Sunday, 30 March 2008

KEFALONIA (Greece) - part 2

At 1st sight from the air, Kefalonia strikes with vast geographical diversity; dark peaks of MtAenos (1628m) towering high above the clouds; stunning beaches and scenery; steep cliffs crashing into the turquoise sea; sweet scent of beautiful fir forests. After landing, the 1st impressions you get are not those of beauty, luxury, leisure, ecstatic nightlife and high end tourism. Just another hot, dry and barren Greek island. There is hardly a sign of civilization. And this is not a misleading impression, for Kefalonia essentially IS a wild island.

Platis Ammos beach

But that's just Kefalonia's cunning disguise that has so far mostly kept the island out of reach of man's destructive touch. Whoever decides to spend 2 weeks lingering at the side of hotel's pool and bar will most definitely not get to know the real Kefalonia. Because Kef is quite a large island, without a wandering soul, explorer's zeal and renting some kind of a vehicle , you will not be able to experience some of the most spectacular beaches in the Mediterranean, mystical old mountain villages, or idyllic seaside towns, never mind the remotest parts of the island.

One place though takes a special stand in my memories. Long before I have first traveled to Kefalonia, I read about this old monastery, Monastery of Kipouria (Moni Kipoureon). It wasn't in the brochure for any religious miracles or saints, merely for being a perfect place to see some wonderful sunsets. A veranda of the Ionian they called it. It wasn't even put down in the must-see list of tourist sightseeing. Wasn't popular enough. Not worth a visit, some might think. Anyway, I still had this unexplainable wish to visit Monastery of Kipouria. I don't know why, I just did. I felt I already knew what an amazing place it is. Naturally, we didn't find it that easy, but there's several ways you can reach it from, and I guess we took the one less traveled by again.

And then as we were driving downhill, a whole new world opened before our very eyes. You could see a great deal of the entire west coast (that's the wild, mostly unpopulated part of the island), and the deep, blue Ionian sea in all its might. And there was our monastery, overhanging a cliff that crashes into the Ionian, and makes you feel as if the end of the world was beneath your feet. To sit within its historic walls and look out over the vast expanse of the Ionian Sea is a serene experience. The peace and tranquility of this extraordinary place transcends you into a dreamlike state where all the worries of the world simply drift away over the clear blue waters. You leave feeling cleansed and revived. With a strong wish to return.

The name Kipouria comes from the many gardens looked after by the holy fathers to be self-sufficient.. In 1915 it was bombarded by the French when, during a misty day, the cruiser mistook the chimney for the enemy's ship. The Monastery was further destroyed by the 1953 earthquake. Over the last 15 years the remaining buildings have been rebuilt by the only monk who lives at the Monastery. In the church you can see the miraculous icon of Annunciation and the sculls of the Monastery founders. The true treasure however, is found in the view from the natural window to the Ionian Sea, in the beauty of the landscape, immersed in the colors of the sunset and most of all,in one person that makes this monastery so different from many others in the world, the solitary monk of Kipouria, father Efsevios. As soon as I entered the monastery yard, I spotted a tiny, dark figure watering the plants. It was father Efsevios himself (who else, apart from rebuilding most of the monastery, he also has the endless task of building and farming the slopes, as well as holding services especially on the festival days). Nevertheless, he kindly and timidly offered to guide us through the monastery as he untiredly does for hundreds of visitors during the day. If there's a person or anything else that will stay carved into my kefalonian memories forever, it will for sure be the memory of the solitary monk of Kipouria, a man locked up in his non-material world whose very appearance and simplicity will mesmerize you, a man so modest in demeanor yet so rich in spirit and mind that it will make you wonder if it's really possible that saints like him actually exist in this material world of ours.

His tiny figure, and his old, dusty mantle
do not in any way diminish his greatness

There's nothing else in the vicinity except the Stathis taverna and the secret, stunning, jaw-dropping Platis Ammos beach. What is this 'Stathis' taverna anyway? A great place where an incredibly warm and welcoming owner named Maria serves incredibly good Greek food and salads, in an incredibly natural yet beautiful surrounding (her taverna is set in the shade of massive, antique olive trees, overlooking the mighty Ionian sea) and all that half way between my two favourite places on the island - monastery and Platis Ammos beach.

