Strung along the shores of Western Greece, the Ionian Islands reveal yet another totally different facet of Greek landscape. Green and luxuriant, they have been for centuries the crossroads between mainland Greece and Western Europe, and as such they were able to develop their own culture, literature, art and music. Corfu, Paxi, Lefkas, Cephalonia, Ithaca, Zakynthos and Kythera, known as the “Eptanlssa” in Greek, all share a common historical background and offer their visitors an incredible variety of scenery, character and traditions. Geographically, Kythera is not an Ionian island at all (see page 48), but is counted with the others because for a long time it was ruled with them by Venice. In ancient time the Ionian Islands were sought after by the mighty city-states of Sparta, Athens and Corinth.
And though they joined in the common struggle against the Romans, they finally fell under Roman overlordship together with the rest of Greece. From then onwards they belonged successively to the Byzantines the Turks and the Venetians until 1797 when they were ceded to France. There followed a period of Russian occupation until the French took over once again and ruled from 1807 to 1814, when the islands fell under British rule. They were finally conceded to Greece in 1863 under the Treaty of London.
The Ionian Islands were fortunate enough not to have come for a long time under Turkish rule and so they were able, in spite of the fact that they were not free, to develop remarkable achievements in literature and the arts, especially in painting. In many of the churches and museums of the loanian Islands there are works which show, among others, how Greek art would have developed had it not been for the Turkish occupation in the rest of the country. The loanian Islands are also the birthplace of many prominent men of letters, among them Andreas Kalvos, Hugo Foscolo, Dionysios Solomos, who wrote the Greek National Anthem, and Aristoteles Valaorltis.
Corfu is the gateway to Greece for those arriving from Europe. The island has been mentioned by Homer in his «Odyssey». The island’s most flourishing period began in 734 B.C., when its first colonists, the Corinthians, arrived here. In the following centuries Corfu shared the fate of the rest of the Ionian Islands. There was a great cultural development during the Venetian and French occupations, when the island boasted a vast library with rare manuscripts and books, a school of art, lyric theatre and several institutions of learning.
Corfu town has a strong Venetian character and countless monuments dating from the fifteenth to the late eighteenth century. The Regency Palace with its graceful colonnade reminds us of the British presence on the island as it lines the huge square in the centre of the town and looks on to the Esplanade, with its profusion of Greek, Venetian and British monuments. To the west, tall arcaded houses, dating from the French domination, line the picturesque street. Also of interest is the 16th century Cathedral dedicated to St Spyridon, the patron Saint of Corfu. A silver casket containing his body is carried through the streets of the town in a procession on feast days.
Outside the town there are a number of interesting spots: Mandouki, Garitza, Mon Repos and Pontikonissi, where the shipwrecked Ulysses, according to mythology, wandered ashore. The Achilleion Palace, an ornate structure built by the Empress Elizabeth of Austria and now turned into a casino. Vlacherna, another tiny islet, with its Byzantine Monastery standing between tall cypress trees. Kanoni which commands a view over the idyllic bay.
Well known as a warm weather playground and resort or almost a century, Corfu has a great many attractions and diversions in addition to incredible views, golden and secluded sands overhung by wooded mountains and groups off-shore rocks which look like castles in the sea. Homer was the first to sing its charms as the place where Odysseus, was washed ashore and found by Nausicaa, daughter of the ruling king Alcinous. Since the time of Odysseus, however, Corfu has seen a long series of invasions and occupations, Greeks, Romans, the British, Venetians, the French and even Slaves have, at one time or another, controlled Corfu, together with the rest of the Ionian Islands. An atmosphere rather than archaeological experience, Corfu’s main historical wealth was left behind by the Venetians who ruled from the fifteenth to the late eighteenth century.
To the south of Corfu, near the shores of Epirus, are two small islands called Paxi and Antipaxi only 19 sq.kms in area. They have recently been developed into fascinating tourist resorts with comfortable bungalows and fine sandy beaches below the olive groves, Covered with dense subtropical vegetation, they offer a delightful retreat away from the crowds.
Lefkas is very near the Greek mainland and it can easily be reached from Preveza. The island can be explored at leisure by following a dense network of good roads. It is a mountainous island with several small plains and beautiful beaches. Lefkas shares the same historical background as the rest of the Ionian Islands. Recent excavations at Nydri have brought to light several prehistoric remains which prove that the island enjoyed a high standard of civilisation in prehistoric times. Lefkas has not been developed for tourism and for that reason appeals to those who seek a simple holiday by clear blue seas. There are excellent beaches (Aghios Nikitas, 27 kms from the town, Lygia, Nydri, Ai-Yiannis and Vassiliki).
Cephalonia is mountainous, sprawling and pine-covered. It is the largest of the Ionian Islands. Among its many attractions are the Mycenaean tombs, ancient mosaics, and medieval castles. Tourist centres are located among pine-tree groves and next to sandy beaches, bays and headlands. Argostoli, the principal town, lies on an inlet deep in Livadi Bay which divides the island into two uneven parts. Completely rebuilt after the devastating earthquakes of 1953, the capital is now a modern town with good hotels and lively entertainment along the waterfront in the evenings.
Lixouri, the island’s second town on the opposite shore has excellent bathing facilities. Of interest on the island are the villages of Kastro, medieval San Giorgio which once held 15,000 inhabitants within its ramparts, and the Mazarakata excavations made on 83 Mycenaean tombs.
Cephalonia is linked to Patras by ferry boat (58 n. miles). Ithaca, the famous birthplace of Homer’s Ulysses, is mountainous and arid, so its few inhabitants seek work as seamen or else emigrate. Ithaca has countless harbours and coves ideal for swimming, skin- diving and fishing. The Grotto of the Nymphs, the island’s main tourist attraction, is said to be the cave where Ulysses hid his treasure on his return from the Phaeacians. Ithaca is rich in historical and archaeological finds dating from the peak of the Mycenaean Age (1500-1100 B.C.). A good road crosses the whole island, providing some superb views of the sea on either side.
«Wooded Zakynthos» as Homer called the island, is the garden island lying opposite the north-western coast of the Peloponnese. Several times a day, car-ferries ply between Kyllini and Zakynthos. This enchanting island was almost entirely destroyed in the tragic earthquake of 1953. The capital, also called Zakynthos, has been rebuilt in a modification of the original Venetian style houses and spacious squares. Apart from numerous associations and tradition in poets, artists and musicians, the island is rich in natural attractions. The eastern coast, in the centre of which is situated the :own of Zakynthos, is surrounded by a low range of hills, on one of which stands a venetian citadel and fort, while on the other is the plateau of Akrotiri, with its villas, gardens, ixhards and olive groves. Summer lasts from May to October in Zakynthos, and dimming, yachting and fishing :an be enjoyed in a glittering .rquoise and emerald sea.