Background on Walking Holidays in Kefalonia, Ionian Islands, Greece
Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands, north of Zakynthos (Zante), south of Lefkada and Kerkira (Corfu). Much of it is wooded and mountainous, with broad summits rising to 1627m (Mt Ainos - see photo below), in the south, and over 1000 m in the centre of the island. There is lots of limestone scenery, including spectacular caves that can be visited. It immediately looks like a great place for hiking, with possibilities for hill and coastal routes (see below) .
The Paliki peninsula to the west is more low-lying, with strange landscape features of clay which can change rapidly. More fertile than the "mainland", it produces most of the fresh fruit and vegetables used in the island's hotels and restaurants. It's more suitable for easier countryside walks.
There are plenty of beaches around the island, often of white pebbles, such as the dramatic Myrtos beach in the north-west, which features on many postcards and brochures. Good sandy beaches are harder to find, but there are several near the airport south of Argostoli and in the south-east.
Argostoli is the main town, with a population of around 14,000, and it hasn't been overwhelmed by tourism, retaining its local character. It is linked by an hourly ferry service (half an hour each way) with Lixouri on the Paliki peninsula.
Lassi, on the west coast close to Argostoli, is the main tourist strip, but it's not yet over-developed and the variety of small supermarkets and restaurants provide for most visitor requirements.
The other main package holiday destination, Skala in the south-east corner, is apparently growing fast with new hotels going up, but it's planned more sensitively than some other locations developed in the past.
There are several other villages popular with tourists, such as Sami on the east coast, where "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" was filmed, and the very picturesque spots of Asos and Fiscardo in the north.
Fiscardo, about one and a quarter hours' drive from Argostoli along a very windy road, is apparently the one place not to have been wrecked by the major earthquake of 1953 which devastated the island and resulted in a large-scale exodus of people to destinations around the world. It also changed the social structure of the island, as many wealthy landowners moved elsewhere. Many ruins can still be seen.
Today the island only has a population of around 30,000, so that apart from Argostoli and Lixouri all the settlements are relatively small.
Under the surface of the friendly hospitality displayed to visitors, there are apparently some continuing community divisions which have survived from the civil war between communists and the centre-right government, following the end of the 2nd World War (see wikipedia for details). There's a reminder of the barbarity of the Second World War itself, in the monument to the Italian soldiers slaughtered in 1943 on the Fanari peninsula just outside Argostoli.
Quality of environment
In most respects Kefalonia seems to offer a beautiful and clean environment. It is much more wooded than other Greek islands I've visited, so there is an excellent diversity of mediterranean plant life for those who know what to look out for. Unlike most of the buildings, the ancient olive trees have survived earthquakes and fire over the centuries. There is plenty of wildlife to fascinate children as well as parents, and even the crops in the fields provide points of interest.
The towns and villages looked tidy and clean, and we found several blue flag beaches where the water and sand were pretty good apart from a few discarded cigarette ends.
However, it's not unusual to find secluded beaches where rubbish has been washed up - one of the worst was just along the Fanari coastal path from our hotel. And on the Paliki walk, we passed a couple of eyesores where rubbish had been dumped - some legally, some illegally, it appeared. A few of the abandoned vehicles had taken on a more decorative appearance however, like a countryside version of the public art features found in many city centres these days.
High on the mountainside overlooking our hotel, there's a line of 15 wind turbines that were erected recently. They are certainly features of the landscape now, whether you like them or not. To me, they didn't seem to dominate the view, but to fit in with it. We saw others previously in Crete and Zakynthos - clearly Greece is trying to make the most of the windswept island hilltops to generate renewable energy for the communities there.
Our visit, hotel, weather etc
Against this background of natural and human destruction, it's a remarkably peaceful and relaxing island today, with attractive villages and churches spread between the cultivated fields and olive groves and in the shadow of the mountains. We had glimpsed the green mountainous island away in the distance, on a holiday to Zakynthos in 2002, and resolved to visit it sometime before it was overwhelmed by tourism (yes, there is a bit of a contradiction there, but like many others we seek out destinations that retain their character and authenticity rather than surrendering to the effects of mass tourism).
We had decided on an October break to catch some late sunshine, as we had done previously to Crete, Rhodes and Zakynthos. Thomsons offered flights from Manchester. Faced with a choice between Skala and Lassi, we picked Lassi because of the easier access to Argostoli and other parts of the island; from Skala, everywhere else would require a lengthy journey. And that's how it turned out, with visits to the North, East, and Paliki peninsula all being easily accommodated in the 6 days' stay, along with more immediate attractions. We could have included the far south as well by sacrificing a day on the local beaches.
It also turned out that our hotel, the Limanaki, was an excellent place to stay on the quiet road to the Finari lighthouse. Our balcony looked out to see across attractive countryside with regular visits from a shepherd and his flock. The nondescript roadside developments in Lassi itself were a couple of miles south, and Argostoli was a similar distance around the shoreline to the east.
Circumstances meant that it was just myself and young Frances (aged 8) on this holiday, and the hotel, beaches and scenery meant it suited us pretty well. Frances particularly enjoyed the Greek dancing at the nearby Oskars restaurant, and we went there twice. There were quite a few other restaurants to choose from, but mostly serving a pretty similar range of Greek dishes. Enough variety though, for a week.
The weather in early October was mostly warm (23-25 degress celsius) and sunny, but we had a very windy day for our visit to Paliki, cloudy skies on a couple of mornings, and heavy rainstorms one night. So overall it was pretty good, and suitable for walking - in the height of the summer it would be too hot.
Kefalonia for walkers
Kefalonia ought to be a paradise for walkers, and it probably is if you know your way around it. There are plenty of donkey trails that run between fields and across hills, but it's impossible to distinguish them from other tracks that end in an olive grove or farmyard! Apparently walking leaflets have been produced for routes around the villages in the south, such as Poros, and admittedly I didn't check with the tourist organisation to see if there was anything available for the Argostoli area. We managed to find some paths there, and a route description for Sami on the east coast, and joined an organised walk around Paliki.
Active development of walking would surely be worthwhile if the authorities want to increase tourism activity in a sustainable way. A relatively small investment in signage of footpaths and in walking leaflets could pay huge dividends in attracting more visitors in the spring and autumn, when the cooler weather makes walking more enjoyable. The maps of Kefalonia were also a disappointment - I was delighted to get a 1:50,000 Freytag & Berndt map from Stanfords, but there were very few tracks marked on it and other information seemed less reliable when Lassi was not shown on the map, and the Finari lighthouse and Katavothres water wheel were not named. A 1:80,000 map obtained in a Lassi supermarket showed a few more tracks that could have been worth exploring.
Apparently there are some walking holidays on the island, if you can find them. The inclusion of an organised walk in the Thomson's programme of excursions was welcome, and it was an enjoyable outing.
Parental responsibilities meant the mountains were out of bounds for me, but there must be some good possibilities for day-hikes similar in effort to climbing Scottish munros. Unlike Scotland, you can drive most of the way to the tops on unsurfaced roads, if you have a 4X4. Companions on the Paliki walk described their latest successful attempt to drive up to and over Mt Ainos, after failed efforts in previous years when fallen trees or landslides had blocked the road.
Like several others whom we met, this couple had visited Kefalonia a number of times before, and it clearly has that kind of enduring appeal: once you've been there, you want to return.
Contributed by Andrew Llanwarne
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