Despite the popularity of its gorgeous beaches, the Greek island of Zakynthos has plenty more to offer when you’re ready to peel yourself off the sunlounger. Hiring a car is likely to be a good option if you want to explore the island, as public buses only run a few times a day and the cost of taxis can add up. Here are a few of the places I’d recommend around Zante that you can easily reach by car if you fancy a half day exploring more of what the island can offer.
See the sights of Zante town
If you arrive on the island by ferry from the mainland, Zante Town will probably be your starting point, or if you are based in one of the beach resorts it’s worth taking a look around the island’s capital. The shops are normally open in the morning, close after lunch and then re-open in the late afternoon and evening. During shop opening hours parking is at a premium but the atmosphere is more lively. If you prefer things a little quieter then visit Zante Town when the shops are closed.
The harbour frontage is full of interest and the road is busy with a constant stream of tooting cars and motorbikes as the locals go about their business. At one end of town, close to St Mark’s Square, is the long pier where the cruise ships dock. I’d recommend walking right to the end of this pier to admire the yachts from all over the world, from beautiful wooden boats to the glitzy gin palaces chartered by some wealthy Russian businessman. You’ll probably see a lone fisherman at the end and there’s a pleasant small taverna where you can get a good lunch.
From this end of town you can walk right along the harbour front and see the fishing boats with their yellow nets, moored up in the morning selling their catch direct from the boat. At the other end of town is the church of St Denis, richly decorated with frescos and golden icons. St Denis is the patron saint of the island and in a small chapel to the fight of the altar is his silver tomb which is opened twice a day in summer to reveal his mummified body and allow pilgrims to kiss his feet. Beside the church there’s also an ecclesiastical museum full of beautifully embroidered robes, painted icons and figured silverware from monasteries around the island.
Back at St Mark’s square, you’ll find plenty of cafes waiting to invite you in, as this is prime tourist spot but I prefer to walk down the main street and find the smaller cafes in the side streets where the locals go for a hot cheese pies or a selection of glika, the honey drenched sweet pasties that the Greeks serve with tiny cups of strong, sweet Greek coffee. In the side streets you’ll find several shops that make and sell the traditional nougat of sesame seeds, almonds and honey as well as other local sweets, wines and olive oil. The museum in St Mark’s square is also worth a look if you’d like to see beautiful religious art and icons that were saved from the terrible earthquake of 1953.
Take your car and drive up to Bohali, the cliff that’s set above the town overlooking the harbour where you can sit on the terrace in one of the cafes with a frappe to admire the view or visit the Venetian fort on the hill top.
Zante town is a good alternative location to the airport to pick up your hire car if you’ve booked through a car hire comparison search engine like Carrentals.co.uk, who provided our hire car.
Wine tasting and pottery at Machairado
From Zante town you can drive out on the road to Machairado and within 15 minutes (if you don’t get lost or miss the turning) you’ll find a couple of other interesting places to visit;
When I’m on Zakynthos I aways stop in at the Oenolpi winery run by Timotheos and Christina-Maria, who have started a boutique winery that you can see from the road. Their wines mix local grape varieties and mainstream varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and the estate also includes olive trees and Korinthian grapes for raisins. They are happy to show visitors the modern winery and they also have wine for tasting in the front reception area, although if you’re a serious wine coinesseur you may want to ring ahead to be sure they’ll be there.
I can recommend the delicious Augostoustiatis Liastos wine, with concentrated sugars and alcohol made with the local Augostoustiatis grapes which are harvested and then laid outside on a cloth to be ‘burnt’ in the sun, giving it the Liastos name, ideal to be drunk at the end of a meal with coffee or desert.
A little way down the road there’s the Sigouros Pottery Workshop where painted pottery is made that’s also sold in their shop on the main street in Zante town. I’ve been collecting the Sigouros pottery over the years and I love the soft colours and abstract motifs inspired by the natural beauty of Zakynthos, with blue fish, green olives, lemons and pommegranates, that grow everywhere on the island.
At the workshop you’ll find the shop downstairs and upstairs the owner and potter, Sigouros Golemis is working at the window at his potter’s wheel. You can see the pottery laid out to dry and waiting to be painted before it’s fired in the kiln in the garden. We watched Sigouros as he threw pot after pot, and then an equally skilled lady etched the designs onto the bowls ready for painting. There are plenty of wonderful painted bowls and jugs but even if you don’t have much room in your luggage a mug or small dish will make a unique hand-made souvenir from your stay on Zante.
After visiting Oenolpi winery or the Sigouros pottery it’s worth driving on the the village of Machairado itself where there are a few small cafes to get a feel for life on the island well away from the tourist resorts.
The Water-park at Sarakinado
Not too far from Machairado and a complete contrast from the gentle pleasures of wine and painted pottery is the adrenelin inducing Zante Water Village at Sarakinado. This could be the place if you have older children who will enjoy the five or so different water-slides. There’s a lazy river and a shallow octopus lagoon for little children with several snack bars, but it’s not a problem for you to take your own snacks and water if you’re watching the budget. The park is all outdoors and there is plenty of room to relax on a sun-lounger in the shade of an olive tree while the kids exhaust themselves.
The cost is 18 Euros for over 12s and 14 Euros for under 12s and it will probably suit older children, as little ones will be just as happy pottering about on the beach or by the hotel pool. There are excursions arranged to the water park from many resorts, but having a hire car will mean that you have the flexibility to arrive and leave as it suits you.
