Kefalonia, an island off the west coast of Greece, is renown for its seafarers. One of these island mariners was a man we know as Juan de Fuca. The Straits separating the south end of Vancouver Island from the Olympic Peninsula and Puget Sound are named after him.
Juan de Fuca was born in Kefalonia during the reign of the Venetians in 1550, and later went to sea in the service of Spain, on a quest to find the passage that links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. When his expedition failed, the King of Spain refused to pay him, so he returned to this island paradise to live out the rest of his life.
I went on an expedition of my own to explore Juan de Fuca's island. My voyage took me by ferry from Patras to the little port of Sami on the east coast of Kefalonia. From there I traveled by bus to Argostoli, the modern capital, a pretty town with a harbor esplanade lined with yachts and fishing vessels. I hiked two kilometers from the town to Fenari where there is a well maintained campsite. As I walked along the windy shoreline, I was greeted by the friendly locals. Both English and Italian are spoken here, and you can count on the island folk to strike up a conversation.
A devastating earthquake flattened most of Kefalonia's villages in 1953 including all the elegant buildings that used to grace the town of Argostoli. The new town has been rebuilt in the unique Venetian style, the soft pastel buildings giving the impression of a water-color painting.
The wind gusted and howled, churning the Bay with whitecaps. As I watched a little ferry boat being tossed like balsa wood as it struggled against the waves on its way across the Bay to the town of Lixouri, I was reminded of the æiron gray sea described by Homer in The Odyssey. This island was once part of the fabled adventurer, Odysseus' kingdom. From antiquity until the present, Kefalonians have been masters of the sea. Much of the island's coastline is rugged with steep limestone cliffs that plunge into the sea and miles of white and red sand beaches. Myrto Beach, at the northern tip of the island, has the distinction of being one of the top ten beaches in Europe.
Tourists flock to the golden sand beaches at Platis Ghialos and beautiful little Lepada Beach, located in a secluded cove near Lixouri. Here the red sand is a striking contrast to the aqua-colored sea. In contrast to the crowds lining the beach at Platis Ghialos, only a dozen blue and white striped umbrellas and chairs decorate the palm-lined shore.
There is safe anchorage at all the small ports of Kefalonia and island cruises are offered which include barbecues on remote beaches, visits to sea caves, trips to nearby islands such as Ithaka or Zakinthos, and a cruise in a glass bottom boat to explore the underwater scenery: ship wrecks and sea dolphins, seals and turtles. The Mediterranean loggerhead turtles (caretta-caretta), lay their eggs in the sand at Potomakia Beach, and are one of the island's protected species of wild-life. At the northern tip of the island, the endangered Mediterranean monk seals make their homes in sea caves that once harbored renegade pirates.
Time seems to have erased the village of Valeriano where Juan de Fuca was born, but in my quest to find it, I took a bus trip to the tiny village of Fiskardo at the northern tip of the island. The road winds past villages of stone-built houses tucked in the protective folds of the mountains. Along the route, you see the ruins Venetian fortresses and castles built as protection against the Ottoman Turks who, in the 1400's captured and killed many of Kefalonia's inhabitants. At the time of Juan de Fuca's birth, the Venetians had taken the island back.
The road spirals up the cedar and pine-covered mountainsides. Kefalonia is known for its unique forest of rare fir trees called Abies Cefalonica. The air is redolent with the fragrance of sage, thyme, bay leaf and oregano. Tall cypresses stand straight and elegant, their dark green a contrast to the silvery olive trees.
I wondered, did Juan de Fuca feel some nostalgia for his island homeland as he cruised the Pacific Northwest Coast? Our islands enjoy a Mediterranean micro-climate similar to these western Greek islands, and the scenery of our coastline bears some similarity. Herons, kingfishers and gulls swoop from the rocky cliffs. Swallows and turtledoves nest in the crags. In tangled thickets, hedgehogs, hares, martens and foxes prowl. There are more than a thousand species of plants on Kefalonia, some very rare, including fifty species of wild orchids.
The bus halts at the top of a hill overlooking a secluded cove. Passengers must walk the short distance down to the tiny port. Once the hideaway of the infamous pirate Robert Guiscard in 1080, Fiskardo is now a haven for yachts and fishers. Fiskardo is an odd derivative of his name.
On a rocky promontory, I explored the
ruins of a Venetian castle that once
commanded the entrance to Fiskardo's
harbor. As I watched the fishing kaikis and
yachts ply the narrow channel that
separates Kefalonia from the rugged, mountainous shores of nearby Ithaka, Odysseus' island, I
could not help but think of all the mariners who have ventured from these shores, especially Juan
de Fuca, the Kefalonian who sailed to the Pacific Northwest. Our journeys have spanned each
Article and pictures by W. Ruth Kozak
IF YOU GO:
Buses leave the Kifissou St. depot in Athens several times a day for the ports of Sami, Argostoli, Lixour and Poros, via the ferry from Patras. Trip takes 8 hours. Approx. $35 one way.
Olympic Airways domestic flights are available as well as charter direct from Britain.
Hotels and pensions throughout the island accommodate travelers. An island bus provides service to any of the scenic villages and beaches. From Argostoli, take the commuter ferry to Lixouri. Car and moped rentals are also available.
Camp sites are located at Argostoli and Sami.
For more information about Kefalonia you might like to visit: http://www.greeka.com/ionian/kefalonia/
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