At 781 square metres wide Kephalonia is the sixth largest Greek island, rich in history, culture and wildlife, and now you can go riding in Kephalonia too. Tourists flock to the island to witness a panorama which includes rocky mountain ranges, deep valleys and a still, inviting shoreline – what better way to see this wonderful scenery than on horseback?
British tourists are the main visitors to Kephalonia, and as such there are good connections from the UK. After a three and a half hour flight from Gatwick, the plane lands on the short, beach-side Kephalonian runway revealing clear, turquoise sea beyond the limestone cliffs – this is reputedly one of the clearest and cleanest stretches of ocean in Europe. In early June when I arrive, the temperature is in the late twenties – the forecast for the week ahead looks promising and according to the locals, the island has seen the last of the rain for the foreseeable future.
As my host Conny drives me from the airport to her home where riding guests stay, the winding roads with their sharp drops and non-existent curbs intertwine with the towering hills and pretty villages. This rustic beauty is suddenly marred by the screaming of a very young puppy curled up behind a gravestone in the local cemetery of Koulourata – Conny found him abandoned there that morning and he is calling for his mother. Fortunately Conny convinces a friendly neighbour to take the dog and we take him to the farmer’s outbuilding, where he is given some sheep’s milk.
Many Greeks do not share our English sentimentality regarding animal husbandry, but fortunately Conny’s riding establishment, one of only two on the island, has no such issues – the eight horses at the yard are all content, healthy and treasured. All of the horses are Haflingers, with the exception of Conny’s 17hh, warmblood mare Felia, and are well suited to the rocky terrain of Kephalonia with their small, stocky bodies and strong limbs.
On day one of the holiday, after a wonderful breakfast of rye bread, brie, boiled eggs and muesli, I head out with five others on a two and a half hour trip up into the mountainous olive groves. Riding Bonny, a very kind and stocky little mare with a shock of white mane, I set off with the group into the green hillside. I soon experience a wonderful barrage of the senses – after a light rainfall overnight, the groves smell strongly of olives and wild jasmine, which is herby and fresh. The hum of crickets combined with the jangling of goats’ bells (the goats are kept for feta cheese), creates a cacophony of echoing sound, while the hillside features a range of brightly coloured plants and flowers, from purple thistle and yellow jasmine to pink oleander. Meanwhile colourful butterflies and a range of alarmingly large insects and bugs mingle with the fauna, creating a beautiful, calm environment.
Our introductory ride takes us high up along the densely wooded, winding mountain tracks – the pace is slow and relaxed and the horses very sure footed. Several hours later we return to the yard, and in the afternoon my friend Sam and I explore the local port of Sami by bicycle. The locals are all very friendly and it is customary to greet people with a cheery ‘Yassas’, or ‘good day’.
On the second day we take a three hour ride up to the mountains, getting off to lead the horses in some places as the tracks are so narrow and hazardous. The trick is to let them fend for themselves and Don’t Look Down!The tracks and paths are all strangely landscaped – no accident, but the ghostly remains of old villages destroyed in an earthquake in 1953. Some of the villagers were saved, as they slept outside due to the heat and were able to escape, but all of the tiny houses crumbled and the remains can still be seen today.
Kephalonia has an abundance of fresh spring water, which stems from deep underground reservoirs. There are no rivers or streams on the island, so on the long rides Conny’s horses stop en route at a mountainside spring-water trough for refreshments.The change of scenery also brings some different plants – eucalyptus, palm trees, wild mint and huge, spiky aloe vera. The views from the mountain ranges, up to 628 metres high, are amazing – you can see for miles, and the panorama takes in green forest, rustic villages, cloud-tipped mountains and flat, turquoise ocean.
On day three our escort Christina takes us to see a derelict monastery at the top of a mountain – the remains were famously used in the film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The project bought welcome income and attention to the island, and as a result has raised its profile enormously, but not to Kephalonia’s detriment. In addition, locals were able to work on the production as extras and labourers, which allowed some to expand their own businesses or invest their earnings for the future. In addition to the stables, our hosts Conny and Panajoti also own a bar in town, which became a local haunt for the reputedly hard-drinking ‘Corelli’ production team.
For our fourth day of riding Conny has planned a 4-hour ride which includes swimming with the horses in the sea, for me the highlight of the trip. Conny, Sam and I set off early with our breakfast packed in the saddle bags and head down to a stretch of sea near Karavomilos Lake, via more mountain paths and pretty villages. Today I am riding Conny’s striking mare Felia, although I will be taking Bonny into the sea, as Felia only goes in one direction in the water – up!
After a short breakfast of brie, bread, boiled eggs and hot tea on the beach, Sam and I take off Zora and Bonny’s saddles and also our own riding clothes, while Conny stays on the shore to take photos. Today it is a relatively cool 25 degrees and the water looks inviting, but cold! Having vaulted on using a previously forgotten childhood technique perfected on a saddle-horse many years ago, I ride Bonny into the sea with slight trepidation. This area of ocean is akin to a large, still lake, as there are hardly any waves. Bonny walks purposefully into the water and with little persuasion lunges forward and begins to swim. Her technique is reminiscent of the merry-go-round round horses which rise and fall – she plunges forward with each stroke, keeping her head just above water and making me laugh hysterically with each leap. It is a wonderful feeling of exhilaration and unadulterated fun – and also an element of danger, as there is always the prospect of a cold dip and a loose horse if you lose your balance on that sturdy, armchair-like Haflinger back. Fortunately Bonny looks after me admirably, returning to the shore every few minutes so we can get our breath back. The horses really enjoy the swim, and it is also excellent therapy for hot equine limbs. It was a thoroughly unforgettable experience and one which I would love to do again – a feeling of pure fun and a privilege to be able to undertake.
On the fifth day Conny takes us on a 5-hour ride through the hills and valleys, past old, dry river beds and scented fruit groves. The scenery is equally as beautiful viewed from this level and with the tall, ‘Cephalonian fir’ trees, looks not unlike the Canadian Rockies. The wildlife never ceases to amaze me on this island – in the space of half an hour we see a hawk, two snakes and a basking tortoise who narrowly avoids being trodden on by the horses. In addition, loggerhead turtles, monk seals and wild horses can be seen in certain parts of Kephalonia.
Riding in Kephalonia is wonderful as the scenery is so beautiful, but bringing horses here is problematic and fraught with impracticalities. The main issue is that there are no equine vets on Kephalonia – also no horse dentists, farriers, feed merchants, equine therapists or tack shops. Therefore everything has to be imported and administered by the owner, including medicine, wormers and horseshoes – equine vets can be flown over for operations such as castrations, but the process is obviously impractical and costly. Conny’s shavings for her mare Felia come from a local carpenter, while she buys all her medicinal supplies from Germany. If the unthinkable happens and a horse requires euthanasia, there is no option but to find a suitably experienced cow farmer. The potentially daunting prospect of running a commercial stables with so little back-up did not put Conny off, and I am left in awe of her strong work ethic and devotion to her horses.
As the trip comes to a close I am disappointed to be leaving after just a week – the local people have been very hospitable and there is a relaxing ambience about Kephalonia from which you can’t escape. Fellow Brits I speak to wax lyrical about ‘falling in love with the island’, and many return year after year. I would definitely recommend Unicorn Trails’ Kephalonia Riding Week, as seeing the area on horseback is a wonderful way to get close to nature and is extremely good for the soul.
For more information and to book:
Webpage: Kephalonia Riding Week
Telephone: 01767 600606 (UK); 1-437-371-2822 (Canada); 1-888-420-0964 (USA); +46 (0)8-58176336 (Scandinavia)
Account by Kathy Carter