The six core Ionian islands, shepherding their satellites down the west coast of the mainland, float on the haze of the Ionian Sea, their lush green contours, a result of heavy winter rains, coming as a shock to those more used to the stark outlines of the Aegean. The west coasts of the larger islands also boast some of Greece’s most picturesque cliff-backed beaches, whose sands are caressed by a band of milky turquoise water leading to the deeper azure sea.
Tourism is the dominant influence these days, as it has been for decades on Corfu (Kérkyra), which was one of the first Greek islands established on the package-holiday circuit, though the continuing downturn means it does not feel as swamped as in the past. And while parts of its coastline are among the few stretches in Greece with development to match the Spanish costas, the island is large enough to contain parts as beautiful as anywhere in the group. The southern half of Zákynthos (Zante) has also gone down the same tourist path, but elsewhere the island’s pace is a lot less intense. Little Paxí lacks the water to support large-scale hotels and has limited facilities tucked into just three villages, meaning it gets totally packed in season. Perhaps the most rewarding trio for island-hopping are Kefaloniá, Itháki and Lefkádha. The latter is connected to the mainland by a causeway and iron bridge but still has quite a low-key straggle of tourist centres and only two major resorts, despite boasting some excellent beaches, strung along its stunning west coast. Kefaloniá offers a series of “real towns” and more stunning beaches, as well as a selection of worthwhile attractions, while Itháki, Odysseus’s rugged capital, is protected from a tourist influx by an absence of sand. Although officially counted among the Ionians and constituting the seventh of the traditional eptánisos (heptanese or “seven islands”), rugged Kýthira is geographically quite separate from the six main islands. Only accessible from the southern Peloponnese, it is covered in chapter 2 (see Kýthira).
The Ionian islands were the Homeric realm of Odysseus, centred on Ithaca (modern Itháki), and here alone of all modern Greek territory the Ottomans never held sway – except on Lefkádha. After the fall of Byzantium, possession passed to the Venetians, and the islands became a keystone in Venice’s maritime empire from 1386 until its collapse in 1797. Most of the population remained immune to the establishment of Italian as the official language and the arrival of Roman Catholicism, but Venetian influence remains evident in the architecture of the island capitals, despite damage from a series of earthquakes.
On Corfu, the Venetian legacy is mixed with that of the British, who imposed a military “protectorate” over the Ionian islands at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, before ceding the archipelago to Greece in 1864. There is, however, no question of the islanders’ essential Greekness: the poet Dhionyssios Solomos, author of the national anthem, hailed from the Ionians, as did Nikos Mantzelos, who provided the music, and the first Greek president, Ioannis Kapodhistrias.