“Life Will Smile” (Vimeo) is an interesting video about the amazing actions of the Zakynthos community during the Second World War to protect the island’s Jews. It was the only place in the whole of Greece where no Jews died; a monument in Athens pays tribute to this. Basically, the locals hid the substantially large Jewish community in the countryside and the Priest and Mayor of Zakynthos, when asked to give a list of the Jewish inhabitants, gave a list with just two names – his own and that of the Greek Orthodox bishop. When I first learnt of this by watching a documentary many years ago, I asked my local friends on the island about it, and they had no idea of what their parents and grandparents had done. There is something about this in the guide (page 47), and I also list various remains from that period that are found on some of the walks. (Gail Schofield)”
Zakynthos (Zante) is an ideal location for spotting reptiles because the warm climate encourages them to emerge from the vegetation and bask in the sunlight, a bit like us holidaymakers! In my book Zakynthos, A Complete Guide with Walks, I tell you the best places to see certain species of snakes, lizards and tortoises (and of course sea turtles, the subject of the first article of this series).
I have frequently seen the Hermann’s tortoise at Gerakas (Walk 1-2) and Vrondonero (Walk 7). Lake Keri (Walk 9) is great for spotting terrapins (although several species are introduced and invasive). And the island’s sinuous ancient olive trees make particularly ideal sites for Balkan whip lizards to bask on sunlit patches of bark, while geckos emerge from their nooks and crannies to hunt insects at night (at twilight both compete in the hunting!).
Zakynthos also has several species of snakes, none of which are dangerous (although you may need antihistamine if bitten). Those most frequently seen are the four-line snake and the Montpellier, both of which can be spotted on most walks on Zakynthos. Here again, the ancient olive trees are an ideal site for four-line snakes: they take advantage of branches with holes, to get a good look at passing walkers! (Can you spot the head and body of the snake in this photograph, taken on Walk 6?)
When looking for snakes, just tread lightly and keep looking, particularly in the undergrowth and along the old stone walls, as well as up in trees. The cat snake (or so-called ‘holy snake’ because of the cross mark on its head) may be spotted on mountain walks, particularly around Exo Chora and Kampi (Walks 17 and 18). The migration of this snake coincides with the Name Day of the Patron Saint in Kefalonia, where it is placed on the icons.
If you are unlucky and don’t spot any reptiles on the walks, then take a break and enjoy an evening meal at one of the restaurants in the Sunflower Zakynthos guide, and keep your eye on the walls and lamps: you are bound to spot the odd gecko hunting for insects attracted to the lights or the sun-warmed walls!
Photograph: Four-line snake on an ancient olive tree, seen on Walk 6. Note its head viewing the scenery from a hole in the branch! Photo: Martin K S Lilley.
A friend once asked why the ceramicists on Zakynthos use such vibrant turquoise colours. I believe that it is to do with the clarity of the island’s marine waters. In my book Zakynthos, A Complete Guide with Walks, I describe alternative routes for every walk on Zakynthos, often directing walkers to secret nooks and crannies along the coast to view the marine life and perhaps have a dip – hopefully, with a snorkel and mask to truly appreciate the underwater beauty.
The waters of Zakynthos are as clear as an aquarium most of the year, so it’s possible to see many marine plants and animals just by walking beside village ports like Agios Sostis (Walk 8) and Lake Keri (Walk 9). You may easily glimpse shoals of fish of various sizes, colourful crabs, rays, urchins, starfish, octopuses and anemones – without even getting wet!
For outstanding snorkelling, there are shallow reefs along the shoreline from Gerakas to Daphni (Walks 1-3), with amazing rock forms, a vast array of algae and fish species, dogfish, seabass and, often, sea turtles. If you’re a strong swimmer, then swim around Kentinaria (Walk 13, from point B on the map): the waters on the ocean side of the islet are deep, while the sheltered side is shallow with many fish species. I missed an encounter with a monk seal while swimming here in 2010, so keep your eyes peeled. Another amazing swim spot is Korakonisi (Walk 16), where, again, both deep and shallow waters may be found. Many locals come here to collect natural sea salt and cockles.
