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The beautiful island: Kefalonia Big Ride

In-depth
14 Jul 2022
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The Greek island of Kefalonia might be best known for a certain book, but it should be celebrated for a whole lot more, especially if you own a bike

Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

Thomas is a man who is only slightly bigger than his handshake, which is saying something, as he is a mountain of a Greek, with broad features and a peak of snow-white hair.

Together with his brother Giannis he runs The Pines restaurant, although from what I could gather from last night, that largely means Giannis runs around taking orders and Thomas sits around playing backgammon and talking to the kittens.

This morning is no different. Dice fall and kittens mewl, although at 7.30am the The Pines is otherwise empty, save for Thomas’s Irish wife, Kerry, in the kitchen.

Kerry was once-upon-a-time Miss Ireland, and met Thomas on an early Greek reality TV show about a cruise ship. At least I think that’s what happened.

Simon is relaying such information to me as I shovel down a bowl of kollyva, which depending on who you ask is either a dessert or a celebratory dish at Orthodox funerals.

It’s also one of those dishes that reminds you that you haven’t tasted all the flavours there are to taste after all. It’s made from soaked wheat and nuts – nothing groundbreaking there – but to this is added mint, marjoram, parsley, cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg, topped off with icing sugar and pomegranate seeds.

It shouldn’t work and it must contain immeasurable calories, but it is one of the most deliciously interesting things I’ve eaten in an age.

I know all this because Simon is telling me, and he knows all this because he made it his business to know. He is an ex-pat who some years back decided his flooring company could be run from a country whose weather system afforded year-round bibshorts and whose economy afforded two villas overlooking the sea.

Since then he has become something of a man about town, shaking hands with local mayors and backgammon-playing restaurateurs, and now he’s set on bringing cycling to Kefalonia under the simple logic: I love cycling here, and so will you. Simon is the reason potholes get filled in.

Thomas throws the dice and bangs his hand on the table. The kittens scarper.

To me, to you

We pedal off from under The Pines’ pines and down a slope to the coast. The sun shoots columns of light through the clouds like an illuminated manuscript. The Ionian Sea ripples, separating the shores of Kefalonia from the distant silhouette of Zakynthos.

Parasols line the beach in a state of limbo, too late to be rented by tourists, too early to be packed away for winter. Yachts bob in the carefree way only permitted to the well-off.

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We pedal past the bottom of Simon’s road, which incidentally he shares with fellow ex-pat and 1990s children’s TV star Paul Elliot.

But while Elliot may have found fame as one half of the Chuckle Brothers, the island he’s chosen to live on has much grander celebrity roots, namely as the star location of Louis de Bernières’ 1994 novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

While I can’t speak for Paul, I don’t think I’d have come across Kefalonia were it not for this book, nor fallen in love with the idea of the place.

It sounded almost tragically beautiful, occupied by German and Italian troops in the Second World War, and scene of the Acqui Division massacre (see below).

As we pedal, the beach moves further away, separated from the road by the kind of survivalist flora that clings to life near beaches: bushes of tough, waxy green and trees with limbs swept as if bowing to the sea.

Gradually the road rises and the odd terracotta roof drops from head height until we’re looking down on what few houses there are from above. In the same breath it gradually falls, and we’re on a road barely centimetres above sea level.

Gathered just off the shore is a series of rocks poking up absurdly from the water. Geologists might put these irregular rocks down to igneous deposits uncovered from a sedimentary entombment by beach erosion, but this being Greece, these are in fact rocks thrown down from the cliffs by Polyphemus the Cyclops, desperate to avenge his blinding by the fleeing Odysseus.

Colour of the land

Poros was once a small fishing town. Today it is a small fishing town with a ferry terminal. The huge yellow bow of a Levante ferry lies agape, ready to receive the few cars waiting to sail for Kyllini on the mainland. It would be a long commute, but as we swing right and up into a gorge, the appeal of living here becomes increasingly apparent.

The surface is smooth and new, winding gently up through cliffs red with mineral deposits and perfectly coiffured cypresses. Soon we’re passing houses, gardens bustling with wild olive trees.

There’s more than the odd unfinished house, with metal bars sticking out of poured concrete slabs, a leftover tax dodge from a time when houses ‘under construction’ didn’t have to pay the equivalent of council tax.

In another world this might feel ugly, but here the clichéd traveller inside me wants to use words like quintessential and rustic. There’s a kind of unruly yet not unloved charm, a world away from Edwardian terraces and parking restrictions.

