The island of Lefkas is a highly popular holiday destination among motorists, partly because it offers easy access from mainland Greece. After driving through the picturesque town of Vonitsa, you follow the signs to Lefkas but funnily enough, you never get to a port. Instead of having to board a ferry, you just keep on driving along a causeway, then carry on over a floating bridge and hey presto; the stunning capital of Lefkas begins to unfold before you, a majestic live painting of dazzling azure and cypress green.
The island of Lefkas (or Lefkada) is part of a seven-island complex in the Ionian Sea called ‘Eptanisa’.
The capital was rebuilt from the ground up since the devastating earthquake of 1948. As a result, the original architecture has sadly been lost forever. The case has been the same with the Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Zante whereas Corfu on the contrary has been luckier. The said earthquake had affected this island only slightly and this is why the Corfiot capital is the only one among the Ionian islands where antiquated buildings still stand on a large scale.
Driven by the need to be sheltered promptly again after the aforementioned earthquake, the people of Lefkas rebuilt their capital by introducing tin roofs for the houses in order to save time. As a result, the local architecture was transformed radically, endowing the town with a new, yet quaint character. A main road runs through the town where the main market is situated. The surrounding roads are tiny lanes where visitors tend to saunter around, often happily disoriented, marveling at picturesque houses and lush gardens.
At the town seafront, the geography is one of a kind; at least for Greece. A narrow ring road is found here which is called Gira (The Round). This ring road forms an actual loop that’s part of the seafront but expands forward into the sea. Visitors can drive in a full circle along Gira in less than five minutes and they have more than one reason to!
The first point of interest in Gira is the beach of Agios Ioannis (or “Miloi”, ie Windmills). Kite surfers from all over the world gather there by the weathered windmills to enjoy their beloved sport.
At the furthest point of Gira, just before passing by the floating bridge to the mainland, is the gorgeous Ammoglossa beach. The name means ‘Tongue of Sand’ and it resembles just that; the long protrusion of white sandy mass seemingly lapping the aquamarine water, foaming on the edges; an unforgettable setting for a swim. Still, visitors can sample lovely sandy beaches all around Gira.
The pool of seawater on the inside of this massive loop is an artificial lake called Ivari. It is owned by the council and is a natural breeding area for fish of various kinds, including eels. The council employes fishermen who catch the fish effortlessly at the lake inside rectangular wooden enclosures where the fish tend to gather. Ivari is an important natural habitat of western Greece that is a protected area Natura 2000. You can see pictures of the fishermen and the enclosures here.
In the evening, visitors take leisurely walks around town, along the beachfront or at the picturesque marina. There’s a wide variety of eateries, bars, shops etc to satisfy all tastes and needs.
The island offers quite a few spectacular beaches with Porto Katsiki undisputedly wearing the crown of superiority. You will need to go down a few steps before getting to this amazing beach of unsurpassed beauty but at least there are bars and restaurants for a drink and a bite at the top, to reward you after all the exertion! The drive from the capital is rather long (about 50 kms), but the scenery is fantastic (mainly pine tree forests and incredible sea views). Another alternative is to visit this beach on a daily boat excursion or by water taxi from Nydri or Vassiliki.
Agios Nikitas is such a fabulous beach that I wound up visiting it three times during my stay. Thankfully, it is situated very near the town of Lefkada. The beach has been named after the village that is situated a short drive down the road from the beach. From there, caiques pick up tourists to visit secluded coves for a dive in the most gorgeous, sparkling waters.
Egkremnoi is a beach that will please you immensely, but sadly, its beauty comes with a price. In other words, accessing it is not for the faint-hearted. Even the name of this beach (The Precipices) suggests that the landscape is likely to be ragged! Locals had warned me that the dirt road on the way may be too hard on the car and it was true. It needed a good wash afterwards but that’s not all. Once you get to the parking area, you realize you’re not there yet. Instead, you’re on a steep hill with a breathtaking view of the water underneath. To get to the beach, you must brave a descent of 347 steps. Still, once you get down there, you’ll be rewarded to the maximum.
The beach at Kathisma is stunning as well and offers the added bonus of easy access but can get quite crowded. There’s also Vassiliki beach which is a surfer’s paradise.
During my stay in Lefkada, other than sampling some of the best beaches I’ve ever seen, I also made a spontaneous pilgrimage to my family past. One morning, I left the murmuring sea behind and headed for the mountains. At an altitude of just over 500 meters on the mountain Elati, I entered the village of Karya; the place where my maternal great-grandfather was born and raised. Karya is a beautiful village of stone houses and picturesque lanes but that is not all: this village is famous worldwide for its unique hand-weavers. The women here weave on the loom or work by hand to create the most stunning items, using a needlework technique that’s only practiced here. Incredibly enough, it was developed centuries ago in this village by a one-handed woman. And so, her unquenchable thirst to create despite her disability has led to this fine needlework practice that still brings tourists to the village by the droves. It is not a surprise then that the main road is lined with shops that sell a wide variety of exquisite rugs, doilies, jumpers and even decorative little rugs to hang on the walls. If you ever go shopping in this marvelous village for a souvenir, you’ll be spoiled for choice!
Nydri is a cosmopolitan coastal town with a large marina. From here, I took a one-day cruise to the nearby islands of Kefalonia (visiting Fiscardo) and Ithaca (visiting Vathy). The tour also included a stop for a swim in the most incredibly sparkling green waters just off the shore of Scorpios; the private island that used to be owned by the Onassis family. It has now been handed over to the Russian millionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev.
If you visit Nydri, don’t miss out on the opportunity to quickly visit the gorge of Dimosari as well. It is easily accessible and involves only a short walk to the main attraction: you may not necessarily brave a dip in the chilling waters of the natural pools under the waterfalls there, but the fantastic scenery and serenity of the setting will still be worth a visit! When you get to the site and come across the first waterfall, do not think this is it. There are paths on the side where you can hold on to mounted ropes for safety passage as to go further ahead. It takes to do this two or three times till you get to the big waterfall. It’ll only take a few minutes to get to it and it’s well-worth it. The gorge is situated near Nydri. As you drive from the capital to Nydri, the turn off from the main road is on your right hand. It’s been a few years since I visited and the sign was tiny at the time, so unless a larger sign has been placed in the interim, you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled!
I left Lefkada with teary eyes; not only because the beauty of the scenery was hard to part with, but also because my ancestral connections with this island had made me swell with feelings of pride and gratitude. My great-grandfather had owned two inns in the town of Lefkas that had been razed to the ground by another earthquake, back in the 20s. It was because of the total destruction of his property that he had taken his family to Corfu to start a new life from scratch. His little girl – my Corfiot grandmother – was barely three years old at the time. It was hard to say goodbye therefore to this island that had inevitably caused me to root during my visit so far into the past.
Of course, I often dream of visiting Lefkas again. With such easy access, I’m bound to take a wrong turn after Vonitsa during one of my occasional drives to Corfu, just for one more swim in those amazing, aquamarine Lefkas waters…
IMPORTANT UPDATE – MARCH 2019: THE BEACHES OF EGKREMNOI AND PORTO KATSIKI HAVE BEEN SEVERELY DAMAGED IN THE RECENT YEARS FROM EARTHQUAKES. BEFORE VISITING THEM, CHECK THE LATEST ONLINE OR ASK THE LOCALS. ACCESS TO THESE BEACHES FROM LAND MAY BE LIMITED OR TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE TILL THE NECESSARY ROAD WORKS TAKE PLACE.
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