Even along the sandy seabed stretch of Laganas and Kalamaki (Walks 6 and 7), you will find isolated rocks supporting various fish species. In places, the fish provide an important service for sea turtles, cleaning the carapaces and skin of algae!
Particularly in spring, many jellyfish, usually Pelagia, along with by-the-wind-sailor are washed into Laganas Bay. Avoid Pelagia: they have long painful stinging tentacles. But you might also see the 40cm-long octopus jellyfish (Rhizostoma): it doesn’t have stinging tentacles and it’s a beautiful pale purple/pink jellyfish that has many small fish swimming amongst its lobes.
If you visit Zakynthos during winter and spring, be sure to walk along Laganas/Kalamaki beach (Walk 7), where a huge variety of seashells of all shapes and sizes are washed up in the winter storms.
Finally, if you have the chance to go on a boat trip around the island, or travel across to Kefalonia, you are likely to see pods of striped dolphins, so keep your eyes peeled. Sperm whales have been documented migrating past Zakynthos, but are located much further offshore!
Photograph: The waters surrounding Zakynthos are as clear as those in an aquarium
Although I’ve lived on Zakynthos for 20 years, I’ve only encountered a Mediterranean monk seal up close twice. In my book Zakynthos, A Complete Guide with Walks, I mention potential ‘hotspots’ for viewing this charismatic and highly endangered animal – based on my own sightings and those of friends. Key locations include the Vassilikos Peninsula (Walks 1-3), the Marathia Headland (Walks 10-12) and viewpoints above some submerged sea caves along the west and north coasts (Walks 13-21). The dive companies on the island seem to regularly spot them, so diving might be one way of increasing your chances of seeing one.
I had my first encounter in 1998. I was on a tour boat giving information about sea turtles, and suddenly there was major commotion on the boat, with the crew rushing to look overboard. There was a two-metre-long animal splashing about in the cove off Mavratsis Beach. Like the crew, I was entranced, but the tourists turned to me and said “this is a seal; we are here to see sea turtles”! Dismayed, I told them that they were that they were extremely lucky to be seeing this seal – one of the top 10 most critically endangered animals in the world. Only 400 individuals exist, with the Zakynthos population comprising just 10-15. The species has been persecuted to near extinction by fisheries.
My second encounter was with a stranded juvenile less than 1 metre in length on Ksigia Beach in 2008. It had become accidentally separated from its mother. Together with a friend who is a vet, and under the telephone guidance of a MOm rep (www.mom.gr), we cleared the beach (on a Sunday afternoon in mid-summer!), and a national park guard remained on watch through the night – during which time the seal returned to the sea and hopefully was reunited with its mother.
If you are fortunate to spot a monk seal, enjoy the encounter, but please also record the approximate size, colouring and location of sighting (GPS if possible) and send this information to MOm.
Photograph credit: Fanis Nikoloudakis, owner of Diver’s Paradise, Zante Beach Hotel, Zakynthos
My adopted island is unique in the entire Mediterranean because it contains important habitats for many endangered, endemic and charismatic species that are actually quite easy to see when you are out walking on Zakynthos (Zante). Over the years, I’ve built up a list of ‘hotspots’, where there is a high chance of encountering certain reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians and fishes. These feature in my book Zakynthos, A Complete Guide with Walks.
I hope to share them with you in a series of articles, beginning with the threatened loggerhead sea turtle (Latin: Caretta caretta), an animal I’ve been researching and protecting for 20 years. You can of course view them on organised boat trips endorsed by the National Marine Park of Zakynthos. But nothing beats coming upon a metre-long sea turtle in its natural habitat!
First, try the Hipsolithos Rock at Kalamaki (Walk 6), particularly when the sea is clear and there is a gentle south wind. Here, as well as the fantastic reef, you have a good chance of seeing turtles swimming and basking in the waters below.
