Andreas is in his 50s, has a grey ponytail that is at odds with the very notion of being a waiter, but his recommendation of moussaka, the traditional baked Greek dish of cinnamon spiced lamb lingering with aubergines in a delicious creamy sauce, is spot on.
Outside this family taverna on a perfect summer’s evening, the main town plaza in Argostoli is alive; fathers sipping strong coffee, mothers with children; young boys on bikes; older ones blushing and brushing with giggling girls.
This is Kefalonia at its best.
Yes, the largest island in the Ionian chain lacks the coifed culture of nearby Corfu and the tired trappings of tourism of Santorini or Mykonos — and that is a good thing. Here, the pace is slower, unhurried, natural — with time to savour the small things that make life so full.
This is an island with a tragic recent history. When the waves of the Second World War lapped this island, Italian troops came. And when Italy surrendered, German troops took over, killing more than 5,000 Italians in mass executions. Hollywood put its gloss and gross take on the incident in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but the various war monuments surrounding Argostoli tell another reality that fades in the weathered inscriptions in marble and granite.
At another taverna, a civil engineer is sipping coffee too, explaining how more than 80 per cent of the buildings on the island were flattened in the earthquake of 1953. Over four days between August 9 and 12 then, the island was struck by three great tremors, all measuring more than 6 on the Richter scale. More than 450 died by the powerful forces unleashed 2.5 km directly below where plates rub and grate. Again, in 2014, there were another three days of shaking, but all around 3 on that scale but bad enough to make all living here realise that another big one might indeed be imminent.
“All we can do is ensure that our buildings are built as best we can and that they bend and not break too soon,” the engineer tells Weekend Review. “This is Kefalonia. Our history is shaped by these things.”
Yes, and so too by the very words that spring from the pages of the Odyssey, the second of two ancient Greek poems attributed to Homer and fundamental to Western literature. Written nearly 3,000 years ago, scholars believe it was penned about these Ionian islands.
Homer’s first work, the Iliad, tells the tale of the events of the Trojan Wars, wooden horses, Achilles and Helen and the face that launched a thousand ships.
The Odyssey, like any good Hollywood sequel, picks up the tale of the Greek hero Odysseus and the adventures of his 10-year trip home to Ithaca while his wife Penelope and son Telemachus struggle with his absence and suitors. As Odysseus adventures home and faces hostility from the god Poseidon who ancient Greeks believed ruled land and sea, he and his mutinous and doubting ship’s crew encounter the Lotus Eaters, meeting the Cyclops, seeing the underworld, the Sirens, before he ultimately wins Penelope’s heart once more through a test of courage and skill.
For generations of scholars, the geographical details in the poem have been baffling. Here, to the northeast of Kefalonia, the sister island of Ithika simply doesn’t fit the physical descriptions rendered by Homer 30 centuries ago.
What is certain is that there are mysteries now on this landscape that are perplexing. On a narrow peninsula to the north of Argostoli, there is the mystery of the disappearing sea. Katavothres is one of the most visited sites on the island and it’s here that sea water enters a narrow channel then disappears below ground. Yes, it’s almost as if there’s a leak and somehow the waters of the Mediterranean are slowly seeping through this plug. That earthquake back in 1953 slowed the loss of water to a trickle now, but the sea is being swallowed.
It’s a phenomenon that’s difficult to accept even now, and for ancient Greeks it would truly have been a sign that here, the sea was being swallowed by gods or the underworld. The mystery was only solved in the 1970s when scientists put coloured dye into the sea water as it disappeared down the sinkhole.
More than 30 km away, on the far eastern side of Kefalonia, lies the cave of Melissani. Now, however, the roof of the cave has collapsed again because of the shifting and shaking landscape, and it is a tourist spot where local boatmen paddle visitors like gondoliers through crystal clear water that’s up to 20 metres deep in places. It was here that the dyed waters emerged more than two weeks later, having traversed both the sea bed and the mountainous region between in a network of subterranean channels.
