Kefalini after Captain Corelli and before Chancellor Merkel

In the early Spring of 1981, my first wife Arlene and I – both long-time aficianados of the Greek way of life – decided to go completely off tourist-island-hopping piste. We pored over a Greek Atlas (I mean the map, not the man with the weight of the World on his back) and found an island variously called Cephallonia, Keffalonia or Kefalini. As neither of us had ever heard of it, we decided to give it a go. While this was an easy decision for two well-paid Dinkies at the time, there was no internet to help one find out more.

The next day – having booked the usual overnight bucket-shop Monarch flight to Athens airport – I went to the old Greek tourist office in London at lunchtime, and asked about Flying Dolphin ferries to Kefalini. I got a blank look in return. Too far for Dolphins from Piraeus, said the lady – and anyway, why go to Kefalini? I have nice package holiday here in Spetze, very nice hotel, new Italian chef.

So I went to the seedy Olympic Airways office in London’s West End, and asked about internal flights to Kefalini. You have relatives there, asked the assistant. No, I want holiday there I replied. He shrugged and said yes, flight every three days – are you sure about this?

It is one of the hallmarks of my life that, when given ample clues that something is a bad idea, the hobgoblin in my head becomes even more determined to do it anyway. Another factor is the blind person who wanders about in my left frontal lobe saying “I see no signal”.

The Monarch flight to Athens was a curious melange of long-suffering but polite cabin crew, and 150 people who wanted to go to sleep but found it difficult to do so while strapped into baby-seats and vibrating noisily. In those days, to land and be allowed access to Greece as a tourist, you had to prove you had somewhere to stay. This was because millions of English and American eurobums like us had spent much of the previous decade sleeping on Greek beaches. So it was that the fictitious Mrs Zorba of 21 Parakolor Street Hydra was catering for 2.3 million tourists that year. The visa clerks knew the scam perfectly well, and waved us through: at 4.30 am, what else were they going to do?

We transferred to the internal flights Terminal, and sat down on a hard stone floor to wait for the Kefalini flight seven hours later. After the Monarch flight, granite floors seemed like a water-bed. But Athens airport had a zero-tolerance of comfort policy in those days, so every two hours a lady sporting a dark moustache came along with this brushing machine that looked as if it was designed to hoover up and then recycle Anglo-Saxon holidaymakers. Seven hours waiting in the Athens Internal Flight terminal while being woken every other hour is like a year in the company of Ben Bernanke: by the end of it, you find flies, nasal hair and milk cartons endlessly fascinating. But mainly, what you’d mos like is to be somewhere else.

When we finally boarded the flight to Kefalini, one couldn’t help but notice the laissez faire attitude of the Olympic stewardesses, who were obviously unfazed by caged varietal fowl and foul-smelling briar pipes among the passengers. None of that bothered me either, but the sight of sixty passengers engaged in synchronised chest-crossing during take-off was seriously disconcerting. The adrenalin of finally getting into the air having woken us up again, we gaped at the glistening ocean below and, two hours later, landed on an island long since made famous by Louis de Bernières.

What we landed on was a sand strip, towards the end of which – and tucked away in a small dell – was a hut roofed with corrugated iron. The occupants of it spilled outside and sported umbrellas, with good reason: it was raining like the Gods had decided to urinate after a session of Fix Hellas lager. Grey clouds and monsoon showers weren’t – indeed, had never been – my idea of Greek holidays. But this was to be unlike any other Greek holiday ever.

The best thing one could say about the nearest town Karamles was that it contained houses and people. To suggest anything beyond that level of sophistication really would be stretching credulity: but as ever with the Greeks, the greeting was friendly. And after a few minutes conversation with the inhabitants, it was abundantly clear that car hire as a business concept had not yet reached Kefalini.

We eventually wound up in a car repair garage near the centre of town. There we were offered, for a few hundred drachs, a 1967 Toyota Wankel Rotary engine saloon (left, in white – ours was a sort of muddy blue colour) to “borrow’ for a week. Apart from the hilarious surname of its inventor, I suspect the Wankel engine didn’t catch on because of its penchant for doing about eight miles to the gallon. But hey – it was a car with a wheel at each corner, so we paid up front and set off in search of Fiskardo, a town at the northern tip of the island.