Rock swimming at Porto Limnionas
If you are a lover of natural swimming rather than the artificial thrills of waterparks, then you will love Porto Limnionas, on the rocky, arid north-west coast of Zakynthos. You will definitely need a car to find this place, driving through the mountain villages where you can see the old stone houses from before the earthquake. Driving through the scrub and pines, stunted in the wind and blackened by forest fires, you’ll see the cliffs and sea ahead of you and reach a car park with a taverna overlooking an inlet of turquoise blue sea. Here paths have been made down to the sea where you swim from the platform of rocks or can jump from the concrete structures. There are no sandy shallows here, so it’s not really suitable for younger children, but you can swim across the inlet and snorkel by the sea caves or jump off the rocks on the opposite side. Below the taverna are sun terraces laid out where you can hire a sun-bed and order drinks from the bar or go up and have lunch or snacks on the terrace. This was my new discovery from my recent trip and one of my favourite places to swim on the island.
The Monasteries to the north of Zakynthos
I highly recommend that on your driving tour of Zakynthos, you spend some time in the northern part of the island where the landscape becomes barren and covered with gorse and wild thyme. The main village in this area is Volimes, known for its honey and lace-making where you’ll see hand-made lace tablecloths and bedspreads for sale, hung outside many of the houses and shops. This is also the location of the well known St Denis monastery or Monastery of Theotokos Anafonitria where St Denis, the archbishop and patron saint of the island lived in the 16th century. You enter the walled courtyard with its defensive bell tower, through a stone archway to reach the small church. The 15th century church is quite bare apart for some painted frescoes, the decorative altar screen and the painting of St Denis. There is also a golden icon of the Madonna and child, with gold jewellery left by those who no doubt had their prayers answered.
Further along the road is the monastery of St Georgios Krimnon built of stone with a defensive tower, church and cloisters, with large church bells hanging from the olive trees outside. If you plan to visit these monasteries or any churches on the island, you should plan to be modestly dressed, ladies covering your shoulders and knees and men wearing long trousers. In the northern part of the island, you’ll also find the viewpoint for Smuggler’s cove or Navagio, with the rusty old wreck on the sand. The beach is only accessible by boat and is one of the most photographed beaches in Greece, so this is the chance to get that iconic postcard shot.
Beautiful Beaches of the south
From the rocky north of Zakynthos island you’ll want to explore the Eastern and South coasts where many beautiful beaches are to be found. Some of these are accessible by local bus, but you’ll have more flexibility on your timings and access more if you have a car. My favourite beaches in this part of the island are;
Gerakas beach is located on the south-east corner of the island and protected from development because of the loggerhead or Caretta Caretta turtles that nest here. The land above the beach is undeveloped and sun loungers are kept away from the turtle nests that are marked with wooden cages. At the top of the path down to the beach are a couple of bars and tavernas where you can have a nice lunch or drink in the shade. Visit the turtle information centre at Gerakas, run by Earth Sea and Sky organisation, for more information about how to interact with the turtles in a responsible way that preserves them for the future.
Dafni beach is another gorgeous beach to visit but you do need a car to get there down the the steep and winding dirt road. The beach is a turtle nesting site and as the sun loungers are kept at the back of the beach, there’s a wide expanse of warm send to enjoy. With warm shallow water, this is an ideal beach for families, so long as you don’t mind the steep drive down and when we were there some of the beach bars don’t charge for their sunbeds so long as you buy drinks and snacks at their bar.
Porto Zoro is a smaller beach with easy road access near Vassilikos with a couple of beach bars, one a traditional taverna and the other a trendy beach bar. The thing that has drawn us back to this beach are the large rocks at the end that are perfect for swimming around and snorkeling.
Vassilikos beach is one of the longest beaches on the south-east part of the island and can be accessed from different places along the coast road. At one end is a stone taverna, half way along a trendy beach bar and at the far end is Banana beach, where there’s a watersports centre and you can hire jetskis or go paragliding. This is a long beach backed by dunes where you can get away from the crowds if you want.
Car Rentals on Zakynthos
If you want to seek out the hidden spots on Zakynthos where the tourists don’t normally go, then you will need to hire a car and we booked ours through the car hire comparison search engine, Carrentals.co.uk . On their website you can search for the best car hire deals on-line from suppliers such as Europcar, Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, Sixt, Alamo, and Carhire3000 and they offer in-house customer support should you have any problems. Thanks to Carrentals.co.uk for providing our hire car while we were on Zante.
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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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Zante town harbour isn’t one of those sleepy, picturesque island harbours where the fishing boats bob up and down and not much else happens. It’s a big busy harbour with ships of all size. On any given day you might find a number of cargo ships in harbour – an island of this size has to be kept well-supplied especially when its numbers swell in summer with holidaymakers both Greek and other nationalities.
You’ll find the odd cruise liner as well, channelling people towards the expensive cafes in the main square with the waiters urging you in, even though you’ll only need to take a few steps down the side streets to find the old fashioned places that my husband loves.
If it’s a photo opportunity you’re after, you can find the fishing boats with their mustard yellow nets moored up along the main quay, together with the odd floating palace that celebrities love to rent for the summer. Walk further and up the main pier and you’ll fnd all the smaller yachts from all over the world – perhaps you’ll get chatting to a copper-tanned couple on board one of them and find they’ve sailed half around the world or that they’re spending the summer sailing around the Greek islands. This is what we dream of – of lazy days bobbing in some little cove, of exploring each new island you visit.
Walk on further and you’ll find a small deserted cafe where you can sit with a coffee and then further still the tip of the harbour wall with perhaps a lone fisherman where you can watch the yachts motor out before setting sail around the island or even further. If you’re a sailor, Zante harbour is a place you could come to dream.
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