Food, wine, beaches and baklava.
Always a little concerned about choosing the wrong island, we put off going back to Greece for a long time. We’d been to Santorini some ten years ago, and it was just as the images depict, all blue and white houses on a steep hill looking over the sea and nearby volcanic island. It wasn’t however an entirely ideal holiday destination for a family with two small boys, one of whom enjoyed taking a run at the low walls between us and the cliff edge. We finally had to walk the beautiful winding cobbled streets holding Sam by the collar to prevent any accidents. The beaches were deserted in October and weather still warm, but the sand is a dark greyish black, so not quite the idyllic Greek beaches we’d imagined. Nice, but not idyllic.
So, this Summer, thanks to our friends Andy and Michelle, consummate researchers and travellers, we decided to return to Greece with them to visit the islands they’d fallen in love with, Lefkada and Ithaka.
Wow, Ithaka! This tiny island of just over 3000 people truly is a gem in a sea of transparent, turquoise water. A short ferry ride from Kefalonia (with direct flights from Bristol), we were met by the owner of the lovely Hotel Mentor in Vathy. From here we took day trips on a little ferry to Gidaki beach. The Papadelis love beaches, but love a beach bar even more, and this beach has the best little beach bar. A rustic, wooden shack with ice cold beer, iced coffee and a simple, short menu of calamari, whitebait, the most divine marinated roasted, skinned peppers, Greek salad and chips. Doesn’t get better than that. Overlooking the clearest, most jewel like sea I’ve seen. And a beach with a handful of people even in August. Definitely one of the best beaches we’ve been to.
Vathy, the town where we stayed was chilled, had plenty of waterfront tavernas, a few shops to entertain shoppers and teenagers. We had a great lunch in Odyssey, where Andy and Michelle had previously stayed. The food was wonderful and the owners so very welcoming. We were sad to leave Ithaka after a few days’ stay, but excited to take the ferry to Lefkada. A much larger island with a population of 23,000 and the fourth largest Ionian island, it is certainly more popular with tourists and the yachting types. We hired cars and drove to our villa, situated on a vineyard (this made us very happy). The owners also made us extremely happy with their seemingly never ending supply of free wine. The rose was particularly good (this had been, if I’m honest another factor putting us off Greece slightly – but it’s ok, there is more to Greece than retsina!). The highlights of our week here, amongst many beautiful beaches, tavernas and beach bars, included a day trip on a rib boat and buying honey, bee pollen and beeswax cosmetics from a priest running his very own roadside stall.
The rib, captained by an extremely knowledgeable skipper, stopped at a number of deserted beaches as well as a stop for coffee at Kastos, an island which is four miles long and has a population of around 80. Papa immediately declared his love for the island and intention to retire here. Then on to the island of Kalamos for lunch. A slightly larger island, with a population of 500, we learnt that children are taken to school in a little boat. Idyllic. The lunch was wonderfully fresh, plenty of Greek salad, fish, hummous, giant broad beans, aubergine puree and pizza. Yes, teenagers like pizza, wherever they are. There might have been a cheese and ham toasted sandwich also. Here the wine, served in rustic metal jugs, reminiscent of school canteens in the 70s had the bouquet of a good vinegar, but on holiday, in such a paradisiacal location, even this tasted delicious.
Back to the villa in the evenings, we were fortunate to have our very own chef in the form of Papa, who knocked up some delicious suppers using all the beautiful local vegetables, pulses, and feta (there’s always feta). Washed down with our free wine. One evening was particularly entertaining with the addition of a quiz crafted by Tomos. The winning team was triumphant thanks to Sam’s encyclopaedic knowledge. Without that, Issy and I would certainly have won.
A special mention must go to Lefkada town. Many houses were destroyed in the earthquakes of 1948 and inhabitants rebuilt them using the remnants of what was left. They then clad the houses in corrugated zinc to protect them from the elements. These corrugated houses are painted in the most beautiful colours, giving the town a South American or Caribbean feel. There are lots of lovely independent shops and bars and a charming town square.
