view of the sea.
Central Square in Argostoli – This is the main square in Argostoli and the heart of Kefalonia. At any point during the summer, there are hundreds of kids playing ball, old couples walking hand in hand, and it’s surrounded by a couple dozen restaurants, cafes, and small bars. The restaurants here are more expensive and very touristy. The three or four bars open during the summer, Cafe Polo, Le Sapien Noir, O Platanos, are great for coffee during the day, and spill over into the streets with crowds of party goers enjoying a drink or two at night. You can also order bottle service pretty inexpensively, and in fact if you’re a large crowd, this will save you some cash. The bars usually stay open until four or five in the morning. If you’re a professional partier, you’ll join the crowds down the street for the after hours at Club Bass or Club Sin City until seven or eight in the morning. Then you’ll go for gyros at Gyro Tis Platias (Gyro in the square) or crepes at Fagoto for breakfast before bed. Both located next to each other in the main square.
Fanari Lighthouse – Located on the tip of the Argostoli peninsula, the Agios Theodori lighthouse was built in the 1800′s under the British occupation. It’s small and distinct, and a perfect place to enjoy the sunset while snapping some photos with your loved one.
Lithostroto – This pedestrian only street is the main shopping strip of Argostoli, the capital of Kefalonia. Small boutiques and cafes line the street where you can find hand made leather shoes and souvenirs.
Shop local treats at Voskopoula on Lithostroto – This retail location sells the traditional sweets of Kefalonia including mantolato, pasteli, and my favorite, mantoles, which are almonds covered in caramelized honey, sugar and lemon.
Mellisani Lake – This underwater lake is one of the top tourist attractions in Kefalonia. Don’t be off put though, it’s not by any means a tourist trap, but an unbelievable geological phenomenon that shouldn’t be missed. The natural entrance to this lake/cave is a large hole in the ground created by the collapse of a section of the cave’s roof. This unveiled an underground lake 20 meters below the surface. Boat tours are offered to get a better look around the cave. The shades of blue and turquoise created by the depths of the lake and the natural light above are stunning.
St. Gerasimos Church / Feast Day of the Virgin Mary Aug. 15th / St. Gerasimos’ Name Day Aug. 16th – Saint Gerasimos is the patron saint of the island of Kefalonia (and also the name of most men you meet in Kefalonia since they’re all named after him.) The church also happens to be in the picturesque little village of Valsamata where my family is from. The saint’s relics are kept in a glass case, and open for the public to view and venerate during his feast day on August 16th. If you’re in town during this time, you can visit the monastery, but also meander the gypsy flea market posted just outside.
Gentilini Winery – This quaint little winery is just minutes outside of the city, and it’s an annual treat for us when we visit Kefalonia. The best part? WIne tastings start at 3 euros.
De Boset Bridge – This bridge connects the city/peninsula of Argostoli to the rest of the island. The original wooden bridge was constructed in 1892, and soon after replaced by the stone bridge you see today – which is great for an evening stroll. Since it no longer functions as an automobile bridge (it used to barely fit two cars side by side), cars are redirected around the bay. It’s a beautiful landmark that serves us as a reminder of Kefalonia’s past.
Robola Wine Festival – Robola is the traditional white wine made in Kefalonia, and is somewhat similar to a Chardonnay. It’s got hints of peach and citrus, and it’s served in pitchers at every restaurant you visit in Kefalonia. During mid-August, the villages of Valsamata and Fragata hold festivals in honor of this wine. You pay a minimal entrance fee and get all-you-can-drink wine. All. Night. Long. It’s kinda crazy town, but oh so fun. Souvlakia, salad, and bread is served for an additional fee, and for entertainment, the local dance groups perform the traditional dances of Kefalonia.
Stay up until 6am – If you’re into that, or wake up early. There is nothing like experiencing dawn in Kefalonia. Watching the sun rise up from behind Ainos and shine down onto Argostoli is magical. The shades of purple and red are amazing and the lighting is ideal for photos.
Rent a motor boat in Agia Efthimia – You can drive to many of Kefalonia’s beaches, but some of its most beautiful beaches, located along the eastern coast between Agia Efthimia and Fiskardo, are only accessible by boat. Go to the marina in the village of Agia Efthimia and rent a small motor boat from one of the local shops. Agia Efthimia is a small fishing village, so you’ll see them right away. They’ll give you a quick and dirty lesson on how to drive the boat, and a map of all of the beaches you should stop at along the way. Be sure to bring lots of bottled water, sunscreen and pack a lunch. There are no beach bars on any of these beaches, and most of the time, you’ll have them all to yourself!
Dinner at Ampelaki, Argostoli – Seriously one of my all time favorites. Ampelaki is a mix of traditional home cooked Greek cuisine with a mix of western fusion. The flavor combinations are amazing and the owners are very sweet. Eat here, trust me. You can find Ampelaki on Ioannou Metaxa street, the waterfront street in Argostoli, and just a block down from the main port of Argostoli.
Pizza Al Forno – Greece isn’t generally known for its pizzas, but they’re delish. The best pizza in Kefalonia is definitely Pizza Al Forno, hands down. You can find this cute little restaurant on Vandorou Vasilias street right off of the Lithostroto.
Makris Gialos Beach, Lassi – This is definitely one of the liveliest beaches in Kefalonia, and probably one of the most touristy as it’s a short 5 minute drive from Argostoli. During the month of August, you should arrive early in the day to secure a lounge chair and umbrella. Costa Costa is the name of my favorite beach bar on Makri Gialos. They have a full bar and lunch menu. They also throw full moon parties in August which can be lots of fun when they bring a famous DJ to spin. If you want to feel like a Greek tourist, it’s also the side of the beach where most of the locals hang out.
Antisamos Beach, Sami – A favorite of mine, and also one of the beach scenes in the Nicholas Cage / Penelope Cruz movie, Captian Corelli’s Mandolin. Lush trees line the mountain backdrop from the beach all the way to the top. The water here is incredibly clear and vibrant shades of blue and green make you just want to take a dive. The beach bar is also pretty sweet here, and a little more mellow if you aren’t into the crowds of Makris Gialos.
Avithos Beach – Avithos means “bottomless” in Greek, but this is somewhat a misnomer as over the years the sea has actually brought more sand to the beach, and it’s actually pretty shallow – also making it a great beach for kids. The waters here are very clean and the sand has a sparkly golden color. It also has a great view of the rocky islet of Dias. A sole tiny chapel is built on this island and it’s quite beautiful.
Myrtos Beach – This is the most famous beach in all of Kefalonia, and one of the top beaches in all of Greece. Its exotic natural beauty is definitely a site to see. White powder sand covers this expansive beach, combined with the steep rocky cliffs that dive right into the sea all come together to make for milky blue waters. Facing due west, it’s also one of the best places to catch a sunset in Kefalonia. Parking during the month of August at Myrtos is somewhat crazy, so again, try to arrive early so you aren’t hiking for miles. Literally.
Platia Ammos – Perhaps still somewhat of an unknown beach in Kefalonia, Platia Ammos has the mystique and vastness of Myrtos Beach. The only thing that stands between you and this beach is 400 some stairs down. Needless to say you’ll get a work out before you rest, but if you’re in descent shape, and don’t have small children, it’s so worth it. Be sure to bring water, food and a sun umbrella though, because all you’ll find on this secluded beach are pebbles and water.
Skala Beach – This beach is huge and spans the whole village of Skala. It’s easily accessible, boasts a few beach bars, restaurants, and a plethora of water sports.