Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Corelli’s Island

I’m writing from a ferry that has just left the port of Poros on the Ionian Sea island of Cephaloniab, heading to the Greek mainland. We’ve been on Cephalonia for the past five days in a hotel room 50 yards from the sea but without a phone and no internet—a perfect place to escape. We stayed in the town of Karavomilos which is just outside the harbor town of Sami. You may have seen this place before.

The movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed all around here. Just over the hill is the beautiful beach of Antisamos which plays prominently in that movie. If you’ve seen it, the movie is primarily remembered for the pathetically terrible accents spoken by Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz. Cage butchered the Italian accent, and Cruz the Greek. Cruz can be forgiven but Cage is an Italian for crying out loud. At least John Hurt, who played Cruz’s father, got it right, mostly by not trying to overdo it.

The Corelli story is of the period during World War II when Italy somewhat successfully invaded Greece, but failed miserably in the occupation department—sound familiar? The Greek resistance on Cephalonia and other islands ultimately caused a stalemate that embarrassed Mussolini. Mussolini because he couldn’t even conquer Greece, and Hitler for choosing such an insufferable ally. Hitler sent in his best troops to fix the situation, which they did by butchering not only Greeks, but Italians too. Somewhere in that mosh pit of changing loyalties, Captain Corelli (Cage) fell in love with the daughter (Cruz) of a local doctor (Hurt). She was already engaged to a resistance fighter which only made matters worse. Actually, it’s a pretty good story, but you might never know it from the movie. People say read the book instead, which I intend to do.

But not now.

Cephalonia is a beautiful island. Green. Great beaches. Wonderful little villages. Incredibly hospitable people who treated us with kindness at every turn. Especially at our hotel, the Athina Beach, where Athina and her irrepressible son Makis make certain every guest is treated like family. Makis remembered everyone’s name and had a warm hello or a kiss for each guest every time he encountered them. As evidence to the effectiveness of his charm, we met at least four other guests who were on return visits to his little hotel, some for the tenth time. We committed to a second, but I can’t predict when.

Despite wanting to return to Cephalonia, there is still so much of Greece to see. This is my fifth visit in four years, three of which have been for at least a month, and I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of Greece. For example, the island of Ithaki was just as stones throw away from us, right across the bay from Sami. Daily ferries left for there, but I never found the time. I wanted to go as Ithiki is the reputed home of Odysseus, who as Homer reported centuries ago, took ten years to get home after the Trojan battles, giving us the word “odyssey”. Lately, though, some scholars are saying his home was actually Cephalonia, or that perhaps Ithaki and Cephalonia were once connected. So maybe we were already there.

If you ever go to Cephalonia, besides the fine beaches, you must try the local wine called Robola. It’s unique to the island and is a very special wine, a perfect match for Greek food. I think Cephalonia is the only place you can get it, as it’s apparently not exported, despite it winning a second place in an international competition of some sort. The other food of note on Cephalonia is their famous meat pie. It’s famous because they say so, but we ordered it three times and twice there was nothing special about it, basically being dry and tasteless. I guess people put it on the menu and wait for dumb tourists to buy it. However, one order we had, at the Melissani Lake Taverna, the pie was succulent and delicious. Too bad they don’t pass their recipe along to others—theirs is worth bragging about.

Must go now. If you’re keeping track of tourist opinions of America and Americans it didn’t improve on Cephalonia. Although President Bush was just up the coast in Albania—getting rave reviews, I hear—folks down this way are more stoic. We met mostly Brits on Cephalonia, with a smattering of Belgians and lots of Germans, who were mostly mountain biking all over the island. Note to Holly Mullen: if it’s biking you want, this is a great place for it. Anyway, our good president didn’t score any points with those people I met, especially the Brits who were dismayed equally by their own Tony Blair. (John Saltas)

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