During a recent two-week holiday in Kefalonia, I journaled some of the key days and decided to publish them here. Undoubtedly, this somewhat long post will only be of interest to my fellow holidaymakers, family or close friends who have run out of things to browse on the internet.
Oh, and if you’re thinking of heading to Kefalonia any time soon, you might find it interesting too…
Having noted that our flight was delayed for a couple of hours, we naturally headed for the nearest airport ‘pub’; a Wetherspoons so cramped it resembled a tightly packed tin of sweaty, stressed sardines.
After a much needed jar, we headed out into the departure lounge, only to spot on one of the plasma screens that the gate for our flight was closing. A good forty minutes before we were expecting it to.
Cue lots of swearing, running and sloshing of freshly settled beer in one’s stomach.
Of course, we hadn’t actually missed the flight. Due to computer programming presumably knocked out by chimps, Gatwick’s flight announcement system and it’s inability to think for itself was entirely to blame.
Shift forward 24 hours and I sit writing this, in what has to be the most stunning holiday abode I’ve ever shacked up in.
Resembling something out of an episode of MTV’s Cribs, it is far beyond anything we expected. High ceilings, three massive en suite bedrooms and a sprawling kitchen/diner/lounge are surrounded by a perfect-sized pool, Greek-tiled courtyard and a gaping view of endless sea. Look to the left, and you can just see the edge of mainland Greece. To your right, a faint outline of Zante.
Lindsey and myself have been to Kefalonia four times, and it’s great to see our family’s initial reactions to what is an amazing, magical island. And we’ve not even started yet.
We’ve done bugger all today. Just knowing that my usual task list of calling unhappy customers, replying to convoluted, dreary emails and dealing with office politics has been replaced with a) deciding which side of the pool to jump into and b) which taverna to hit first later, has been enough to make day one perfect.
There’s nothing quite like getting away from the daily grind and the poorly run country we’ve left behind already seems a very, very long way away.
Tomorrow, we hit Sami, Fiskardo, Assos and the stunning Mirtos Beach.
The couple sat, as many do while on holiday, in complete silence. Having clearly exhausted all possible meaningful conversation during countless years of marriage, they continued to live out their dreary lives one silent meal at a time. Only, this particular meal didn’t get eaten.
Having been served wine and food in good time by the usually leisurely Greek staff, they were clearly struggling to find something that would break the deathly, cavernous silence reverberating around their sun-drenched, leathery heads.
Still avoiding the very real prospect of talking to each other, they decided to complain about the napkins.
I can’t quite recall the exact details of the complaint, but it was more boring than an evening out with Lewis Hamilton and more pointless than Paris Hilton.
And complain they did. Right to the point where they up and left, paying for the wine they hadn’t touched. Mugging off no one but themselves, they stormed out of the restaurant, having left a somewhat perplexed waitress with a healthy tip and a table full of food and drink which could quite easily be re-served.
On an adjacent table, we had just enjoyed a fanastic meal of fish, bread (lots of it) and the infinitely drinkable Mythos beer. The chosen location for our first meal out was Penelope’s, a built-for-purpose boat restaurant nestled somewhat daintily on the coastal road’s edge. This had followed a long 200km day, which took in sights from Sami, famed for it’s starring role as a scene setter in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Fiskardo, favoured by the rich and famous (and offering some stunning little restaurants dock-side) – Assos, our dream holiday apartment location and, last but not least, Mirtos beach.
Located west of the island, it sits proudly among the top ten beaches in the world and is one you will have seen yourself if you have studied any Greek holiday literature.
While my girlfriend and I are very familiar with this place (how blase does that sound??), it was fantastic to be able to share the breathtaking vistas, creamy-blue, almost ethereal ocean and thunderous waves with the family. It was just a slight shame that the place is so busy this time of the year (late August). I would certainly recommend visiting outside of the peak season (and not just for the lack of kids).
Not the most complete of holiday diaries, this (day three did happen, I promise) but, then, I am on holiday and have spent far too much time doing nothing to have had chance to stop doing nothing and write.
