Zakynthos, Greece. July 2014

July 29, 2014

Today, D. and I were getting into an island state of mind and driving/ ferrying to the island of Zakynthos to visit D. grandma and see the places where D. spent his summers as a child. The name of this island doesn’t usually bring many associations among people unless you mention the Navagio beach (also known as Shipwreck beach) – whose picture decorates the cover of pretty much every travel guide to Greece. Well, I have to stress the fact that no filters were used to enhance this picture, it is THAT beautiful there!

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We planned to stay on the island for 3 days and head back to the mainland on August 1st to attend our friends’ wedding in Athens. In the morning, after saying goodbyes to D. mom, brother and his family, off we went! Our 300 kms route took us along the western coast of Greece with magnificent views of the mountains, islands and sea through Rio-Antirio bridge. One of the world’s longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges and the longest of the fully suspended type, this 2,280 m bridge, connecting mainland with Peloponnese is widely considered to be an engineering masterpiece, owing to several solutions applied to span the difficult site. These challenges include deep water, insecure materials for foundations, seismic activity, the probability of tsunamis, and the expansion of the Gulf of Corinth due to plate tectonics.

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Once on the Peloponnese, we headed to a village of Kyllini where we were supposed to take a ferry to Zakynthos, located only 28 kms southwest. Kyllini, a settlement of only 600-700 people, was built on the ruins of the medieval town Glarentza, once the main port and mint of the Frankish Principality of Achaea. Little remains of the town today: traces of the city wall, of a church and a few other buildings, as well as the silted-up harbor, but if you have time, make sure to check them out. We arrived an hour before our 17.15 departure, so we comfortably situated ourselves in the conveniently located beach-bar and enjoyed a few cold drinks.

There are two ferry companies that run to and from Zakynthos – Ionian Group and Kefalonian Lines, which in summer have 3-4 daily departures in each directions. We used Ionian Ferries on the way to and Kefalonian Lines on the way back from Zakynthos, and I couldn’t tell the difference. Both of them were efficient, comfortable and cost the same (€7.50 per person and €28.50 per passenger car). From port to port is under an hour ride.

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Zakynthos is one of the seven islands comprising the Ionian Islands. The origin of the name “Ionian” isn’t clear but thought to derive from the myth of goddess Io – one of Zeus lovers, who fled the wrath of Zeus’ wife Hera, by passing through the waters now known as the Ionian Sea. The islands were populated by Greeks possibly as early as 1200 BC, but certainly, based on the archeological evidences, no later than the 9th century BC. One of the Ionian islands, Ithaca was made famous by Homer’s Odysseus as his home island, however, the geography of Ionian Ithaca doesn’t fit Homer’s description. By the 8th century BC, the islands were in the hands of the important city-state Corinth but during Ancient Greek times, they were considered to be black-water and played little role in Greek politics. By the 4th century BC, most of the islands were absorbed into the empire of Macedon and remained under their control until 146 BC, when the Greek peninsula was gradually annexed by Rome. After 400 years of peaceful Roman rule, the islands passed to the Byzantine Empire, where, from the mid-8th century, they formed the Byzantine district of Cephallenia. From 1204, one island after another fell under the rule of the Republic of Venice (Zakynthos joined in 1482) thus becoming the only part of the Greek-speaking world that escaped the Ottoman Rule. Under Venetian rule, many of the upper classes spoke Italian (or Venetian in some cases) and converted to Roman Catholicism, but the majority of people remained Greek ethnically, linguistically, and religiously.

From 1797, Ionian islands frequently changed hands, from Napoleonic France to Russia (1799-1807) to Napoleon again to British Empire (1815). However, by 1864 under nationalistic pressure, the Brits, having already acquired Malta, relinquished the islands to Greece. During the WWII, the islands where handed over to the Italians who tried to Italianize the population and deport all jews living on the islands to the death camps. Zakynthos’ Bishop Chrysostomos refused to turn in a list with the names of 275 jews, instead hiding them in the rural areas. Due to his actions, every jew of Zakynthos survived the war. In August 1953, particularly strong series of earthquakes hit the islands. Zakynthos and Kefalinia were practically leveled to the ground, but managed to resurrect and become one of the tourists favorite destinations.

