The isle where time stands still!
Our fisherman’s caique chugs across the water from the Ionian island of Lefkada, carving white trails of foam into the Mediterranean’s deep blue. We pass the private isle of Skorpios, once home to Greek oil tycoon Aristotle Onassis, and purr into the harbour of Meganissi, its quayside home to only three bars, two restaurants and two corner shops.
Giagiathes, black-clad widowed grandmothers, stoop as they carry the week’s shopping, the curve in their backs matching that of the bay, while at the small kafeneio, backgammon dice clatter around the board as the menfolk sip on thick, black coffee.
If it were not for the fact that the captain of our boat is a young girl called Katerina, we could be back in the 1970s, which is a good thing because that is just what we have come to find.
I am travelling to Meganissi with my mother Audrey, who has lived in Athens for 35 years, in search of that elusive “something” that inspired a then 40-year-old divor?e from Yorkshire to up sticks and take her two young children to live in Greece.
Getting here is an odyssey in itself, reminiscent of our drive from Sheffield to Syntagma Square in Athens all those years ago. You can fly into the nearby town of Preveza and be on Meganissi in 45 minutes via car and ferry, or fly into Athens and take the six-hour drive.
We have chosen the latter and while that might seem laborious, the scenery is incredible as we leave the capital and follow the north coast of the Peloponnese, cutting over the ultra-modern Rio-Antirio bridge, a work of architectural art, and heading up the pretty west coast of the mainland.
A causeway from Preveza over shallow salt flats and wetlands leads to Lefkada, from where Katerina’s “speedboat” takes us the short hop to Meganissi. Our home for the weekend is Villa Christina and while the island may feel like a step back in time, the villa is thoroughly up-to-date.
Perched atop a small hill overlooking the port of Vathi, there are three bedrooms with tiled floors and an open-plan living room with fireplace and modern furnishings.
Outside, a large terrace has vistas of the mainland and the waters of the infinity pool seem to meld with those of the sea below. Thanks to our arriving late in the evening Christina, the owner, shows typical Greek hospitality by stocking our fridge and leaving a home-made moussaka, Greek salad topped with creamy feta cheese, fresh bread from the bakery and, most important, a chilled bottle of white wine for dinner. It is both welcome and delicious.
Meganissi means “big island” but in reality it is tiny, at less than nine square miles and with less than 1,000 inhabitants.
No one, including Christina, our rep Rachel or anyone else we ask on the island, seems to know the reason for the name but its size certainly means you can get around with ease. There are just two other villages. Katomeri is home to the town hall, school, a taverna and a couple of coffee shops that line its paved streets, while the alleys of Spartohori see flashes of red bougainvillea clashing with stark white stone houses, some of which are draped in vines, their gardens home to citrus trees and tomatoes.
Here we see so many giagiathes (the island has an ageing population thanks to the brain drain to major cities) that Audrey seems to think there may be a widows’ convention. “And I thought I looked old,” she opines dryly.
The island is perfect for tootling around and relaxing on its many coves and beaches.
islander Over the following days we see most of them: shallow and sandy Fanari, wild Agios Ioannis and the more organised Spilia. I say organised, but only because it has a rough and ready beach bar called Agrios which we visit several times, sipping on cooling Mythos beer.
One morning, I break from our lovely lethargy and head into the centre of the island for a run. It is easy to see why so many walkers adore it here.
Well-kept paths lead through pine forests and fields of wild thyme, oregano and mint. Every step I take is a fragrant reminder of just how undiscovered the island is.
We take breakfast at villa Christina, light lunches at Agrios and in the evenings sample the tavernas of Vathi.
The Rose Garden serves wholesome home cooking: thick stews, meat on the grill, boiled beetroot and a unique tzatziki with carrots and peppers.
At Erikos, overlooking the smattering of yachts in the harbour, seafood is the order of the day. Boats pull into the quay, offload crates of crustaceans and fish and take them straight to the chef. Food could not be fresher. We demolish octopus, baby calamari cooked in their ink and incredible red mullet.
Our stay ends too soon and as we leave we come to the conclusion there are few places as redolent of “old Greece” as Meganissi. But she won’t stay that way for long.
Lord Rothschild has already purchased a peninsula to the south of the island for a luxury resort and others are sure to follow. If you want to see traditional Greece as she once was, now is definitely the time to visit.