Saturday, 14 March 2009

Kefalonia - Day 3, Mountains and Villages

After breakfast we collected the car from the car rental office and set off for a day in the south of the island. It was unusually overcast first thing but it didn’t take long for the clouds to break up and very soon we were enjoying the sun as we drove through little villages in our white open top jeep.

We drove south past the airport and the further we got away from Argostoli and the tourist strip of Lassi the more we saw the devastation caused by the earthquake. All along the road there were abandoned villages and houses and buildings that were destroyed by the quake and just waiting for time to take over and their turn to fall over completely. The 1953 disaster caused huge destruction, with only regions in the north escaping the heaviest tremors and that is the only part of the island where houses remained intact. Six hundred people were killed and damage was estimated to run into billions of drachmas, but the real damage to the economy occurred when residents left the island. An estimated 100,000 of the population of 125,000 left the island soon after, seeking a new life elsewhere.

Moving on we reached the Kastro, or St. George’s fortress, which was standing proud at the top of ridge and as we took the winding road to the top the engine of the Suzuki growled as we negotiated hair pin bends in low gear. Unfortunately like many places in Europe on a Monday it wasn’t open so we just stayed awhile and admired the views out to sea and then went all the way back down again. I have been caught out by that Monday closing thing several times and it really is most annoying.

We kept to the coast road and to the west of Kefalonia's highest mountain, Mount Ainos, with an elevation of one thousand, six hundred and twenty-eight metres, which is nearly three hundred metres higher than Ben Nevis. The top of the mountain was quite green because it is covered with Abies Cephalonica, or Greek Fir trees, and is a declared natural park. Forestry is important on the island and its timber output is one of the highest in the Ionian Islands. The trouble with forests in hot countries however is that they can easily catch fire and forest fires were common during the 1990s and the early 2000s and all along the route there were black scars on the hillsides and these were going to take a long time to heal. In terms of natural disasters I wondered just how unlucky can one little island be. Fires continue to pose a major threat to the Kefalonia and in 2007 whole parts of the island had to be evacuated in a summer of fires across all of Greece.

We carried on to the town of Skala at the very bottom of the island and it was lunch time so we parked the car at a little square with its neglected centre piece of a sculpture and had a quick look round. Once again it was unattractive and functional with lots of concrete and tarmac along a couple of busy streets and, despite strict planning laws, what looked like a lot of unregulated development, there were a few shops, some tavernas and a bar where we stopped for a lunch time drink. Before we left we walked for a short while along the pine fringed beach next to the water that sparkled with reflected sunlight and watched little boats going backwards and forwards to a little harbour in the somewhere in the distance.

I must have liked Skala because we returned there just a few months later in August 2001 and there was football that time as well and I can remember well sitting in the garden of a taverna and watching England beat Germany 5 –1 (yes, 5-1) in a World Cup qualifying match. It was brilliant.

After we left Skala we drove past around the eastern side of the island and around the other side of the mountain to Poros. The roads were narrow and I had to pay attention while driving and negotiating winding roads with sheer drops down grey limestone mountain sides into deep ravines hundreds of metres below. There was a lot of driving today because Kefalonia is a big island, the largest of the Ionian group, and there are long distances between villages. Poros was nice and we stopped for a short while to stretch our legs and have an afternoon drink and then we cut straight across the middle of the island as best we could on difficult roads back in the direction of Argostoli.

This took us through the agricultural part of the island where the primary occupations are animal breeding and olive growing together with some grain and vegetables. Because most of the island is mountainous and rugged less than a quarter of the land is arable but we crossed through some bits of farmland on the return journey. One thing I had never seen before in Greece (or since for that matter) is snakes, but all along the roads there were dead squashed ones where they had been run over while basking in the sun.

Greeks don’t like snakes and that probably goes back to the myth of the Gorgons and Medusa, they are afraid of them and they will go out of their way to kill them, especially when a snake is seen lying in the road. It is apparently not unusual to see people in a moving vehicle, crossing sides on a road just to run over a snake! I know why they are so frightened because there is a nasty type of poisonous snake in Greece and that is the adder. It is a small cousin of the rattlesnake and in the early summer they come out of hibernation and warm themselves up on the hot tarmac of the roads and that is where lots of them end their poisonous little lives.

Paradoxically Kefalonia has an annual Snake Festival every August and the Church of the Virgin in Markopoulo is famous because snakes are taken to the church in bags or jars and deposited in the church near the silver icon of Panagia Fidoussa, the Virgin of the Snakes. Pre-earthquake stories say that thousands of harmless baby snakes used to appear at the beginning of August and disappear into the church by the altar but nowadays because of road carnage the snakes are picked up and deposited within the church at the same altar spot that was rebuilt after the quake. The snakes slither and wriggle all around the icon and then promptly disappear. Apparently this is a true story although I cannot verify this because this was June and we didn’t see it for ourselves.

We returned to Lassi via Argostoli across a causeway built by the British and still standing (satisfying!) and without stopping went straight back to the hotel and our end of day routines.

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