We take a right at a junction signposted in Greek letters I can’t read on top of some English ones I can: Sami. Within a few minutes village life disappears and is replaced by crumbling rocky slopes and scrubby bush.

One side of the road is penned in by wire fencing, with plastic bottles and aluminium cans stuck on the ends of the rusty posts to act as makeshift cat’s eyes.

We roll through a village square, stopping to chat briefly to an old woman who says she has come out to sit on one of the best benches for getting mobile internet. Behind her is a Greek Orthodox church that perfectly encapsulates the palette so far.

Its walls are a fleshy pink that seems popular for churches, its bells a greening-bronze, and its Hellenic flag a crumple of radiant blue. The woman invites us for coffee, but we thank her kindly and explain we’ve still a way to go.

Smells of war and cheese

At 1,628m Mount Ainos is the highest peak on Kefalonia, and on another day the views to the Ionian Sea are near panoramic. But today won’t be that day.

As we climb, whispy claws of cloud start pawing at the sky, making the horizon drift in and out of view and my skin prickle. Gone are the jaunty colours of town and people, in their place scree banks as grey as the clouds.

We make an abrupt left and twin satellite dishes appear in the distance, relics of a Nato base still pointed doggedly at the sky. Simon explains he and a friend were forced to shelter there once from a freak snowstorm. The base has a sinister, abandoned air.

In a depression in the mountain-scape is a lonely shepherd’s hut, and as we round a bend past a rocky outcrop we can see its point. Countless goats dash from the scrub, bells clanging, alerted to our presence long ago by that preternatural instinct animal prey has.

Their deft hooves make light work of a sheer bank and they come to a standstill atop it, eyes fixed, mouths set to automatic grind. A familiar scent fills the air, sweet and not exactly unexotic. It’s the uncanny musk of goat’s cheese, which I now realise gets its smell from the goats themselves.

The road has taken a turn to the good, surface-wise. It’s now charcoal grey and runs smoothly beneath our tyres. So too has the landscape shifted in just a few beats. The bald mountain has grown a green head of coniferous forest so suddenly there’s barely need for the gates and signs telling us we have entered the Ainos National Park.

Like all national parks, Ainos is protected, but its most precious possessions are Abies cephalonica, the Kefalonian fir trees.

It’s these whose bows droop heavy and low at our shoulders, dropping needles that rot with an altogether more nuanced aroma from the goats moments earlier.

These trees are a unique species, meaning they have remained pure without producing hybrids thanks to Kefalonia’s island isolation.

Mount Ainos is set apart from our ride so far by its steepness. The percentage ticks upwards and by the time we reach the top, which is home to another sinister concrete building used for communications and weather, we’re sweating in the pines’ clammy cold.

The mist means we can barely see 20m ahead, and I could be convinced we were in a forest in the Rockies.  

Cold way down

By the time we reach the first sign for the town of Sami my hands are freezing and my feet feel like needles in an ice block. As we stand waiting for the food we have ordered to refuel, I take my shoes off and try to massage some life back into my toes.

It’s warm down at sea level overlooking Sami’s harbour, but our descent from Ainos to here seemed to incur an incredible windchill factor.

We’re almost alone today in this port town, which was used as a location extensively for the filming of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

I quiz Simon and he says the island is beginning to try to make something of an attraction of the various sites that were used for filming, but that unlike a city such as Girona, which will dine out on its appearance in Game Of Thrones for the rest of its days, many in Kefalonia are ambivalent to its connection to the tale, owing to the dark history at the centre of the story.

Progress post-food is difficult to achieve, legs weighed down with fried fish and an ill-advised beer, the road hugging the sea in gently undulating fashion. Yet the views make the journey a pleasure.

The water is an ever-changing spectrum of blue as clouds move across the sky and light hits and reflects over differing depths.

In the distance is the island of Ithaca, which another day could have been reached via a two-and-a-half-hour ferry crossing from Sami, and which incidentally, say scholars, isn’t actually the Ithaca of Homer’s Odysseus.

Rather that honour goes to the town of Luxouri on Kefalonia’s west adjunct, the Ithaca referred to being specifically a kingdom, not a whole island.

We cut back inland, and for some kilometres lose the blue sea to speckled grey mountains and scraggy hillsides, but when it does reappear it is with something of a fanfare.

We pull over in a layby and sit lazily for a moment on our top tubes, gazing down into a bay whose water is almost a silver white, so white are its stones, so bright the sun and so clear its waters.

