Walking on the Ionian Islands

Pamela Harris follows in the footsteps of Odysseus in Homer's poem, The Odyssey, by visiting the Greek islands of Corfu, Kefalonia and Ithaca

Bust of Odysseus on Ithaca
Bust of Odysseus on Ithaca

The Ionian Islands lie off the west coast of mainland Greece, but became part of the Greek state only in 1864 after four centuries of rule by the Venetians and then half a century by the British.

Three of the best-known islands are Corfu, Kefalonia and Ithaca, all of which play a prominent role in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey.

After 10 years of wandering throughout the Mediterranean, a violent storm sweeps Odysseus onto Corfu, then known as the land of the Phaeacians, and it is with the help of their king that he finally reaches Kefalonia and his homeland of Ithaca.

It was our aim to follow in Odysseus’ footsteps on this last stage of his journey, visiting Corfu first and then Kefalonia and Ithaca the following year. But as we set out for Corfu in May 2019, little did we know that this was to be the last of our foreign travels before Covid took over the world for the next two years.

Our visits to Kefalonia and Ithaca had to wait, and it was not until the autumn of last year that the restrictions of lockdown were lifted, and we were able to travel once again.

Homer is not the only author to have made the Ionian islands the setting for their books. The Durrell family lived on Corfu in the 1930s, and Lawrence’s experiences there resulted in his evocative book Prospero’s Cell, while his younger brother Gerald’s My Family and Other Animals is a more light-hearted account of what it was like to be a young boy growing up on the island.

Louis de Bernières’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is set on Kefalonia, and the film based on the book was made on the island. Although fiction, it is a realistic account of life there during the Second World War and its aftermath.

Looking down on Paleokastritsa
Looking down on Paleokastritsa

Corfu

Corfu is the northernmost island of the group, with a beautiful coastline and a good network of walking trails, described in detail in the Cicerone guide Walking and Trekking on Corfu. The first place we wanted to see was where Odysseus was shipwrecked, thought to be at Paleokastritsa in the northwest.

Walking and Trekking on Corfu Guidebook

Walking and Trekking on Corfu

The Corfu Trail and 22 outstanding day-walks

£14.95

Guidebook to 22 day walks on the Greek island of Corfu and the Corfu Trail, a 150km route described in 10 stages. The day walks are spread across the whole island and visit olive groves, coastal paths, sandy beaches, lush green hillsides and picturesque villages. The Corfu Trail runs the length of the island from Kavos north to Agios Spyridonas.

More information

The houses were clustered around a sandy bay, and we found a lovely walk that contoured along high cliffs with dramatic views down to the sea far below. It was easy to imagine Odysseus landing in this delightful spot.

Our most spectacular walk was up Mount Pantokrator, at 911m the highest point of the island. From the small resort of Kassiopi on the northeast coast, where we were staying, a narrow road wound up to the high village of Old Perithea at the foot of the mountain.

Founded more than seven centuries ago as a refuge from pirate attacks, it was once a thriving community with 130 stone houses and eight churches. Semi-abandoned in the 1960s, the village is now coming back to life and is a Greek Heritage Site with several tavernas.

One of these, OForos, was visited by the British chef Rick Stein in 2007 and appeared in his BBC TV series, Mediterranean Escapes. Its menu advertised a delicious walnut cake, just right for a snack before heading up the mountain 500m above us.

It was springtime and the flowers were at their best, the rocky ground covered with tiny orchids and yellow Jerusalem sage. As we gained height, the views became more and more dramatic until we could see down to the village where we had started, with the still blue waters of the Ionian Sea and the mountains of Albania only a short distance away.

We reached the summit to find a beautifully restored chapel and a welcoming café, before returning on the same track back to Perithea.

Old Perithea and the mountains of Albania from Mount Pantokrator
Old Perithea and the mountains of Albania from Mount Pantokrator

From here it is possible to continue all the way down to the northernmost tip of the island at Cape Agia Ekaterinis and the chapel of Agios Spiridonas, named after the patron saint of Corfu.

This is the final stage of the Corfu Trail, a glorious long-distance trek of 150km leading from the southernmost tip of the island to the very north in 10 stages, partly along the coast and partly inland through remote villages.

At the end of our stay on the island we went back to explore this final stage, walking from the chapel along the beach and then through tall grass and across jagged rocks to reach the beacon tower at the Cape.

Clumps of large yellow sea poppies were growing on the dunes, and here we met some walkers who had just finished the whole trek, enthusing about their experiences.

Kefalonia and Ithaca

It was not until October 2021 that we were finally able to set out on the next stage of our journey in Odysseus’ footsteps, travelling first to Kefalonia.

Homer called the island Same, and Odysseus mentions that several of the suitors importuning his wife came from here. Now Sami is the name of a small town on its east coast facing Ithaca, and it was here that we based ourselves.

It was a good centre to access the numerous well-marked walking trails on the island, both along the coast and up into the hills. There is no Cicerone guide to these islands, but we found a small book of walks and an excellent map.

