The Ionian Islands: Where the blue really begins

The main islands of the Ionian chain, Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Ithaki (Ithaca) and Zakynthos (Zante) tumble down the west coast of mainland Greece like stepping stones to the larger Greek world. History has left the Ionian isles with a fascinating cultural legacy, the result of Corinthian, Byzantine, Venetian, French and British influences that extend from architecture to cuisine. Corfu Town – or Kerkyra, to give this handsome hub its proper Greek name – boasts the stateliest of Neoclassical buildings, legacy of the 19th-century British Protectorate of the Ionian islands.

During two short spells of Napoleonic occupation, the French left their mark, too. This influence is best seen in Kerkyra’s arcaded Liston, a tribute to Paris’s Rue de Rivoli and a sun-drenched venue for coffee and people-watching. It runs alongside the town’s huge grassy open space, the Spianada. Before all this, the Venetians bequeathed all of the Ionian islands a distinctive landscape of Italianate buildings, silver-leafed olive trees and luscious vines.

Corfu, with its dozens of beach resorts and its lively bar and club culture, remains the major attraction for visitors. Yet, beyond the conspicuous tourism of the island’s coastal strips lies a hinterland of soaring mountains and lush woodlands where a network of paths and trails will delight those seeking peace and quiet. About 20km south of Corfu is the beautiful little island of Paxi (Paxos), a relaxing day-trip break from the larger island.

A further 50km south of Paxi lies the more cohesive Ionian group of Lefkada, Ithaki, Kefalonia and Zakynthos. Lefkada’s main town, Lefkas, is a cheery mix of tourism and daily Greek life while the rest of the island offers pine forests and a rocky coastline with a chain of superb beaches gracing the western coast.

South again is Kefalonia, with the smaller outlier of Ithaki hugging its north-east coastline. Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionians, an island of rugged mountains, towering coastal cliffs and golden beaches. Throw in Byzantine monasteries, subterranean lakes and fascinating wineries that produce the subtle, yet lively, Robola vintages and not even Captain Corelli’s Kefalonian mandolin need distract you.

Neighbouring Ithaki, a coxcomb of rocky wooded hills, rises from a lake-like sea. Ithaki was the mythical home of Odysseus, and today it retains a reclusive charm, untouched by the sometimes frenetic beach culture of larger neighbours such as Zakynthos, the southernmost of the Ionian chain and known popularly by its Italian name, Zante. The bars, cafés and clubs of Zante’s eastern and southern beach resorts are balanced by an interior of great serenity that merits the Venetians’ description of it as the “Flower of the Orient”.

The island of Kythira, suggested birthplace of the mythical Aphrodite, lies 12km off the southernmost peninsulas of the Peloponnese. Kythira may seem a long way from the rest of the Ionian islands but it lies within the Ionian jurisdiction and is a magical escape for those seeking a more Greek-oriented island. Many Greeks visit Kythira in high summer but in late spring and autumn it is a haven of uncrowded beaches, great walks and laid-back village life. There are daily flights with Olympic Air (00 30 801 801 0101; olympicair.com) from Athens to Kythira from April to October (not Thursdays for the rest of the year).

Such contrasts make up the enduring appeal of the Ionian islands. Above all, in the vibrant street life of island towns the spirit of an older Greece, the spirit of filoxenia, of unforced hospitality, endures.

For an active and unique way of exploring the Ionian islands, World Expeditions (020-8545 9030; worldexpeditions.co.uk) offers an eight-day “Ionian Islands Bike and Sail” programme visiting Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Ithaki and Paxi by sailing boat and bike. The price of £1,250 per person covers everything except flights, with departures on 28 September, 5 October and 12 October. Other tour operators offering hotel-or villa-and-flight packages include Ionian Aegean Island Holidays (020-8459 0777; ionianislandholidays.com), Ionian Villas (01935 477196; ionian-villas.co.uk), Think Ionian Islands (020-7377 8518; thinkionianislands.com) and Olympic Holidays (020-8492 6868; olympicholidays.com). A long-standing Corfu-based travel provider is All Ways Travel (00 30 26610 33955; corfuallwaystravel.com), which can arrange accommodation and local tours.

