In the first half of 2000 work was getting onerous and less enjoyable and I was beginning to lose my enthusiasm for working for a company (Onyx UK) that was financed by public taxes but was providing an ever deteriorating level of service. I had a new boss who I didn’t get on with and I needed a holiday so at the beginning of June I went to the Ionian island of Kefalonia with mum and dad and son Jonathan. As it happened it turned out to be the last time that I went away with dad because he became too ill to travel soon after that.
Tag Archives: Kefalonia
Beyond the Alleyway and the Door
As Fiskardo is the only place that escaped the damage it is consequently the only village to see examples of the old Venetian architecture. The buildings around the harbour however had had a very heavy makeover and didn’t feel especially genuine but those in the back streets leading off the harbour were much more authentic.
I like almost everything about Greece so I suppose I should mention the beaches. After Spain (511), Greece (387) has the second most Blue Flag Beaches, but to put that into perspective it does have almost three times as much coastline so has only one award winning beach every thirty-five kilometres compared with Spain at approximately ten (Portugal, by the way, is the best with a blue flag beach every six and a half kilometres). Personally I don’t think Greek beaches are anywhere near the best so lucky for me then that I am not really a beach person.
Psili Ammos, Serifos
The plan was to walk out of Livadi and visit Psili Ammos beach just a short way out of town, which in Serifos they claim to be one of the top twenty beaches in the Mediterranean. Our guidebook said allow an hour and don’t do it in the middle of the day but we paid no attention to that and set off anyway even without a map.
This turned out to be a really mad thing to do especially because there was a perfectly good beach right next to the hotel and if we waited an hour or so there was a bus that went there anyway. It turned out to be much further than we estimated and a couple of wrong turns didn’t help. There was no proper road, just a rough unmade track that meant that hiking boots would have been more appropriate than our sandals and when we came to a sign for Agios Sostis beach we abandoned the attempt to reach Psili Ammos and settled for the alternative instead.
It was pleasant enough, a rough sandy beach and a sheltered rocky cove but it wouldn’t have made the top one hundred let alone the top twenty beaches but there were only a few people there and crucially there were some trees for shade. Kim collapsed from exhaustion almost immediately and being restless I went for a snorkel where I came across a seabed littered with dead fish which was a bit off-putting and then went for a walk along the shoreline and came across some monstrous washed up jelly fish struggling to return to the sea. They were a beautiful translucent blue but I didn’t fancy swimming with them so that was the last time I went in the sea this morning.
Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia
The road took us towards the narrow northern peninsula and as it did so began to rise up and down and twist first one way and then the other as it clung to the side of a mountain that tumbled precipitously into the sea whilst looking down on beautiful beaches and azure blue sea.
Eventually we arrived at Myrtos, which is the most famous of these beaches, a major tourist attraction and an automatic inclusion in any top ten beaches of Greece list. I don’t know about that but it has won several awards including ‘Best beach in Greece’ for several years running and third ‘Best beach in Mediterranean’. Myrtos is the beach all the brochures boast about and the island’s postcard pinup and from the roadside high above the scene was nothing short of breathtaking. A seductive crescent of delicious white pebble beach, gentle surf and brilliant blue water and nothing was going to stop us making a perilous descent down an incredibly steep road to the long ribbon of gleaming stones backed by pale yellow, vertical cliffs.
Although it was hot it was very pleasant this morning but in the high season there can be days of crippling heat as the bleached west facing stones, pale cliffs and turquoise sea combine to turn the entire beach into something resembling a slow roast oven. Actually once at the bottom it didn’t feel as special as it should have when compared with the view from the top. The pebble beach dropped very sharply into the sea, the stones were rough and there was a lot of tar about. We walked along the length of the beach to the naturist end in search of amusement but there was nothing remarkable to see so we returned to the car and made the tortuous return journey back up the stupendously steep hill.
Valmas Beach, Ios
And this is my favourite beach in the Greek Islands:
Valmas doesn’t look very much it has to be said, just a small quiet bay with a shingle beach and a sea bed littered with rocks that makes access to the sea quite difficult. As I have said, I am not much of a beach person but this is very nice indeed, not a tourist beach at all and most of the other people there were local people and those who clearly just happened to know about it. I know about it now as well so that is why we go back every year.