For a closer encounter, visit Agios Sostis Port (Walk 8), where “Sotiris”, one of several year-round resident male loggerheads (identifiable by their very long tails), regularly comes in, particularly when the fishermen return to port at about eight in the morning.
Or head down to one of the nesting beaches – especially any stretch of beach from Vrondonero to Agios Sostis Port (Walks 6 to 8) between 5 and 7 in the evening. Keep within 5 metres of the sea, so as not to disturb any nests, and just watch the surface of the sea. Turtles breathe more frequently at this time of day, so you should see many heads popping up above the water to breathe!
If you get up early enough after the beaches have opened to the public (about 7am), you may spot the tracks of adult females (May to August) or baby turtles (“hatchlings”, July to October) on the six key nesting beaches in Laganas Bay described in Walks 1-4 and 6-7.
If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach, please remain at least 10 metres away to allow it to complete nesting and/or return to the sea undisturbed. If you happen to meet one while swimming, keep a good distance away. The female turtles rest in the nearshore waters of Laganas Bay to prepare their eggs for laying. This final stage of the development process requires about 17 days between each clutch of 120 eggs, with females laying around 3 clutches. So any disturbance causing the turtle to move wastes energy required for egg development. As only 1 in every 1000 hatchlings survive, the optimal development of every egg is essential!
Holidaying in Zakynthos this month? Be sure to take a copy of Sunflower Books’ complete guide to the island. It’s got all the information you could need, plus a fine selection of walks and car tours. But be aware. August is the holiday season for Greeks, which means that most of the 10 million population of Athens disperses to the sea (islands) and mountains. This number is added to by Italian tourists hopping across the Mediterranean, particularly to the island of Zakynthos, which is still perceived as Italian (following the Venetian occupation, around the 15th century), and from which the name Zante derives. In Greece, August is the time for celebrations, feast days, name days and festivals, more than any other time of year. To Greeks, the “name day” is equally important, if not more so, to a birthday, and it is the saint day on which a person’s name falls (For a list of all name days see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_days_in_Greece). In Greece, everyone’s name is celebrated at some point of the year. The name day of “Maria” falls on the 15th August and, as many Greeks are called Maria (because a child is named after their grandparents, so names repeat through generations), it is a major celebration day throughout Greece, in addition to being a public holiday.
The Greek island of Zakynthos is no exception to this tradition, with many churches being named after the Virgin Mary (also Panagia). A unique place to visit on this special day is Mount Skopos in Vassilikos, which is one of the walks (Walk 5) described in the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos. An old byzantine church (reconstructed in the 1970s) surrounded by the ruins of a monastery sits at the top of this 500 metre mountain, which has views in every compass direction across the island. The church is called Panagia Skopiotissa (after the Virgin Mary), and this is the only day of the entire year that the church is opened. It is worth visiting just for this, if nothing else. The celebration starts early in the morning (around 0700/0800), with barbecues and food being shared by everyone (no charge), and lasts until the last person leaves. If you do not make it to Mount Skopos, you might find yourself on Marathonisi islet, where the local priest visits the sea turtle nesting beach on the north of the islet in the mid afternoon (around 1500 to 1800, variable), to give a blessing. The church is now placed on private land; however, in the past, the islet held a major monastery, and is considered sacred by the Greek Orthodox Church. This is also an event worth witnessing. However, you will also find that many churches around the island and Zakynthos town are named after the Virgin Mary, so you are likely to stumble on a celebration somewhere, especially if you are following one of the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos car tours.
Another major event on Zakynthos island in August is the Patron Saint celebrations. The name day of the Patron Saint, Agios (Saint) Dionysios (Dennis) falls in December; however, the August event celebrates the transfer of his remains from the remote Strophades islands (2 islands about 30 miles south of Zakynthos with a single monastery and lighthouse, and one inhabitant, a priest). These celebrations are massive and span several days, culminating on the 24th August, when the patron saint is paraded about town in the late afternoon, followed by an amazing firework display. The town is decorated in flags, and the port is filled with market stalls selling all sorts of paraphernalia for the entire week from about the 17th August onwards.
