Note: this was intended for my travel blog but wouldn't post there.
Two months from now my friend and I will be aboard a ferry sailing down the Dalmation Coast from Venice to Igoumenitsa, Greece. From there we stop at the pretty little port of Parga and then head for Lefkada for a return visit to lovely Egremeni Beach, at the foot of the high cliffs where the poet Sappho lept to her death (6th c. B.C.) It was there that I conceived the idea for my w.i.p. play "House of the Muses" and I hope this return visit will inspire me to finish writing it. I've visted the Ionian islands several times in the past, and the following is an article I wrote about one of those visits.
SWIMMING WITH THE RICH AND FAMOUS
The Ionian Islands of Greece’s west coast, have inspired poets like Homer, Sappho, Cavafy and Lord Byron. The sea here is so transparent you can see straight into the depths. The wind has eroded the shoreline to form sheer cliffs and extraordinary caves where once pirates lurked and often hid their treasures. The pale, platinum clear water, still as enamel one moment, can turn into a raging tempest when the wind shifts.
Kefalonia is the largest and most mountainous of the islands. Its coast forms steep cliffs and small bays with magnificent, wind-protected beaches. Pretty villages of pastel stone houses cluster around the curves of sandy bays. Little coves that used to shelter pirate galleons and Venetian merchant ships are harbours for yachts from all over the world. Resort hotels dot the shoreline, especially near the gold sand beaches of Platia Gialos and Poros.
Kefalonia has often been visited by famous people, most notably the poet Lord Byron, who often came here to enjoy the scenery. In the village of Metaxata, there’s a plaque on the house where he stayed just before he went off to Messolonghi to fight the Turks, and later died of pneumonia.
More recently, British author Louis de Bernieres, made the island of Kefalonia famous with his best selling novel “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, about a young Italian officer posted to the island as one of the occupying forces during W.W.II.
As I watched the glorious sunset from the Venetian-style lighthouse, Fenari, I contemplated the many tragedies that have befallen this beautiful island.
In 1953 Kefalonia was devastated by an earthquake, which ruined most of its villages. Almost all the architecture on the island is post-earthquake. The elegant opera house and Venetian-style mansions of Argostoli and Lixouri no longer exist. Here and there on the island lie ruins of destroyed houses, a reminder of the disaster.
From Kefalonia, it’s only a short cruise by ferry over to Ithaka, the small island featured in Homer’s “Odyssey” as the kingdom of the extreme adventurer Odysseus.
A brisk breeze ruffled the water as I watched the dark mountains of Ithaka draw near across the narrows. The boat pulled into one of Ithaka’s secret coves. The port is shaped like a horseshoe. In the centre is a tiny island where a charming seaman’s chapel is surrounded by cypresses. Lord Byron, who often visited Ithaka, used to row out to it each morning to swim.
The harbour of Vathi is surrounded by houses with red-tiled roofs. Cafes animate the waterfront. The summer evening is scented with the smoke of grilling kebabs and fresh-caught fish grilling over charcoal coals.
There is a curious atmosphere here. Ithaka’s hillsides are scented with wild sage and oregano, dotted with vibrant wild-flowers and silvery olive groves. Surrounding the tranquil orchards and vineyards are the high menacing mountains.
The mayor of Vathi invited me to visit the Cave of the Nymphs where a team of American archaeologists and students are busy sifting and sorting through rubble brought up from a ten-meter pit. This cave is believed to be the one where Odysseus hid the gifts given to him by the Phaecians when he returned home after his long, arduous voyage. Later, on our way to the town of Stavros, he drives past the rock-strewn remains of what is believed to be the Bronze Age city.
It’s an Odyssey in itself just getting off Ithaka. The taxi picked me up as scheduled in order to make the sailing to Lefkada. I enjoyed the scenic drive and arrive in plenty of time, but fifteen minutes before the ferry was due to arrive, I discovered that the ferry that had broken down, and we must leave from a different port. After a hair-raising wild race by taxi on a twisting road with hairpin curves and precipices, I arrived at the port just minutes before the ferry sailed.
A school of dolphins frolicked in the surf alongside the ferry as we sailed toward the high sandstone cliffs of Lefkada’s south coast. I disembarked at the pleasant little port
of Vassiliki, a popular centre for wind-surfers. Hundreds of brightly coloured sails skimmed like butterflies over the surface of the Bay. Wind surfers come here from all over Europe.
The next day, I went on a boat cruise around the Cape known as “Sappho’s Leap” where the poet Sappho committed suicide back in 600 BC.
Sailing past Cape Doukas, the towering white cliffs rise from a sea that is as blue as a robin’s egg. The Cape looks like a gigantic wedge of cake with a lighthouse on top for a candle.
The boat anchored at idyllic Egremeni Beach and we scrambled down steep ladders to the shore. I had brought a picnic lunch and a book of Sappho’s love poems and lay on the beach listening to the waves crackle on the pebble shore. As I looked up at those high cliffs from where she plunged, I read her haunting words: “About the cool water, the wind sounds through sprays...”
I extended my visit to Lefkada when I saw an advertisement for another excursion. “Islands Panorama” promised to include Onassis’ island, Skorpios, the island of Madouri, home of Greek national poet Valaortes, and Meganissi, an island famous for its sea caves.
Our first stop was the Cave of Papanikolis. The boat navigated carefully around submerged rocks and entered the mysterious blue cavern. I was surprised to see that there was already another boat inside. I imagined the cave as a pirate’s hideaway.
On the way to the next island stop, we chased a school of dolphins around in circles in the Bay. Dolphins are a rare sight because the fishers, who claim they damage their nets, are killing them. But here in the Ionian Sea there seems to be an abundance, and they are a joy to watch as they splash and dive through the boat’s wake.
The boat circled the island of Skorpios, a small island, densely wooded with cypress and pine trees. The red-tiled roofs of the Onassis’ villas are half-hidden behind the trees. In each little cover there are piers, each with a palm tree planted at the end. Around the dock areas, the grounds are landscaped and showers of magenta bougainvillea spill over the stone fences. One of these villas was a gift to opera singer Maria Callas in the days before Onassis abandoned her in favour of Jacqueline Kennedy.
We were allowed to disembark to swim at a small pebble beach secluded by a thick stand of myrtle bushes. Cicadas trill in the pine trees. As I paddled in the clear, turquoise water, I thought of how not long ago, Jackie O and her children had swam there. So did Maria Callas. And once Princess Diana and her lover Dodi Fayez cruised and frolicked in those same waters.
Skorpios is a symbol of the Rich and Famous, Onassis’ private Garden of Eden. Yet it’s a strange, tragic paradise, with nobody left to enjoy it but Onassis’ granddaughter, Athena, said to be the richest girl in the world.
We cruised away from Skorpios and skirted around the smaller islands, with a stop for a swim at Agiofili Beach. The whole day was a delightful island experience. I even went swimming where the rich and famous once swam.