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Lefkada's alchemy: Turning scrap metal into gold

Despite the corrugated-iron architectural details, the island is rich innatural and historical beauty... and you can reach it even by car

AMANDA CASTLEMAN from "Athens News" Article

Porto Katsiki beach: Where turquoise waters embrace green pine

LEFKADA Town could pass for modern art. Blocks of sassy colour - peacock, rose, ochre, emerald - adorn the haphazard alleys that spiral and splinter (to disorient marauding pirates in mediaeval times). The buildings are cobbled together: Venetian stone arches crowned by sheet metal, corrugated tin and salvaged wood. And, like so many contemporary masterpieces, the island's capital perfectly blends this mash of emotion, colour and texture.

The town's quirky architectural style was born of necessity. Lefkada was the poor step-sibling among the Eptanisa, the seven Ionian islands (many argue it isn't even a proper island, as a mere 25m channel divides it from the mainland, spanned by a causeway and floating bridge). After the severe earthquakes of 1948 and 1953, the poverty-stricken district couldn't afford to raze the ruins and make a fresh start, like Zakynthos and Kefalonia. Locals simply patched upper stories with whatever materials lay at hand.

The casual approach could have reduced Lefkada to a shanty town, except for the good taste of the locals. With a coat of cheery paint here, a wrought-iron balcony there, some climbing vines exploding with buds, they made corrugated siding a chic fashion statement. Like alchemy, the Lefkadans transformed scrap metal into gold.

The townsfolk didn't have much money, but they had pride, an urge to 'Do Things Right'. That same spirit continues today, prompting Lefkadans to pinch dead leaves off potted geraniums, scrub away graffiti and crisply whitewash each courtyard. People care.

Such a sense of community is rare in a tourist town, but Lefkada manages to welcome visitors - mainly Greeks and Italians - without selling out. Sure, you'll pass shops pushing sponges, soaps and souvenir fridge magnets. Bars abound, pumping Eurovision pop, filled with slick-haired stallions and glamour girls in massive Farah Fawcett sunglasses. But the tawdry, convivial atmosphere evaporates quickly, away from the main drag, Dorpfeld Street.

The houses, the streets, are immaculate. Grandmothers linger in the alleys, watching the world pass by scrubbed stoops. Children race about, shouting and lunging after footballs. Locals still promenade each evening - the traditional volta - brushing past visitors with broad smiles. The homey undertone makes Lefkada an even sweeter destination: you are not a fat-walleted sheep, ripe for fleecing, you are a guest in a cherished home.

Myths and history

Aristotle Onassis' island of Skorpios is just a stone's throw off Lefkada coast

And the home could be the very one Odysseus fought so hard to recover. Pioneering archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann placed the wily Greek's home on the neighbouring isle of Ithaca, following brief investigations in 1878. Yet his assistant Wilhelm Dorpfeld insisted Penelope unravelled her tapestry close to Nidri on Lefkada.

Excavations did uncover an extensive Bronze Age settlement on the plain, but no conclusive proof. Homer's description is ambiguous. He sings of an island with clear skies, wooded peaks and close neighbours: "But Ithaca, the farthest out to sea, lies slanting to the west, whereas the others face the dawn and rising sun."

Dorpfeld's theory aggravated Lawrence Durrell no end. "Despite the clearest of textual indications to the contrary, some archaeologists have argued that Lefkas is really the Ithaca of Homer, " he wrote in The Greek Islands. "This ivory-skulled and contentious race of men, each determined to be original, is responsible for almost as much confusion as the ambiguities of history, the intrusions of myth, the disappearance of sources; the poor traveller is bedevilled by their squabbles."

The area has other nebulous claims to Homeric fame. Travel writer Tim Severin placed Scylla's lair on a steep eastern slope and the sucking whirlpool Charybdis in the narrow straight below. Italians would dispute this, preferring to imagine the monsters in the Strait of Messina. Lefkada did play a role in the epic, however. Laertes, Odysseus' father, gave the island to Penelope's family to seal the marriage.

Legend also brings Sappho to Lefkada. The poetess, spurned by Phaon, supposedly leapt to her death on the southwest cape, now called Doukato. Suicide may not have been her goal: the ancients believed the towering white cliff could cure heartbreak. Aphrodite was the first to take the plunge, after the death of Adonis. The lover's leap became a popular image for poets, including Sappho (which probably inspired the tall tale about her death). Other traditions insist that the Mouth of the Underworld yawned there - or at least a current pouring into the River of the Dead. Archaeologists suggest the site was initially used for human sacrifices. By classical times, the outcrop was sacred to Apollo, god of purification and healing. Feathers and live birds were tied to victims, all convicted criminals, whose lives were spared if they survived.

