On the next day we drove back to the east of the island this time to visit the island’s main port town of Sami. On the way we stopped in the middle of the morning to visit some underground caves that featured prominently in the island guidebooks.
We started first at the damp limestone caves of Drogorati and after paying the modest entrance fee made a suicidal descent down one hundred and twenty almost vertical concrete steps through a steep tunnel and into the cave chambers that bristled with stalagmites and stalactites.
The main cavern is thought to be around one hundred and fifty million years old but was only discovered about one hundred years ago and developed for tourism in the 1960s. Over the years earthquakes have caused damage and part of the roof has collapsed. With its constantly cool temperature and excellent acoustics, concerts are often held in the cave with audiences of up to five hundred people.
I quite like going down into caves and I enjoyed the descent below ground and walking around the caverns and the tunnels but it was a bit cooler than I really like it so after a short while we returned to the surface and back to the warm sunshine outside. Just arriving in the car park was a full coach tour so we glad of our timing that had allowed us to enjoy it without crowds of other people.
At nearby Mellisani, which means the Blue Cave, boatmen ferry visitors around what was once an underground lake but thanks to the 1953 earthquake now has a collapsed roof and is open to the sky. From the entrance we walked to the lake down a long, dark tunnel and the closer we got to the lake light poured in from the hole above and illuminated the brilliant aquamarine water below and this reminded me of the Blue Lagoon on the island of Capri that dad and I had visited together in 1976.
We took what turned out to be a quite short boat ride that simply circumnavigated the lake with a guide that pointed out the likeness of the twenty thousand year old stalactites to the shapes of various zoo animals and famous people in the way that guides down caves generally do and in some cases we really had to call upon all of our imagination to see what he was trying to show us. The lake is ten metres deep and a beautiful turquoise colour that as we rode across it reflected a full range of blue shades and hues onto the walls of the cave as the pool of sunlight dropped through the roof and was soaked up into the still water.
Being underground is good fun but when the sun is shining I prefer to be on the surface so after we left the caves we continued on our journey to Sami. Just like Argostoli the town was destroyed by the 1953 earthquake and has been rebuilt with wide streets and prefabricated cement homes in the same way.
But we were lucky today and got to see a Hollywood reconstruction of Argostoli because our visit here coincided with the filming of the film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Sami was being used as the location to represent the wartime capital.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by the English author Louis de Bernières, is how most people will recognise Kefalonia and is believed to be based on events that occurred in the picturesque village of Farsa, just outside of Argostoli. The complex love story is set before and after the Italian Acqui Division massacre by the Germans, during the Second World War.
The slaughter is one of the most shocking stories of the war because surrendering troops were summarily executed without trial. In World War Two, Kefalonia was occupied by Axis powers. Until late 1943, the occupying force was predominantly twelve thousand Italian troops supported by two thousand Germans.
The island was largely spared the fighting, until the armistice with Italy concluded by the Allies in September 1943. Confusion followed on the island, as the Italians were hoping to return home, but German forces did not want the Italian munitions to be captured and eventually used against them. As German reinforcements headed to the island the Italians resisted and, eventually they fought against the new German invasion. The fighting came to a head at the siege of Argostoli, where ultimately the superior German forces prevailed, taking full control of the island, and six thousand of the nine thousand surviving Italian soldiers were executed as a reprisal by German forces.
The Nazi occupation was harsh and cruel and is remembered still. This probably explains why you don’t see many German tourists in Greece and UK visitors outnumber them by ten to one.
To read more about the massacre: Kefalonia, The Massacre of the Acqui Division
Like Argostoli, Sami has as long cement-paved seafront promenade broken by a succession of fairly pleasant pavement tavernas where we sat by one of the principal film sets and watched painted fishing boats bobbing about in the harbour. All of the stars of the film were staying in Sami and as we enjoyed lunch heads were turning as man strolled along the front and selected a table at an adjacent taverna and began to study the menu.
It turned out to be the actor John Hurt who we were told was in the habit of just popping into the village in this unselfconscious way in between filming. I looked out for Penelope Cruz but there was no sign of her and the bar staff said that Nicolas Cage wasn’t very friendly either.
After the holiday I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I have to say I didn’t find terribly enthralling and in 2001 I went to see the film when it came out and played spot the locations that we had visited a year before.
After we had finished lunch and looked around the unremarkable little town for a second time we returned to the car and left the town on a little road that climbed into the mountains and as it did so past a large house with a security guard on the gate where Nicholas Cage was staying. I don’t particularly like Nicolas Cage so I wasn’t desperately sorry that he wasn’t there to say hello. All around Sami there were deserted villages destroyed by the earthquake and we drove through some of them as we headed inland and back across the island to Argostoli and Lassi.
Then we did the same things again except in the evening we made sure that we didn’t keep dad waiting for his soup again. After dinner we went to the Italian bar to watch England in the football but left disappointed when they lost 3 – 2 to Portugal.
It was half way through the holiday and we were enjoying our time on Kefalonia where everyone seemed friendly, the weather was perfect and there were lots of things to see and tomorrow we planned to drive to Fiskardo in the north of the island.
More cave stories: