As we get more settled into Kefalonian life we have started to explore all that this island has to offer.
Back home in the UK we would regularly visit historical sites, trying to ensure that the boys have physical interactions with the history they learn. Over the years we’ve been members of The National Trust and English Heritage, filling days with walks around castles, battlefields and any old manor house you’d like to mention.
We hoped that our travels would continue that theme, of learning about the areas we are in by visiting special places and stepping in the footprints of those who have come before us.
One thing you can’t escape about the history of Kefalonia is it’s troubles with earthquakes. Sitting just east of a major tectonic plate there have been many quakes recorded, but the most infamous was during the summer of 1953. Through the first weeks of August that year many small tremors were felt, until the 12th August when the biggest hit. It measured around 7 on the Richter Scale and caused devastation throughout the island. Almost every building on the island was destroyed or damaged, apart from the extremes in the north where the cities of Luxouri and Fiskardo are the only places on the island where you can see buildings from before 1953.
It’s hard to imagine the damage caused. Within a minute whole villages and towns were demolished, the south of the island was actually raised by 60cms during the quake, (watermarks on rocks around the coast are evidence of this) and the population of the island were left in complete shock, not least because it’s believed that somewhere close to 1,000 people lost their lives that day.
As you drive around the island you can find abandoned, destroyed villages — their inhabitants having fled on the day of the earthquake and never returned. The villages are a stark reminder of the power of mother nature.
The boys and I visited one of these sites last wee, Old Vlachata, near the port town of Sami. As you drive through the mountains towards the site you notice that the houses start to thin out. The day we went there was no traffic on the roads approaching the village at all, adding to the feeling that these truly are abandoned places.
We pulled up in front of what looked like a village square and stepped from the car. I asked the boys to be quiet and we all stood, taking in the scene in front of us. It was eerily quiet and the more you looked the more you began to see the utter wrath that earthquake had caused.
Churches and school houses with no roofs and missing walls. Whole streets with no buildings left standing, just the foundations and single brick high boundaries giving clues to where homes once stood.
At one end of the village was a large building, we thought maybe a town hall or school room, with a huge tree growing right from the middle and up out of the roof.
We spent a good hour exploring the ruins, trying to guess what the buildings had been and who might have been using them at the time. Then we sat, back in the square and quietly had some snacks and drinks, all of us feeling quite reflective of our surroundings. Our hosts have a large collection of books they have accumulated since coming to the island and one of them talks of the earthquake, when I’d read it I’d been really moved by a passage from it and so I had taken the book on our trip so I could read it to the boys in situ.
I’d like to share it with you here. It’s an excerpt from a book called “During the Hours of the Earthquake in Kefalonia: The Ghost Town” by Beta S. Galiatsatou:
“…And later, when we had recovered somewhat from the first tragic impression and took a dazed look around us, there was nothing left of what had formerly been. Enceladus had arrived, a self-invited companion, to play his role on the stage of our lives. And this strange set designer changed all the scenery around us, turning our homes into ruins. He played the part of an eccentric architect, who with a single movement changed the old style of our houses, because that was the way he wanted it to be. We looked but we couldn’t believe our eyes! Ruins! Ruins everywhere! And in the distance stood the mountains which up until now had been hidden by our houses! But what spectacle did the people present? Was it perhaps hell with living people hidden inside it? They were people, but somehow they looked like something else. The dust had formed entire masks over their faces, and all that showed was two eyes big from horror, and lips so dry and pale that you would think that life had left them long ago. Their bodies covered by half torn clothes, they looked like dead bodies that had just been thrown from their graves, and without knowing what they wanted in this place they had found themselves in, they looked curiously at the demolished houses. Perhaps Dante would not have called on Virgil to be his imaginary companion in writing his famous Inferno, if he had lived for a short time during these moments in Argostoli. Moments of unbalance and madness….”
These words have really impacted me, the image of those dust covered faces, looking at their whole lives destroyed in front of them is such a shocking one.
I marvel at the strength of people to pick themselves up and carry on after horrors like this, but here on this island that is what they have done. Churches and buildings reconstructed. New villages begun in new areas of the island. The people here have shown the power of community, of compassion and of the power of belief that life can be good again.
If you ever visit this part of the world, do take some time to visit these places left to remind us of what once was, it’s important that we remember those who died and those of carried on for us now.