The Ionian Sea is shimmering brilliantly beside me as I look across the bay towards Ithaca. Late afternoon in a Greek summer is no time to be running, but it had seemed like a good idea as I lay beside the pool.
Now, half an hour later, the road is rising steeply out of Sámi, climbing up from the harbour through the pine and scattered olive trees. There are no houses here, no villas or hotels, and the landscape presents itself as it always has through history. Since time immemorial.
I’m sure it looked just like this to the Myceneans and the ancient Greeks, and when Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet was destroyed in the Battle of Actium just along the coast. The heat and hillside were just the same in the centuries when Normans, Venetians (and Turks) ruled the island, and in the years when it belonged to Napoleon’s France and then to Britain before becoming part of modern Greece in 1864.
These blue skies looked down on the island’s wartime occupiers, too, the innocent Cephallonia landscape a witness to the massacre of the Italian Acqui division by the Germans following the Italian surrender in 1943.
The mountains behind me have grown a little higher since then, rising up another two metres or so in the catastrophic earthquake of 1953 which razed many of the buildings on the island and left the empty and crack-scarred ruins still lurking grimly in nearly every town and village today.
The turmoil of history has brought unexpected reward now – the loving descriptions of Cephallonia and those brutal events in Louis de Bernières’ epic novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin enticing more tourists to the island in recent years. But only a few.
The hill goes on for a mile or more, much too far in heat like this, and so I stop to walk a while and take a drink. But the water is warm already, and my parched mouth tastes of hot pine and baked brown earth.
My head is spinning, my breathing ragged and my stomach’s sloshing uselessly. Three times, I push it to the limit, and then each time I walk some more.
I don’t know why I do this, really. It would have been far more sensible to laze at the hotel and cool off with a swim, the afternoon’s efforts stretching to nothing more than another hundred pages of my book and sips of frappé. But instead, I’m flogging my guts out up this infernal and eternal hillside. There’s just no rhyme or reason to this addiction.
Finally, I reach the fork in the road. The ancient acropolis of ancient Sámi lies a mile or so uphill to my right, but I carry straight on, the road descending gently at last. Around a corner, the forest falls away towards blue sky, blue sea and the pure white pebbles of Antisamos beach, and now I remember – this road was built to bring the Hollywood film crew exactly to this spot.
I turn back downhill and head for home with some relief. But the sun is beating down relentlessly beneath my feet, and although the effort is much less now, I can feel the heat stealthily sucking the life out of me. There’s a hot wind blowing, turning the blades of the windfarm high on the crest of Mount Enos far away to my left, and it’s drying out my throat with every breath. My legs are turning over only limply, spinning idly down the slope with no measurable force or conviction. Fifteen minutes more of torture still to run, allowing a minute’s walk past Corelli’s bar beside the port.
Down below me, I can see the afternoon ferry Kefalonia is leaving Sámi harbour, setting out across the bay towards the rounded hills of Ithaca, the legendary home of Odysseus. But enchanting as that island is, its geology and geography just don’t fit Homer’s descriptions, which talk of a flat-lying isle, set farthest out towards the sea and setting sun.
Recent geological and archaeological investigations suggest that Homer’s hero actually came from Cephallonia, after all, in a time where higher sea levels isolated the Lixouri peninsula as a separate western landmass.
It doesn’t seem to matter much now – since there’s an idyllic view from here, of mountains, hillsides and sea. But above all it’s the blinding light which is burning itself into my memory.
And suddenly I realise that’s why I’m here, burning up all along this afternoon’s scorching road, set high above the Ionian Sea. It’s because there’s no better way to store these physical sensations of Cephallonia – its sounds and scents, and above all, this heat and blazing light.
And because a long, dark English winter is more than cool enough.
43. A sense of time – Earth history and the London Marathon
52. The Edge – from Sicily to Surrey
34. Lines from the Battle of Guildford
90. Iberian chains – Tierras del Cid, Spain
97. Only scars carved into stone – a summer 20 miles
32. The bad run