Captain Corelli's manor

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Renata Rubnikowicz pays homage to Kefalonia

The British have been important to us since the 18th century," says Gerasimos Metaxas, the mayor of Skala and Poros, resorts in the south of Kefalonia. Like many men from the island, he is named after its patron saint, St Gerasimos, a 16th-century hermit whose uncorrupted body rests in a silver coffin in a splendidly decorated church in the Omala valley in the centre of the island's wine growing region.

One of those Britons was Lord Byron, whose favourite vantage point in Lakithra is now inscribed with his words: "If I am a poet, I owe it to the air of Greece." Another was the early 19th-century British resident Charles Philippe de Bosset, who began work on the long, low Drapanos bridge that connects the capital, Argostoli, with the other side of the bay. Today, it provides a short cut for drivers and a lurking place for a couple of bachelor loggerhead turtles, separated from their kin, who breed on some of the island's quieter beaches.

Over a long, relaxed lunch - there doesn't seem to be any other kind in Kefalonia - the mayor demonstrates his personal philosophy of tourism - "an open mind and a big smile". He shares his excitement that excavations in the nearby Mycean sites may finally prove that Odysseus's palace was built on his patch and not the neighbouring island of Ithaca, which has long claimed the Homeric hero as its own.

As the largest of the Ionian islands, Kefalonia, the setting for Louis de Berni res's wartime novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, offers more variety than most. The Ainos mountains are home to wild horses and a kind of silver fir that grows only here; the white sweep of Mirtos beach has been voted the most beautiful in Greece; resorts such as Skala or Lassi have all the shops and restaurants anyone could want; and there are many tiny fishing villages such as Assos or Fiskardo, with its Venetian houses that stood when all of Kefalonia crumbled in the 1953 earthquake.

It has geological wonders too. Stalactites and stalagmites are a tourist draw in many destinations, but few places could equal Kefalonia's Melissani Lake, a cave where the roof collapsed as a result of a long-ago earthquake, exposing a circle of blue sky that is reflected in the water. As the boatman rows you away from the light and into the cavern, you are transported back to the time of Greek myth, and the god Pan, who was once worshipped here. The image of Pan found in the cave is now in the archeological museum at Argostoli.

Across the bay by ferry from Argostoli is Lixouri, where the Iakovatios library, in a grand family house built in 1866, shows what Kefalonia was like in one of its many heydays. Lixouri was almost completely razed by the 1953 earthquake, now only this house, which contains thousands of volumes dating back to the 10th century and still functions as the local lending library, remains to show what the town was once like.

A pleasant stroll along the coast from Argostoli towards the resort of Lassi is a seawater mill, marking a geological phenomenon whose mystery was only unravelled in the 1960s. At this swallow hole, water rushes underground to emerge on the other side of the island near Sami, having mixed with the Melissani waters on the way.

In Lassi, at breakfast on the wide veranda of the Hotel Lassi, guests are distracted from the stunning sea view by a posse of sleek resident cats.

Spiros Galiatsatos, the hotel owner, protests, truthfully, that he looks after them well, but the guests cannot resist, and feed them an extra breakfast. Did they bring cat food with them, I wonder. Then I see on the shelves of the nearest gift shop, in between the sun lotion and the Louis de Berni res paperbacks, boxes of cat biscuits. Another example of how well the Kefalonians understand the British.

AIR 2000 flies to Kefalonia from Gatwick, Luton, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff, from pound;219 return: 08702 401402; www.air2000.com. Hotel Lassi is featured by several tour operators. To book direct, tel: 00 30 26710 23126 or email: lassi@hol.gr. Ionian Island Holidays offers self-catering properties in the north of Kefalonia and on Ithaca. For example, the four-bedroomed villa Katerina, near Fiskardo, which sleeps eight, is available from July 31 from Gatwick, Manchester and Newcastle, for seven nights at pound;575 per person or two weeks at pound;775 per person, including flights, transfers and welcome hamper. Tel: 020 8549 0777; www.ionianislandholidays.com

Make tracks to York

The National Railway Museum in York is planning a nine-day festival between May 29 and June 6 to mark 200 years of the train. On show will be the world's only working replica of the first steam locomotive, Penydarren, as well as the latest Pendolino tilting train. Other icons on display will include the Flying Scotsman; Olton Hall (star of the Harry Potter films) and a fully operational replica of Stephenson's Rocket. And for trainspotters' families, there are steam train rides, theatre and music, a funfair, classic films and a Great Railway Bazaar. Adults pound;7.50 (pound;6 advance); concessions pound;6 (pound;4 advance); family pound;20 (pound;16 advance); children under four go free. Book tickets on 0870 7010208 (national rate call), a booking fee of 50p per person applies.

Prices include train rides, except on steam models. Details: 01904 686268; www.nrm.org.uk. We have five family tickets to give away. Email friday@tes.co.uk or send a postcard to "Railfest 2004 offer" at the address on page 3 by May 21.

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