Around four or five weeks ago, I made the most nerve racking phone call I’ve ever had to make. Choosing a Wednesday lunchtime dog walk as the time and venue for my important call, I gingerly tapped the mobile number of my girlfriend’s dad on my iPhone.
It rang for what felt like forever. So long, in fact, that I imagined him diverting me to voicemail, or missing the call entirely, in which case I’d have to go through this buttock-clenchingly stressful routine all over again. I’d made the decision to call now, the words I had ready – fervently practiced for weeks beforehand – were waiting on the tip of my tongue, huddled together, doing their level best not to jump out all at once and crash onto the pavement below in a large, convoluted pile of incoherence.
Paul answered. And I instantly forgot every single line I had prepared. All the words scurried to the back of my throat, glanced regretfully back and decided it safer to jump back into the far reaches of my brain.
I genuinely can’t remember what I said, but I definitely did the important bit; I asked if I could marry his daughter.
He agreed this was a good idea, particularly after nine years.
And so it was yesterday, 19th August 2010 that I led my somewhat bemused girlfriend onto the quietest part of Skala beach I could find and popped the question, presenting the ring I had spent days trying to hide.
She complained initially, as I led her somewhat haphazardly over rocks, seaweed, broken pieces of wood and dead crabs. Her shoes, I was informed, were not made for such off-roading. Plus, we were suddenly heading inexplicably out towards the ocean. This was strange, and not the normal direction for dinner.
As a banana boat swooshed inconveniently across the beautiful Ionian sea leaving a trail of screams and laughs in its wake, I leant on one knee, said none of the things I’d rehearsed, Lindsey said ‘yes’ and we both began to sweat uncontrollably.
It’s taken nine years to get to this stage of our relationship, a fact which many friends and family have taken great pleasure in reminding me of at any given opportunity. What I hadn’t expected was the sheer joy we both experienced last night, and continue to as I type now. After such a length of time in each other’s company, and having lived together for much of it, I could be forgiven for believing that what I was doing might simply result in more of a formality than anything else. It didn’t. It felt genuinely euphoric; a feeling that was only lifted further when we started to inform everyone. Tears, phone calls and text messages flowed all evening.
I had to pull myself together.
Aside from that pretty momentous moment, we also enjoyed a spot of doughnut riding earlier in the day. This doesn’t, as the name suggests, involve sitting on a dough-based treat equipped with wheels, but instead a similarly shaped inflatable which is pulled – via a very ropey bit of rope – at breakneck speed along the sea by a speedboat. At the helm of the boat was a fat, brown Greek man who delighted in suggesting we all ‘stop holding on so tight’ and telling us they only have ‘very little sharks’.
Mat fell off twice. I held on and felt very manly for a good ten minutes.
If I could compare it to anything, imagine being pulled along the M1 by a supercar with only your pants separating your posterior from the tarmac. It was that comfortable.
Exhilarating, breathtaking and nerve racking. Just like asking your girlfriend to marry you.
A cross between Captain Birdseye and Anthony Worrall Thompson, Captain Makis shielded his eyes from the blistering Greek sun and surveyed my fiance’s stomach (not as punch-inducing an event as it may sound).
“You too skinny!” He said, as he patted his rounded, dark brown stomach. “You see my belly? It is over my legs. Yours is in line. You must eat more food.”
He turned to me and tapped my somewhat less rounded and decidedly paler stomach.
“You see? His belly is over his legs also.” He swung an arm round my shoulder. “We are both healthy. Eat some more food.”
In the background, the theme tune to Hawaii 5 0 bellowed out from his boat’s PA, casting a surreal school disco ambiance over the beach BBQ we were attending on Xi beach, Lixouri.
I’m not usually one for coach trips. Having to share space and possibly even conversation with members of the general public while on holiday (actually, at any time) is as much a prospect of fun as being dragged along the M1 face first via my front teeth.
As it turned out, the day trip to the western tip of Kefalonia was simply brilliant. Joining Captain Makis and around seventy other holidaymakers on his glass bottomed boat, we took in sights impossible to reach without sea transport. Brilliant white, empty sandy beaches, coral reefs and crystal clear sea we were encouraged to jump into and explore.
