Lefkada, Accessible West Coast Beauty
Lefkada and Evia are the only two Greek islands directly accessible by car. Lefkada is connected to the mainland by a causeway and floating bridge. It's chief city is Lefkada Town, or Lefkas, and the island's population is about 25,000.
Lefkada is considered the least developed of the Ionian Islands. All of its exceptionally beautiful beaches are quiet. It is surrounded by 9 satellite islands, the most famous of which is Skorpios, former domain of Aristotle Onassis, which is just km off the east coast.
The name "Lefkada" derives from the Greek word for "white (lefkos)," which in turn comes from the chalky composition of its substrate, and its white cliffs which create a very clean, milky aquamarine color of the sea close to the shore.
Lefkada's beaches are world-renowned and highly photographed. Lefkada is the northernmost of a grouping of 4 of the 7 Ionian Islands (Heptanese)located off the mid-point of the west coast of mainland Greece, about where the Gulf of Corinth joins the Ionian Sea. The other 3 islands, in order, from north to south, are Ithaki, Kefalonia (or Cephalonia), and Zakinthos.
Lefkada shares much of its history with the rest of the Ionian Islands. An ancient story says the island was given to Odysseus and Penelope as a wedding gift by Laertis, Odysseus's father. For this reason, and the fact that Mycenaean-era artifacts have been found on Lefkada, caused German archeologist Wilhelm Dorpfelt to maintain that Lefkada, not Ithaki, was the home of Odysseus. He suggested that the palace of Odysseus was west of Nydri, on the south coast. Local boosters emphasize that in the Odyssey Ithaki is described as being reachable by foot from the mainland.
Mythology also claims that the island's name derives from Lefkatas, a young man with whom Apollo fell in love. In order to escape Apollo's attentions, Lefkatas jumped off a cliff into the sea at a spot now known as Cape Lefkatas, or, in antiquity, Lefkas Petra (rock). Another ancient story is that the poet Sappho of Lesbos leapt into the sea on account of her hopeless love for Meander , a river god, at the Sanctuary of Apollo there. Apparently the Sanctuary of Apollo was the place to go if you were lovesick and wanted to kill yourself.
Lefkada was colonized by Corinth in the 7th century, BC, when the town of Lefkas (Lefkada Town) was built. In 650 the canal that now separates Lefkada from mainland Greece was dug, making it an island. In 480 BC Lefkada sent 3 ships to help in the battle of Salamis. It joined the Spartan Confederation during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). In 343 BC it joined Athens against Philip of Macedon, and fell under Macedonian rule until it regained its independence in 312 BC. In 198 BC it fell to the Romans. Later it became part of the Byzantine province of Achaia.
In the 2nd century AD Lefkada was offered as a gift to Athens by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. 10th century AD Lefkada was part of the Byzantine empire's "Scheme of Kefalonia."
Lefkada was part of the Despotate of Epirus, a Byzantine successor state, during most of the 13th century. In the beginning of the 14th century the Castle of Santa Maura was built, and immediately became the lynchpin of the island's defenses. The island's name changed for a time to Santa Maura, after the chapel built on the fortress grounds.
Lefkada changed hands 5 times during the 1400's to rulers of Italian and Serbian origin, finally falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1479. The Ottomans reinforced the castle. After a brief time of ownership by the Venetians from 1500-1503 during the Ottoman-Venetian war, Lefkada passed by treaty back into Ottoman hands, where it stayed until 1684, when the Venetians took it after a 16-day siege of Santa Maura.
Lefkada was ruled by Venice less time than the other Ionian Islands, for about a century, until 1800, at which time Lefkada along with the other Ionian Islands became a Russian protectorate known as the "Septinsular Republic," under nominal Ottoman rule. It gave Greeks a measure of self-rule for the first time since the fall of the Byzantine empire in the mid-1400's.
1810 ushered in a period of British rule on Lefkada which eventually included all of the Ionian Islands . This ended in 1862, when Britain turned the islands over to Greece as a gesture of support and goodwill, and also to bolster the position of the new king of Greece.
Lefkada Town and Environs
Lefkada Town, in the northeast corner of the island, is oval in shape with walkable dimensions of about 800 by 400 meters.No part of it is more than 5 meters above sea level. At its closest point, Lefkada Town is only 160 meters across a narrow strait from mainland Greece.
The causeway road passes by the Castle of Agia Mavra, which is actually connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land. The castle was easily defended as the water which surrounds it on 3 sides serve as a sort of natural moat.
The causeway road dumps then right into mostly pedestrianised Dorpfelt Street, which later changes its name to Mela. It's a bendy, narrow brick street which runs through the heart of the town, and features old-fashioned timber colonnaded construction of some of the buildings. The street is full of cafes, boutiques and tourist shops. The buildings are stone, or with plastered facades painted an assortment of colors, including various mustard shades, with green, orange, red and blue trim.
The towns' narrow side streets are full of pleasant surprises- little squares, churches, vine-shaded street cafes and restaurants, and small shops, including an Orthodox church with a steel clock tower next to it.