Once we docked in Zakynthos town, we quickly disembarked and drove to a hotel.

It never happened to me, but a day prior I received an email from www.booking.com stating that Strada Marina hotel, which we RSRVed over a month ago for our stay in Zakynthos, no longer had availability and they were “ditching” us into a different hotel – Diana Hotel. I don’t like to change plans especially in the last moment and particularly, because most of my trips are planned to fit into a very tight time frame, but there was no point of arguing with the hotel so we just went with the flow. It was actually a very nice hotel, conveniently located on Plateia Agiou Markou, a busy beautiful square next to the souvenir shops and restaurants. We also got a balcony overlooking the square which gave us spectacular views but also incredible level of noise at night (we aren’t retired yet, but we needed our sleep)!

The town of Zakynthos – known as Chora or Zante – is a new town, lying in the semi-circle between the foot of the Castle Hill and the sea. It stands on exactly the same site of the previous town which was destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1953. The new buildings, without much success have attempted to retain the style of those they have replaced – a mixture of Neo-Classical and Venetian, with a strong dash of an entirely local atmosphere. There is a long esplanade, the Strata Marina (not the hotel) – which serves as a city’s corniche. In antiquity, the settlement was higher up on the flat top of Castle Hill (Kastro), where ancient acropolis of Psophis was built and on which the Venetian city stood in later times. Population growth caused the city’s expansion along the strip of ground between the sea and the hill. Later still, the trade in the new harbor and commercial activities of the islanders made necessary the filling in of the shore with earthworks for further expansion: the church of St. Nicholas on the Mole as well as the Plateia Solomou once were connected by the bridge, but now stand on filled land.

Zakynthos Map

* map is taken from the book “Zakynthos. The Flower of Levant”.

Our hotel was located on the small triangular square called Agios Markos Square (or Plateia Agiou Markou) but known as “Platyforos” by the locals. It is a historic place, the town’s official oldest square where the high social classes of old Zakynthos gathered. Here, in 1797, the “populari” (lower class) burnt the hated Libro D’oro, the “golden book” containing the names of the island’s aristocrats. This square also housed the “romianiko kazino” or Liberal Club.

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In the north east of the Square, in Loura Karrer St., the Church of Our Lady of the Angels is located. Built in 1687, the building was damaged by the earthquake of 1953 but not totally flattened, and as a result it was possible to rebuild it in the original Spanish “platarescou” style – with the fine friezes of Our Lady and the angels on the exterior and, inside, and admirable screens and wonderful icons by Panayiotis Doxaras and a number of painters in the Cretan style. From Agios Markos Sq. we walked in the direction of the main church of St. Dionysios and “discovered” a very unique Church of Faneromeni. Built in the 15th century, it was unfortunately destroyed by the earthquakes but it has since been restored following its original design. The only part of the church that was not destroyed is the old belfry. The murals (hagiographies) were saved and now they are preserved in the Museum of Byzantine Art. The history of Faneromeni Church was the subject of several studies by both Greek and foreign researchers of classic Arts, since it was considered one of the most beautiful temples of Greece. During the years of Venetian domination, the Faneromenis square, on contrary with the square of Saint Mark was the meeting place of the poor people.

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We were on the way to meet D’ grandma and I felt a bit worried since neither of us spoke the same language. All fears aside, it was a very warm and welcome encounter. D and I were invited to have a dinner at grandma’s the very next day and D requested his favorite tomato soup.

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Before heading back to the hotel, we had a dinner at the Taverna Dimitri on the Plateia Agiou Dionyssiou (St. Dionysios Church Square) – a large green space full of restaurants and people. Service was speedy and food was delicious, we also have been quite entertained by a Polish tourist taking selfies while having dinner with her partner. O tempora o mores!