Makis’ crew were ever helpful. One in particular, who looked like he belonged on the set of Home and Away (yet in fact came from Doncaster) was eager to point out just what an incredible island Kefalonia is via some genuinely interesting facts. Did you know there is a type of shark which, if it strays above it’s minimum level of depth, explodes? No, I didn’t either. I’m not even that bothered if he made it up. How cool.
Ending up on Xi beach, Makis threw the mother of all BBQs with some of the most delicious pork kebabs and greek salad I’ve ever tasted. Throw in free wine and bread soaked in something so tasty I’d happily drown in it, and we were all in agreement that day eight was a good day.
I’m also not the type of person to engage in mud baths. Unless purely by accident. Yet on this trip, I did. Willingly. Looking something like a hairy, discoloured Avatar, I waited for the cement to harden and, giving not a second thought to my fading masculinity, brushed it off (‘self-exfoliating’, whatever that means), waiting for ‘skin like a baby bum’ to appear, as Makis had promised. This didn’t happen, but it was an unexpected laugh, nonetheless.
The day – if not holiday – was completely topped off on the way back to the port of Agostoli, however.
One of the main attractions of the trip we were on was the promise of dolphins following the boat. And, just as we thought they’d decided to ignore us, the ship’s rasping horn let rip. Sounding just like that of a World War II air raid siren, it was a signal that the guy at the boat’s controls had spotted dolphins.
At first, fumbling for my iPhone while simultaneously realising it could very much end up wet and unretrievable and consequently returning it back into the safety of my rucksack, I missed the event entirely.
Consoling myself with the fact that it would likely be a tricky encounter to capture on camera, I forgot the phone and rushed to the side of the boat. Eventually, persistence and a much skilled bit of 360-degree circling by said boatman, paid off. We saw several dolphins arcing gracefully into the open. Almost in slow motion, their fins cut a slice through the warm Ionian air and slipped back into natural habitat. One or two even came within feet of the boat, proudly showing off their glistening skin to the gawping onlookers.
Even with the event being somewhat inappropriately soundtracked by an impossibly awful karaoke rendition of ‘Come On Eileen’ (which the wailing participant had ingeniously ad-libbed into ‘Come On Dol-phins’) I’m neither too manly nor too proud to admit that it presented me with a lump in my throat and shivers down my neck. Natural beauty is something I rarely come across in the litter and dog shit-strewn streets of Semilong, Northampton, and the sight of these magnificent, intelligent, free creatures responding to our call was simply majestic. More moving than any piece of film, music or literature I’ve ever come across. If you get chance to see them in their natural home, grab it, no matter what the cost is.
“Good evening, sir. How are you?”
The man, still anxiously scouring the menu, looked up. “I fancy a curry, mate.”
Had I been the waiter in question, I would quite happily have told this ignorant fat chav to return from whence he came and book a table at Balti Towers (albeit spelt p l e a s e f u c k o f f). Yet, as polite as always, this particular waiter actually managed to coax them into what is quite clearly a seafood restaurant. In Greece.
Why people come on holiday looking for exact replicas of their home town experience is beyond me. It seems more pointless than Phil Collins admitting that, actually, he has always been a bit of a twat.
Several years ago we spent a week in Salou, Spain, which proudly housed an exact replica of a working men’s club on its main strip. Complete with wood panelled walls, thick acrid smoke choked out from those inhabiting it and episodes of Only Fools And Horses playing on loop, it was, without doubt, the last thing you would ever want to come across in England, let alone whilst on holiday. Yet, it was packed. Strange. And somewhat embarrassing.
Happily, Kefalonia is largely scarce on such monstrosities (if you exclude the more commercial Lassi). It is also refreshing to see not a single franchise or big name brand anywhere. You can drive the length of this island, explore every nook and cranny and you won’t find a single McDonalds, Starbucks or Crispy Creme outlet. It is genuinely liberating and makes you realise how much soulless fluff is rammed down our throats and relied upon in our own media-endorsed, materialistic lives.
