No strings attached
8 February 2003
Emma Brockes finds Captain Corelli's island refreshingly unspoilt by its time in the hollywood spotlight.
By rights, the Greek island of Kefallonia should be monstrous. Eight years after Captain Corelli's Mandolin was published and a couple of years on from the film version, Louis de Bernières's small island setting should be in the final stages of colonisation - swamped by Britain's authenticity-seekers in the manner of southern France after the success of A Year In Provence.
I first visited the island two and a half years ago and found it braced for invasion. On the single-lane roads, goats skittered out of the way of convoys of cement mixers, and small plots of land were being cleared for a blaze of new apartments. This wasn't devastation on the scale of the Spanish resorts - Kefallonia is too awkward geographically to enable much major development - but it seemed likely that the thrilling emptiness of the place would be lost. The word among those reading Captain Corelli by the poolside was that their island was about to be ruined by, horror, a load of movie groupies who hadn't even read the book.
The film bombed, but not before lots of inviting publicity shots (Penelope Cruz looking thoughtful in an olive grove) had been flashed around the world and the island's profile raised considerably. When I arrived there last October, there had been rain and the ground was green and storm swept. There are terrifying mountain roads in Kefallonia, but no motorways or snarly roundabouts so that even the feeblest driver can pick up a hire car at the airport and two seconds later find themselves serenely commanding an empty road. I wondered if all that had changed.
Early signs were encouraging. As our car wound down towards the small town of Trapezaki, in the south of the island, the only other traffic we met was tractors and local taxis. The airport was still at the end of a narrow country road, as if it had fallen out of a tornado and landed at random. The scenery still scooped away from the coast and reared up into mountains. We passed a few stubby concrete ruins with steel girders poking out of them, but by the time we reached the sea, it became clear that most of the nascent apartments hadn't risen beyond their foundations. The goats had taken back the roads.
If Kefallonia has resisted change, it is due to a combination of modern history and ancient geology. In 1953, an earthquake flattened the island, killing 476 people. As a result, structures can only be built two storeys high. Tourism flourishes in small-scale apartments and family-run hotels, and Kefallonians look with pity at their over-developed sister islands. The suggestion that the only profit model for tourism in Greece is to suck in the greatest number of visitors, is met with you must be crazy eye-rolls and a languid wave of the hand. In this place so comprehensively smashed, first by the Germans, then by the earthquake, preserving what remains of the past is taken seriously.
So it was that the Kefallonians regarded the Captain Corelli phenomenon with detached amusement, laughing at the film for its schmaltziness and leaving commercial exploitation of both it and the book largely to the foreign tour operators. In the bigger towns such as Sami, the port, you will find a few Captain Corelli theme cafes, but they will serve strong Greek coffee or cappuccino (the island's Italian legacy is heavily reflected in its food and drink). Those - and there were several in the group - who mistook the place for a coffee bar in central London and asked for their milk to be frothed into latte, were stared at as if they have ordered a cup of liquid fish. There are no Starbucks on Kefallonia.
On both visits I stayed in Trapezaki, which is cradled expertly between the mountains and the sea. It is a half-hour drive from the capital Argostoli, and like a lot of Kefallonia it encourages visitors to submit to the goatherd fantasy - irresistable in this case because there are just enough services in Trapezaki to save it from feeling like the middle of nowhere. It has a quiet, sandy beach, a few good bars and restaurants, and a lot of unmolested vegetation. After the rains, the palm trees and outbursts of hyacinth around the Lourdas beach bar are positively Caribbean, and on a clear day you can see across to the neighbouring Greek island of Zakynthos.
I stayed at the Trapezaki Bay hotel on my first visit, more recently in a newly completed apartment run by Direct Greece. They are different types of holiday. The first is for people without kids, since the hotel doesn't allow them. The quiet around the pool is heavenly - there are no crocodile-shaped lilos or little bodies snorkelling in the shallow-end. The hotel is bright white and perched on a hill, burning in the sun like a plantation house, is a 10-minute walk from the beach and has cool marble interiors and a good restaurant. The best things about it are the owners, Nikos and Sofia, who built the hotel from scratch four years ago and run it with a sort of parental devotion. They lived for years in New York and are ruthlessly hospitable, loving nothing better than to chat with the guests - Nikos while sneaking a crafty cigarette out of sight of his wife at the pool bar; Sofia on patrol in the garden or restaurant. A lot of their guests are repeat visitors who regard the place as less of a hotel than the home of dear friends.
For a holiday with the kids or with a group of mates, or for a cheaper stay, the twin apartments Olga and Anna are a good bet. They are slightly further up the hill - you don't get the uninterrupted views that you do from the hotel, but the intervening land is hardly mid-town Manhattan. Opposite an olive grove and with its own private pool, the apartment is well equipped - big telly, big kitchen table, big fridge, big airy rooms and balconies. It can sleep six and there's a brilliant restaurant at the end of the road, the Diana, where everything is under a tenner and the cheese pies are the size of rugby balls. Also, there's a bar discreetly tucked into the courtyard of an apartment complex two minutes' walk up the hill.
If you can overcome your fear of the mountain roads, there are two towns you must visit outside Trapezaki. The first, Agia Efimia, sits on what must be one of the most placid and beautiful bays in Greece. Those of the Captain Corelli cast who had a say in where they stayed, were housed on the hillside here (in fact, a local woman now grimly advertises her apartment and the very bed within it as the venue for Nick Cage and Cruz's alleged affair).
To the north, Fiskardo, well known in yachting circles, has a harbour crammed with tapering white sailboats and the long limbs of the super rich and beautiful. Fiskardo is one of the few places untouched by the earthquake, and it is crammed with cobbled sidestreets, slope-shouldered buildings and views over the volcanic glass surface of the bay. On the road to both of these places you can catch a vertiginous view of Myrtou beach, which is where Cage and his fellow soldiers cavorted in a memorable scene from the film and where the water is amulet blue.
If you have time, you should take the car on the ferry from Sami to Ithaki, where Ulysses ended his Odyssey. The main town, Vathi, is a straggle of pastel-coloured buildings around a perfect crescent of water and fishing boats with peeling paint rocking in the water. Drive to Kioni for lunch at one of the waterside restaurants; the place is tiny and stunning, with a newly opened boutique that testifies to a certain novel prosperity.
At the top of the mountain is a monastery with goats and an old man the shape and texture of an olive tree, who lives alone and tends to the relics. There is a monastery on Kefallonia, too, holding the remains of St Gerassimos, the island's patron saint, whose finger was snapped off recently by an over-zealous pilgrim and auctioned on the internet before being recovered by the authorities.
One last thing, the best beach: St Thomas, tucked down a side road between Trapezaki and Argostoli. There are a few snack bars and some allotments where locals grow tomatoes and aubergines. There are big smooth slabs of stone for sunbathing, a sandy beach, water as clear as tonic and, last time I looked, hardly any people. You'd be hardpressed to find a more divine spot in Europe.
CARETTA - CARETTA