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July 30, 2014

Zakynthos is a popular vacation destination, hence, we planned to take it easy and spend a few days on the beach. We started a day with a visit to an insanely beautiful and just as madly busy with tourists – the Navagio Beach (also known as the Shipwreck Beach). This isolated sandy cove on the north-west part of Zakynthos island is one of the most photographed beaches in Greece. The area is defined by its sheer limestone cliffs, white sand beaches, and clear blue water, which, as you will see, attract thousands of tourists. D. remembered taking a path from the cliff all the way to the cove, but when we made inquiries with locals, they said that the beach was accessed only by boat and no path ever existed. But we could enjoy the views from above by standing on a platform on the high side of the cliffs. The views are killer, but you will have to stand in line and deal with many frustrated “bused” tourists, that is a downside!

Navagio Beach was originally known as Agios Georgios. Then sometime in 1980’s, the Greek authorities were tipped that a freight-liner in the waters around Zakynthos Island was smuggling contraband which included cigarettes, wine and women, and a chase began. Stormy weather and bad visibility resulted in the ship running aground right on Navagio Beach. The ship was abandoned and still rests buried in white sandy dunes, giving the beach its second name and providing the visitors with the most memorable picture of Greece.

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Right on the cliff, the locals sell some of the most delicious goods produced in Zakynthos – honey and jam. Obviously, we couldn’t leave without buying some to take home with us. From there, we drove to Vasilikos region – the southern part of the island, to spend a day at the St. Nicholas Beach. This was a rather small, golden sand bay, with jagged rocks framing the beach on each side. Like most of the Vasilikos region, the beach here is adorned with natural palm umbrellas that really add to its ambience. Apparently, this place is very popular with tourists and locals alike and I could understand why. It offers the visitors everything they can possibly wish for – clean sand, sport activities and a cafe-bar that serves a very decent food. To our advantage, the beach wasn’t busy and for €10 we got two sun-chairs where we comfortably placed ourselves for the next 2-3 hours.

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From my chair I could see a small church of St. Nicholas on the hill as well as a flag-post and before we left, we climbed the rocky hill to see whether the church was open. The church was closed but the views of the beach and the peninsular were stunning.

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After the beach, we drove straight to grandma for dinner and she indeed prepared D’s favorite tomato soup. We also got to meet some of D’s relatives who he didn’t know before, which was exciting! As a tourist and a person who spent her childhood summers in a small village in southern Belarus, in the fields and forests, I was a bit envious of D. to have grown up on this stunning island. It was also remarkable that despite the fact that grandma’s house was only two blocks away from the main city square and a tourist hub, residents continued living their normal lives, daily gathering for chats on the stoops of their houses, undisturbed, as if there were no tourists at all.

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After taking a shower, D took me on a ride to the Laganas Beach, the largest on the island (9kms) and one of the longest in Greece. Its main attraction is the migration of the loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) that during the summer months migrate to the Bay of Laganas to lay their eggs on the beach. However, we were there to witness something else. In the last several years, the village of Laganas became a party hub for 18-30 year old visitors from the UK, Serbia, Holland, Sweden, Germany, etc. Full of night clubs, music-blasting bars and restaurants, this place caters for the sleepless crowd and at 11 pm it was just getting started. Sometimes, I feel old and it was one of those nights, we drove through the main village street and went back to the hotel.  I scheduled a morning dive for tomorrow, so I wanted to get enough sleep.

July 31, 2014

We had to wake up early in the morning because I had two dives scheduled with Eurodivers, located in Laganas beach. I researched them well, just as I always do when I go diving and they had the best reviews on www.tripadvisor.com. Imagine my disappointment when I arrived on time to be told that they were overbooked for the morning but could “squeeze” me for an afternoon dive. Obviously, I inquired why they didn’t call my cell to let me know in advance but they told me they couldn’t reach me by phone, which wasn’t true. Oh well, we had a free morning together with D. and since I had to go back to the dive center in the afternoon, we decided to spend time on a nearby Kalamaki beach which is a part of the Laganas Bay. It is also one of the nesting places for the Caretta caretta turtles and volunteers at the entrance of the beach will make sure to provide you with a brochure and warning not to disturb the turtles’ habitat and nesting places.