Where to stay

On Corfu, the Marbella Beach Hotel (00 30 26610 711837; marbella.gr; doubles from €136, half board) has recently undergone a renovation. In Corfu Town, Bella Venezia (00 30 26610 46500; bellaveneziahotel.com) has attractive doubles from €100.

In Lefkada Town, the recently opened Boschetto Hotel (00 30 26450 24967; boschettohotel.com) has designer rooms which start at €90, including breakfast.

In Ithaki, the Hotel Perantzada (00 30 26740 33496; arthotel.gr/perantzada) has doubles from €115, BB.

On Kefalonia, Vivian Villa in Argostoli (00 30 26710 23396; kefalonia-vivianvilla.gr) offers bright, well-kept double rooms from €60, some with kitchens, in a quiet residential street.

In Zakynthos, the Peligoni Club (020-8740 3001; peligoni.com) has charming villas and boutique rooms from £280.

Classical heart

Corfu Town’s showpiece Neoclassical building, the Palace of St Michael St George was once the residence of successive British High Commissioners (00 30 26610 30443; closed Mondays; admission €4). The building overlooks the Spianada and the palace’s lavish 19th-century interior incorporates the fascinating Museum of Asian Art.

Zakynthos Town’s Byzantine Museum (00 30 26950 42714; entry €3) in Plateia Solomou, offers visitors a thrilling feast of ecclesiastical art, while Kefalonia’s Focas-Kosmetatos Foundation museum (00 30 26710 26595; closed Sunday; €3) in Argostoli’s Valianou Street, paints a vivid picture of the island’s cultural and political history.

Beach reads

The Ionian archipelago has inspired literary greats to write island-specific books, such as Lawrence Durrell’s lyrical Corfu memoir Prospero’s Cell. Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals describes his childhood on the island. Emma Tennant’s A House in Corfu is an elegant, engaging take on expatriate life during the slower, more relaxed 1960s.

Kefalonia is, inescapably, Louis de Bernière’s. But besides exploring the settings for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (above), hunt through bookshops such as Corfu Town’s Plou Bookshop (00 30 26610 32200; 2 Parados/ 14 N Theotoki) for local history and wildlife books to enrich your stay.

Food of the gods

The Italian-influenced cuisine of the Ionian group has given the islands a unique genre of cooking. Corfu Town especially is noted for such fine eateries as La Cucina (00 30 26610 45029; mains from €10) and its nearby annexe, where authentic hand-rolled pasta dishes and creative mezes are complemented by dazzling wines.

Modern Greek cuisine is strongly featured in such places as Fiskardo, on Kefalonia. Celebrity chef and food writer, Tassia Dendrinou, has a restaurant here, pictured, which offers such delights as seafood pasta in a sauce with a dash of cognac (00 30 26740 41205; tassia.gr; mains from €7).

Kefalonia’s main town of Argostoli has a number of excellent restaurants including Arhontiko (00 30 26710 27213; mains from €7). Here, traditional dishes are presented with modern flair and include starters of spinach soufflé and hefty mains such as Kefalonian meat pie.

Offshore action

All the islands offer superb watersports. Lefkada’s Vassiliki Bay is custom-made for windsurfing and sailing. Its mountains create gentle morning breezes for beginners, but by afternoon the thermals blow down to create serious crosswinds for pros.

Club Vassiliki Windsurfing (pictured; 0844 463 0191; clubvass.com) has sessions from €25. The tour operator Wildwind (0844 499 2898; wildwind.co.uk) has all-inclusive one- and two-week action holidays that start at £645 with flights from Gatwick. Its associate outfit, Healthy Options (0844 499 2909; healthy-options.co.uk) offers yoga holidays in Vassiliki from £695, cycling tours and guided walks. The Nautilus Diving Club (00 30 69361 81775; underwater.gr) has snorkelling and diving from €45.