The steering was a little eccentric. With rain oiling the surface of the mountain roads we were now negotiating, it went from eccentric to near-homicidal. At one point, we slewed to within five feet of a sheer drop into the valley below. But what valleys! Misted – and made even more lush by the rain – they looked more like Wales than Greece, plunging and rising with a vertiginous ease that made the whole journey seem like a harmless adventure. And then suddenly – there we were, in Fiskardo.

We found a hostelry (defined as ‘a commercial traveller’s hotel’ on the sign outside) and booked in. There were three rooms occupied: one by a commercial traveller….in shirts; one by a German couple; and us. Later that evening, we all wound up at the one Taverna in Fiskardo. The shirt salesman retired early, but the Anglo-German axis of piss artistry kept going until the early hours…until these became the late hours, during which we all became oddly fluent in our respective languages – with the help of many Metaxas.

The next morning dawned bright and clear, but only outside my head. Arlene and I headed for the beach and – in an attempt to freeze out the javelin-throwers in my brain, I dived majestically off a promintory into the clear waters below. This was a big mistake, in that during April the Ionian waters are colder than Mario Draghi’s judgement. The painfully tingling skin that followed had me convinced for half an hour or more that I was suffering a heart attack. But then – as a fully signed-up hypochodriac in those days – even the slightest trauma had me convinced that the end was nigh.

We wandered about over the next few days, looking at dour monasteries and watching as the odd seagoing gin palace came and went. Now and again, we wondered whether Fiskardo might ever become a stopping point for the smart yachting set: but we quickly decided that such a thing was beyond the realms of possibility.

This is Fiskardo today. And this is how tourist websites describe it today:

Traditional Kefalonian fishing boats moor alongside the more extravagant temporary visitors during the summer. If you are early enough you can buy freshly caught fish.  Otherwise a stroll around the harbour will take you on a tour of some of the most luxurious yachts.  Many of these are owned by the rich and famous who are attracted to Kefalonia by the tranquillity of Fiscardo.

Fiscardo at night takes on an entirely different perspective. The lights, the old buildings, cafés, bars and restaurants all combine to provide a magical Mediterranean atmosphere. Of all the villages on Kefalonia, Fiscardo stands out as having a unique ambience, especially on a summer evening.’

The town did indeed have a unique ambience back in the Spring of 1981. Much of this uniqueness related to there being nothing to do except wander about, get drunk, and then later…well, you know about all that. My lovely elder daughter was the result. Thirty-one years later, she is about to present me with a first grandchild.

It turned out to be a great and unrepeatable holiday – a last freewheeling crack at living from day to day in a land where the fly-by-night mentality was normal. But the responsibilities it brought later were made easier to bear by the memories created….and by the joy of knowing what delightful family life ensued.

Greece is at worst a gentle land. At best, it is a paradise for those who would rather people were true to themselves thsn addicted to Brussels. If my remembrance tonight does nothing more than remind one or two Greeks what they have lost by being Eunatics, then it will have done is job.

Time to be wary of black Nazi thoughts in Golden Dawn’s ranks.


29 thoughts on “ANECDOTAGE

  1. Many, many years ago we did a week or so in Aghios Nikolaos. Yup, week or or so eating in the same restaurant. But come Easter the owner took us up into the hills where we burned Judas, drank raki, ate stuff and fired guns in the air. Lovely people and superb with the kids. But I would never do business there again. It’s just a different mindset. Not wrong. Just different.


  2. Jon,
    – Aghios Nikolaos, Lasithi Prefecture, East Crete. They have always been the most calm, quiet, peaceful people of Crete.
    – At this point i have to warn you that i come from Rethymnon Prefecture, West Crete :-)
    – Even today, you can still see road signs (aside country roads) that urge:
    “Don’t shoot for no reason” (the emphasis on “no reason”).


  3. Hate to be a geek John but the car was probably a Mazda. Don`t think Toyota played with the Wanks. Great article though.


  4. John, ευχαριστώ πολύ for that piece, and Nick, thanks for the comments. I’ll never, ever forget my first visit to Greece, shortly after yours. Here in Lassithi life is definitely better than the austerity-torn rest of Greece – although those road signs are likely to have bullet holes in them.


  5. What is that 8 lanes 400m of perfect tarmac doing up a Crete mountain. with miles of dirt track the only way to get to it?


