A New Odyssey
Ionian Islands, Greece
You’ve probably heard the story of Odysseus (or Ulysses, to give
the guy his Latin name). After playing a leading part in the Trojan War – he
thought up the neat idea of the wooden horse of Troy – he sets off in his ship,
with his men, to his home island of Ithaca, which lies today as it lay then off
the south west coast of Greece. However, because his cunning trick had aroused
the anger of the sea god Poseidon, Odysseus wasn’t allowed to go straight home.
Instead he and his men were condemned to wander the seas for ten years,
enduring many hardships and adventures. When they finally arrived home,
Odysseus found that his beautiful wife, Penelope, was besieged by hundreds of
suitors who believed Odysseus was dead and wanted her hand in marriage.
Odysseus killed them all – which may seem a tad unreasonable to us, but if
you’re an ancient Greek hero that kind of thing is practically expected.
Modern cruises take a lot less than
ten years to reach the Ionian islands, of which Ithaca (or Ithaki as it’s
called these days) is one. The chain of islands stretches from Corfu in the
north to Kefalonia in the south. Each island is different from its sisters, and
all share some fantastic qualities. A cruise is definitely the best way to see
the Ionian islands: most cruise lines that run itineraries in the area allow
for stops at each of the major islands in the group.
Corfu has long been an immensely popular holiday destination
with Europeans. However, it’s a good idea to look beyond the bar-and-beach
culture and enjoy some of the beauties of the island that can be found inland.
Corfu is probably the most lushly verdant of the Ionian islands, and, if your
cruise timetable permits, you should definitely make the effort to explore the
hills and olive groves of the interior. The island is not particularly
large – about thirty miles long by twenty wide – and the good local bus service
will take you around pretty efficiently. The capital, Kerkira, is where your
ship will most likely dock. A charming town that hasn’t been as spoiled by mass
tourism as it might have been, it is well worth a look around. Although a lot
of the town was destroyed in the great earthquake that wrecked the islands in
1953, you can still spot areas where traditional Greek architecture mingles
with buildings put up by the British in the days when the island was a major
Mediterranean base for the Royal Navy.
Your probable next port of call – Ithaki – is rather smaller and
quieter than its larger neighbors. It has also been much less affected by the
depredations of mass tourism, and, if you can get a sense of ‘authentic’ Ionian
life anywhere on the islands, Ithaki is probably it. In common with all of the
islands, Ithaki’s economy still benefits from a substantial fishing fleet, and
the island is a great place to sample some local seafood. Those of a squeamish
disposition might like to stay away from octopus and calamari (squid) – though
if you can summon up the courage to include tentacles in your lunch you might
find the sensations involved something of an anticlimax. Although some people
find great flavor in the sucker pads, for most diners the meat of these least
appealing of sea creatures tastes distinctly rubbery.
(sometimes spelt ‘Cephalonia’), your likely next port of call, is the largest
island in the group. At one time it was very much a secondary tourist
destination – most vacationers headed for Corfu, and some cruise ships missed
Kefalonia altogether. This is probably because of all the islands in the group,
Kefalonia suffered most from the 1953 earthquake – full rebuilding wasn’t
really complete until the 1990s.
In recent years, however, Kefalonia has enjoyed something of a
renaissance in its tourist trade, and it is now a regular stop on all cruise
itineraries of the area. This is largely a result of the island’s role as the
setting for Louis de Berniéres’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – which was
released in 1996 and quickly made into a movie of the same name starring
Nicholas Cage as the eponymous hero - an Italian army officer stationed on the
island during the war as part of the occupying force. This story of love, loss,
betrayal and redemption is by turns funny and tragic, and it has moved many
original readers and viewers to explore the island of Kefalonia for themselves.
All of the Ionian Islands are worth exploring. They make for a
great cruise destination, and are often strung together as a short journey
leaving from Athens or one of the eastern Italian ports. Why not go cruising
there yourself? Find your way to the romantic islands of Ionia without all the
time-consuming hard work and stress Odysseus had. Just be careful not to go
upsetting any sea gods, now…