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The Mediterranean green logger-head turtle has been migrating from Africa to Laganas Bay for thousands of years. There giant sea creatures, weighing up to 180 kgs, lay their eggs in the sand, said to be the softest in Greece, at night. In the prior years, disco and hotel lights disoriented the turtles’ navigation causing them to leave but even the eggs that were eventually laid, were destroyed by vehicles and the poles of the beach umbrellas. Along with it, degradation of nesting places, accidental capture in fishing gear, commercial use and pollution, all lead to a huge plunge in turtle population. Greece hosts about 60% of the total number of nests of the logger-head turtle in the Mediterranean, of which 40% are made in Laganas Bay of Zakynthos. Every summer, from mid May till the end of August, hundreds of mother turtles come out to the shores of Laganas Bay – by instinct they return to the same beaches where they were born.  At night time they dig an egg chamber in the sand to deposit around 120 fragile eggs. The eggs have to remain undisturbed in the warm sand for about 60 days to incubate. From mid July to the end of October the hatchlings emerge from their nests, usually during the night, and race towards the sea. The work of environmentalists and ARCHELON has led to some protection of the turtles, in an attempt to give them a chance to at least regain their numbers. The beach was covered with small enclosures indicating the nests and while I really wanted to see small turtles to hatch, I decided to move away and let the nature take its course without us.

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For a few hours, we settled on a safe part of the bay.

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After lunch, we headed back to the Eurodivers. The place was packed and everyone was super excited. I have been diving more or less regularly since 2006 and even though I had a few hiccups, like every diver, I wasn’t prepared to the horrors of my upcoming underwater experience. After checking my size, the helper gave me a wetsuit that was way too small for me. After 15 minutes of watching me struggle with it, he finally offered me another, larger size. Oh well…. Dimitris came with me on a boat and it was definitely overcrowded with more than 20 people (40 tanks) plus non divers. There was no space to move, to store your gear or to comfortably sit. The dive briefing with a dive master was just as hectic and unorganized as the boat; and I am not sure whether it was because of the language barrier, unclear instructions or something else, but I’ve got nothing but a fact that we were going into a cave one by one and then ascending.

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I fell in love with scuba during my first confined class in New York and then living on-board in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 2006. And everywhere I go, I always devote a day or two to diving. It was a regular routine dive and even though I felt comfortable at first, once we descended, I realized that something wasn’t going right.

Our dive group split, some of my team-mates were with me, while others along with the dive-master were not in site. With 20 other people, I dove for the cave as I was instructed. I went in, saw a bunch of people with torches and continued swimming. After that, I don’t remember anything but the darkness. I had a torch in my hand but all I could see was murky water and not a person in sight. I wasn’t sure whether I was swimming away from the cave, inside the cave; I totally lost any sense of space, though I had a feeling I was descending. I swam fast (which is a mistake) for a few minutes but then realized that perhaps I was going the wrong way, so I turned 180 degrees (of what felt like 180 degrees) and swam back. I was also consuming lots of air and I could sense it even without looking at the dive computer, by the way I was breathing. About a month later, I would be diagnosed with cancer which was found in my chest in a form of a grapefruit-sized mass pressing on lungs and heart and perhaps, it was a reason for my behavior and heavy breathing. But at that time I knew that I was lost and I had very little air to spare. I also knew that it was just a matter of time before I suffocate. But no, after what felt like a century, somebody’s hand grabbed and pulled me behind him. It was one of the Dutch divers, Cornee, who later told me that I went inside the cave, swam out of it, continued down on my own but then came back and went inside the cave again. Oh well, at least I knew it wasn’t in God’s plans to take me today!

By the time I located the dive-master and showed him “out of air” sign, I was literally out of air! When we finally made an “octopus” ascend, he kept me in the water and shouted at me for not following his instructions. Hell, there were no instructions, his briefing sucked, they rushed us in the water and thought we would be ok! Well, that wasn’t the case and he wasn’t there to supervise the divers. Sadly, my accident wasn’t the only one as another diver had similar experience and was pissed at the dive-master for jeopardizing his life. I kept to myself and skipped the second dive, as I no longer felt safe diving with this company. Incidents like this could be powerful discouragements against future diving; gladly, I learnt my lesson and moved on to more professional and trusted scuba companies.

D. heard part of the conversation and was very worried for me. I was visibly shaken but tried to contain myself. It would be several weeks before I stop thinking about swimming down. On the positive note, I was alive and ready to continue my honeymoon.

