Greece – The Ionian Isles

THE island of Corfu, on the coast of Epirus, and the whole of the Archipelago to the vest of continental and peninsular Greece, down to the island of Cythera, which divides the waters of the Ionian Sea from those of the AEgean, have passed through the most singular political vicissitudes in the course of the last century. Corfu, thanks to the protection extended to it by the Venetian Republic, is the only dependency of the Balkan peninsula which successfully resisted the assaults of the Turk. When Venice was handed over to the Austrians by Bonaparte in 1797, Corfu and the Ionian Islands were occupied by the French. A few years afterwards the Russians became the virtual masters in these islands, which they formed into a sort of aristocratic republic under the suzerainty of the Porte. In 1807 the French once more took possession of them ; but the English captured one after the other until there remained to them only Corfu, and this, too, had to be given up in 1814. The Ionian Islands were then converted into a ” Septinsular Republic,” governed by the landed aristocracy, supported by British bayonets. Twice did England alter the constitution of this republic in a democratic sense, but the patriotism of the islanders refused to submit to British suzerainty ; and, when Great Britain parted with her conquest, the Ionian Islands annexed themselves to Greece, and they now form the best educated, the wealthiest, and the most industrious portion of that kingdom. England, no doubt, consulted her own interests when she set free her Ionian subjects ; but her action is nevertheless deserving of approbation. England exhibited her faith in the axiom that moral influence is superior to brute force, and yielded with perfect good grace, not only the commercial ports of the islands, but likewise the citadel of Corfu, which gave her the. command of the Adriatic. This magnanimous policy has not hitherto met with imitators in other countries, but England herself has still many opportunities of applying it in other parts of the world.

Corfu, the ancient Corcyra, has always held the foremost place amongst the Ionian Islands. It owes this position to the vicinity of Italy, and to the commercial advantages derived from an excellent port and a vast roadstead almost resembling an inland lake. The inhabitants are fond of appealing to Thucydides in order to prove that Corfu is the island of the Phaeaces of Ulysses. They even pretend to have discovered the rivulet in which beauteous Nausicaa washed the linen of her father, and the shaded walks near the city are known by them as the gardens of Alcinous. Corfu is the only one of the islands which can boast of u small perennial stream, the Messongi, which is navigable for a short distance in barges. The hills, which are placed like a screen in front of the plains of the Epirus, are exposed to the full force of the south-westerly winds, which bring much rain ; the vegetation, consequently, is rich : orange and lemon trees form fragrant groves around the city, vines and olive-trees hide the barren ground of the hills, and waving fields of corn cover the plains. Corfu, unfortunately, is exposed to the hot sirocco, blowing from the south-east, and this very much curtails its advantages as a winter station for invalids.

The city occupies triangular peninsula opposite the coast of the Epirus, and is the largest, and commercially the most important, of the former republic. It is strongly fortified, and its successive possessors—Venetians, French, Russians, and English—have sought to render it impregnable. A beautiful prospect may be enjoyed from its bastions ; but far superior is that from Mount Pantokratoros, the “commandant,” for it extends across the Strait of Otranto to Italy. The commercial relations with the latter, as well as the traditions of Venetian dominion, have converted Corfu into a city almost half Italian, and numerous families residing in it belong to both nations, the, Greek and the Italian, by descent as well as language. Italian remained the official language of the island until 1830. Maltese porters and gardeners constitute a prominent element amongst the cosmopolitan population of the city.

Corfu formerly owned the town of Butrinto and a few villages on the mainland ; but an English governor thought fit to surrender them to the terrible Ali Pasha, and the only dependencies of Corfu at present are the small islets near it, viz. Othonus (Fano), Saluntstraci, and Ericuss, in the north ; Paxos, with its caverns, and Antipaxos, the rocks of which exude asphalt, on the south. Paxos is said to produce the best oil in Western Greece.

Leueadia, Cephalonia, Ithaca, Zante, and a few smaller islands, form a crescent-shaped archipelago off the entrance to the Gulf of Fatras. They are the summits of a half submerged chain of calcareous mountains, alternately flooded by the rains or seorched by the sun. Their valleys, like those of Corfu, produce oranges, lemons, currants (” Corinthians “), nine, and oil, which form the objects of a brisk commerce. The inhabitants very much resemble those of Corfu, the Italian element being strongly represented, except on Ithaca.

Leucadia, or the ” white island,” thus called because of its glittering chalk cliffs, is evidently a dependency of the continent. The ancients looked upon it as a peninsula converted into an island by Corinthian colonists, who cut a canal through the isthmus which joined it to the mainland ; but this legend is not borne out by an examination of the locality. These Corinthians probably merely dug a na^igal,le channel through the shallow lagoon which separates the island from the coast, and does not exceed eighteen inches in depth. In fact, if there were any tides in the Ionian Sea, the island of Leucadia would be converted twice daily into a peninsula. A bridge, of which there still exist considerable remains, formerly joined the island to the mainland near the southern extremity of the lagoon, whilst an island occupied by the citadel of Tanta Maura—a name sometimes applied to the whole of the island—defended its entrance to the north.

