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Travel

My Great Greek Adventure: Assos Kefalonia

While Aegean islands can present a moon-like and largely rocky escape, the Ionian islands are their opposite – lush and green with sprawling forests and ancient mature mountains. The largest of the Ionian islands is Kefalonia, set in the middle of the chain off of the coast of Peloponnesus. Its size and the mountains that rise across the land sectioned it off, and created differing cultures and communities around Kefalonia.

On the northeast side of the island is the picturesque town of Assos, reachable only from a winding mountainous road along the cliffside hanging over the impossibly turquoise colored sea. The road narrows as you near the small town and you suddenly become sandwiched between pastel colored neoclassical homes. Hidden in the low-lying seaside between two mountain peaks, the town is out of view until you get closer along the road. A peninsula-shaped mountain by the name Frourio extends in to the sea on the outer edge of town.  This singular mountain is not developed and has no signs of civilization, except for some not-so-ancient ruins. 

Reminiscent of the photos we often see of coastal Italian towns, Assos itself has much Italian influence.  The small town was founded by the Venetians, who struggled for power over the island and fought in battles against the Ottomans to retain control. This subsequently led to the building of castles and fortresses to protect the land against invaders. The Venetians’ most notable contribution is the castle that sits on the peninsula-shaped mountain that hovers over Assos. Plans for construction began in 1584 and the grand castle served as point of power and control in the Ionian Sea. The land itself served as its own fortress due to it steep and almost unreachable points, but that was then reinforced by 2000 meters of stone walls. The strategic and military power that the castle-fortress allowed resulted in Assos being recognized as the capital of Kefalonia for some time. Its significance as a stronghold later dissipated due to more strategic points being built on neighboring islands like Lefkada.

Thereafter the castle took on different purposes, becoming a place for the sick to quarantine and later a prison which operated well into World War Two.  This historic structure was no match to the forces of nature however, and the destructive earthquake of 1953 brought it to ruin, along with most of the island.  Although now the original form of the castle is lost, you can still get a sense of the massiveness of the structure and its general outline. One of the most special points of interest in Assos is the beautifully paved path that winds up the mountain towards the castle. Beginning by the seaside, the path is almost unnoticeable at the edge of town. Once you notice it, however, it entices you to keep walking and climbing higher, exploring what exists along the slopes of the mountain it winds against. Walking at leisure it takes about an hour or so to reach the top, but make sure to stop along the way and admire the view. From up high on the path you get a panoramic view of Assos town and the coast of northern Kefalonia. The end of the path, which is also the entrance to the castle is marked by a large arched structure. There is no entry fee and anyone who is willing to climb the mountain path can come explore this historic marvel.  It becomes quite clear why the people of Kefalonia and the Venetians chose this location to build, because the view is endless and gives the sense of being on top of the world.

But down below, by the seaside, is the gem of Assos town, small but rich in detail and culture. The homes are built in bright and lively colors, complementing the sea. Narrow alleyways and steps lined with vines of vibrant flowers lead down to the beach. The inner bay of Assos has a horseshoe shape, allowing you to admire to whole scene no matter where you stand. Humble fishing boats are parked along the docks, which are only a step or two away from the tavernas serving the fresh catches of the day. There are only three restaurants to choose from, but each is sure to satisfy cravings for an authentic and wholesome meal. Many room rentals and small hotels occupy the town as it has become a popular stop for tourists from all over the world. These make up the majority of buildings in Assos, with a few scattered private homes mingled between them. 

The areas surrounding Assos are characterized by seaside cliffs, tall mountains, and scattered charming villages. Twenty-minutes down the road is Myrtos beach, the most famous and frequented on the whole island. Depending on the tides and weather the water can become a baby blue color, further enhanced by pure white pebbles and the green mountains surrounding the beach. This is also the ultimate sunset spot, as it sets directly in front of you, sinking in to the sea. Or watch the scene from up above at the roadside look-out point that has been paved specifically so visitors can pull over and admire it all. The beach even had a Hollywood debut in the film Captain Corelli's Mandolin starring Penelope Cruz and Nicholas Cage. It was the perfect setting for the film as the story centered around the true historic events that transpired on Kefalonia amongst German and Italian soldiers during World War Two. The power struggles between these once-allies as well as with the people of Kefalonia determined to protect their home resulted in tragedy and loss. There is truly much to protect in Kefalonia as can be seen and experienced from the dream-like landscape. The refusal of Greeks to be defeated rubbed off on those occupying the island and influenced the subsequent relinquishing of the fascist agenda in their home countries. The history highlights the spirit of Kefalonians, their pride and strength of character to stand up for what they believe in and to protect their home and family at all costs. I am so proud to hail from this island!

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