After a short break at the hotel, we went out for dinner at Pasteria on 21st Maiou Street. It is a lovely and very romantic place with the good views of the main walking street from the second-floor balcony. We ordered a bowl of pasta each and a few glasses of wine. The views, service and food were equally great!

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After the dinner, we went to the main Zante town church  –  Agios Dionysios. Built in 1948, it was one of three buildings that survived the earthquake of 1953. The church is dedicated to the island’s patron Saint Dionysios whose silver coffin can be found inside. He was born in Zante in 1546 into the Venetian ruling class – but all reports suggest that from an early age his character was very kind and he refused all of the advantages of his class. After the death of his parents, at the age of 20, Saint Dionysios donated his fortune to his brother and became a monk in the monastery of Strophades, in the south of the island of Zakynthos.  In 1577, Saint Dionysios left Zante to become the Archbishop on Aegina island but two years later, health problems forced him to resign and return to his homeland, where he stayed as an abbot in the monastery of the Strophades. As a story goes, on one rainy night, a desperate man came to the monastery and asked for help. This man had just killed his own brother. Despite his personal sorrow, the monk provided a shelter to the murderer and helped him to escape the island, preventing another crime from taking place. Local tradition suggests that the murderer later returned and became a monk in that same monastery. St. Dionysios died in 1622, at the age of 75 and was buried in the church of Agios Georgios in the Strophades. Three years later, when he was exhumed, his body was found intact and remains intact until present day. In 1716 the Saint’s body was moved from the monastery to the church of St. Dionysios in Zante town for better safety and now is displayed in the city’s main church, where many pilgrims come every year to pray.
His memory is celebrated on December 17th, the day of his death, and on August 24th, the day his body was transferred to Zakynthos town and laid in the church. Both celebrations are important days for the island with parades through the town of many Orthodox Priests and worshipers.

Externally, Agios Dionysios is not a particularly sticking building with the exception of its size and an imposing bell-tower, a copy of that of St. Mark in Venice. This bell-tower became something of a symbol of the island, since it is among the first features everyone sees when approaching the island by the ferry. Inside however, it has superb wall paintings with scenes from the life of the saint. The silver Larnax, in which the relic of the saint is located, is an outstanding piece of art by Diamantis Bafas.

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I have to warn you that Zakynthos is full of myths and tales worth the ones of Homer himself. One of them is a legend of St. Dionysios as a “walking saint” which states that on some occasions when the keepers tried to open his tomb, it wouldn’t open. It signified that the saint wasn’t there but walking around the island performing miracles (which have been seen by many believers). Afterwards, once the tomb is finally open, the saint is often found with the sea-weed wrapped around his feet. Keepers also claim that his sleepers require constant repairs as they grow thin from all the walking. However, today we went to re-join D. grandma and family because of another holiday that was no less superstitious and just as important to the locals – Tis Malliaris or so-called Hairy Rock celebration. Every year, in the evening of the 31st of July, the city inhabitants go to the shallow waters of the port and walk around singing until midnight. At midnight, as the church bells start ringing, they dive into the sea and search for the rocks covered in seaweed, which they retrieve and then place under their bed for blessing. According to this tradition the “hairy” rock (“malliari” in Greek) brings good luck for the whole year. Also, this tradition is found only in Zakynthos town and not evident in other villages on the island. The area around the St. Dionysios church is where the search for the hairy rock takes place until this day and since it was July 31, we joined D. every-growing family for the celebration. Apparently, nowadays, Tis Mallinaris is accompanied by a small festival where you can find traditional food, boat rides, local singing known as Kantathes, small concerts by the philharmonic municipal band and dancing. However, since we were very tired after an eventful day, we didn’t stay long and  left shortly after midnight.

