Zakynthos is the southernmost and third largest in both size and population of the Ionian Islands.
It is situated 8,5 nautical miles south of Kefalonia, 9,5 nautical milew west of the Peloponese and approximately 300 kilometres west of the capital of Greece, Athens.
Its geographical position ensures easy travel to the other islands and even the mainland of Greece.
A short journey across the Peloponese brings one to the ancient city of Olympia, the birthplace and original venue of the Olympic Games.
Due to the islands location, it is an ideal base to link up to the larger cities of Greece such as Patras, Athens and Thesaloniki.
An island full of contrasts, Zakynthos consists of mainly woodland, with an abundance of pine tree covered mountains and fertile plains.
In the north, east and south numerous picturesque beaches can be found, whereas in the west the imposing, rocky landscape has a number of sea caves such as the famous Blue Caves on the north-west of the island.
The climate in Zakynthos is mild mediterranean with both heavy rainfall during the winter monthw and brilliant sunshine in the summer.
The rich vegetation is probably due to this, and has resulted in the nicknames of Fior di Levante (Flower of the East) and Iliessa (full of woods) by the Venetians and Omiros respectively.
It is productive island agriculturally, supported mainly by the cultivation of olives, raisins, citrus fruits. Apart from this, the main source of local income is from the recently developed business of tourism.
The island has a wealth of history as for many centuries it was the crossroads for numerous nations and cultures.
The oldest traces of life on the island date to the Neolithic period and were found in the gulf of Laganas.
The island’s history has its roots in antiquity and, as Pliny tells us, it was inhabited before 3000BC, when it was called Yria.
A complex of marble divine figurines, such as Apollo, Aphrodite and Artemis, has been found near Frourio, and is now kept in the Tiepolo Museum in Venice.
This confirms the particular inclination that the island’s ancient inhabitants had for music and the worship of Artemis.
As Homer says, the name Zakynthos was given to the island by Zakynthos, son of Dardanos, King of Troy.
Zakynthos came to the island from the Arcadian city of Psophidas in around 1500 BC, and lent his name to the new city.
The colonists who followed him called the acropolis of the island Psophidas in memory of their homeland.
His descendants created a fine civilization and began to found colonies whereby they could spread, such as Zakantha in Spain, the city of Kydones in Crete and Fokis in Spain.
In the Mycenean years, the island was part of the kingdom of Ithaka.
Homer called the island “yleissa”, i.e.verdant.
Its geographical position, the fertile land and the island’s tar sources played an important role in its economic growth, which in the 6th century BC enabled it to mint its own silver coins.
These coins portrayed tripods – the holy symbol of Apollo – on one side, which was succeeded by the lyre in the 5th century.
For around seven centuries the island enjoyed a democratic life. In 455 BC Zakynthos joined with the Athenian League.
After this was crushed, it found itself under Spartan occupation, resulting in its democratic political system being replaced by an oligarchic one.
Zakynthos kept a neutral position during the Persian Wars, whilst it was part of the Roman province of Achaia under Roman Empire.
It was during these years that Christianity was introduced to the island in 34 BC, by Mary Magdalene according to one tradition, but by Saint Beatrice according to another.
With the establishment of the Byzantine Empire, Zakynthos was incorporated in the province of Illyria, without however enjoying particular care or protection.
It was thus raided during pirate raids and by expectant conquerors.
The Ionian Islands experienced further adventures during the Crusades.
At the end of the 12th century the island passed into the hands of the French Counts of Orsini, then to the Angevin kings of Naples, and finally the Tocci (Florentine princes).
The Venetians took over the island in 1485, after pressurizing the Turks diplomatically.
Venetian rule gave Zakynthos stability and opportunities for growth, which the island had been denied for centuries. The peace that Venetian power secured for the island gave it for the first time opportunities for economic and cultural growth.
The inhabitants were divided into three classes: the nobles (nobili), the bourgeoisie (civili) and the masses (popolari).
Only the nobles were registered in the Golden Book (libro d’oro) and had political rights. In 1797 the French democrats arrived on Zakynthos and were welcomed enthusiastically.
The Libro d’oro was burnt in Saint Mark’s square with ecstatic celebrations. French control lasted 15 months.