After a week on Lefkada, it was time to return to Ithaka for three nights. This time, thanks to Michelle and Andy’s superb research, we stayed on the Northern part of the island, near Afales beach and Stavros and not far from the villages of Kioni and Anogi. This time our temporary homes were two newly built houses with a view of the sea, tastefully designed by Christina, an Athenian who spends her Summers in a third, adjacent house. Christina is absolutely dedicated to Ithaca and to infecting everyone she meets with her love for the island. And it certainly worked on us. The fridges were stocked with local wine, jams she’d made on her allotment, homemade halva and she brought fresh bread every morning from the local bakery. We didn’t have a car, so she insisted on ferrying us around in her car, often doing two trips to various villages and beaches to take the children first, then returning to pick up the adults. One evening, having gifted us a giant watermelon and after a conversation about watermelon mojitos, she reappeared an hour later with a bottle of good rum and a liquidiser. That was a good evening.
Another evening she drove us to Anogi, the island’s original capital, high up towards the centre of the island. This tiny village is now near deserted, but for a small cafe and ornate church. Christina seems to know everyone on the island, and took us to the cafe, which is open all year round, to sample the owner’s famous “cheese pie”. A large plate of melting feta with wild sage and wafer filo pastry. It was absolutely delicious, washed down with Fix Greek lager. Papa and I attempted to eat most of it as Andy and Michelle can’t eat wheat or feta. One of those classic moments where you’re offered food by a welcoming host and do your very best to polish it off out of fear of offending.
The local beach nearest to Christina’s houses, a ten minute walk (sounds easy but a little more of a challenge in 42 degrees), was pretty much deserted. The water was gloriously clear and refreshing. Papa, Tom and I walked back before the others, and two fabulous women stopped to give us a lift. They were originally from Ithaka but left over thirty years ago to start a new life in Australia. They still yearn to return. They were typical of the people we met, hugely hospitable and generous, with a good dose of humour.
This was demonstrated again at a tiny village shop where the owner and her son were harvesting grapes from the vine outside the shop. They joked and laughed with us before giving us a bag full of the sweetest grapes we’d tasted.
We were also ferried by Christina to Kioni – a gorgeous little seaside town, which felt a little more up market judging by the shops and look of the yachts. We walked a half hour around the coast to a little beach with beach taverna. Again the water was crystal clear – the beaches of Ithaka really don’t disappoint.
We ate in some great restaurants – Yefuri, a ten minute walk from the house, on the road to Stavros, a lovely, laid back little town. This is run by an Englishman and his partner, and has an eclectic menu offering an unusual Pad Thai and excellent steak and chips. This is no traditional Greek taverna if you’re looking for Greek salad. The service was superbly smiley and helpful. We ate here twice as we loved it so much, sitting under fairy lights on the warm evenings. Another, Tzazamini in Frikes, again a change from the usual Greek Taverna. Tastefully decorated, it could confidently grace the pages of Instagram (and no doubt does). It specialises in pasta, which can be a risk on a remote Greek island, but the location, sitting with the sea lapping near your feet, makes it all the more memorable and lovely.
And the baklava. Oh, we do love baklava. It deserves a whole paragraph of its own. All the baklava we had was superlative. The honey was especially fragrant, the nuts especially fresh and the pastry melt in the mouth. Max was particularly enamoured by it. We ate quite a lot of it. Planning a visit to Bristanbul on Gloucester Road very soon to stock up.
We loved our Greek island adventures, and would most certainly return, especially to Ithaka. The food we ate was simple and delicious, the wine mostly good and very affordable, the beaches even more beautiful than we expected and the people, just lovely.
Thank you Andy for the great photos and thank you Michelle, Andy, Max and Issy for sharing the wonders of Ithaka and Lefkada with us 🙂