On a more serious note, August is also a time that you should take especial care when exploring the island. An unfortunate fact, is that vegetation on all of the walks described in the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos have burnt to some degree over the last 15 years. Vast tracts of land are burnt each year on Zakynthos, and across the Mediterranean, of which less than 5% is due to natural causes. These fires are set to degrade land set aside for nature protection, to claim land for the planting of crops (usually olives or vines) or building, by hunters to clear land for the (illegal) bird hunting season (starting in September), among several other reasons. The risk of fire is particularly high in August, as, we have not had rain since March (this year), therefore, the land is extremely dry and susceptible. The photograph above shows the fire ravaged landscape that is left after a wildfire has broken out. Whatever the reason, it is extremely important that wherever you are on the island, you remain alert. This is important whether you are braving the summer heat to follow one of the 22 Sunflower walks for Zakynthos in any part of the island (even around Laganas Bay at Vassilikos or Marathia), but particularly along the west and north coast, or exploring the walks and secluded swim spots as extras on the Sunflower car tours in a four-wheel vehicle. Be alert for the smell of smoke, greyish looking clouds rising from the ground in the distance, the sound of crackling, and the droning sound of planes (yellow fireplanes) and helicopters flying overhead. Please do not drive towards what looks like a fire (or be deceived by the presence of olive trees as a safe haven – they are grown in nutrient rich gullies, surrounded by maquis, particularly on the west coast) even if it appears small, as these fires can suddenly spread very quickly, drive back to the nearest village and alert the locals, who will call the authorities.
Finally, make sure you have plenty of water with you, whether you are walking or driving, as the summer heat leads to dehydration very quickly, especially with temperatures currently reaching 40 degrees in the middle of the day. And be sure to have a copy of the Zakynthos Complete Guide from Sunflower Books with you!
Recently, National Geographic Nederland-België listed Zakynthos’ Navagio beach as one of the top 5 most beautiful beaches in the world. In fact, the first edition of the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos had an image of the shipwreck beach on the title page, it is a stunning view. If you wish to visit the beach, it can only be accessed by boat – such as an all day boat tour around the island, or if you follow one of the Sunflower ³car tour² 3 or 4 you could stop off at Skinari and take a boat trip along the north coast of the island to the shipwreck beach. It is in fact stony, so be certain to wear good shoes! If you take the boat trip from Skinari, you will also have the opportunity to visit the stunning Blue Caves.
Zakynthos has many beautiful swim spots off beaches with different types of sand, or off stunning cliffs, with the Sunflower Guide for Zakynthos describing almost every swim-spot on the island. Of note, the most amazing swim spots on the north to west coast of Zakynthos are at Limnionas (near Walk 17), with beautiful blue caves set in white limestone sea cliffs lined with green pines, and Korakonisi (Walk 16). There is now a tarmac road leading down to Korakonisi Islet; however, it is still one of the most isolated swim spots on the island. The islet has an amazing arch from which you can dive, with deep cool waters to swim in.
The south coast of the island (Laganas Bay) is a combination of white sands from limestone (Marathonisi) to beautiful golden sands. Most of the beaches in Laganas Bay are used for nesting by loggerhead sea turtles, or Caretta caretta. Therefore, please be respectful and (1) sit within 5 metres of the sea to avoid damaging any nests which are usually placed above 5 metres; some nests are caged, but many are unprotected, so always be careful, and (2) do not visit these beaches at night, it is against the law, and you risk disturbing nesting loggerheads, which are internationally endangered. Do not be deterred by the golden sandy beach extending from Agios Sostis (Walk 8) to Laganas and beyond to Kalamaki (Walk 7) and Vrondonero (Walk 6) due to large numbers of tourists; if you are willing to walk along the mid section of beach backed by dunes, you will escape the hoards – and be certain to look out for the beautiful sea daffodil, which is white and heavily scented. This is one of the few wild plants to flower in mid-summer, and only grows on natural shifting sand dune systems (an important and protected habitat type in Europe) – so take pictures, but leave the flowers in their native habitat! Further along is the beach of Sekania (walk 4 to viewpoints above the beach) to which all access is prohibited, except for research, as this beach has the greatest number of turtles nesting each year. Be certain to visit the Sea Turtle Exhibition (start of walk 3) to learn more about the sea turtles and other wildlife and habitats of Zakynthos. Daphni and Gerakas (walks 1 and 2) are the final 2 beaches of this bay. Daphni is fronted by amazing rocky reefs teaming with marine life, including sea turtles! Gerakas is famous for its amazing clay cliff formation, and worth visiting.