Take the way of life here. Driving back from the capital, Argostoli, last night, we cruised through numerous little villages. Each one dimly lit by under invested street lighting, they looked simple, at peace and, above all, happy. It was approaching 11pm and on nearly every available roadside bench sat old folk; each one enjoying the coolness afforded by the darkness and discussing anything but the use of Auto-Tune on the new series of the X Factor.
I also have a sneaking suspicion they’re simply waiting to see at least one tourist-driven hire car plunge helplessly off one of the many barrier-less cliff faces. But, if it was Dave Curry, who wouldn’t?
“A modern day equivalent would be Russell Brand,” explained my mum, still smiling uncontrollably as she surveyed the statue of famous poet Lord Byron in front of her. “He’d quite happily hump anything.”
Having got lost more times than I care to mention, we had eventually found our way into the peaceful town of Mataxata, nestled in the southern region of the island, away from the coast and the (admittedly quiet) ‘main’ road.
I’m not much up on Byron, to be honest, but I know my mum has taught his work for years and was absolutely thrilled to find one of the many greek paradises he called home during an all too short life.
The massive earthquake of 1953 obliterated most of the island and, unfortunately, his residence, but a statue has been raised by the Greeks in honour of a man who clearly fell in love with the place. A white house sits on the original grounds of his home, providing a real sense and focal point for his time there, which would have sadly been lacking if Mother Nature had deterred the inhabitants of Kefalonia (and us Brits, as it was us who stepped in to help rebuild the place).
You can see why he shacked up here. Next to his house is a stunning view across the towns below and, beyond, the glistening sea. You’re not short on inspiration in somewhere as pretty as Metaxata.
A fantastic meal at the appropriately named Byron Restaurant provided nostalgia for Lindsey and I who had visited that very eatery and nearby town of Lakithra a few years earlier. It also capped off a satisfying day of discovery and gleaming satisfaction for my mum.
As the coach pulled off, the Spanish couple in front of us nervously surveyed their passengers. Something had happened which they clearly hadn’t expected; the tour guide had begun her seemingly unrehearsed diatribe about Ithaca, today’s idyllic location.
Turning to Lindsey, the long haired guy enquired: “Is this not public bus?”
Rather than break the news that they had inadvertently joined a paid-for tour gently, Lindsey consoled them by bursting into laughter. The couple soon joined her before whispering frantically to each other, no doubt trying to work out how to escape.
Moments earlier, we’d disembarked a ferry which had taken us the short distance from Kefalonia to it’s sister island. As ever, the Greeks didn’t fail in entertaining us with a chaotic, yet somehow organised ushering of cars, coaches, motorbikes and civilians from the boat.
In the UK, the staff would still be completing risk assessment forms, ticking boxes and telling people exactly what they could and couldn’t do. Not so, here. With little regard for anyone’s life, overloaded trucks were floored off the boat and up the steep hairpin bends they were instantly greeted with. Official-looking staff blew whistles for no apparent reason, waved hands and shouted at the lethal lumps of metal flying out of the cargo deck of the ship. I can’t remember them paying a second’s thought to us, but, with clever use of our brains, we worked out that we could simply walk off and onto the semi-safety of the roadside. I say road … more of a rally course.
I love this place for its complete lack of rules, regulations and health and safety nets. Our government have crippled our country and made even the most basic of tasks ball-breakerinly frustrating affairs (I’m reliably told there is even a risk assessment form for sending a fax…). Here, they tarmac only one side of the road (and only drive on that bit … consider that for a moment), provide no warning of forthcoming roadworks, smoke at petrol stations and even, shock horror, don’t bother with speed cameras or the utterly pointless average speed limit. As a result, there are very few accidents here and everyone drives around with a smile on their face.
Back to Ithaca, which is stunning and refreshingly different to Kefalonia. I’ll let you read up on it, but suffice to say, the story of Odysseus and his frisky missus will give you a good idea of the somewhat embellished legends surrounding it.
Two things stood out for me (apart from the jaw dropping scenery which, after a while, you become sadly accustomed to). Firstly, during a short stop in the capital, Vathi, we visited a few quaint little shops. In one, I found a mandolin. Beautifully constructed and tight as a drum, it hung from one of the shelves, devoid of a price tag. Assuming this little gem could be had for at least one of the notes nestled in my wallet, we asked the shop keeper how much it was.