In October of 1798 the unified Russian-Turkish fleet, led by the Russian Admiral Ushakov, arrived on Zakynthos. With the great enthusiasm local people met Russian navies. Russian Admiral offered Zakinthian Greek to be the official language and Orthodoxy the established religion. In 1800 a treaty was signed between Russia and Turkey whereby an independent state known as the Septinsular Republic was established. . The Septinsular Republic, the first independent Greek state of modern history, was to last for seven years.
In 1807 French troops occupied the Ionian Islands.
Two years later, in 1809, the British navy occupied Zakynthos. British occupation (1809 – 1864) was to be the final phase of occupation before union with Greece.
With outbreak of the War of Independence in 1821, the Ionian islanders openly and actively supported their uprising fellow Greeks.
With liberation from the Turks and the foundation of the Greek state, the demand of the Ionian Islands for union with the rest of Greece became pronounced.
The Greek flag was finally raised on the island on 21 May 1864. During the Second world war, the island was occupied first by the Italians and then by the Germans.
A few years later, in 1953, the island suffered a catastrophic earthquake, which was followed by a large scale fire that destroyed the town of Zakynthos.
The historic buildings and churches, with the treasures that they contained, were all lost. The city was rebuilt along strict anti-earthquake regulations, attempting at the same time to preserve something of its old character.
The island of Zakynthos has actively contributed in the spiritual and artistic development of Greece. Important figures of the island influenced the physiognomy of the Greek state in all the areas of art and Literature. Since the ancient times, the island was an important cultural center, due to its geographical position.
The flourishing of the arts started in 15th century with the distinctions of the translator of Homer’s Iliad, Nikolaos Loukanis. And in the area of poetry and literature, Dimitris Zinos, Tzanes Koroneos and Pahomios Rousanos stood out. In the same period, works in the area of poetry, essay and prose were printed in Venice and became objects of admire of the Greeks and foreigners. Around 1600, the first Greek Academy was established and in 1815 the Academy of the Free Meridian Islands.
In 19th century, the flourishing of the island took place, with the birth of Andreas Kalvos and Dionysios Solomos. In 1864, the National Anthem was created with verses by the poem of Dionysios Solomos and music by Nikolaos Mantzaros from Corfu. After the death of D.Solomos, the Ionian School was founded. Furthermore, the Italian speaking poet, Nikolaos Ugo Foskolos was born and educated in the island of Zakynthos. He later became the national poet of Italy. Apart from poetry and literature, music flourished in the island where Apollo, god of music, was worshiped. The serenades are a special feature of Zakynthos, through which words are set in music. Besides serenades, the inhabitants of the island created ‘arekia’, the folk song in four parts.
Girl looking at the SeafrontThe influences from the west and the constant change of population helped to develop and flourish the opera and operettas, which bonded the lower-class with aristocrats. In 1815, the first Music School was founded in the island and in the Olympic Games of 1896 the Philharmonic of Zakynthos appeared.
Many remarkable musicians that were distinguished abroad were born in Zakynthos.
These are Frankiskos Domeneginis and Antonis KapnisisAlong with the development of the music, theatre developed as well. It flourished in the period of Venetian domination and was influenced
by the Italian folk theatre of Medieval and Renaissance.
Important role played the refugees from Crete. So, the structure, the way of speaking and the acting come from the combination of Venetian Comedia De l Arte and Cretan theatre.
So, the theatre started to flourish with the foundation of theatres and performances of ancient drama, Cretan and modern plays by Zakynthian play-writers.
The green landscapes, the blue sea and the dreamy caves influenced the inhabitants of Zakynthos in the area of painting. It is not accidental that many painters, from different parts of Greece, lived in the island. The icons of many churches follow the style of Cretan-Zakynthian School, which was established with the arrival of Cretans in the island, in the middle of 17th century. The famous Ionian School was a strange combination of Zakynthian painting, Byzantine art and characteristics of Italian renaissance. The most remarkable representatives of the Ionian School are, Panagiotis Doxaras, Nikolaos Koutoutzis and Nikolaos Kadounis. Click to enlargeIt is worth mentioning the recent representatives for their personal style, like Dionysios Tsokos, A.and G.Gryparis and Dimitrios Pelekasis.