Walking to Old Valsamata
Walking to Old Valsamata

Kefalonia and Ithaca lie on a fault-line running down the west coast of Greece, and both were devastated by a massive earthquake in August 1953. In less than a minute, towns and villages were left in ruins, most of the lovely Venetian buildings totally destroyed.

A rebuilding programme started a few years later, but many of the higher villages were abandoned, their houses left to crumble into ruin.

Sternbergia amid the ruins
Sternbergia amid the ruins

One day we walked up to Old Valsamata and along what had once been the main street of a thriving community, all destroyed in 50 seconds. The church and bell tower are still there, but the houses are in ruins, one containing what looked like a wine press.

In some of the overgrown gardens we found sternbergias growing, a bright splash of yellow livening up the drabness.

A new town of Valsamata has been built lower down and is now the centre of wine production in this fertile valley.

A delicious white wine, called Robola, is produced here, and our walk took us through well-tended vineyards to a large church on the outskirts of the town, surrounded by olive trees and cypresses.

The original church had been destroyed in the earthquake, and a new one has been built in the same style and in the same place, over the tomb of Agios Gerasimos, the patron saint of the island.

The interior is completely covered with Byzantine-style frescoes, all intricately painted by modern artists, a work still in progress.

Frescoes in the new church
Frescoes in the new church

The only town not destroyed in the earthquake was the tiny port of Fiskardo in the far north of the island. The seafront is the home of several tavernas, and after a short stop for our usual lunch of Greek salad and glass of wine, we walked along the shore to the Venetian lighthouse and a 4th century Christian basilica.

It was a tranquil spot, and we sat watching yachts sailing into the harbour on the opposite side of the bay.

Tranquil Fiskardo Bay
Tranquil Fiskardo Bay

We had time later that day to stop at nearby Assos and to walk on a paved track up to the ruined Venetian castle high above.

The entrance gateway was guarded by a carving of the lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice, and we climbed further up to the castle’s highest tower, from where there was a spectacular view down onto the tiny harbour far below.

View from Assos castle
View from Assos castle

Ithaca was so close to Kefalonia that we could see it from almost everywhere on the island, but the best viewpoint was from the old citadel high above Sami.

We reached this on our last day, climbing up through woods to see the hills of Ithaca just across the narrow stretch of water separating the two islands. This was our next objective, only a short ferry ride away.

Once on Ithaca, we drove to the town of Vathy in the centre of the island, set in a deep bay within a bay, possibly the very place where Odysseus himself was landed by the Phaiacians from Corfu.

Vathy is surrounded by hills, and one day we walked up to the abandoned Byzantine churches above the town, from where we had a spectacular view down onto the bay and the multi-coloured houses clustered around the port.

Vathy from the hills above
Vathy from the hills above

Odysseus describes the island as a 'rugged land' set in the 'wine-dark sea', with tree-covered hills and 'pasturage good for goats rather than horses'.

It seems to have changed little since his times, the ruggedness apparent as we drove along the winding coastal road northwards. The hills are not high, but we encountered little flat land and few villages on our journey, and indeed the land provided good grazing for goats rather than horses.

Where the road neared the coast there was a sheer drop down to the sea far below, and we could see across to the mountains of northern Greece in the far distance.

We were heading for the village of Stavros and an archaeological site nearby which scholars have identified as Odysseus’ Palace. We first stopped at a small park with a bust of Odysseus, a model of the palace, and a map of the Mediterranean showing his journeys.

We then continued along a dusty road, which ended at a tree-covered hillside, enclosed by a high wire fence with the sign Archaeological Site: School of Homer.

This was clearly what we were looking for, but at first there seemed no way in for we were barred by a padlocked gate. But just as we were about to give up, we realised that it was in fact not locked, and we were able to enter the site.

Everywhere was overgrown with long grass and bushes, but we eventually stumbled on a path that led past a deep well and then up a crumbling staircase to reach the ruins of buildings, the doorways and windows clearly of Mycenean origin, topped by a huge lintel stone.

We were soon joined by a few other curious people who had also found their way through the gate, and together we wandered round these delightfully unspoilt ruins, speculating as to whether Odysseus really had lived here.

I was ready to believe that he had, and that we had found the site of his reunion with his faithful wife Penelope after 20 years’ absence.

There were several olive trees here, and we wondered if it would be too much to hope that one of them was that which he had built their bed around all those years before.

Olive tree at the palace
Olive tree at the palace

We continued out of the site by a higher gate, onto a stony track leading further uphill to the small village of Exogi, on land that would once have belonged to Odysseus.

There were wild cyclamen and autumn crocuses growing at the side of the path, with vines, fruit trees and even pomegranate trees heavy with fruit in the cultivated areas.

The views down to the coast were glorious, and it was easy to see why Odysseus would have built his palace up here, with the whole island at his feet.

View from the palace with ripe pomegranates
View from the palace with ripe pomegranates

Odysseus’ journey was finally at an end, here in his palace, and we too ended our Ionian journey in his footsteps, in this same beautiful spot.

Photos by Pamela Harris and Alan Norton

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