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 tied around the necks of goats in the distance. The whole place invites exploration — overgrown paths to secret beaches, dirt roads over the mountains, through thickets of wildflowers, past ancient olive groves and ruins scattered throughout the extreme landscape. We’re here for an adventure and 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 the forced migration of post-WWI geopolitical upheaval, my grandmother remembered Kefalonia as a beautiful place with delicious fruit. It’s this handed-down memory that has brought us to the island all these years later.
To find that memory today 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, 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.
We are in awe of the Ionian Sea and its astonishing gradations of blue, from navy to cobalt to turquoise to cerulean to sky blue. No beach looks the same; some are sandy, others rocky, some hidden. The most peaceful coves are the most remote, only accessible on foot or by boat. We swim into a coastal cave and take shelter in its cooling shade and when we get too cold we swim out into the brilliant sunshine. The crystal clear water feels especially salty and we simply float in this Greek paradise.
At higher elevations we discover ruined villages, abandoned and left to nature and goats after a catastrophic earthquake sixty years ago. 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, but now gradually returning to wilderness. At even higher elevations we wind our way through switchback after switchback, 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 hundred year old memories, fades into the background. Yes, Kefalonia is a beautiful place and 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. 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 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.