Z A K Y N T H O S (Z A N T E)
The island of Zakyntos (or Zante – the Italian name is also used) is one of the Greek-Venetian pearls of the Ionian Sea. It’s the southernmost of the Heptanese and the most beautiful one, in my opinion. It is too diverse in all terms. It offers something to every taste. The architecture and traditions are influenced mainly by the Venetians. Its nature is splendid. The beaches are marvelous. Loggerhead sea turtles and monk seals are the most famous sea inhabitants there attracting thousands of tourists annually.
In the beginning I said the island is a Greek-Venetian pearl and it’s true. It’s been within the Greek state since 1864. Before that it was ruled by the Ottomans, Russians, French and Brits. But, surely, the Venetian rule was the most influential one there. The Venetians were those who nicknamed the island as Il fiore del Levante or To fioro tou Levante (the Flower of the East) because of the wild and opulent vegetation and greenery of the island situated to the East of Venice. Nowadays il leone di Venezia (the Venetian Lion) still “protects” and could be seen on the walls of the 15th century Venetian Castle (“Castro de Zakyntos”) on the noble Bohali Hill above the town where there are still well preserved buildings like stores, a prison, gunpowder buildings from the Venetian times. Going to the heart of the capital tourists have the chance to have a walk along San Marcos Square (Agios Marcos). Yes, the second largest square (after the Square of Solomos) and one of the focal places in Zakynthos/Zante city is named after the patron Saint of Venice.
The almost 300-year Venetian rule (1384-1797) has also penetrated in the musical traditions and tastes of the inhabitants of the Ionian Islands as a whole. Principally, the percentage of the people who listen to opera and classical music is greater than that of those who live in the other parts of Greece. Zante is the birthplace of Pavlos Carrer (a Greek composer who is considered the “father” of Greek opera music) and Dionysios Solomos (a Greek poet who, inspired by the canonnades in Missolonghi, wrote the text and poem of the Greek national anthem “Hymn to Liberty” on the Strani Hill) while Corfu is where Nikolaos Halikiopoulos Mantzaros was born (a Greek composer who is famous for the musical setting of the Greek national anthem).
And last thing about the Venetian domination on the Ionian Islands and on Zakynthos, in particular. On the New Year’s day the Venetians would throw their old belongings from the window hoping to get new, better ones from the next year. This old tradition has somehow been shifted from New Year to Easter on the Ionian Islands and nowadays the islanders from Corfu and Zakynthos follow it strictly by throwing pots and jars of all sizes on Easter. Well, there are some differences in the tradition of smashing pots between the two islands. As a matter of fact, it’s more commercial and like a spectacle on Corfu and the island welcomes foreigners and Greeks alike at about 11.30 in the morning in the central parts of Kérkyra on Saturday before Easter. While on Zante this tradition is more “local”. Easter processions start at 2am on Saturday and at 5.30am the Easter pot-smashing begins only in front the Metropolitan church in Zante city (and nowhere else), thus re-creating the earthquake and dreadful darkness associated with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Speaking about earthquakes (either biblical or those through the centuries), the natives will never forget the catastrophic earthquake of 1953 when 2/3s of the buildings on the island were ruined.
Apart from the Venetian predominance, the island of Zakynthos has amazing nature. Coincidentally, Hellas started the advertising and promoting campaigns of the country in the 60s-70s with the first three impressive photos of the Acropolis of Athens, Corfu’s Pontikonisi Island (or better known as the Mouse Island) and Navagio Beach on Zante.
There is no doubt that Ionian Greek beaches are the most beautiful ones for me. Why? They are the cleanest ones, in the first place, and the reason for that is the seawater salinity. (Believe me, the level of saltiness of the Ionian Sea is extremely high and even after several baths under the shower salt cannot be removed entirely; by the way all this harms eyes and that’s why I always wear scuba diving glasses when I swim there). In 2013 Hellas ranked the second after Spain in terms of blue flags (according to the “Blue Flag Programme eco-label for Beaches and Marinas”). The country got more than 300 blue flags. Most of the blue-flag beaches are on Corfu, followed by Zakynthos (10 in number) and the rest are scattered around the country. In the second place, the sea water surrounding the Ionian Islands is unnaturally turquoise-blue. Yes, it’s true. Before I visited “The Seven Islands” (i.e. Ionian Island group) I had seen tens of thousands of photos and I had thought that they were photoshopped too much. No! The colour is real even in cold spring weather. Even turquoise-blue has given the name to one of the greatest landmarks of Zakynthos, i.e. the Blue Caves.
