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.