The east to north coast of the island is lined with many golden sandy beaches, which become white sand beaches as the lowlands meet the mountains. Along this coast, you will find crowded beaches, beaches with watersports, and quiet beaches known only to locals or the adventurous tourist. One of my favourite beaches along this coast is Ksigia, not the easy to access beach to the north of the restaurant (called Ksigia) but the one set to the south of the beach. Be warned, there are sulphur upwellings and it can be smelly! The upper part of this coast is lined with multiple sea caves worth exploring. However, keep your eyes open for the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal (one of the top 10 most endangered wildlife species in the world); about 10 to 20 individuals inhabit the sea caves of the northern part of the Island (east to west coast). These animals grow up to 3 metres long, and are wild animals, so maintain a safe distance.
If you are uncertain of which beaches to visit, take one of the car tours in the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos, and follow the many roads or tracks leading to the coast, some will reward you with stunning views, others with beautiful locations to picnic and swim before continuing your exploration of this unique island.
The current heatwave on Zakynthos makes walking a little difficult at this time of year; however, several of the walks pass close to the sea, so, while you may not achieve the entire walk, sections of walks are ideal for finding swim spots far from the crowds, particularly if you are following one of the car tours around the island. For instance, the Gerakas to Daphni trail (walk 2 in Sunflower Books Complete guide to Zakynthos), runs along the shoreline, with reefs extending almost to Pelouso, which are rich in marine-life, including sea turtles.
The beach of Vrondonero (be warned it is unofficially nudist) on the Vrondonero walk (Walk 5) is also beautiful, with deep cool waters. Alternatively, the entire stretch of the Kalamaki Dunes to Agios Sostis (walks 6 and 7 — see the photograph above) are sandy beaches, with shallow waters that become very warm in the afternoons, if you prefer a warmer swim – at present there are many female sea turtles resting in the nearshore waters preparing to lay their first of second (every 15 days or so) of 120 eggs in the sand of the beaches. If you see a marine turtle in the sea, be respectful not to disturb them, the female turtles are conserving energy for reproduction, keep a distance of a few metres, and just enjoy watching these beautiful giants gracefully swim in the sea.
For stunning coastal scenery, you could drive, rather than walk, the Marathia coastal trail (walk 9) down to the rocky outcropof Point Marathia, where there is a sea arch and several caves worth exploring. You could also drive down to isolated Korakonisi Islet (walk 15), with deep cool waters and sea caves. Alternatively, if you have an offroad vehicle, you could detour off one of the car tours and drive along the first part of Cape Skinari Coastal Trail (walk 20) to point 7 which is a small isolated cove facing Kefalonia. Be certain to look out for sea turtles, monk seals and striped dolphins, along with numerous other forms of marine life. Whatever the weather this summer and autumn, you can still enjoy exploring Zakynthos!
Many visitors packing the Sunflower Complete Guide to Zakynthos (Zante) will be visiting the island to go walking. But Gail Schofield, the author, has also described a wide selection of car tours covering all the beauty spots on this enchanting island – the third largest of the Ionian Islands.
One of the island’s must-see attractions is the world-famous Navagio (Shipwreck) Beach. Although the beach can be seen from a nearby cliff-top viewing area, it is inaccessible by land, so a boat trip is required to reach it and see the shipwreck up close. Rest assured there is no shortage of operators running excursions from various parts of Zakynthos!