The recent painters depict not the holly element but the enjoyment of the senses. The art of woodcarving is evident in every church of the island through the wooden icon screens with impressive carvings. An excellent representative of silver carving is the silver casket where the relics of Agios Dionysios are kept. In the area of architecture, the island managed to push forward a special architectural style. The influences from the west, the Venetian domination, the French Empire, the Italian Renaissance, the English state and the Byzantine contributed in the unique architectural style of the island. The mansions of the aristocrats, the churches, the monasteries and the houses of folk people reveal the important role of penetration and assimilation of foreign styles in the areas of design, construction, functionalism and decoration of those buildings.
Zakynthos is the capital and port of the island, located at the foot of Bochali hill. It is a modern city, built after the old one was destroyed in the earthquake of 1953, a town that is constantly expanding toward the interior of the island owing to the great number of activities that have sprung up in recent years. Some of the sites worth visiting are:
- The monastery of Agios Dionysios where the holy remains of the saint are preserved
- Its interesting museums
- The squares of Agios Markos and Dionysios Solomos
- The shopping centre on Alex. Roma street and the coast road
- Kon. Lombardou street or Strata Marina (as the local people call it), as well as a number of old churches that were either preserved or restored after the earthquake in 1953. Bochali, the district around the Castro, charms us with its quiet lanes and old houses, its flower-bedecked countryards and elegant tavernas in which old zakynthian music is played.
- Also of interest are the two hills:Strani, where Dionysios Solomos was inspired to write the “Ode to Liberty” which after being set to music, became the Greek national anthem;and Bochali, as mentioned earlier;on top of which is the Venetian Castro, with its superb panoramic view of the modern town of Zakynthos and the Ionian sea. The briefest stroll along the streets of the town is enough to convince the visitor that the efforts to preserve the pre-seismic Zakynthian atmosphere are not directed to the buildings alone but to its entire urban fabric. In Zakynthos everything is steeped in nostalgia, with a note of romanticism. The island’s picturesque squares, Dionysios Solomos Square and Agios Markos Square, the long coast road, the Strata Marina, old Rougas Square and the modern Alexandrou Roma street, are all reminiscent of times past.
Zakynthos Byzantine Museum: The Zakynthos Byzantine Museum is located in Solomou Sqare. On the right of the entrance is a stairway leading to the upper floor, which you have to cross the whole of in order to come down to the entranceway again.
The museum has a rich collection of moveable icons, a veritable panorama of ecclesiastical painting from the Byzantine period until the 19th century, with around one thousand religious paintings of post-Byzantine , revolutionary and Zakynthian art. Works by Damaskenos, Tzanes, Kallergis, Doxaras, Koutouzis and Tsionis are on display.
The earlier exhibits in the Museum are typical examples of Byzantine art, whereas the works of Panayiotis Doxaras (1622-1700), who had studied in Venice , are naturalistic and belong to the Septinsular School. Doxaras’ son, Nicolaos , continued in the western tradition, as did Nicolaos Koutouzis (1741-1913), whose works one can also see in the Museum , as well as in the church of Agios Dionysios.
The museum also houses the icon stands from the churches of Pantocrater and Agios Dimitrios as well as the exterior of the church of Agios Andreas of the Volimes. It also contains Hellenistic and Byzantine sculptures and statues.
Solomos Museum: The ground floor of the Solomos Museum, which is located in Agios Markos Square, contains the impressive tombs of Dionysios Solomos (1798 – 1857) and of Andreas Kalvos (1792 – 1869), the other great Zakynthian poet. In the entrance is a piece of the holly tree under the shadow of which, on Strani Hill in May 1823, Solomos was inspired to write the “Hymn to Liberty”, which later became the Greek national anthem, as well as the “Free Besieged”.
Helmi Museum of Natural History: The Helmi Museum of Natural History is located in Agia Marina, a beautiful village in the center of Zakynthos, with a wonderful view over the main town and the gulf of Laganas. It has some fine collections, with over 50 specimens from the natural world, such as birds, fish and shells from the seven seas of the globe, plants and animals that are now extinct, rocks and minerals.
Ecclesiastical Museum: The new museum and Treasury of the Holy Monastery of Strofadia and Agios Dionysios was opened on 12 November 2000 on the raised ground floor of the Monastery’s new wing.
The Museum, a space of cultural and historical memory, is comprised of icons and other objects of Christian art, primarily from Strofadia Monastery. The core of today’s exhibition was previously housed in a small exhibition area that was not fully equipped for the necessary preservation conditions in the old wing of the Monastery, whilst some other works were in storage. Today’s exhibition of treasures, holy relics, manuscripts and rare books, liturgical vessels and icons is not simply an artistic event but an indication of the spirituality of Strofadia Monastery.