Lying on the rocks about a hundred metres away were three naked women all enjoying the sun on their bodies and manoeuvring themselves into precarious positions to maximise the tanning effects of the solar rays. Having what I consider to be a healthy interest in naked ladies this naturally intrigued me a great deal and on a sort of Jacques Cousteau pretence of snorkelling and looking for rare species of fish and other marine life I swam closer and closer until I could achieve a better view. Now, let this be a lesson to all men with deteriorating vision, because believe me on closer examination this was not a pretty sight at all and in the quest for a voyeuristic opportunity I have to confess a hugely bitter disappointment. On closer inspection this was really not worth all of the effort and it left me lamenting once again that super models never seem to be the ones who go naked sunbathing.
As Fiskardo is the only place that escaped the 1953 earthquake damage it is consequently the only village to see examples of the old Venetian architecture. The buildings around the harbour however had had a very heavy makeover and didn’t feel especially genuine but those in the back streets leading off the harbour were much more authentic.
The waterfront was awash with gaily-painted houses and the narrow streets away from the cobbled sea front were lined with tourist trinket shops and all-in-all Fiskardo felt more up-market than the other villages that we had visited. To go with this impression also went the prices and a simple round of drinks at a waterside bar cost considerably more drachmas than we had become accustomed to spending. We watched the fancy boats coming in and out of the bay and the harbour and then as Fiskardo is only quite a small place and it was getting crowded we left and headed back down the twisting coast road again through the rugged wilderness of the north-west coast and towards our intended destination of Assos.
With the Suzuki jeep returned we spent the last full day and the last part day waiting to go back to the airport much as we spent the first day of the holiday. On the beach and around the pool, walking into the village, drinking at the Italian bar and ocassionally watching the European football. On Thursday it was my forty-sixth birthday so I spent a bit more time than usual in the Italian bar that day but the evening soccer match was a dull 0 – 0 affair between Sweden and Turkey.
The north part of Kefalonia is the most wild and rugged and at the very northern tip is the town of Fiskardo which was the only place on the island that wasn’t flattened by the earthquake. We set off straight after breakfast and after by-passing Argostoli drove through the village of Farsa, which was desperately unremarkable and would have been completely unrecognisable to poor old Captain Corelli.
Although there were similar incidents in Greece as Nazi Germany assumed control from defeated Italy, in Corfu and Rhodes for example, the Kefalonia Massacre is the most well known because it is thought to have been the second largest slaughter of prisoners of war during World War II.
The events were precipitated by the Italian Armistice on 8th September 1943, which left Italian soldiers who had been fighting alongside and under German command in an extremely difficult and precariously exposed position.
The commander of the Italian division on Kefalonia, General Gandin, initially received contradictory orders and was undecided about whether to surrender, resist, or join the German troops nearby. He eventually decided to resist, and hundreds of his men died in the ensuing battle, which began on 15th September.
Accounts from the few survivors and the diary of an Austrian soldier involved in the massacre suggest thousands of soldiers were either gunned down while trying to surrender or summarily executed after being taken prisoner.
The massacre started on 21st September, and lasted for one dreadful week. After the Italian surrender to the Allies, Hitler was incensed and issued an order allowing the Germans to summarily execute any Italian officer who resisted ‘for treason’, and on 18th September, the German High Command issued an order stating that ‘because of the perfidious and treacherous behaviour (of the Italians) on Kefalonia, no prisoners are to be taken.’
German soldiers began executing their Italian prisoners in groups, at first killing the surrendering Italians, where they stood, using machine-guns. When a group of Bavarian soldiers objected to this practice they were threatened with summary execution themselves. This method however didn’t kill people quickly enough so the Germans marched the remaining soldiers to the San Teodoro town hall and had the prisoners executed by eight member detachments.
General Gandin and one hundred and thirty-seven senior officers were summarily court-martialed on 24th September, executed and their bodies discarded at sea. Before the execution a sergeant informed each officer that he was being executed for treason, which, given a decision to permit unification of the German and Italian armies in Greece under German command, was technically true. General Gandin was shot first but just before his execution in act of defiance he threw his Iron Cross to the ground.
