There’s an eerie sense of sadness in Old Valsamata. The village’s ancient cobbled streets and lanes are engulfed by scrub and fallen masonry, its bent and buckled dry-stone walls almost lost beneath ivy. Walnut trees and wild olives grow through broken buildings, and the only sound is that of the breeze as it stirs the vegetation.
My friends and I are here alone, which adds to the forlorn sensation that pervades this settlement, abandoned for nearly 70 years. We pass through a rusted gate to a schoolyard overgrown with weeds, then climb to the top of a church tower cracked from top to bottom. It’s the only structure still truly standing. Elsewhere, we note the craftsmanship in carved lintels and architraves that hint at the prosperity once enjoyed here. The ancient, twisted olive orchards that provided its wealth remain but otherwise Old Valsamata has essentially been reclaimed by nature.
All over Kefalonia there are ruins like this: reminders of the 1953 earthquake that destroyed towns and villages across this, the largest of the Ionian Islands. It’s a story told in Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin — the novel celebrates its 25th year in print this year while the stage version of the book is nearing the end of a West End run. The book recounts the story of Kefalonia’s occupation during the Second World War and how the islanders’ simple way of life was upturned, first by the realities of war and then by the earthquake.
Beyond the ruins, we discover some of that history on a wooded peninsula behind Argostoli, the island’s capital. A monument tucked into a clearing commemorates more than 5,000 Italian soldiers massacred here by Nazi forces in 1943. The tale brought to life by de Bernières remains one of the war’s most shameful atrocities.
Argostoli itself is a pleasant place to while away a morning. Few stately buildings survived the wartime bombs and the quake but the town centre still possesses charm. Its bakeries, market stalls and waterfront tavernas provide ample options for snacking, though perhaps its most surprising attractions are the loggerhead turtles that swim up and down the harbour, scavenging for scraps from fishing boats. Crowds gather to watch these giant reptiles passing by and occasionally surfacing.
We have a further brush with turtles on the sands of Avithos Beach. Being just a five-minute walk from where we’re staying at Avithos Beach Estate (a laid-back apartment complex carved into a terraced olive grove), it’s convenient for pre-breakfast swims. One morning, we notice tracks on the sand where a turtle has crept ashore to nest. The eggs — laid too close to the beach bar — are being relocated by volunteers from local charity Wildlife Sense to a quieter stretch of sand where they can incubate in peace. We watch as the eggs are reburied in a roped-off area and wonder if we can justify coming back in two months to watch them hatch.
With a bar and two good tavernas, Avithos is a brilliant spot for lazy days. Sure, there are worthwhile attractions such as underground lakes or caverns filled with stalactites, but with sandy shores along the south coast and pebbly coves elsewhere a holiday here is all about the beach.
We mix things up by spending a day at Antisamos, a cove where forested hills plunge down to a vivid turquoise sea. At Spartia, we swim and snorkel before tucking into exceptional seafood at Waterway, a fantastic clifftop taverna. But our favourite find is Koroni, a wild, hard-to-reach cove where we fill our bottles with clear, fresh water from a natural spring.
Later, en route back to Avithos, we stop for a glass or two at Gentilini, one of Kefalonia’s best wineries. Surrounded by vines, we sample world-class vintages made with the island’s endemic mavrodaphne and robola grapes while demolishing plates of local cheese. I can appreciate how Kefalonia so captured de Bernières’ imagination. It’s certainly claimed a fair old chunk of mine.
Simpson Travel (simpsontravel.com) has a week’s B&B at Avithos Beach Estate from £795pp, including flights and car hire.