  6. Congratulations on the imminent upgrade to Grandad status & I hope all goes well with the new delivery. I look forward to future anecdotage in which you include references to subjects like : how impersonating a horse plays havoc with your knees, how to avoid projectile vomiting & joy.

    I have never been to Greece, both of the partners in my life fell in love with Italy. I hope to get there one day, one reason for this is that I have always wanted to explore the island of Spetsai because of the atmosphere conjured up by John Fowles in his novel ” The Magus “, set if I remember rightly, in the 50’s.

    Probably not a good idea, the island would now I expect be very different & I would not want to muddy the imagined Spetsai with the reality. The last I read about that place was that the ” pine-forest silences ” had been ravaged by fire.


  7. We went to Kefalonia 13 years ago on our belated honeymoon and loved it.
    The people were fabulous (we were on the first plane in that season, they were glad to see tourists arriving given Kosovo was kicking off)
    The beaches were sublime.
    ‘Whose blonde sand fondly kisses the cool fathoms of the blue ionean sea’
    (except the beach at Myrtos (might have been Petani) which is made from small white pebbles, absolutely beautiful to see, excruciatingly painful to walk on in bare feet).

    We will be going back to Greece this year or next and taking our tribe with us, I expect that even with the tribulations of the EU and the fascists the locals will be as we left them, generous, welcoming and warm hearted.

    Congrats on imminent grandadhood.


  8. People stop being gentle and welcoming when their grandmothers cannot go shopping without being assaulted by Third World immigrants. Seeing as Golden Dawn seem to be the only people that are making an effort to protect Greek grandmothers, warnings about GD are likely to fall on increasingly deaf ears.


  9. No it is a Mazda they purchased the rights to manufacture the Wankel engine when NSU went bust trying to make it pay.


  10. It seems as if many of us have very fond memories of the far flung parts of Greece when it was still considered ‘off the beaten track’. Our stay was with Mary and Spiro in their Summer Home in a modest Villa Hotel just above the fishing village of Piso Livardi on the far side of Paros Island. Mary was a primary school headmistress in Athens during the rest of the year, and nothing was too much trouble. She even insisted on cooking us English Roast Beef one evening…..the Steak on a Bed of Spaghetti that arrived was a bit of a surprise……but it came straight from her very generous heart.

    Mary ‘adopted us’ and met us back in Athens on our overnight transit from the Ferry to the Airport and took us to the Restaurant at the top of Lycabettus Hill for a view in the gathering twilight that I can still remember some 30 years on as one of the most stunning of any city I have visited.

    That was my very first encounter with the people of Greece, there have been many more since, where I have been invited into peoples homes or into the kitchen at the back of the shop for an ouzo or a killa cup of coffee by some of the most generous and effortlessly friendly people on earth. It breaks my heart to hear today’s regular news firsthand from my close friends in Athens…..they have no idea where all these Billions of Euros disappeared to…..the average Greek saw very little or nothing of this money and I think have every right to feel that they are presently being systematically and institutionally robbed.

    My hope is that Syriza gets the chance to throw a massive spanner in the Troika cogs very soon, as there is no life or future in the country for all the talented Greek Students who I was lucky enough to teach in London over the past 35 years, or the bright eyed 18 year old kids who would strike up a conversation with this white haired old git in the Santorini beach bars just to find out more about London and practise their English for an afternoon.


  11. And Mazda still persisted with the Wankel engine in the recent RX8 – a lovely smooth car to drive, you just need a petrol tanker and an oil tanker following you to keep those vital fluids topped up.


  12. Have visited Greece on may occasions, love Lesvos, Kos, Rhodes and have stayed on Kefalonia (the one I liked least). This summer we took a holiday in Rhodes, near Lardos, as usual the Greeks were just brilliant, but the stench of the winds of change was everywhere. Businesses closed, even holiday businesses, Russians buying up everything, difficult times in Greece, I only hope that they make it through without falling into total anarchy.


  13. “It breaks my heart to hear today’s regular news firsthand from my close friends in Athens…..they have no idea where all these Billions of Euros disappeared to…..the average Greek saw very little or nothing of this money ” Graham i agree with you , as an overseas greek it breaks my heart as well .Nevertheless i still wait to see a demonstration and an expression of anger , not for the cuts but demanding the mafia-style governments to end , justice and new constitution .This breaks my heart even more .