Places of interest include several churches, including Agios Minas, Agios Dimitrios, Theotokou, and Pantokrator. There is the Phonograph Museum, full of interesting antiques and small items such as jewels, coins, embroidery, guns, pictures, books and, of course, gramophones and musical instruments.. The Archeological Museum is about 500 meters after a right turn onto Sikelianou just after the causeway, which runs along the north shore of the town and its abundant cafes and restaurants. The Municipal Art Gallery and the Nautical Museum share the same building. In addition there is the Orpheus Folklore Museum.
Sikelianou changes names 3 times as it bends landward, describing a circle around the old part of Lefkada Town, ending at the modern marina, just before a return to the causeway.
The town beach is behind the City Hall, or Dimarxio, off Sikelianou and before the Archeological Museum. It is little used and undeveloped. Continuing west, just a couple km outside of town is the more popular and cleaner Ai Yiannis Beach, which can be windy, and is popular with windsurfers.
Around the Island
The east coast of Lefkada is by far the most developed. In addition to the offshore islet Skorpios, most of the coastline is a series of small resorts. Many of these beaches have pebbles rather than sand. About halfway down the east coast is the small port town of Nydri. For about a kilometer both north and south of the town are several hotel/resorts, restaurants, cafes and bars. Boat tours of the islets between Lefkada and the mainland, including Skorpios, are available. The Papanikolas Cave on the islet of Maganissi, beyond Skorpios, has a massive entrance of 30 meters, and is accessible by boat only. The play of light on the cave's walls, and in the water, is fascinating. The cave is so big that it hid a submarine, the Papanikolas, during WWII.
About 3 km south of Nydri the road cuts inland, traversing the hills which run southward and climb as high as 300 meters. Until one comes out on the south coast about 15 km later there are small access roads running seaward to several very quiet beaches. The road comes out the hills down to Vasiliki, set in a south-facing bay and the second most popular beach and resort after Nydri.
Vasiliki offers good winds for windsurfing, where international competitions are often held. The crowds are a bit younger, and the beach is sandy. Pondi is a quieter resort on the bay to the west.
Southwest of Vasiliki 5 km is Porto Katsiki on the southwest coast, the best-known and most beautiful beach on Lefkada. Considered one of the 10 best beaches in Greece, Porto Katsiki has stunning white cliffs embracing a sandy beach fronting the azure waters of the Ionian Sea. Sun beds and umbrellas are available but shad can be found at the foot of the cliffs as well. Private yachts moor offshore, and the beach itself is accessible by taxi boat as well as a narrow, paved road which ends at a parking lot, from which bathers must descend to beach level.
South of about the mid-point between Vasiliki and Porto Katsiki is the southern tip of Lefkada, Cape Lefkatas, which witnessed Mycenaean-era human sacrifices, and sacrifices to the sea god and the gods of the rough seas were made. It is the supposed suicide site of Lefkatas, mentioned above in the History section, as well as that of the poetess of Lesbos, Sappho. The cape is said to be the "white rock ("leykas petra") of Homer, a mysterious place where the suitors of Penelope in the odyssey passed over from life to death. It was also said that in antiquity condemned criminals were forced to make the 72-meter jump from the rock; if they lived, they were fished from the sea and declared innocent. They are said to have tied feathers to their bodies to slow the descent, according to this page from Harvard's Center For Hellenic Studies website: http://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/1290.
The west coast of Lefkada is its most unspoiled area, and there are many small beaches for private bathing. Toward the northern end of the west coast is the resort of Ai Nikitas, busiest on the west coast. It has a number of fine hotels and good tavernas above its somewhat pebbly beach.
A kilometer further north is Pefkoulia, 2 km of sand. It's mostly undeveloped, except for some facilities at its mid-point.
There are some nice traditional villages inland. Karya is the largest village, located in the approximate center of the island. It is a center for lace work and embroidery. There is a large plane tree shading its main square, making for a relaxing place to enjoy an afternoon coffee or meal on a summer's day. There is a folklore museum in the village as well. Englouvi, 3 km south of Karya, is a village caged in by steep peaks on three sides. Englouvi means "encaged." It, too, has a pleasant main platia.
Other Points of Interest
The Agios Iannis Antzoussis church, 3 km west of Lefkada Town, is the island's oldest, is said to be the site where the Apostle Paul preached in the 50's AD. Near Kaligoni, about 6km south of Lefkada, are the ruins of ancient Nirikos, first capital of the island, dating to the 2nd millennium BC. It was abandoned in the 13th century BC. Two km east of Lefkada Town, outside the village of Frynio, is the monastery of Panagia Faneromeni ("The Virgin who appears"). It is the most important religious place on the island. Believed to be built at the site of an ancient temple to Hera, goddess of the hearth, or Artemis, goddess of the hunt, it was privately owned until 1760. It features the Chapel of Peter and Paul, which is decorated with a screen created by famous wood engraver and Lefkadian Efstathios Prosalendis.
Lefkada is a beautiful, slightly off the beaten track place to visit. But it's easy to get to, not requiring a ferry, and it offers all the beauty and grandeur of the Greek islands.