The cave is located in Sami — an ancient town that also contains a clue crucial to Homeric scholars. In the Odyssey, the island of Same is described as being to the east, yet it is from here now that daily ferries depart to Ithika, its high mountains in plain sight further to the east. Although there’s a difference in spelling between the town and the island, it’s more than a coincidence? But the geographical location is wrong.
Nearby, descending more than a hundred metres of narrow concrete steps, the temperature drops noticeably as you reach the entrance to the Drogarati cave. It was discovered about 300 years ago after an earthquake revealed the entrance. Inside, although commercialised and made safe for mass tourism by today’s gods of health and safety standards, close your eyes and it doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine this place as the beginning of the underworld, where handheld flaming torches would cast frightening shadows and silhouettes amid the flood-to-ceiling stalagmites and stalactites.
Across the island, in steep fields near to ruined farmhouses and collapsed outbuildings, the land is rich. Olives and lemon trees grow, while most small holdings are blessed with an abundance of tomatoes, grapes, corn, peppers, greens, mixed lettuces and herbs. Over rougher mountainous lands, goat herds roam, their advent heralded by the metallic clanging of bells dangling around their necks in pastoral percussioned processions. A walk in any woods is naturally interlaced by thoughts of kitchens, with the scents of rosemary or oregano growing wild, there for the plucking and the nearest pot.
Yes, this island of Kefalonia, despite its violent tremors and upheavals of history, offers food to nurture the soul.
It is an uplifting place. Literally.
As well as killing 450, that 1953 earthquake had the effect too of raising the island of Kefalonia by 60 centimetres.
Could the very untamed nature of this area’s powerful seismic forces then hold a clue too to Homer and Odysseus?
Andreas, the waiter, is certain. “For sure, this is where the book is based, not Ithika.” But that’s little more than island pride, surely?
In Homer’s work, when Odysseus introduces himself to King Alcinoos on the island of Scheria, which is thought to be Corfu, he describes his homeland in terms that baffled scholars for centuries.
“I am Odysseus, Laertes’ son, world-famed for stratagems: my name has reached the heavens. Bright Ithaca is my home: it has a mountain, leaf-quivering Neriton, far visible. Around are many islands, close to each other, Doulichion and Same and wooded Zacynthos. Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to the sea towards dusk; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun.” (Odyssey 9.19-26)
There was no mystery as far as Robert Bittlestone, a British business consultant and scholar of Homer was concerned. In 2003 he had a brainwave: What if, somehow, Paliki, the peninsula on the western coast of Kefalonia, was a separate island at the time of Odysseus. And sure enough, it suddenly becomes a perfect candidate for Odysseus’s homeland of Ithaca, as described by Homer. It’s west-facing, while the surrounding islands face east; it’s the furthest out to sea of the group and it’s low-lying.
Bittlestone realised that a marine channel could have separated Paliki from the main part of the island in the late Mycenaean age, around the 12th century BC, and it could have been filled in subsequently as a result of landslips from earthquakes and other major tectonic events.
He enlisted the help of Prof James Diggle, a classicist at Cambridge University, and Prof John Underhill, a geologist from the University of Edinburgh, and their book, Odyssus Unbound, made the theory mainstream academic thinking. For the past decade, geologists and other experts have been putting together an impressive case based on scientific and archeological evidence, that is compelling.
Surveys of surrounding sea depths identified a 30-metre deep underwater valley that lines up precisely with the proposed exit of the former water channel between Kefalonia and Paliki. Satellite images revealed the existence of ancient roads that had been cut off in a way consistent with rock falls and landslides.
According to the foundation based on the book that is carrying out the surveys and investigations, the geology is complex but there is now very strong evidence that the southern end of the Thinia valley was blocked by a huge, single landslip, perhaps triggered by a powerful earthquake.
The foundation says that there is tantalising evidence of historic human occupation of Kastelli, including pottery sherds, that strongly backs its view that it is a prime candidate for the site of Odysseus’s palace.
Finally, it appears as if this ancient land is giving up the answers to some of its ancient history.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News’ foreign correspondent based in Europe.