There are, actually, two rock groups bearing the same name. The first one is called “The Little Blue Caves” while the second one is well known as “The Blue Caves”. I myself saw the little blue dwarfs only from the road on my way to the village of Agios Nikolaos. I am opening a bracket here. The nearby Island of Agios Nikolaos is a small islet in the bay and surprisingly it doesn’t belong to Greece but to the Vatican City. The bracket closed. So, small boats (without any tents) depart from the small village port of Agios Nikolaos. The feeling of such a boat trip is really thrilling and extremely exciting as the boat is almost thrown on the crests of waves and I can assure you that after that adventure everybody’s wet all over but happy. No worries. It’s not a dangerous experience and boat captains are very careful because there are draconian measures for boat rides, i.e. such boat trips and rides are possible only if wave-height is not more than 4H which means that the height of sea waves is between 1.25м – 2.5 м (not more, I am saying once again).
The Blue Caves are the most visited and famous attraction of Zante. The name comes from the inhabitants, i.e. Mediterranean Monk Seals or also known as “Monachus-Monachus”. The Greek word “phokialí” stands for seal’s refuge. Monachus-Monachus is an endangered species. Seals live there constantly unlike Caretta-Caretta (see below) that migrates. They live in the smaller caves around in which there are even smaller ones. Monk Seals are black in colour with white strips on their necks. Thus they look like monks and that’s why that species of seals is called Monachus-Monachus.
Now let’s get back to the caves. The Blue Caves are three in number and there’re lots of smaller ones around. I didn’t have the chance to enter one of them because of the weather conditions (it’s visited only under calm sea since the cave “gate” is plus-minus one metre high above sea level) but as far as I know, it is like Grotta Azzurra (or Blue Grotto) in Capri. It is 40-50m -L/ 25-30m -W / 20-25 -H. The refracted sun light is reflected in the interior of the Cave which causes the awe-inspiring effect of the dazzling blue and emerald colour of the seawater there.
Boat trips also include a visit to the other landmark of Zakynthos, i.e. Navagio (the word navagio means shipwreck). The tiny cove hosts the shipwrecked smuggler ship Panagiotis. That’s why the place is better known as The Shipwreck Bay or The Smugglers Cove. In brief, the story goes like this. In 1983 Panagiotis smuggling cigarettes (some gossips say that there was also marijuana and hashish on the ship) shipwrecked advisedly in the cove so that the ship crew could escape in boats by sea. Nowadays the ship is a great attraction. Boats anchored close to the coast for a while. Enthusiasts jump into the turquoise-blue sea water and swim to the shore where they can have a closer view of Panagiotis. Yes. All this happens in good weather and under calm sea only. Otherwise, the shipwrecked ship is zoomed and photographed when weather conditions don’t allow anything else.
If you’re a party-goer, for sure, you must spend your time in Laganàs. The beach village is famous for its clubs, bars, nightlife and crowds of young people at the age between 18-30 years. The nightlife there is famous worldwide but there is one negative side. The constant lights and noises from the nearby discos and bars harm, annoy and have a negative effect over the popular sea inhabitants, i.e. endangered loggerhead turtles “Caretta-Caretta” that orient themselves following the moonlight. Even though Laganas is declared a National Sea Park protecting these turtles, they get disturbed very often by the numerous sparkling lights and loud noises coming from everywhere in Laganas.
Caretta-caretta is an oceanic turtle that is about 90cm long and weighs about 135kg. Its skin is yellow-brown while the shell is reddish-brown. The species is spread out also in some parts of Cephalonià (Kefalonià) and the Peloponnese but there is no doubt that Zakynthos is regarded as their well-known nesting area in the Mediterranean Sea (the Ionian Sea being one of its basins). Unlike Monachus-Monachus they migrate through the year. A turtle coupling lasts from March till June. After that Caretta-Caretta loggerhead sea turtles migrate to lay their eggs (from June to the end of September) when they could be seen in the Bay of Laganas. Namely in summer tourists can watch turtles passing by and under glass bottom boats and turtle watching leaves unforgettable mementos. By the way, Caretta-Caretta has become something like a symbol of Zante because while wandering about and raiding souvenir shops you stumble upon sweet (cartoon) souvenirs such as magnets, glasses, cups, plates, towels, pieces of jewel, post cards and photos so on and so on. In other words, every second souvenir depicts Caretta-Caretta.
In the end, you must have already got hungry and thirsty. 😉 No problem. Zante offers a variety of specialties and drinks both traditional and local. You can freely take a traditional Greek meal but don’t miss the two typical desserts for Zante – Frigania (sea bread with cream and fruit syrup on) and Fritoures (a fried sweet from semolina, water, sugar and cinnamon) with a glass of the Zantiot wine “Verdea”. Buon Appetito e cin-cin, guys. 🙂
And if you want to get more impressions of Zakynthos, watch this short video.