It’s this Ionian island’s dramatic landscape that cast its spell on literary greats including the poetess Sappho, Angelos Sikelianos, Lafkadio Hearn, and Aristotelis Valaoritis. And it will certainly cast its spell on you, whether you’re looking for a quiet haven in the forest while exploring stone watermills by the river or an adrenalin rush while kite- and wind-surfing over Lefkada’s brilliant blue waves.
Towns and villages plucked out of time
Although Lefkada is one of the most popular islands in Greece, if you listen closely and follow less-trodden paths you’ll hear the island’s whispers of other more gallant times, of love-torn poetry, of legends and lore that harken back to night-time strolls in the woods under the wary eyes of elves and fairies. Perhaps the best introduction you’ll get to Lefkada’s lyrical past is the Castle of Saint Maura, right in the middle of Lefkada Town. Built in 1293 by John Orsini during the Frankish occupation, this stellar example of Medieval architecture greets you as soon as you set foot on the island and is surrounded by water. Take your time and explore the many Venetian buildings and structures within its massive stone walls. Walk to the castle’s north-western end and admire the stunning lighthouse, then make your way back to the other end of the fortress and get inspired by the beautiful Church of Saint Maura. Then walk or cycle through cobblestone streets in Lefkada Town, and admire the unique architecture of the homes and buildings. Inspired by mainland building practices, the ground floors are all made of stone while upper floors are built of wood. And there’s one feature that will stand out wherever you go, because even alleys doused in shadow have light in this town – homes are painted bright yellow and orange, with blue and green windowsills and doors while jasmine bushes waft their dreamy fragrance over visitors enjoying a quiet stroll. Make it a point to cycle through the Park of the Poets, where busts of some of Greece’s most famous poets proudly boast of Lefkada’s literary history, including Kleareti the island’s only woman literary great. As you stroll or cycle through countless quaint alleys, take a moment to explore some of the Baroque-style churches that huddle in squares and on street corners and date back to the 17th Century, then pop into shops that line Dörpfeld Street, the town’s pedestrianized center. Scattered throughout you’ll spot the homes that once belonged to the island’s poets – Valaoritis and Sikelianos.
Once you’ve explored the island’s capital, head to Katouna village up in the mountains. This village remains untouched by any commercial and architectural modernization, and its few residents zealously clutch their old-fashioned ways. With high stone walls and mesmerizing gardens in an area surrounded by emerald countryside, strolling through the cobblestone paths of Katouna will be like walking through a fairy-tale. In fact, the beauty of this village cast a spell so powerful on one of its visitors, she returned and restored a small neighborhood of homes, turning them into a boutique hotel that’s part of the Historic Hotels of Europe.
Continue your tour of Lefkada’s magical villages by going to Englouvi, an ancient mist-covered village perched on the mountain, that’s known for a kind of lentil only grown in Lefkada as well as a unique type of agricultural home called voltous. After you roam through winding streets and stop to taste the Englouvi lentils at a local tavern, head further out to St. Donato chapel where you’ll find springs and Lefkada’s famous volti homes. These stone, dome-shaped buildings were used in the past as farm-houses and storage sheds. Dating back to the Venetians, they were used by locals who sought shelter during the War of Independence in 1821. In WWII, local rebels held secret meetings in these eerie buildings. You’ll find these Volti homes scattered around St. Donato chapel, so turn your exploration into a walk as you take in Lefkada’s beautiful countryside. When you return to St. Donato Church, stop by the natural springs for a refreshing drink of water.
Make it a point to explore Karia village and get a taste for Lefkada’s artistic traditions. Clinging to the mountainside amid a stunning dense forest, this village is famous for inventing Lefkada’s Karsaniko embroidery style. This unique type of stitch was created in 1885 by a local woman called Standraka who suffered a terrible accident that resulted in the loss of one hand and partial paralysis of the other. Desperate to pursue her passion for embroidery, she created the Karsaniko stitch, which entails the use of only one hand and has since become world-famous. Local women in Karia village continue to preserve this art form, and you’ll find a number of them embroidering in traditional costume as you stroll through this enchanting village. In Karia you’ll also find a folklore museum and a musical society. Before you leave this gem of a village, visit the Monastery of St. John which dates to the 16th Century. Legend has it that in 1600 a thief raided the monastery and threatened to take all the precious icons, but once he saw the monks and their way of life, he decided to repent and live out his life in the monastery. His remains were buried in the monastery, which can be visited. Take some time to admire the one-of-a-kind icons on display.
Before you head back to the beach and the island’s beautiful sea, explore Kavalo village and you’ll witness an exclusively Lefkadian experience. But you’ll have to go on a Sunday, as this unique treat only happens once a week. The venue for this Lefkadian tradition is Livas Kafeneion (coffee shop) which also doubles as a post office, convenience store, barber shop and taverna. On Sundays people ride their horses to the coffee shop, tie them outside, and join their friends for an afternoon of fun, food and gossip. You’ll think the Wild West moved to the lush green mountains of Greece.
Adrenalin junkies – hear the call of Lefkada’s water nymphs
If casual strolls through Lefkada’s stunning towns and villages left you enchanted but eager to experience an adrenalin high, you’ve found the ideal island for water sports and interesting hikes. Lefkada boasts ideal wind conditions for kite- and wind-surfing as well as infrastructure ideal for sailing at all levels.
