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Cephalonia

Cephalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands of the western coast of the Greek mainland. Its name translates as “the head”, as it is thought to resemble a goat’s head in shape. It is a popular destination for holidaymakers from nearby Italy, and was the setting for the 2001 film “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”.

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The island's history

Believed by some to be the original homeland of wandering Odysseus, Cephalonia boasts ancient archaeological remains going back 40,000 years. The Roman era from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD is evidenced in a well-preserved theatre and several necropoli. During the Middle-Ages it fell under Byzantine rule, then under the Kingdom of Naples, then the Ottomans in 1479. Sharing much of its history with nearby Zakynthos, it was ceded to France at the breakup of the Venetian empire, then became a British protectorate. In 1864 Cephalonia became a member of the newly-founded Greek state. Its darkest hour came in September 1943 when the occupying German army massacred 5,000 Italian soldiers who had resisted them after the Allies’ armistice with Italy. After the traumas of the Greek civil war, the great earthquake of 1953 destroyed most of the villages and town on the island (except in the north) and their elegant old Venetian architecture; the island is replete with ruins as a reminder of this catastrophic event.

What to do on the island

Cephalonia enjoys a pleasant variety of enjoyable towns and villages as well as some exceptional scenery and natural attractions. The capital and main port is Argostoli, on the bay of Koutavos in the south of the island. Largely rebuilt since the earthquake, it has a pleasant waterfront and harbour and a lively central square, the Platia Vallianou. The Archaeological Museum, rebuilt in 1960, has an important collection from the Mycenaean era of 1500 – 1100 BC. The second largest town is Lixouri, which faces Argostoli across a long, narrow neck of the Ionian Sea, and is home to the fine Typaldos-Iokovatos Museum in one of the few mansions spared by the earthquake. Fiscardo, on the northern tip of the island, is popular with the yachting set, and is a quaint, pretty village with its rebuilt pastel-hued Venetian buildings. Quite lively during the summer, it is ringed by a number of lovely little coves that can be visited by boat and which are a favourite habitat of the Mediterranean seal. Skala, on the southeastern tip of Cephalonia, is a friendly resort, a former fishing village with plenty of tavernas, and nearby Potomaki beach is a haven for the loggerhead turtles, with organized night-time turtle watches. Sami, on eastern coast, is a ferry port to the mainland; hardest hit by the earthquake, it has a long waterfront, and was one of the main film sets for “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”. Above the town are the ruins of ancient Sami and the Monastery of Agrillon. The coastal road from Peratata to Markopoulo offers especially stunning views over the shoreline.

Inland, there is some spectacular scenery, ideal for hiking and cycling. Mount Ainos is the highest point on the island at 1627m, and is topped by a nature park full of beautiful Cephalonian firs. The subterranean Melissani Lake can be explored in a small rowboat, and the Drogarati Caves have impressive cave formations. The Monastery of St Gerasimus of Cephalonia nestles in the hills overlooking the busy resort area of Lassi, and there are Roman remains behind Aghia Barbera beach near the quiet resort village of Katelios. Lourdas, in the south of the island, is a little slice of paradise, set in acres of lovely olive, cypress, and palm trees giving onto a quiet beach. The forests on the upper flanks of Mount Ainos, the highest peak among the region's islands, is a pristine and highly significant ecosystem of the original and endemic Cephalonian fir tree. It has been designated a National Park, and ideal for glorious walks and hiking.

The beaches

Cephalonia has a wide variety of beaches along its long, convoluted coastline, and most are pleasantly undeveloped and pristine. Myrtos Beach is perhaps the best, a beautiful beach with stunning white sand and ringed by stark cliffs with views of Assos to the north topped by a Venetian fortress. Anti-Samos beach, near Sami, is a beautiful pebble crescent, an area of outstanding natural beauty. The red sand beach of Lepeda has lovely views of the gulf of Argostoli and Mount Ainos, with the monastery of Aghia Paraskevi just inland. Xi Beach, near Lixouri, is famous for its clay cliffs, which are reported to have medicinal properties when mixed with seawater and applied to the skin. It also has water sports facilities. The beaches around Lassi are wide and sandy, but also the most developed, with rows upon rows of sunbeds. The sandy beach of Lourdas is 2km long, and set against a beautiful dramatic backdrop of forested hills rolling down to the sea. Ammos beach in the south is wild and unpopulated, but accessible only by a steep climb down a cliff, and the waters here are deep and with strong currents.

How to get there

Kefalonia Island International Airport is only 9km from Argostoli, and is served by scheduled and charter flights from many UK airports with Easyjet, Thomas Cook, Thomson, Monarch, and others, as well as internal flights from Athens. Ferry connections from the mainland at Patras and Killini land at Argostoli, Sami, and Poros. Car hire is readily available from the airport, and at many of the towns throughout Cephalonia.

Cephalonia 5
Asos

Cephalonia 4
Fiskardo

Cephalonia 6
18th century view of Argostoli

Cephalonia 1
Cows on the road

Cephalonia 2
Melissani caves

Cephalonia 3
Xi beach