It was 15 years ago when Damon Albarn uttered the fateful words; ‘following the hordes down to Greece,’ on Blur’s famous single, ‘Girls and Boys’. Despite his disparaging tone and disdain for Britain’s ‘jump on the bandwagon’ holiday culture, this is precisely what my wife and I decided to do for our summer holidays in 2009.
Our holiday plans took several marked turns (not unlike Greek roads), until we finally found our way to the idyllic isle of Cephalonia for a two-week break. The surprise pregnancy of my wife scuppered plans for a four-week fly by across the west coast of America and then a three week excursion across India. We thought these plans may be a little too expansive so we set our sights on our final break as a pair in beautiful Cephalonia.
The lure of guaranteed weather, the easy life and amenities on our doorstep proved too much for us and if I felt a twinge of a grievance thinking back to foppish Albarn’s generalised twitterings, it was all but washed away by the gentle lull of the beautiful Ionian sea.
Despite it being five years since my last visit to the Greek islands, I was reminded instantly of the charm of the Greek people and warmed by the modest yet enchanting way of life. The family rests at the heart of Greek culture and in the majority of local businesses you will see all members of the family, across three generations, mucking in and helping out.
On the whole the Greeks remain warm and friendly to tourists despite hard times financially. The average wage in Greece falls just short of 800 Euros a month, prompting protests in Athens earlier in the year. It is clear to see from rocketing prices that it is not just the British feeling the pinch this year. However, it is possible to have an impressive Greek meal with a glass of wine for around 20 Euros (for two people), but unfortunately the days of almost embarrassing value for money has long since gone.
Once thing that has changed from the Greece of my youth is the move from culture to couture. In times past, it was often the English leading the way in the fashion stakes across Western Europe’s holiday hotspots, however, not any longer. A majority of young Greek people seem extraordinarily fashion conscience, possibly due to the heavy Italian influence that can be felt in most of the Island’s major cities, no more so than in the capital Argostoli. Behind the bustling and quaint sea front, lies a modern and cutting edge city centre, equipped with fashion shops and mobile phone outlets in their dozens.
Place Villana in the centre of the capital sees the rise of the ‘Super Greek’. Not an old-fashioned mythical hero slaying warriors, muscles abound, but a young, chic individual wrapped in Diesel glasses and sporting a macbook for the wifi bars and cafes. The perpetual chipping away of progress has not done Argostoli any harm mind you. I challenge any traveller to find a more relaxed & cosmopolitan city centre to enjoy a frappe (iced coffee – it’s all the rage darling!) whilst Twittering their friends on the new wireless. I highly recommend the inviting ‘Paparazzi’ Italian restaurant for a marvellous meal with splendid service, following by the bustling Bass cafe to see how the locals mix it after dark.
We stayed in a quiet southerly resort named Lourdas which lay in the shadow of the Great Mount Aenos. This was a remarkable sight to behold each day from our balcony and the panoramic view, led from the mountain down the hill to the stunning Lourdas Bay. The beach however was a good 2km what could only be described as a goat track, so to see the sights of the area, it would be advisable to rent a car for at least part of the holiday if not all.
We hired a car for a majority of our trip and started with a trip to one of the more cosmopolitan towns in the north of the island, Fiskardo.
Originally an old fishing village, Fiskardo was one of the towns least affected by the earthquake of 1953, which devastated nearly 90% of the island’s homes and businesses. Due to this it is blessed with some of the islands most historic and interesting architecture. The route to Fiskardo follows the coastal road which runs equidistant to Argostoli then winds its way along the Western side of the island. The views are spectacular as the road meanders around the mountains and hillsides of the island. It will take nerves of steel mind you to cope with the sheer drop to the crystal blue sea on the driver’s side, not to mention the fearless local drivers who will undoubtedly keep you on your toes and your foot glued to the brake pedal. Nevertheless, it is worth the bitten fingernails, when you stop at one of the many viewing points and stare in awe at some of the most stunning scenery Greece has to offer.
Just halfway to Fiskardo the need for a coffee break ensued and we stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets of the island, the village of Assos. Looking down from the coastal road, the old castle stands proudly overlooking the town and as you wind your way down you will be pleased to find the remnants of an idyllic Greek village and a glorious (if small) harbour and bay.
You know you have stumbled across a home grown gem of a town, when the ratio of locals is much higher than tourists and the few tavernas surrounding Assos Bay were swamped with revellers enjoying the sun and the isolated and picturesque spot.
After a cool off in the sea we carried on along the road, a few kms to the much-loved Myrtos Beach. Unfortunately spoilt by a multitude of tourists, the highlight for me was the deviating road leading to the beach. As you crawl at 20km per hour along the bumpy road, the land in front of you suddenly separates to reveal a turquoise blue sea and a perfect, brilliant horizon. The white sandy beach from afar is inviting and you realise the area deserves the reputation as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. However upon arrival at the beach, there is only one extremely over-priced cafe and the area is busy with tourists. The sea was choppy to say the least and definitely un-swimmable, so we continued our journey north to Fiskardo.
We found Fiskardo was brimming with charm and elegance and the harbour area felt more like a Greek ‘Puerto Benus’ rather than a little fishing village as described in our tour book.
The harbour teems with vessels of different shapes and sizes. Yet in most cases, the interested tourist can get a glimpse of how the other half live. As we sat down for a late lunch we observed a yacht harboured with a group of German men aboard swilling beer and sampling Fiskardo’s local delicacies. Clearly they had stopped over for a few hours, a few days or however long the mood took them before they swept themselves off to the next destination. It’s a hard life for some, eh? After the green eyed monster disappeared, we ordered a frankly delightful meal at one of the harbour restaurants. Despite recommendations that the seafood in Fiskardo is incredible, I went for the calf in tomato sauce which I can safely say was the best meal I had on the island and by this I mean no disrespect to the other fantastic meals I devoured gratefully!
Overall, the trip itself was nothing short of remarkable. It was refreshing to be blown away once again by the food, wine and sights of Greece and as the islands go, Cephalonia is one of the classiest. If guaranteed weather, beaches and creature comforts are for you, then ‘follow the hordes’ right this way.
By T.J. Warman