  14. Nice article JW.
    Problems nowadays is most places start to look the same has anywhere else that you sometimes say to yourself. Why bother.
    Maybe, just maybe. Island hopping in the Agean might be the antidote to the above. Big enough to have everything you need, but too small for the likes of Costa, KFC etc.

    Has GrahamD said, were did the money go, certainly not to the people. But as i think it was one of your articles, [JW] There is two sorts of money, real money you spend on your weekly shop or down the pub and the fictitious stuff that appears on financial balance sheets or on a computor.

    Just had a sudden thought, if Greece does a computor balance transfer to all the Countries, Banks etc it owes money to. Then these countries do the same to all the Countries, Banks etc they owe money to. All the debts are paid off, [it’s only computor generated figures anyway] World Debt problem solved, and we all start off again equally debt-free.


  15. @zeusgoose: About drachma – absolutely true. That’s how the mentality of taking savings in Switserland started in those past years. So when the crisis came in 2009, it was like Pavlov’s dog reaction for those who had bank deposits….


  16. Sadly as many have commented these destinations are not what they were when visited in our youth.
    I visited Simi just of the Turkish coast in the sixties went by ferry/post boat, it had been largely abandoned and the wonderful main town was half empty – you could a property for a song – at the time there was no water on the island and the sponge fishing industry had disappeared with the advent of synthetics it was imported and this kept it a very special place to visit, twenty years later it was full of Club Med type outfits and boasted of its music and night life, thank god we all went when we did.


  17. Nick Markakis
    As a resident for twelve years in the calm and peaceful Nomos of Lasithi let us wish the the same tranquility we have here for all of Greece.
    Western Crete? Beautiful country….I visit when I can.
    I ask only that you resist the urge to shoot :-)
    χαιρετισμοί !


  18. I think I may have previously commented on the wrong post so just to put things straight… Thanks for this one! I’m from Kefalonia and really appreciated the prose. Also, yes, you did achieve your goal.


  19. We went to Roses,on the Costa Brava a few years ago. It’s very mosern, full of hotels, restaurants, etc. While eating at one of the restaurants, I noticed a huge photo of Roses in the ‘old days’, when it was just a little fishing village. I asked the proprietor if he remembered it like that, & he said that he did, just about. I aked him if he preferred it as it is nown & he told me that in those days, everyone knew everybody elsebut they were very poor. Nw he’s better off, but he doesn’t know anybody.
    Take your choice….


  20. @steviefin: John Fowles himself had similar doubts, but decided to make the comeback trip to Spetses in 1996. Here’s a relative link – Greek text but check the photos:
    You can still find piece of mind in Spetses, albeit in Spring or Autumn, where the weather is still good and the island not crowded.
    Private cars are not allowed on Spetses and that helps a bit.
    The west part of the forest is still there (the rest is re-growing, naturally but slowly).


  21. zeus….haven’t fired a single round since my military service. Seems it’s in our genes though…i was appointed platoon’s sharp-shooter on the spot when my officers got the results of the first shooting drills :-)
    Plakias, Preveli Monastery…south coast of Rethymnon country. That’s my birthplace. Maybe some day…over a table with good raki and meze…if the country has not fallen apart…
    Ώρα καλή!


  22. Thank you Nick, I think I might get there yet, persuading her ladyship to forgo ” La Dolce Vita ” might be the hardest part. Autumn or spring would be ideal, as I am easily fried.

    Let us hope that my visit would occur in happier times for Greece, & may both of these things happen very soon..


  23. Yana, I agree wholeheartedly with your very well informed comments that the Greek people have to take responsibility for changing their own destiny. The danger that I see is that when Spain implodes financially, (which I believe is now even more immanent than before this week’s summit ! ), Greece will become sidelined in the massive fallout…… both in terms of fire-fighting squabbling EU politicians, crashing banks and MSM reporting, very much in the same way that problems of the people of Ireland and Portugal have almost disappeared off of many people’s radar.

    Let us hope that your particularly pertinent ‘Ohi Day’ commemoration on 28th becomes a great opportunity for the Greek people to rise up and tell their present Politicians and the Troika to get lost…….it is so very important that the present Greek plight and all the protests that are happening, continue to be reported worldwide, particularly while the MSM focuses on US Elections and Spanish situation.


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