Off the water, keen walkers should try Ithaki’s Island Walks (00 30 69449 90458; islandwalks.com) from €15, while Kefalonia Elements (00 30 69 7998 7611; www.kefalonia-elements.com) runs kayaking and 4×4 safaris from €50.

Travel Essentials

Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakynthos are the only islands with airports. The main scheduled airlines from the UK are easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), with flights from Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and Bristol to Corfu and from Gatwick to Kefalonia and Zakynthos; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), serving Corfu from Manchester, Newcastle, East Midlands and Leeds/Bradford, and flying to Zakynthos from Manchester and Leeds Bradford.

Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk), Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; thomascook .com) and Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com) also serve the three island airports – and the nearest airport to Lefkada, which is Preveza (linked to the island by road).

Olympic Air (00 30 801 801 0101; olympicair.com) and Aegean Air (0871 200 0040; en.aegeanair.com) have year-round daily flights from Athens to Corfu and Zakynthos, but these tend to be much more expensive and slower.

KTEL (00 30 210 810 8221; ktel.org) long-distance buses run between Athens and Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos.

Local ferries run regular daily connections between Corfu and Paxi, and between Lefkada, Kefallonia, Ithaki and Zakynthos and mainland ports such as Patra. Times vary; it’s best to check with local offices first. A useful general website for ferry information in the Ionian Islands is Greek Travel Pages (gtp.gr).

Des Hannigan is a Lonely Planet author. Lonely Planet’s Greece guide is available from lonelyplanet.com, priced £16.99


PM hails choice of TAP as ‘putting Greece on pipeline map’ [UPDATE]





Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Friday hailed the announcement that the Trans Adriatic Pipeline for natural gas (TAP) had been chosen to carry Azeri gas to Europe via Greece, noting that the move put the country “on the pipeline map” and would put a stop to talk of a possible Greek exit from the euro zone.

In a statement released from Brussels, where he was attending an EU summit on fighting unemployment, Samaras described the TAP project as one of the biggest in Europe of the past 20 years and the biggest ever in southern Europe, noting that it represented 1.5 billion euros in direct investment to Greece alone. The project would lead to the direct creation of 2,000 jobs in Greece over the next few years and the indirect creation of another 10,000, he added.

The decision to choose TAP, which will carry gas to Europe via Greece, constituted a “vote of confidence” in the country and would now put a definitive end to “disaster scenarios” about a possible Greek exit from the euro zone, Samaras added. “Who would put so much money into a country that is economically, socially and politically dangerous?” Samaras said.

The development boosted Greece’s geopolitical significance and transformed the country into an “energy hub” that will attract new investments and businesses, he said.

The premier called on the EU too back efforts by member states to develop their own natural resources, saying that Greece could produce and export its own energy.

The news of the TAP deal, Samaras concluded, was “the most significant positive economic development regarding our country in the past 10 years.”

The consortium developing Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz gas field chose TAP over the rival Nabucco West project, Gordon Birrell, BP’s Regional President for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey said on Friday.

Welcoming the TAP deal, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso described it as a “shared success for Europe and a milestone in strengthening the energy security of our Union.”


Greece hires Rothschild, Goldman for Proton, TT bank sell-off


Fri Jun 28, 2013 11:25am EDT

* Rescue fund aims to sell Postbank, Proton by mid-July

* Sale agreed with troika in order meet bailout conditions

* Hires Goldman and Rothschild to advise on sale

* Greek banks Alpha, Eurobank, National seen as bidders

By George Georgiopoulos

ATHENS, June 28 (Reuters) – Greece’s bank rescue fund has
hired Rothschild and Goldman Sachs as advisers on the
sale of lenders Proton and Hellenic Postbank (TT), which are
most likely to be bought by bigger Greek banks, officials told
Reuters on Friday.

TT and Proton, victims of Greece’s economic crisis, were
split into “good” and “bad” parts and are fully owned by the
Hellenic Financial Stability Fund (HFSF), a capital backstop
with 50 billion euros ($65 billion) of bailout money.