Through the years Maria and her family have become very good friends of ours. Actually that was from day one. Greek hospitality and friendliness is a special story, but definitely one of the 1st things you notice anywhere in Greece. We popped up at her Stathis farm early in the morning, looking for the secret beach that the locals so proudly try to keep 'secret'. She told us of the beach that until a few years ago was only accessible by boat, but now about 300 steps take you down to , as far as I'm concerned, the most stunning beach on the island . Thanks to the lengthy trip back up the steps, the beach is also known as '' 300 steps to Heaven or Hell ''.

father Efsevios fixing last year's earthquake damage

Maria comes from the same village as father Efsevios and she's his first and only neighbour, I could just add all the praiseworthy compliments she has on behalf of their local saint. But there's no need for that. No need for me even writing this post. I could of just pinned up that photo of his, and I guess, for many of you, that would be quite enough to recognize a saint in his soft, benign, pale blue eyes and a story of his hard-working life in his weary hands. Just talking to him makes my heart jump in awe. I have never met anyone so timid, modest, unspoiled and so hard-working (with his 78 years of age, he's still very busy throughout the day) yet so calm and a voice so soothing. He only lives off the fruit and vegetables he grows in the monastery gardens. Whatever people bring to him, he offers to his visitors. And his little room, where he sleeps and rests after a tiring day is what we, the spoiled children of God, would call a total poverty. Yet I believe he is happier and richer than all of us. Btw, if you haven't figured it out by now, that is the saint I mentioned in my tagging confession.

In Kefalonia, every day is a winding road. Also every day is a faded (road) sign. If any. I can't even remember how many times we got lost looking for a certain place, due to non-existing roadsigns or just to the fact that they are facing the wrong way, and you can only read them if you stop the car and turn your head back to take a peek. So many little mountain villages, so many little crossroads, so many different directions that ain't in the map; so many times I have taken the road less traveled by, and it sure did make all the difference. We ended up in places not even some of the locals knew about, but it was worth it, every little bit.

Since I mentioned the earthquakes,
on the night of 12 August 1953, a cataclysmic earthquake (7.3 R) flattened most of the island. Kefalonia and the neighbouring islands fall in the group of the Greece's most active seismic areas. An earthquake of over 5.0 on the Richter's scale is just something the locals would call a mild tremble. Not worth a mention. Right! The '53 earthquake explains the almost total lack of historical architecture in Kefalonia. The small fishing harbour of Fiskardo on the northern tip of the island is the only settlement that escaped virtually unscathed. Together with parts of the little village of Assos on the western coast, whose pretty harbour lies in the shadow of a Venetian fort, one gets a glimpse of the finely proportioned Venetian architecture and cultural heritage that was once predominant on the island.

Mad islanders

''...The reputation of the Kefalonians precede them: lunacy is the one Greeks love to tell you about - indeed the Kefalonians themselves tell their visitors, albeit with a humorous twinkle in their eye, that they are known as the madmen of Greece. One shopkeeper told me that American psychiatric researchers frequently visit the island where they are forever discovering new phobias never known before to humankind. It's often said that the line between genius and lunacy is thin, and Kefalonians are equally known for their intelligence - many an islander will tell you that more doctors in Greece originate from Kefalonia than any other island. And Kefalonians have always had a reputation for their enterprising nature - many have sought their fortunes abroad, especially during periods of economic distress in their homeland. One thing I can certainly vouch for from my experience of living there for three years is their sense of humour: they have an endless ability to self-satirise...Like many islanders, they are independent too, and proud. Tour operators tried to move in to do business in the 1970s but they found obstacles not only in the mountainous terrain of the island - difficult to manoeuvre their tour buses around - but they also discovered that the people themselves did not welcome them with open arms. They were resistant to the idea of mass tourism, unlike neighbouring Corfu and Zakynthos, preferring to do it their way.'' (from the article by Jennifer Gay)

I remember an older English gentleman asking me if I knew what side of the road they drove on Kefalonia, left or right? ''In the middle'' I said. The poor man was appalled when he realised I'm not joking. However, at the end of the day, you get used to it and when you look back at the time you spent there, it seems like another 'charm' of the locals. The roads never get too busy, but a considerable change takes place in August, when Italians storm the island and they are just as crazy and stubborn drivers as the locals. I guess with all that unruly competition the locals are just bound to go crazy and freak out with all the savage tourists.  What a thrill!
every now and then a girl overwhelmed by this island
gets off the plane and runs towards the passport control officer
with a joyful heart and a cheeky grin on her face

And it's the same officer year after year, he plays a tough, stern individual until my ma (who speaks natively fluent Greek) switches to her Greek mumbo jumbo and the guy just melts away.

Kefalonian spirit...
Melissani - the undergound lake

... is something you will carry in your memory even when your photos fade away. It's everywhere you look, you just have to take a moment in time and get out of your busy tourist routine and there it is...Kefalonia's own brand of Greekness.

And remember: it is not down in any map, true places never are.

1 komentari:

a said...

Absolutely wonderful post. I never knew there's so much I didn't know about Kefalonia. Thanks.

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