Just one look at the stunning blue-green waters of Lefkada will make the lure of sea so irresistible you’ll swear mermaids and water nymphs cast a spell on you. Whether you’re an avid water-sports fan or just a beginner, this is the perfect place for wind- and kite-surfing as well as catamaran sailing. Head to Vasiliki or Ai-Ianni beaches, where you’ll find all the equipment you’ll need. Vasiliki Bay is on the southern part of the island, and wind conditions are ideal for all water-sports. In fact, it’s one of the world’s favorite destinations for wind-surfing. If you’re into hard-core land sports, Vasiliki also offers a number of trails that mountain-bikers would enjoy. Ai-Ianni beach, in the north, is a hot-spot for kite-surfers. Experts and beginners will find this sport an ideal way to satisfy their adrenalin cravings while qualified instructors are eager to teach all levels. The vista from the shore is stunning, with kites dotting the horizon like colorful swooping butterflies as avid fans “snowboard” over white-capped waves. It truly resembles a painting in motion.
Hikers and nature enthusiasts will also be lured by Lefkada’s water nymphs. Hike through Skaron Forest up in the river-crossed mountains of Lefkada. Boasting centuries’ old moss-draped trees, look for a very rare type of oak, which can only be found in Lefkada and in a handful of other forests in Europe. Skaron Forest is exceptionally beautiful and plays a vital role in the island’s eco-system. This fact was only highlighted during the Venetian and Ottoman occupation, when guards were posted throughout the forest to protect it. If you’re an avid hiker and look forward to the climb all the way up, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the island’s dozens of villages as well as beautiful sea vistas. Hikers will occasionally run into wild goats, so look out for herds as you explore.
Continue exploring the enchanting beauty of this island by hiking through Dimosari Canyon. Located only 2 km from Nydri, you’ll think you stepped into the pages of your favorite childhood fairy tale. Gushing waterfalls, lagoons, and moss-draped trees that huddle over the river will beckon you further into this magical ecosystem. Waterfalls pool into exotic lagoons, so if you’re hiking in the summer take advantage of these beautiful natural swimming pools and take a refreshing swim. Once you resume your hike, go up the steps carved into the mountain side by the waterfalls to climb higher. Less experienced hikers can cross enchanting stone bridges instead of climbing over boulders. Dimosari Canyon’s importance dates back to Antiquity as the surge of the water streaming down from the island’s highest mountain, Vafkeri, powered the island’s ancient waterworks. Make sure you taste the spring water – it’s rumored to be the best drinking water on the island. If you’re an avid spelunker, there are a few caves dotting the canyon for you to find.
Hikers, you’re in luck because you can continue your adventures by exploring Melissas Gorge. Begin your hike in Kavalos village and follow the river through the canyon. Hike through ancient oak, plane and elm trees and look for beautiful wild rosebushes on your trek. Not only is the Gorge an important part of Lefkada’s eco-system, but you’ll see a living page from the island’s past as stone watermills along the river watch over you as remnants of older cottage industries. You can visit all of them as you see the vestiges of sulfur and grain processing. If you’re a less experienced hiker, you’ll find a trail through the Gorge that will guide you through this enchanting lush forest. Birdwatchers, look skyward for falcons and hawks. Then let the sights and sounds of the forest bring forth your inner poet, because when you’re surrounded by nothing but the bubbling sound of the river and the heavy moss draping gnarled oaks, you’ll see why locals wove legends about fairies, elves and demons that lived in the forest.
If you’d love to pursue more action-packed and eco activities in town, just head to Gira Lagoon in Lefkada Town. Cycle around the lagoon or walk the banks and admire the birds and landscape. Migratory birds including pelicans, ducks and flamingos seek refuge here even though it’s almost in the middle of town and locals have incorporated this vital eco-system into their daily routine, by cycling, walking and jogging along the road that encompasses it. One part of the lagoon houses a natural fishery and there’s a windmill to explore on the shore of the lagoon.
The siren call of Lefkada’s beaches and wines
Now that you’ve connected with your inner poet and experienced Lefkada’s enchanting landscape and fairy-tale villages, kick back and relax at one of the island’s stunning beaches. The most famous of them all is Porto Katsiki, a white-sand beach at the bottom of a dramatic cliff crowned with lush green forest. Be warned, though, as it is always packed in the summer. If you’re looking for a swim where you’ll feel you’re alone on a deserted island, go to Agiofili beach, close to Vasiliki. The aquamarine waters and stunning shoreline will keep you splashing in the waves for hours. If you’re also in the mood to do some exploring nearby, head to Lefkata, a cape where you’ll find dramatic cliffs and a beautiful lighthouse. Cape Lefkata is steeped in legend and lore, as Homer believed the gates to the Underworld were located here. On a more tragic note, the poetess Sappho jumped off the cliffs here after her love went unrequited.
Once you’ve explored and spent your day languishing in Lefkada’s stunning sea, go to one of the many local tavernas and taste Lefkada’s sumptuous wines. Known in Antiquity as excellent varieties, Ancient Greek authors sang its praises in plays. Popular varieties include Vertzami, a lush red wine, which is also very rare. If taking a wine tour of Lefkada is part of your plans, go to Englouvi and Karia villages. But keep an eye out for wineries throughout the island.
Lefkada weaves tales of enchanted forests and lush canyons, tragic cliff-side deaths and famous poets, fairy-tale villages and medieval castles. Everyone from history and architecture buffs to adrenalin junkies and birdwatchers will find the island’s lyricism contagious. So close your eyes and let Lefkada’s magic bring out the poet in you as well.