In addition to their theological and historical interest, the exhibits, items of worship and pious votive offerings, are distinguished for their artistic quality and are undoubted works of art. The icons in this space have here found their apt position and are a sign of the creative syncretism achieved in the Ionian Islands, a field for the fusion of the two seemingly contrary traditions of Byzantium and the West.
Monuments: Monuments, witnesses to the history and the culture of a place, could not be an exception on Zakynthos. Among them are the statue of Solomos in the square of the same name, the sculpture that personifies Glory and reflects the lyrics of the Greek national poet and the statue of Foscolo, national author of Italy.
There are in addition pillars that revive memories of the history of the Friendly Society, the secret society that planned the Greek War of Independence, and the writings of Kalvos are also to be found on the island, for the purposes of knowledge, recollection and, mainly as a model.
Churches: Some of the old churches of Zakynthos that were saved and restored after the earthquakes of 1953 are particularly striking. The church of the island’s patron saint, Agios Dionysios, found in the center of the island and in which the saint’s tabernacle is housed, is one of the most important, and a superb Ecclesiastical Museum is also located here.
Agios Nicolaos Kiliomenos, located in the village of the same name, the Monastery of Panayia Spiliotissa at Orthonies, Yperagathos Monastery and the Monastery of Agios Georgios of Kremnon and Ypapanti at Macherado, the Monastery of Anafonitrias at Anafonitria, Panayia Keriotissa at Keri are just a few of the churches of particular architectural interest on the island.
Zakynthos Marine Park
The National Marine Park of Zakynthos. National Park of Zakynthos), founded in 1999, is a national park located in Laganas bay, in Zakynthos island, Greece.The park, part of the Natura 2000 ecological network, covers an area of 135 square kilometers (52 sq mi) and is the habitat of the loggerhead sea (Caretta caretta). It is the first national park established for the protection of sea turtles in the Mediterranean.
Zakynthos Marine Park encompasses the marine area of the Bay of Laganas on the south coast of the island of Zakynthos and hosts one of the most important sea turtles nesting beaches in the Mediterranean. The nesting habitat in the Bay consists of six distinct beaches: Gerakas, Daphni, Sekania, Kalamaki. Laganas and Marathonissi islet, totaling about 5 km (3 mi) in length, of which Sekania is rated among the world’s highest loggerhead nesting concentrations Besides the nesting areas, the park encompasses the wetland of Keri Lake and the two small islands of Strofadia, which are located 48 km (30 mi) south of the island of Zakynthos.
The marine park is composed of three marine areas (A, B, C) in the Bay of Laganas, alongside the strictly protected nesting areas as well as the terrestrial and peripheral areas. For the protection of the ecosystem, fishing activities are strictly prohibited within each of the maritime zones.
The area is home to the endangered loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), which is considered one of the oldest forms of life on the planet. The marine park hosts an annual 900 to 2,000 hives, which represents an average of eighty percent of the total population of the Mediterranean loggerhead population. The loggerhead spends most of its life at sea, but females lay their eggs on Laganas Bay at night from May to August.
In addition, the area is characterized by a variety of habitats of interest including sand dunes, Posidonia oceanica beds, the critically endangered sea daffodi (Pancratium maritimum), submergedreefs, as well as hundreds of species of flora and fauna, some of which are of great importance.
It should also be noted that a resident population of the critically endangered species of monk seal, Monachus monachus is present on the west coast of Zakynthos.
The National Marine Park of Zakynthos was established in December 1999 to protect and conserve Caretta caretta and other species such as Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus, as well as several other important species of animals, birds, amphibians and flora found in this area.
In addition, in order to achieve the objective of active public participation, a bottom-up approach was adopted for the implementation of actions dealing with monitoring and surveillance, accreditation, certification and collaboration with local stakeholders. This approach has contributed to the formulation of a common vision for the long-term management of both natural and economic parameters. Furthermore, the development of a code of conduct for ecotourism activities aims to harmonize the tourism strategy with the maintenance of biodiversity and cultural authenticity of the area. Beyond the general principles, specific codes of conduct have been developed which deal with sightseeing, general awareness activities, rambling activities and marine excursions.