Until recently this was the only spot in Western Greece where a grove of date-trees might be seen. A magnificent aqueduct of two hundred and sixty arches, which was also used as a viaduct, joined the citadel to Amaxiki, the chief town and harbour of Leucadia. This monument of Turkish enterprise—it was constructed in the reign of Bajazet—has sustained much injury from earthquakes. Amaxiki might be supposed to be haunted by fever, owing to the salt swamps and lagoons which surround it ; but such is not the case : on the contrary, it is a comparatively healthy town, and its women are noted for freshness of complexion and beauty. To the south of it rise the wooded mountains which terminate in the promontory of Leucate (Dukato), opposite to Cephalonia. On the summit of this promontory stood a temple of Apollo, whence, at the annual festival of the god, a condemned criminal was hurled as an expiatory victim. It was celebrated, also, as the lover’s leap, whence lovers leaped into the sea to drown their passion.

Cephalonia, or rather Cephallenia, is the largest of the Ionian Islands, and its highest summit—Mount AEnus, or Elato—is the culminating point of the entire Archipelago. Mariners from the centre of the Ionian Sea can see at one and the same time Mount AEtna in Sicily and this mountain of Cephalonia. The forests of conifers, to which the latter is indebted for its Italian name of Montenero, have for the greater part been destroyed by fire, but there still remain a few clumps of magnificent firs. On its summit may be seen the remains of a temple of Jupiter. The island is fertile and populous, but suffers much from want of water. All its rivers dry up in summer, the calcareous soil sucking up the rain, and most of the springs rise from the bottom of the sea, far away from the fields thirsting after water. On the other hand, two considerable streams of sea-water find their way into the bowels of the island.

This curious phenomenon occurs a short distance to the north of Argostoli, a bustling town, having a safe but shallow harbour. The two oceanic rivers are sufficiently powerful to set in motion the huge wheels of two mills, one of which has been regularly at work since 1835, and the other since 1859. Their combined discharge amounts to 33,000,000 gallons daily, and naturalists have not yet decided whether they form a vast subterranean lake, in which beds of salt are constantly being deposited, or whether they find their way through numerous threads, and, by hydrostatic aspiration, into the subterranean rivers of the island, rendering their water brackish. The latter is the opinion of Wiebel, the geologist, and thus much we may assume for certain—that these subterranean waters and caverns are one of the principal causes of the severe earthquakes which visit Cephalonia so frequently. The island of Asteris, between Cephalonia and Ithaca, upon which stood the city of Alalkomenae, exists no longer, and was probably destroyed by one of those earthquakes.

Ithaca of ” divine Ulysses,” the modern Theaki, is separated from Cephalonia by the narrow channel of Viscardo, thus named after Robert Guiscard. The island is small, and all the sites referred to in the Odyssey are still pointed out there, from the spring of Arethusa to the acropolis of Ulysses; but the black forests which clothed the slopes of Mount Neritus have disappeared. The inhabitants are excessively proud of their little island, rendered so famous by the poetry of Homer, and in every family we meet with a Penelope, a Ulysses, and a Telemachus. But the present inhabitants have no claim whatever to be the descendants of the crafty son of Laertes, for during the Middle Ages their ancestors were exterminated by invaders, and in 1504 the deserted fields were given, by the Senate of Venice, to colonists draw n from the mainland. Most of those immigrants came from the Epirus, and the dialect spoken by the islanders is much mixed with Albanian words. At the present time the island is well cultivated, and Vathy, its chief port, carries on a brisk commerce in raisins, currants, oil, and wine. Ithaca, as in the days of Homer, is the ” nurse of A allant men.” The inhabitants are tall and strong, and Dr. Schliemann is enthusiastic about the high standard of virtue and morality prevailing amongst them. There are neither rich nor poor, but they are great travellers, and natives of Ithaca are met with in every populous city of the East.

“Zante, fior de] Levante,” say the Italians. And, indeed, this ancient island, Zacynthus, is richer in orehards, fields, and villas than any other of this Archipelago. An extensive plain, bounded by ranges of hills, occupies the centre of this ” golden isle “—a vast garden, abounding in vines, yielding currants of superior quality. The inhabitants are industrious, and not content with cultivating their own fields, they assist also in the cultivation of those of Acarnania, receiving wages or a share of the produce in return. The city of Zante, on the eastern coast of the island, facing Elis, is the wealthiest and cleanest town in the Archipelago.

Unfortunately it suffers frequently from earthquakes, to which a volcanic origin is ascribed. Nor is this improbable, for bituminous springs rise near the south-eastern cape of the island, and though worked since the days of Herodotus, they still yield about a hundred barrels of pitch annually. Oil springs discharge themselves close to the shore, and even at the bottom of the sea; and near Cape Skinari, in the north, a kind of rank grease floats on the surface of the waters.

The only islets dependent upon Zante are the Strivali, or the Strophades, to which flew the hideous harpies of ancient mythology.