Lefkada's history, stretching back to the Palaeolithic era, is just as colourful as its myths. Its first capital, Nericus, was one of the larger ancient Greek cities, a member of the powerful Akarnanian League. The ruins, near the village of Kallithea, were destroyed by farming and construction, so little is known about this period. The Corinthians grabbed control of the island in the 7th century BC. Colonists dug - or perhaps simply widened - the channel between Lefkada and the mainland. The Roman historian Livy was impressed by the ancient bridge, which measured 125 paces wide and 500 long. The islanders fought in the battle of Salamis and the Peloponnesian war, supporting Sparta. Asopius, the son of an Athenian admiral, vindictively looted Lefkada in 428 BC. Locals counter-attacked during his departure, killing him and annihilating a good portion of the army. A Roman siege later destroyed the ancient city of Lefkas. Columns and carvings were lugged off to adorn the new mainland settlement Nikopolis, after the Battle of Actium in 31BC.

Lefkada suffered further setbacks: invasions by the Vandals and Huns, severe earthquakes and Pisan raids. The Crusaders opened the door to foreign rulers, like the Despotate of Epirus and the Italian Count of Kefalonia and Zakynthos. Throughout the 14th century, the island was bought, swapped and plundered by opportunistic nobles. Geduk Ahment Pasha went one step further in 1479, actually selling the islanders as slaves in the bazaars of Smyrna and Constantinople. While the other Ionian communities blossomed under the Serene Republic of Venice, Lefkada staggered under the Turkish yoke. Authorities permitted pirates to harass the natives, imposed heavy taxes and periods of forced labour, and abducted children into the Jannisary corps. In 1684, the Venetians recaptured the island under Francesco Morosini, the infamous commander who accidentally ignited the Acropolis. Priests and monks from Kefalonia fought alongside soldiers during the 16-day siege.

Lefkada had five masters between 1797 and 1810, including the liberal French and oppressive Russians. The island was nearly sold to the fearsome Ali Pasha of Ioannina, who needed an operations base to attack Greek freedom fighters. Instead, it became part of the United State of the Ionian Islands, under British protection in 1815. England didn't want to dirty its hands in the War of Independence and forbade any involvement. Nevertheless, hundreds of battle-seasoned Lefkadans sneaked onto the mainland and helped oust the Turks. The island joined the new Greek nation in 1864.

Lefkada enjoyed a brief period of peace and prosperity, which ended in 1900, when a fungus destroyed the area's famous vineyards. Many locals fled, emigrating to America. Those who remained saw their homes crumble in the earthquakes.

Modern tourism

The Venetian castle of St George is said to conceal the ancient acropolis of Sollion underneath

Tourism has revived the island economy in the last 25 years. Typically, this seaside success comes at the expense of village life. So far, package companies haven't trashed the fourth largest Ionian island. Independent travellers seek out Lefkada Town's nightlife or water-sports along the 117 kilometres of coast. Windsurfers flock to Vassiliki, where 30-40mph winds whip down off the crags. Porto Katsiki and Kathisma beaches are listed among Greece's top ten.

Some visitors prefer trekking on the island's slopes. Lefkada is about 90% hills and may actually be a peak thrusting up from a submerged mountain chain. The Great Ionian Rift lies off the western shore, accounting for the sea's depth and sharply-plunging shoreline there. The eastern coast is softer, blanketed by pine forests, citrus groves and vineyards. Sharp cypresses flank pastel buildings, lending a luxurious Italian air. Nidri is the dominant resort in this area, within striking distance of the Dimosari waterfall, the pristine cove of Yeni and the abandoned shepherds' village of Nicohori.

Nine islets cluster around Lefkada, including Skorpios, owned by the Onassis family (catch a glimpse of Aristotle's old helipad from Nidri's port). Boats skim past the stretch where Jackie O was snapped sunbathing topless, but aren't allowed to dock. Cruises also visit the Meganisi cave where the famous submarine Papanikolis hid during WWII and Madouri, the home of poet and politician Aristotelis Valaoritis (1824-1879).

Valaoritis isn't the only literary legend of Lefkada. Angelos Sikelianos is considered one of Greece's greatest modern writers (1884-1951). He struggled to revive the Delphi Festival and revitalise ancient drama. He paid a high price for his progressive ideas, being passed over twice by the Nobel Prize Committee. Spyridon Zambelios, the 19th-century historian and author, also hailed from the island. He founded Byzantine studies and wrote the classic novel Cretan Wedding. The Lefkadans build on these cultural foundations with an annual Festival of Language and the Arts. Conferences and plays fill the first ten days, then give way to folklore. Local dance troupes and the town band (Greece's oldest) have won international acclaim.


ellinida said...

Turning scrap metal into gold.
Xμμμ μου άρεσε αυτό! Οπως μου άρεσε και το κείμενο για την Λευκάδα.
Καλημέρα. :)))

Amanda Castleman said...

Yia sas,
Amanda Castleman here, the author of the Lefkada piece. Unless you have permission from the Athens News to reprint this article, you've violated copyright.

Please just quote a few paragraphs, then include a link to the story online:


Thanks, Amanda

Amanda Castleman said...

Please take this story down, as you haven't negotiated a reprint. You are in copyright violation. My next steps will be to contact a lawyer to sue for cease-and-desist and blogger to shut down this site.

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