This beautiful island has a lot of history, having crossed paths with conquerors and fair few tragedies along the way. Let’s explore the origin of this stunning island and how its past has shaped its present.
According to archaeological findings, Kefalonia was one of the first places in Greece to be inhabited, as far back as 10,000 BC. The existence of Palaeolithic civilisation on the island is verified. As a result, ruins are plentiful on the Island; however, some of the most poignant ones are those that were produced in more modern times by the devastating earthquakes that struck the island in August 1953.
Before we explore that, let’s start with the name. Kefalonia, or Cephalonia, was named for reasons not entirely certain or determined. It is either because it is the largest island in the Ionian archipelago, and Cephali means ‘head’ in Greek, or it was named for the mythological figure of Cephalus, who helped Amphitryon of Mycenae in a war against the Taphians and Teleboans. It has also been suggested that Kefalonia could actually be the home of Odysseus, the Homeric Ithaca, rather than the smaller island bearing its name.
The presence of fossils on the island indicates that Kefalonia was one of the first inhabited areas of Greece. Kefalonia could be considered the barn of the Ionian island, its huge forest offered a lot of wood to build ships and to develop commercial activities between Kefalonia and other ports. Researchers have pointed out that some points of Knossos palace in Crete were built using the unique fir of Kefalonia, confirming trade development since ancient times.
Kefalonia’s history is rife with conquerors settling on the island. It started in 187 BC with the Romans occupying the island to use it as a base against the Greeks, despite resistance from the locals. In 50 BC, the island was ruled by Gaius Antonios. In the second Christian century, Poplius Aelius Adrianus offered the island as a present to Athens, and the island – the area surrounding Sami in particular – progressed economically.
During the Byzantine era, Kefalonia belonged to the Byzantine emperor. From 1185, the island suffered from constant conquerors including the Franks, Normans and the Turkish Dynasty. Then in 1500, the Venetians and the Spanish violated the treaty verifying Turkish rule, attacking and conquering Kefalonia. Venetian rule lasted about 300 years, ending in 1797 when the French occupied the island.
In 1802, Kefalonia’s elections took place and new, democratically elected representatives were charged, and a new Constitution would later establish ‘Democracy of the Ionian Islands’. Unfortunately, this did not last long as the English occupied Zakynthos in 1809. Despite the objections from the French, the English soon occupied all the Ionian Islands. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna and the Treaty of Paris passed the law that turned all Ionian islands into the ‘United States of the Ionian Islands’, an independent state under the protection of the British.
But the Kefalonia locals had their hearts set on the ideals of American and French revolutions. Unable to contain the insurrection, Queen Victoria was forced to grant free elections, and the first Greek parliament, called Ionian Parliament, was formed. The Parliament voted in favour of a union with the rest of Greece. So, finally, on May 21st 1864, the British sailed away from Kefalonia and the Ionian Islands were finally united to Greece.
Occupation of Kefalonia, unfortunately, did not stop there. Kefalonia was occupied by Italian and German military during World War II and played host to a mass execution of Italian soldiers by the Germans in 1943 that later became known as the Cephalonia Massacre.
On 12th August, Kefalonia was struck with an incredibly destructive earthquake that caused widespread damage to much of the island and hundreds of deaths. The earthquake destroyed 90% of the households on the island and brought economic, social and geological disaster. 100,000 residents left the island to live elsewhere as a result, leaving just 25,000 left on the island. The remaining locals began the task of rebuilding their cities and villages. Today there is only one village in Kefalonia, Fiscardo, which still retains any older architecture.
Today, Kefalonia is a prime holiday destination in one of the most beautiful spots in the Mediterranean. There is so much for tourists to indulge in here, including tours of the cave Drogarati and the underground lake Melissani, a visit to the monastery of St Gerasios, and taking in the amazing view of Myrtos bay.
In Argostoli there is an archaeological museum and a folklore museum. You can enjoy water sports at many of the beaches, which sit adjacent the crystal-clear waters. Apart from its stunning coastline, Kefalonia has some beautiful destinations to visit including its picturesque villages, medieval castles and stunning monasteries.