December 02, 2010


David Ellis

WHEN they made the movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin in picturesque little Sami on the Greek island of Cephalonia in 2001, it proved a windfall of unimaginable proportions for the village's waterfront restaurateurs

They earned more during the filming than they'd done in years, but not from gawking sightseers hoping to catch a glimpse of Penelope Cruz and Nicolas Gage strutting their stuff for the cameras.

Rather they made it by turning customers away, leaving virtually every one of their waterfront tables empty.

When producers decided on Sami they needed not a row of waterfront restaurants overflowing with tourists for their background, but near-empty eateries reflecting the austere 1940s of wartime Greece.

So they pulled out their cheque books and paid the owners of the restaurants to shut down during their busiest period of the year, giving them three times the profits they'd normally make during their annual tourist season.

And as well, they offered them work as extras in crowd scenes, and scores of other locals were contracted to build a replica military garrison, and again to act as extras.  Cephalonia's northern region had never had it so good.

Today little Sami remains a prime mid-year tourist area, although it and other towns and villages on the island are still hurting from the global economic crisis, with business down as much as thirty per cent.

Cephalonia is a must-see on a Mediterranean holiday: we visited in early October as part of a 12-night sailing aboard the boutique mega-motor-cruiser SeaDream I from Athens to Spain, and even though end-of-season the island was still spectacularly beautiful.

The largest of the Ionian Islands, it is a mountainous dot amid the confetti of islands that sprinkle this part of the Mediterranean. But you don't want to have a fear of heights to tour here: the roads appear zippered onto hills that rise to 1300-metres or more, with tour coaches and local cars and trucks constantly needing to back-and-fill on hairpin 320-degree turns that are not for the white-knuckled.

These roads were originally devised by the British during their "protection era" from 1809 to 1864 and lead to remote communities and ancient forts built to repel Turkish and other pirates; sure-footed mountain goats tended by leathered goatherds somehow graze the rocky 50-degree slopes, olive trees sprout in all directions, and the sharp-eyed can spot hares, hedgehogs and foxes, eagles, vultures and hawks.

And gems of little villages pop up on mountainsides and along coastal fringes, colourful little communities of neat pastel-painted homes, caf├ęs and tavernas, and studios and apartments for holidaymakers during "the season."

And all abound with rainbow coloured Bougainvilleas, oleanders, hibiscus, geraniums, roses, giant impatiens and palms and pines. One of the prettiest is waterside Assos whose outdoor eateries and tavernas offer such local delicacies as squid, barbecued sardines and kid goat cutlets, local olives, honey, nuts, grapes and tropical fruits, and in some a unique Cephalonian fish pie.

Like everywhere else on the island except the main town of Fiskardho and its scattering of surrounding villages in the north, Assos is a relatively "new" village.  Cephalonia sits directly over a geological fault-line and is regularly subjected to earth tremors and shakes: in 1953 four massive quakes in one day struck at over 7 on the Richter Scale.

Ninety per cent of homes and other buildings in Cephalonia's centre and south were demolished or so badly damaged that over 100,000 of the island's 125,000 residents fled, most never returning.

Five hundred people died during that day of horror earthquakes, 3000 were injured, and the island rose 60cm and never settled back again... watermarks along rocky shorelines record this massive upheaval.

Those who stayed or did return built new homes and businesses, often as in the case of Assos, cheek-by-jowl with their shattered neighbours that are to this day still abandoned, yet complete with furnishings and household items left by owners who simply fled.

After a burst of tourist activity from May to September, most of Cephalonia retreats into a kind of hibernation, with places like Assos dwindling to around 100 residents outside "the season."

For more information about visiting see travel agents, and for itineraries of when SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream I and SeaDream II will visit Cephalonia in 2011 see 




[] PICTURESQUE settings like this lured Hollywood to Cephalonia to make Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

[] MILLIONAIRE's yachts share the cluttered waterfront at Fiskardo with sardine fishers just metres from sunny waterfront eateries.

[] A SPECTACULAR beach on Cephalonia… but getting there is not for the white-knuckled.

[] ABANDONED buildings like this still remain in pretty little Assos after residents fled after the deadly 1953 earthquakes. You'd need to be more than a handyman to get this one liveable again.

Photos: david ellis

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