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August 1, 2014

After breakfast, we visited one of the ferry’s ticket offices on Strada Marina, a main promenade street of Zante Town, to buy our return tickets for 13.00, so that we could arrive to Athens in reasonable hour.  Since we still had enough time, we went on to explore Zante town and started with the Plateia Agiou Markou, where Diana hotel was located. One of the buildings on the square is the Museum of D. Solomos and Eminent people of Zakynthos. It is open daily from 9.00-14.00, entry is €4, no pictures allowed, except for the ground floor; please allow 30-45 minutes for a visit. This interesting museum opened in 1964 and contains on the ground floor the imposing tombs of Dionysios Solomos (1789-1857) and the other great poet of Zakynthos, Andreas Kalvos. Once you walked in, you see the piece of tree in whose shade, on Strani hill, Solomos apparently wrote his “Hymn to Liberty”, which later became the Greek national Anthem, and “The Free Besieged”, composed in May 1823 to the distant sound of the Turkish cannon bombarding heroic Messolonghi.

AAThe first floor of the Museum includes the rooms dedicated to Dionysios Solomos, Dionysios Romas, Nikolaos and Thaleia Kolyva and the wing of Eminent Zakynthos People. The second floor hosts the Stavros S. Niarchos Room with the Library and the museum’s Documents Section. In the floors above, there are various rooms with icons from the Cretan and Cretan-Eptanisian School of the 17th-18th century, portraits of prominent citizens of Zakynthos from the 17th -20th century, bronze busts of bishops and intellectuals, period furniture from Zakynthos’ mansions, musical instruments, sculptures, ceramics, wood carvings, metallurgy, coin moldings, traditional knitted and crochet handcrafts, jewelry, engravings, ink drawings, photographs and coats of arms. Pretty much everything was donated by the people of Zakynthos to preserve their heritage and culture. Of all the wealth of the archived material, the most important are the manuscripts of Dionysios Solomos, Nikolaos Mantzaros, Ermanos Lountzis, Andonios Matesis, Ioannis Tsakasianos, Dionysios Romas, Pavlos Karreris and Gregorios Xenopoulos. The Museum has a small shop where you can purchase the books, CDs and posters issued by the Museum.

St Markos Church, the only Catholic church on the island, stands next to the Museum of Solomos and Kalvos in St Mark’s Square. It was originally built in 1518, but was destroyed following the earthquake. Although it was rebuilt, St Markos Church is now smaller than the original foundation and its interior is plain and simple. Catholic services are held at Saint Markos church only during the summer months, when it is also frequently used as a destination wedding place for the Irish couples.
AAVia Demokratias Street we proceeded towards the Plateia Solomou (Solomou Square), the town’s largest and most recent (landfilled) square. This very attractive open space, lined with trees and flowerbeds is surrounded by aristocratic single and two-storey buildings with a statue of D. Solomos in the middle.

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In the north-east part of the square is the Agios Nicholas on the Mole, the only Venetian building to survive the earthquake and fire and be restored to its original form. It was built in 1561 by the guild of sailors on the small island, connected to Zante town by the bridge but eventually the landfills merged the island with the city.  It is a church of historical value and great importance in Zakynthos because the patron saint of the island, Saint Dionysios, served here. His robes are still housed in the church today. Free entry, no pictures allowed.

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Next to the church is the Municipal Cultural Center and the Library, the Historical Archive building and the Phoskolos Cinema. Also, on Solomou Sq. is the impressive building which houses the Museum of Byzantine Art, that we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit. Instead, we strolled along Strada Marina like many other locals and tourists alike, looking at the docked yachts and small fishing boats going about their daily business. Unquestionably, it is one of the most relaxing and beautiful islands I’ve ever visited.

We then did the last shopping and walked towards the car.

A drive to the port through the old streets of Zante –

Once we said goodbyes to the island and boarded the ferry, the city gifted us with even more stunning views. I was sad to leave it, as if it was I who spent my childhood summers there. But we will surely return to visit D’s grandma again, see the famous Blue Caves, check-out the Byzantine Art Museum, climb to the Strani hill to see the remains of the Venetian Castle and take a boat to the gorgeous Navagio Beach.

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Once we disembarked, 50 minutes later, our drive through the northern part of the Peloponnese and the Isthmus of Corinth was pretty straight- forward and took about 4,5 hours with a short lunch break. We stopped to grab some food along the road and to my amusement, I found a Cosmophone! Imagine?!

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Pictures of Zakynthos, July 2014.

 

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