This is Myrtos Beach, the kind of place that tops lists with names starting ‘Secret Kefalonia…’. It’s not on our route per se – the road ends at the sand – but it is a gloriously hairpinned detour we cannot ignore.

We descend to find a deserted beach as beautiful at eye level as it was from above, although Simon issues a warning that ends any tempting notions I have of a quick dip that the sea may look still on top but beneath can lie a vicious rip current.

Myrtos’s four hairpins prove equally ferocious on the climb back up, happily hovering at around 16% on the straights. A few clicks more and we plateau again, several hundred metres above any beach, the Ionian seeming to stretch for several kilometres into the distance.

Light at the end of the day

We whizz down towards Kefalonia’s capital, Argostoli, large circular contraptions of fish farms pegged just off the shore’s coast, a monolithic cruise ship anchored just beyond the mouth of its natural harbour.

The sun is doing that thing where it seems to be speeding up in its downward arc, so we stop only for a moment in Argostoli’s lagoon, which is spanned by a pedestrianised bridge leading people into the city proper.

We can almost hear the cutlery scraping and glasses clinking as the locals gear up for another fine evening sat waterside, but for us to do the same means we’ll have to high-tail it fast back to Skala.

We pedal out of town and have to stop almost immediately. Traffic lights. One of only two sets on the island, says Simon. That’s just one more reason on a growing list to recommend this place.

The light turns green. The driver to our left in a beaten-up red pickup smiles and motions at us to go on through first.


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The massacre of the Acqui Division

For much of the Second World War, Kefalonia was occupied by German and Italian forces, but when the 1943 armistice was declared between Italy and the Allies, the Germans began a process of disarming Italian garrisons.

On Kefalonia, that left the Italian Acqui Division with a grave decision: fight with the Germans, fight against the Germans, or surrender.

General Antonio Gandin polled his men and they chose resistance, and so on 21st September 1943 a bloody battle ensued, and by 26th September, 1,315 Italians had been killed in action and 5,155 executed (soon after, a further 3,000 Italian soldiers were killed when Allied forces sank the Germans’ POW transporters).

This painful moment in history forms the backdrop to Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and while the book sold three million copies and prompted a film, many Kefalonians were upset by their portrayal.

Central to this is De Bernières’ assertion that Greek resistance fighters killed many Italians, but Greek and Italian survivors testify the resistance gave armed support to the Italians and helped smuggle survivors off the island.

The rider’s ride

Orbea Orca M10 LTD Custom, €10,648 (approx £8,800), orbea.com


This Orca is one hell of a bike, but it all starts with the components. Shimano’s new Dura-Ace 9200 groupset is as you’d expect – it looks a bit like the old one and shifting doesn’t skip a beat.

Shift times have been quickened and the levers are now wireless, making my bike packing that much easier (the mechs are still wired and the charge port is integrated into the rear mech).

But the best thing is the braking, which is superior in feel and modulation thanks to tech borrowed from Shimano’s mountain bike brakes. Yet it’s the wheels that impressed me most.

These new Dura-Ace C50s are finally a useful inner width – 21mm (up from 17.5mm), meaning these tubeless Vittoria Corsas felt voluminous and plush, with the knock-on effect that the Orca’s very stiff frame was still comfy over some pretty rough roads.

That frame is racy, with this 55cm top tube bike sporting a 148mm head tube and very short 981mm wheelbase. That made it great for out of the saddle climbing (short-wheelbase bikes always are) but also superbly quick in the turns.

How we did it

Travel

Bonkers as it sounds, you can drive from London to Kefalonia in around 37 hours, traversing seas with the Eurotunnel and later a ferry from Brindisi in Italy to Sami on Kefalonia. Alternatively, we flew with Easyjet in October, with prices around £110 return plus £40e/w for a bike.

Accommodation

We stayed with Simon Wallace of Pro Camp Cycling, which offers cycle training camps and holidays out of Skala, where Simon has a luxury villa with pool and sea views.

The villa sleeps up to six in three bedrooms, and Simon offers training camps in May, September and October for groups of four to six. Prices are £795pp, which includes everything bar flights and food and drink when riding, with a discount for the group leader. See procampcycling.co.uk.

Thanks

Huge thanks to Simon, who was everything from fixer to expert guide to gregarious host to pomegranate picker (he’ll send you off with the ones he grows). Thanks also to Nickie Warboys, who drove the support van.

Also coming soon to Kefalonia will be the GFNY Kefalonia gran fondo. Keep an eye on gfny.com for details.