The Venetians’ ‘Fiori di Levante’ (flower of the East), Zakynthos or Zante, is famed worldwide not only for its natural beauty but also for the turtle Caretta caretta.
Myth has it that the island was named after the first founder-hero, the Arkadian Zakynthos. It enjoyed a great heyday during the Classical period, but because of its strategic position was attacked many times and captured successively by the Macedonians and the Romans. In the Byzantine Age it was plagued by pirates; afterwards came the Venetian Occupation; in later times its fortunes followed those of the other Ionian Islands, until their union with Greece in 1864. Zakynthos covers an area of 406 sq. km. and its coastline is 123 km. in length. On the east side of the island the vegetation is luxuriant and there are tracts of plain, whereas the west part is mountainous. Correspondingly, the east coast is smooth and sandy, whereas the west is steep and rocky.
The island’s capital and port, also called Zakynthos, is located on the southeast coast. Although the 1953 earthquakes destroyed public buildings and churches of great architectural value, this is still a beautiful town, with spacious squares, elegant buildings, charming arcades (the most characteristic is the Rouga) and important churches, adorned with works by Zakynthian and Cretan iconpainters (Virgin of the Angels, Virgin Phaneromene, St Nicholas of the Mole, all built in the 17th century). On the broad waterfront avenue (Strata Marina) stands the impressive church of the island’s patron saint, St Dionysios. Built in 1708, it was renovated in 1764 and decorated with valuable icons, works by the Zakynthian painters Koutouzis and Doxaras. The church houses the coffin with the relic of the saint, which was translated here in 1717 from the Strofades monastery, where Dionysios had been buried. Other buildings of particular interest in the town are the Byzantine and Postbyzantine Museum, the Museum of Solomos and Distinguished Zakynthians as well as the Municipal Library and Art Gallery. Two kilometres outside the town stands Strani Hill, with a marvellous view over the port and the bust of Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos, who is said to have been inspired on this hill to write his ‘Hymn to Freedom’, which was later set to music and established as the national anthem of Greece. The ruins of the Venetian Castle crown the top of the adjacent Bochali Hill, while directly beneath is the delightful, flower-filled suburb of Zoodochos Pigi, named after the church dedicated to the Life-Bearing Source. Here too is the historic chapel of St George of the Philikoi, where new members of the Philike Hetaireia (Friendly Society) swore their oath to during the struggle against the Ottoman Turks. Perhaps the most notable of the island’s many sights is the Blue Grotto, one of the loveliest cave complexes in Greece. Located close to northernmost promontory, Cape Skinari, it was discovered by chance in 1897. In this sea cave consisting of two interconnected caverns, the reflection of the sun’s rays on the water creates stupendous scintillations of blue and sapphirine shades in the depths. Further south is another sea cave known as Xygia, in which there is a spring of sulphurous water.
There are many traditional villages in the hinterland of Zakynthos, most of them drowned in verdant vegetation, with attractive vernacular architecture, interesting churches, monasteries with distinctive belltowers, springs of cool fresh water and hospitable local people. In the south are the villages of Ambelokipoi, Lithakia, Agalas, Pantokratoras, Mouzaki, Romiri, Lagopodo (a short distance from the Eleutherotria monastery). At the southernmost edge of the island (west of Lagana Bay) is the picturesque village of Keri, built in a daunting setting near the homonymous headland with its precipitous cliffs and lighthouse offering a breathtaking vista of the open sea. The village church of the Virgin Keriotissa (1745), built in Renaissance style and with an elaborate iconostasis, merits a visit. Close by northwest of Marathia) is Lake Keri, an area known since Antiquity because of its bitumen sources. In the heart of the island are the villages of Machairado with its notable church of St Maura, Melinado with the remnants of an ancient temple of Artemis, Vouyato, Lagadakia, Aghioi Pantes, Fiolitis, Galaro, Aghia Marina with its three-aisled basilica of St Marina that boasts an elaborate wood-carved iconostasis,
Aghios Dimitrios, Aghios Kirykos, Sarakinada, Kalipado with a church of St John decorated with wallpaintings, Tragaki and Kypseli with brooks and streams. Further north is Katastari and not far from here is the monastery of St John of Lagada. Continuing our way to the northernmost point of the island, we pass through Orthonies, with the monastery of the Virgin Spiliotissa (16th c.), and a short distance from there is Volimies, an important village comprising two settlements. Of interest in Meses Volimies is the church of St Paraskevi, in Venetian Baroque order with a wood-carved and gilded iconostasis and a characteristic belltower, identical to that of St Dionysios in the town of Zakynthos. Closer to the west coast of the island, some very pretty villages nestle in the foothills of Mt Vrachionas, with splendid countryside and spell-binding view: Aghios Leon, Kambi, Maries with a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene, and Anaphonitria with the notable monastery of the Virgin Anaphonitria, in which St Dio-nysios was a monk. At the entrance to the precinct is a Medieval tower (15th c.) and the church has an exquisite wood-carved iconostasis gilded with gold leaf, wall-paintings and precious icons. In a pine forest further north, with panoramic view of the island’s western shores, is the monastery of St George Kremnon (16th c.).
Undoubtedly, the island’s greatest attraction is its incomparable shores with glistening greyish white or golden sand, quaint fishing villages or popular holiday resorts, organized plages or isolated coves with sparkling sea, forbidding steep cliffs or welcoming gentle beaches in which the greenery grows to the water’s edge. North of the town are the beaches of Kryoneri and Planos-Tsilivi, while to the south are Argasi (cosmopolitan summer resort), Kaminia, Porto Zoro, Vasilikos, Porto Roma and Gerakas. In the south, the Gulf of Lagana, with the villages of Kalamaki, Lagana and Aghios Sostis, is the major vacation centre of the island. The beach is 9 km. long and provided with modern hotels, pensions, tavernas, restaurants and other amenities. The entire area is the hatching ground for the rare species of turtle Caretta caretta and as such a protected natural habitat. The west coast is indented by the bays of Exo Chora and Vromi (or Porto Vromi). Here too is the renowned, prize-winning beach of ‘Navagio’, considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. On the northeast shore visitors can enjoy the sea at Aghia Aikaterini, Alikana, Alykes, Aghia Kyriaki, Makry Yalo, Aghios Nikolaos and elsewhere.
EVENTS – OTHER INFORMATION
Several annual religious feasts are celebrated on the island: of St Dionysios (24 August and 17 December) in the town of Zakynthos, of St Marina (1st Sunday in July) at Machairado, and others. Very enjoyable is the Zakynthos Carnival, a most lively affair with strong Venetian influences. Many artistic events are organized throughout the year. There are bars, discos, tavernas, restaurants, cafeterias and other places of entertainment in the town of Zakynthos and most of the seaside villages. There is also a water-supply facility for yachts. Typical local products of the island are mandolato (nougat), ladotyri (cheese stored in oil), wine and toilet waters.
Strofades (42 n. m. south of Zakynthos): on the largest isle in this cluster of deserted islets is the fortified monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour (13th c.), which is dedicated to St Dionysios. The islets can be visited by caique. Other small nearby islets are: Aghios Ioannis, Aghios Nikolaos, Marathonisi, Pelouzo and Aghios Sostis.
USEFUL TELEPHONE NUMBERS:
Municipality of Zakynthos: 26950 22.315
Zakynthos Police Station: 26950 24.480
Emergency: 26950 22.100
Zakynthos Harbour Authority: 26950 28.117
Ambulance EKAB: 26950 23.166