Abigail Healy goes in search of authentic Greece with Sunvil and finds ancient history, traditional flavours and musical goats
In 1976, my parents went backpacking around Greece. When I was a child, they regaled me with tales of sleeping on kindly locals’ roofs and basking in rosy-hued sunsets at deserted beaches.
Kefalonia was an island they particularly enjoyed, so in June I set off for the Ionian island and its neighbour Ithaca, with my husband Ollie in tow, in search of the Greece my parents remembered so fondly, beyond the mass-market resorts.
The legends here date back far further than those of my own family, however. Ithaca is said to be the home of Greek hero Odysseus, whose 10-year voyage home after the Trojan War is recounted by the poet Homer in his saga The Odyssey.
A highlight of our visit is a hike with Ester Van Zuylen of Island Walks (islandwalks.com) to the School of Homer, said to be Odysseus’s palace, where ruins date from 1200-1400BC.
As we walk, Ester fills us in on some of the local legends. “Many Ithacans firmly believe in Homer’s story. Odysseus was forced to leave his home to fight in the Trojan War, and it’s the same for many young locals today who have to leave the island for better job prospects,” she says.
There is a mind-boggling amount of still-visible history to discover on both islands. We stumble across ruins of a Roman cemetery while strolling into the Kefalonian harbourside village of Fiscardo, but those happy to set out on a longer hike will earn greater rewards. Paths of Greece, a social enterprise, has marked a series of three footpaths from Fiscardo with signposts and little blue and white flags guiding the way.
We take The Battery Trail – around six miles – our efforts repaid with sweeping coastal views and sites including a former Second World War battery, blown up by the Germans at the end of their occupation of the island. And just as we’re starting to tire of the heat, the path leads us to the tiny cove of Kimilia, where the water is a piercing turquoise and the beach itself is almost deserted.
"If clients plan to twin these islands, factor in a week for each as a minimum to allow them to enjoy the relaxed pace of life."
Landscapes and ancient history could occupy us for weeks but we’re keen to discover more of the local culture, which we find on a trip to the mountain village of Anoghi in Ithaca.
Sunvil’s reps in Fiscardo, Anna and Maria, have curated their own excursion for guests staying in the resort. Most Thursday evenings, they arrange a boat and minibus transfer for about 16 guests. This village was once the capital of the island with a thriving population who relished the safety of its high mountain location, concealed from fearsome pirates. Now its permanent inhabitants total around 12, and we see some of the local women drag plastic chairs into the street as evening falls to sit around and chew over the day’s gossip.
We explore the remains of the old ruined village, now inhabited by a herd of goats that form a melodic ensemble with their bells, before sitting down for a Greek feast at Sofia’s shop-cum-cafe, where meals must be pre-arranged. Plates loaded with locally made goat’s cheese, spanakopita (traditional spinach pie), Greek salad and garlicky tzatziki are passed down the table with carafes of local mountain wine before the main event – huge metal pots weighed down by juicy roasted chicken and potatoes in a piquant sauce.
Bellies satisfied, Sofia has a final surprise. She hands Maria the key to the church next door – its walls covered with stunningly well-preserved frescoes.
“It dates back to the 12th century,” Anna tells us, pointing out a hole in the wall concealing a large stone jar. “These jars are hidden behind all the walls – it’s what gives the church such great acoustics,” she explains.
Adventuring aside, both Fiscardo and Kioni – our base on Ithaca and an even tinier harbour village – command our attention too.
Kioni’s centre is set at the base of steep slopes. Terracotta roofs tumble down the hillsides towards it, each house affording views of the verdant slopes and azure sea studded with yachts that moor up each afternoon. We’re staying at House of Phoebe, a villa high up on the hillside, so the views are spectacular. Although it’s a steep climb from the village, we soon realise it’s a good way to work off dinner.
A small supermarket stocked with plenty of local produce is run by Panos, who doubles as the mayor. He’ll run heavy items up the hill on his scooter to save you lugging them up the steep steps.
We regularly pop into Cafe Spavento on our way down into the village. We plan to grab a quick espresso but end up whiling away much longer on its waterfront terrace, munching on honey-drenched, nut-filled baklava.
Beyond, there’s a clutch of souvenir shops and tavernas – all with waterfront seating and serving up Greek treats such as fried Greek cheese, fresh seafood and aubergine salad – delicious for dunking bread into.
Clients keen to get out on the water should look out for Giorgios, who hires out small motorboats for the day and will run visitors about as a sort of water taxi. If they’re unsure where to find him, Panos will probably help out. It’s that sort of a place – a fleeting “calimera” (good morning) is always greeted with a friendly wave and if you get a bit lost, anyone will happily help out.
Fiscardo is bigger, with more variety. Again we sample plenty, including a swirly, flaky spanakopita from Tselentis bakery – established in 1925 with generations of the family baking bread for the village ever since. At a restaurant of the same name, we try Kefalonian meat pie – a hearty dish of pastry filled with rice and pork in a fragrant herb-laced tomato sauce.
"Terracotta roofs tumble down the hillsides towards Kioni, each house affording views of the verdant slopes and azure sea below."
Many people head for Greece seeking a postcard-perfect beach, and both Fiscardo and Kioni have plenty to offer. It’s worth reminding clients that the beaches here are generally pebbly rather than sandy – it’s partly what makes the water so clear and enticing but taking shoes that can be worn in the sea will make getting in and out that bit more comfortable – and graceful.
Just south of Fiscardo, Foki beach is backed by a shady olive grove with an authentic taverna, while heading north takes you to Emblisi – a stretch of white pebbles with a lively cantina (food truck).
From Kioni, we stroll to Cemetery Bay, named after the graveyard that lies behind it. From here, a path leads on to three ruined windmills situated on a peninsula.
Perhaps the most important point for clients to bear in mind if they want to do more than sunbathe is that they will need plenty of time. If they plan to twin these islands, factor in a week for each as a minimum to allow them to enjoy the relaxed pace of life.
Comparing notes with my parents on my return, we agree that my visit may have been more comfortable, the journeys smoother and the wining and dining a little more indulgent, but I was able to get a taste of the welcoming culture, delicious produce and, in my mum’s words, “views that feed the soul” that they enjoyed more than 30 years ago.
And judging by the other Sunvil guests around Sofia’s table with us in Anoghi, many of whom have been visiting the islands for decades, it’s a taste that will leave me – and clients – craving a second helping.
Book it: Sunvil offers a 14-night twin-centre to Kefalonia and Ithaca including flights and transfers from £1,624pp, based on two sharing.