Most visitors to the Greek island of Zakynthos are there to enjoy the beaches, sun and relaxation, but if you’re like me and get a bit fidgety after 5 minutes on a sun lounger, you might like to explore a bit more of what Zante (as it’s also known) has to offer. Here are a few places to visit that will give you an insight into the history of this popular Greek island;
The Venetian Fort at Bohali
Starting in Zante town, I’d suggest that you hike, drive or take the small tourist train up to Bohali, the hill that overlooks the town where you’ll find the Venetian fort or Kastro. The fort occupies a strategic position on the top of the hill with views in all direction, over the harbour and towards the island interior. It dates back to the 15th century and was destroyed by the Turks in 1460 but later repaired with the help of the Venetians and was at one point the capital of the island.
Once you pass through the stone gates carved with the Venetian lion, you enter a surprisingly large area which would have once contained the whole garrison and supporting village but now only a few buildings remain. The area is now covered with pine trees which make it cool and shady in summer time and you can see some of the old canons, and prison cells. Looking over the ramparts the view of the town and the harbour is fantastic and you can finish your visit by taking a Frappé in one of the stylish bars along the terrace below the fort – a favourite place for the Greeks to come in the cool of the early evening.
Romas mansion in Zante Town
Descending back down the hill to Zante town, hidden away in the back streets is Romas Mansion. This historic house was build in the 17th century by the English Vice consul on Zakynthos and was later used as the English Governor’s Residence and centre of government. In the 1880s the house was bought by Alexander Romas, Government minister and President of the Greek Parliament and his descendants who still live in the house have now opened it to the public.
The house is one of the few old houses in Zante town to survive the terrible earthquake of 1953 which together with the fire that raged, destroyed most of Zante town. If you take a look at the small chapel that is immediately beside the mansion you can see how the street level is about a metre higher than before the earthquake as the town was rebuilt on the rubble of older buildings.
The Mansion gives a glimpse into how the aristocracy on the island lived, with beautiful paintings and furniture and a library full of leatherbound books. Once the house had a garden that gave directly onto the sea but after the earthquake the road was built along the sea front and you can see old photos of the house before the earthquake when it had an additional top floor and two side wings.
Zakynthos Museum of art
A short walk from Romas Mansion and you’re in Solomos square, named after the famous Zakynthian poet, Dionysios Solomos, who wrote the words of the Greek National Anthem. The colonnaded building on the side of the square that faces the harbour, houses the Zakynthos Museum which is more of an art gallery for the religious artworks that were rescued from churches and monasteries around the island after the earthquake struck.
There are two floor of religious art from the 17th and 18th centuries with panel paintings, icons and entire altar screens from locations around the island. One of the rooms houses the 17th Century frescos that were recovered from the Saint Andrea’s Monastery in Volimes to the North of the island, showing how many of the older churches must have looked. One of the most interesting things were the old photos throughout the museum of different parts of the island showing how things were before and after the earthquake of 1953. In the foyer there is also a model of the town that shows the layout of the town before the earthquake and you may be able to trace the changes around the harbour area.
The Monastery of St Denis near Volimes
To see more of the old monasteries that housed these religious paintings you might like to drive up to the north of the island, near the mountain village of Volimes that is known for lace making and honey. The landscape in this part of the island is more rocky and barren and you’ll see the bee hives by the side of the road as you drive up.
The best known monastery is that of St Denis or Theotokos Anafonitria and is a popular stop for coaches on a tour of the island. St Denis is the patron saint of the island and was born into a wealthy family on the island in 1546, going on to become Archbishop of Zakynthos and being canonised after his death. You’ll find that many of the men on the island are named Denis after the Patron Saint, and is it’s the custom in Greece to celebrate your name day, rather than your birthday, St Denis’s day is one big party on the island.
The church is in a small walled compound with a bell tower and inside is quite bare apart from the decorative altarpiece and the icon of Madonna and Child which is adorned with rows of gold jewellery left by faithful pilgrims. When visiting churches in Greece you should make sure that you are correctly dressed with covered shoulders for ladies and long trousers for men – the Greeks would never think of visiting as if dressed for the beach.
Further up the same road is the monastery of St Georgios Krimnon, a little larger but built in a similar style with a defensive tower and church inside the enclosure, and cloisters along one side of the courtyard, with a large bell hanging outside from the olive trees. While you’re in the area, be sure to visit the shops selling handmade lace in Volimes and then you can drive on to the viewing point for one of the most famous beaches on the island (if not in the world) at Navagio or Smuggler’s cove where there is a picturesque shipwreck on the crescent of sand.
On Zakynthos the beach and the sea is never far away but it can also be fascinating to find out a little more about the history of this lovely Ionian island.
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