LEFKÁDHA (Lefkás) is an oddity, which is exactly why it is some people’s favourite Ionian island. Connected to the mainland by a long causeway through lagoons and a 30m pontoon swivel bridge, it barely feels like an island, at least on the busier eastern side. Lefkádha was long an important strategic base and approaching the causeway you pass a series of fortresses, climaxing in the fourteenth-century castle of Santa Maura – the Venetian name for the island. These defences were too close to the mainland to avoid an Ottoman tenure, which began in 1479, but the Venetians wrested back control a couple of centuries later. They were in turn overthrown by Napoleon in 1797 and then the British took over as Ionian protectors in 1810 until reunification with Greece in 1864.
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The whiteness of its rock strata – lefkás has the same root as lefkós, “white” – is apparent on its partly bare ridges. While the marshes and boggy inlets on the east coast can lead to a mosquito problem, the island is a fertile place, supporting cypresses, olive groves and vineyards, particularly on the western slopes. The rugged west coast, however, is the star attraction, boasting some of the finest beaches in the archipelago.
Lefkádha remains relatively undeveloped, with just two major resorts: Vassilikí, in its vast bay in the south, claims to be Europe’s biggest windsurfing centre; Nydhrí, on the east coast, overlooks the island’s picturesque set of satellite islets, including laidback Meganíssi. The capital’s superb marina also appeals to yachties in large numbers.
Lefkádha’s summer festivals
Lefkádha has been home to various literati, including two prominent Greek poets, Angelos Sikelianos and Aristotelis Valaoritis, and the American writer Lafcadio Hearn. Fittingly then, each summer for over fifty years, Lefkádha has hosted two parallel and wide-ranging cultural festivals, which these days attract performers and visitors from around the world. These are the International Folklore Festival and Speech & Arts Events. Originally only lasting for two to three weeks in August, they now extend from June to September, and troupes come from eastern and western Europe, South America and elsewhere, performing mainly at Santa Maura castle near Lefkádha Town, but also in villages around the island. The island and mainland Greece respond with troupes of their own musicians, dancers and theatrical companies. You can usually enjoy occasional performances of world music and jazz too, as well as art exhibitions and special cinema showings. For details, contact 26450 26711 or see lefkasculturalcenter.gr.
Fourteen kilometres south along the main road from Atháni, barren Cape Lefkátas drops abruptly 75m into the sea. Byron’s Childe Harold sailed past this point, and “saw the evening star above, Leucadia’s far projecting rock of woe: And hail’d the last resort of fruitless love”. The fruitless love is a reference to Sappho, who in accordance with the ancient legend that you could cure yourself of unrequited love by leaping into these waters, leapt – and died. In her honour the locals termed the place Kávos tis Kyrás (“lady’s cape”), and her act was imitated by the lovelorn youths of Lefkádha for centuries afterwards. And not just by the lovelorn, for the act (known as katapondismós) was performed annually by scapegoats – always a criminal or a lunatic – selected by priests from the Apollo temple whose sparse ruins lie close by. This purification rite continued into the Roman era, when it degenerated into little more than a fashionable stunt by decadent youth. These days, in a more controlled modern re-enactment, Greek hang-gliders hold a tournament from the cliffs every July.