“Two-hundred and fifty euros,” she said. Actually, she laughed first, at which point I should have probably said, “Ah, don’t worry.”
I didn’t buy it.
Secondly, the best paper towel dispenser I’ve ever come across. Anyone who has drooled over the simple yet strangely addictive nature of the Dyson Airblade will know why I’m about to get so wet-knickered about this.
Wave your hand across it and paper comes out. Seriously. No touching. Just waving. And it responds. It’s like it knows what you’re thinking. I want one at home, for it would make every toilet trip something of absolute, unbridled joy.
The downside of this trip? The depressing discovery of ‘Villa Newcastle’ in the ex-pat inhabited village of Lefki. Why can’t we just bloody let things be?
I’ll finish on a short message left by Greek freedom fighters during one of the island’s many wars. I can’t remember the full story behind it, but I like it. Once again, I’ll let you look it up:
“Every step of our lives is an heroic moment. Every fathom of sea a thousand drops of blood.”
He was pointing at my iPhone. Putting two and two together, I worked out what he meant. Not wishing to correct him too obviously, I picked it up and turned it over in my hand.
“No, it’s an iPhone 4. I used to have an iPhone 3G, though.”
That’ll work, I thought. He’ll be quietly thankful that I’ve subtly pointed out his inaccurate product naming and he will continue the conversation referring to Apple’s most famous device correctly.
“Ah. Right.” He sat down in the seat next to me. “So would you recommend getting an IP3, then?”
Perhaps he wasn’t paying me his full attention. The bar was busy. I’ll try again.
“Yes, they’re great phones, iPhones. I love my iPhone 4, but the iPhone 3G I had before it was just as good an iPhone.”
He nodded, stroking his Dulux white beard.
“I’ve been offered an IP3 for £100. Think that’s a good deal?”
Perhaps he was referring to something different. Perhaps I had the wrong end of the stick here. Maybe an IP3 is some new fangled piece of technology I’ve never heard of. Perhaps he is confused as to why I keep talking about iPhones. If that’s the case, I have no idea whether or not £100 is a good deal. I could cost him here. This was turning into a disaster. An expensive disaster.
“Is that a sixteen or thirty-two megabyte IP3?” He continued, thankfully oblivious to the fact I hadn’t answered his previous question.
“Thirty-two. It’s a thirty-two gigabyte iPhone 4.” As he definitely wouldn’t have listened to any of that, I didn’t waste time emphasising ‘gigabyte’.
He smiled. “I think I’ll get that IP3, then. Thanks for your help. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
No we won’t, I thought as he stood up and walked towards the door. I’m flying home tomorrow.
A fitting end to our holiday was held at Pelagos Bay’s weekly BBQ. At the helm, Billy, who had entertained Lindsey and I eighteen months ago and was the very reason we had chosen to bring the family along this time. Special mention must also go to barman Yannis who is, without doubt the happiest – and often most drunk – barman I’ve ever come across. The fact that both he and Billy recognised us after such a long time was amazing. I’m not that interesting and they play host to hundreds of holiday makers every season. That’s service we really could learn from in the UK.
If there’s anywhere you’re going to experience ‘meat sweats’ its at Billy’s Greek BBQ. Pork kebabs, lamb kebabs, chicken, sausage, tzatziki , Greek salad, cous cous and all manner of bread is served. And re-served. And re-served again. It would be easy to resist if it wasn’t so tasty. England is going to taste decidedly bland on our return…
Greek dancing, bingo and a quiz followed. An odd mix (and my subsequent enjoyment of it somewhat at odds with my previous complaints about Brit-friendly holiday activities), but a great end to what has been an absolutely fantastic holiday. One I simply can’t thank my parents enough for.
As I write, we’ve just left the villa for its next lucky inhabitants and now sit in a hotel pool bar waiting to head back to the airport later this afternoon. For the first time in two weeks, scattered clouds are occasionally obscuring the sun. While the heat is as blistering as ever, the sudden appearance of cloud and a hotel so quiet it could be our own seem to be signalling our exit from Kefalonia.
And I get to see my dog again.