On the tiny Ionian island of Meganisi, you'll find deserted beaches, plenty of silence and a slice of the real Greece
The Porto Vathi taverna is so close to the jetty you could toss your hat from the ferry to claim a table. Fortunately you’d probably only need to do this on a Sunday, when it’s a popular lunch stop, and today it’s Friday.
The menu is typical seaside Greek, simple and fresh. Butter beans fried in tomato and oregano, grilled swordfish or gilt-head bream, aubergine salad, tzatziki, a bottle of Mythos beer each. Yassas, yassas to everyone. They greet my daughter first, of course, and, her excepted, insist we drink a Metaxa as we leave in the heat of the afternoon sun to explore the rest of the island of Meganisi.
The village of Vathi, along with Spartahori (an hour’s walk away) the only way onto the island by ferry, is 70 or so whitewashed two-storey houses around a shady square and simple mooring. A few tavernas, among which the Porto Vathi is the best, cater for yacht crews by the handful. Nothing happens, then nothing, then 50 people appear from darkened doors and alleyways to embark on the ferry to Lefkada. Then nothing again.
Ten minutes up the hill, past the olive groves, is the village of Katomeri, the island’s ‘capital’. There’s no proper path or anything, and the untended verges are overgrown with wild wheat. You just walk down the middle of the road, dodging the occasional goat and two-stroke moped. This capital is a tiny jumble of snickets and jennels; the main street has barely enough space for two mules to pass and retain their modesty.
The occasional garden is properly tended with roses and geraniums or fruit trees and sweet grapevines. There’s a ramshackle bell tower right across the road from a KKE (Greek Communist Party) election poster and a wall with PASOK (Socialist Party) graffiti scrawled on it. As if whoever holds power in Athens or anywhere else makes the slightest difference to life for the 1,000 or so residents of this tiny island.
Further up the hill, beyond the village, is a barren and beautiful landscape of swallows and clouds of butterflies and empty bleak country. We walk deserted trails, past occasional shrines. Up here you'll find the island's only Hotel, the imaginitively-titled Meganisi, comfortable, equipped with a pool and serene views—and oh-so-quiet.
We catch a glimpse of Skorpios in the distance, the island bought by Aristotle Onassis in 1962 for £6,600, now worth tens, maybe hundreds, of millions. On the south and east of Meganisi, a sea the colour of Titian’s ultramarine laps at deserted coves where even the jellyfish seem in a deep, benign slumber.
The last ferry leaves Vathi at 6pm and we’re on it. We chug, at a fair clip, past Skorpios and Madouri, another private island owned by the family of the Greek nationalist poet Aristotelis Valaoritis. The early evening sun catches the wakes from passing boats and pimples of sharp light appear fleetingly on their crests.
Twenty minutes later we’re approaching Nidri, on Lefkada. Meganisi is out of sight now behind Agia Kyriaki. The leaflet I’m reading explains that Katomeri used to be such a lively place, but electrification didn’t arrive until 1973 and mains water not for another decade, so people started leaving and unstoppable decline set in.
Now, it seems, the strategy is to attract more holidaymakers. But, despite the raw beauty, the silence and those beaches, I’m not sure how many will come. Perhaps Meganisi will remain the isle that time forgot. Just the way I like it.