Greece agreed with its international lenders – the European
Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European
Central Bank – to sell the two banks by mid-July in order to get
more bailout funds.

“Goldman is the sell-side adviser on Hellenic Postbank,
Rothschild on Proton,” said one of the officials. The two were
most likely to be bought by bigger Greek banks – Alpha
, National or Eurobank, he said.

A senior Alpha Bank executive told Reuters on Friday Alpha
would look into buying TT. “Yes, we are interested in Postbank,”
he said.

Piraeus Bank has said it will not make any more
acquistions in the near future after taking over Societe
Generale’s and Millenium BCP’s Greek units
and the local operations of three Cypriot banks.

“Eurobank is one of the possible buyers, a lot will depend
on what the other banks do. The advisers will approach all of
them,” a second banker said.

Authorities wound down TT in January after efforts to sell
it failed. They stripped out bad loans from its portfolio and
transferred less risky assets and deposits to a new entity
called New Hellenic Postbank. The bad loans are being
sold.

The HFSF pumped 4 billion euros into the bank to cover its
funding gap – the difference between assets and liabilities –
and a further 500 million to recapitalise it.

Like other Greek lenders, TT was hit by writedowns on Greek
bonds and loan impairments as the country endures its sixth year
of deep recession.

Eurobank, Alpha and National had expressed interest in the
old TT but withdrew in January, leading authorities to wind it
down.

The healthy TT has assets of 13.7 billion euros, deposits of
10.7 billion and a network of about 200 branches. Proton is a
much smaller bank with deposits of one billion euros and 1.3
billion in assets.


Greece hires Rothschild, Goldman for Proton, TT bank sell-off


Fri Jun 28, 2013 11:25am EDT

* Rescue fund aims to sell Postbank, Proton by mid-July

* Sale agreed with troika in order meet bailout conditions

* Hires Goldman and Rothschild to advise on sale

* Greek banks Alpha, Eurobank, National seen as bidders

By George Georgiopoulos

ATHENS, June 28 (Reuters) – Greece’s bank rescue fund has
hired Rothschild and Goldman Sachs as advisers on the
sale of lenders Proton and Hellenic Postbank (TT), which are
most likely to be bought by bigger Greek banks, officials told
Reuters on Friday.

TT and Proton, victims of Greece’s economic crisis, were
split into “good” and “bad” parts and are fully owned by the
Hellenic Financial Stability Fund (HFSF), a capital backstop
with 50 billion euros ($65 billion) of bailout money.

Greece agreed with its international lenders – the European
Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European
Central Bank – to sell the two banks by mid-July in order to get
more bailout funds.

“Goldman is the sell-side adviser on Hellenic Postbank,
Rothschild on Proton,” said one of the officials. The two were
most likely to be bought by bigger Greek banks – Alpha
, National or Eurobank, he said.

A senior Alpha Bank executive told Reuters on Friday Alpha
would look into buying TT. “Yes, we are interested in Postbank,”
he said.

Piraeus Bank has said it will not make any more
acquistions in the near future after taking over Societe
Generale’s and Millenium BCP’s Greek units
and the local operations of three Cypriot banks.

“Eurobank is one of the possible buyers, a lot will depend
on what the other banks do. The advisers will approach all of
them,” a second banker said.

Authorities wound down TT in January after efforts to sell
it failed. They stripped out bad loans from its portfolio and
transferred less risky assets and deposits to a new entity
called New Hellenic Postbank. The bad loans are being
sold.

The HFSF pumped 4 billion euros into the bank to cover its
funding gap – the difference between assets and liabilities –
and a further 500 million to recapitalise it.

Like other Greek lenders, TT was hit by writedowns on Greek
bonds and loan impairments as the country endures its sixth year
of deep recession.

Eurobank, Alpha and National had expressed interest in the
old TT but withdrew in January, leading authorities to wind it
down.

The healthy TT has assets of 13.7 billion euros, deposits of
10.7 billion and a network of about 200 branches. Proton is a
much smaller bank with deposits of one billion euros and 1.3
billion in assets.