An Italian army Chaplain and one of the few survivors, wrote that during the massacre, the Italian officers started to cry, pray and sing. Many were shouting the names of their mothers, wives and children. According to the account, three officers hugged and stated that they were comrades while alive and now in death they would go together to paradise, while others were digging through the grass as if trying to escape. In one place, the Chaplain recalled, ‘the Germans went around loudly offering medical help to those wounded. When about 20 men crawled forward, a machine-gun salvo finished them off.’ Officers gave the Chaplain their personal belongings to take with him and return to their families back in Italy. The Nazis, however, later confiscated the items.
Most of the soldiers of the Nazi regiment were in fact Austrians. Alfred Richter, one of the participants in the massacre recounted how a soldier who sung arias for the Germans in the local taverns was forced to sing while his comrades were being executed. The singing soldier’s fate remains unknown. Richter added that he and his regiment comrades felt ‘a delirium of omnipotence’ during the events.
According to Richter the Italian soldiers were killed after surrendering to the soldiers of the 98th Regiment. He described that the fallen Italians were then thrown into heaps of bodies all shot in the head. The Austrian soldiers started removing the boots from the bodies of the fallen Italians for their own use. Richter also mentioned that groups of Italians were taken to quarries and walled gardens near the village of Frangata and executed by machine gun fire. The killing lasted for two hours during which time the sound of the machine guns and machine pistols and the screams of the victims could be heard inside the homes of the village.
The bodies of more than nine thousand men who were executed were disposed of in a variety of ways. Bodies were cremated in massive wood pyres, which made the air of the island thick with the smell of burning flesh, or moved to ships where they were buried at sea. Others, according to Amos Pampaloni, one of the survivors, were executed in full sight of the Greek population in Argostoli harbour on 23rd September 1943 and their bodies were left to rot where they fell, while in smaller streets corpses were decomposing and the stench was insufferable to the point that he could not remain there long enough to take a picture of the carnage. Bodies were also thrown with rocks tied around them into the sea. In addition the Germans had refused to allow the Acqui soldiers to bury their dead.
Memorial to the Acqui Division in Verona Italy.
The few soldiers that were saved were assisted by the locals and the ELAS organisation. An additional three thousand of the survivors in German custody drowned, when the ships Sinfra and Ardena, transporting them to POW camps, sank after striking mines in the Adriatic. These losses and similar ones from the Italian Dodecanese garrisons were also the result of Nazi policy, as Hitler had instructed the local commanders to forgo ‘all safety precautions’ during the transport of prisoners, ‘regardless of losses’.
After the war the Italian government faced the delicate problem of giving an honorary and final burial to the fallen of Kefalonia. In 1952 began the sad task of exhumation and in 1953, the bodies were collected and transported to the town of Bari where they are now resting in the Italian National War Memorial. The final number of Italian dead was 9,646. By feigning death among the corpses just 34 were able to eventually return home.
For me the question has to be, what on earth possessed ordinary people to participate in such an orgy of killing? I have been to Germany and Austria and the people there are nice, ordinary and welcoming so just how did they manage to participate in such a dreadful crime and how did they justify their actions?
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.
We drove south past the airport and the further we got away from Argostoli and the tourist strip of Lassi the more we saw the devastation caused by the earthquake. All along the road there were abandoned villages and houses and buildings that were destroyed by the quake and just waiting for time to take over and their turn to fall over completely. The 1953 disaster caused huge destruction, with only regions in the north escaping the heaviest tremors and that is the only part of the island where houses remained intact.
After the day of inactivity yesterday we decided today to get out of the hotel and see some more of the island so after breakfast we set off for the capital, Argostoli, just a short distance away. We could have caught a bus but took the easier option of a taxi instead for the short ten minute ride to town where we were dropped off at the deserted main square.
Argostoli, it has to be said, was an immediate disappointment. Old photographs show that it was once bursting with stylish Venetian mansions, leafy squares and elegant bell towers, but first the Germans dropped incendiary bombs on it during World War Two and then an earthquake in 1953 reduced what was left to a wasteland of rubble and only two houses and a bridge survived.