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Renowned for its emerald waters, Zakynthos is the southernmost island of the Ionian Sea. Dally flights connect Athens with Zakynthos' airport located at six kilometres from Zakynthos town, the island's capital, while international charter flights connect the Island with numerous European cities. There are regular ferries running from Kyllene and a direct boat link to Italy three times a week during the summer months. There are also sea connections with the neighbouring islands, Kefalonia and Peloponnese with daily departures year-round.
Zakynthos has been known since prehistoric times. Homer refers to the island as Yllessa (wooded) and tells us that its first settler was Zakynthos, the son of Dardanos, king of Phrygia. Due to its geographical position and its abundant resources of bitumen, Zakynthos enjoyed great prosperity and cultural vigour during historic times. It remained neutral in the Persian Wars, allying itself with the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. It submitted to the Macedonians of Alexander the Great and later to the Romans, who granted the island a measure of autonomy. Tradition says it that Christianity reached the island in the guise of a visit by Mary Magdalene. During the Byzantine period Zakynthos was attacked by pirates and plundered by Crusaders, the Normands and the Franks. In 1185 it came under Frank tenure and in 1479 under Ottoman rule that lasted for five years. Zakynthos entered its flourishing period in 1484 when It came under Venetian Rule based on a treaty signed by the Venetians and the Ottomans. Local architecture was marked by the Venetian influence: arches and bell towers separate from the main church buildings. On 4 July 1797 the French conquered Zakynthos and in October 1798 the Russian-Turkish fleet landed on the island. On 5 November 1815 a decree sprouting off the treaty of Paris placed the island under the supervision of England and started the English occupation that ended in 1864 when the British ceded the island of Zakynthos, along with the rest of the Ionian islands, to the newly founded Greek state.
Lying at the foot of the hill below the Castle, the prosperous market town and capital Zakynthos, is built on the southeastern side of the island, with imposing buildings, famous churches and beautiful squares that have retained in their original characteristic ochre colour; "loggious" and Venetian porticos, the Strada Marina on the waterfront, the famous Ruga, the commercial centre with its picturesque arches and the bustling cobble-stone central square of St. Mark. The area of Bohali below the castle enchants the visitor with its quiet, narrow streets and traditional houses, authentic old cafes and restaurants, still sounding with the traditional Zakynthos music. Until the earthquake of 1953. there were over 350 churches on the island, of which 100 were in the capital. Even today, visitors can admire many beautiful churches rebuilt after 1953. The Church of St. Dionysios in Zakynthos Town is the largest on the island and home to many important works of art, including painting, word carving and gold sculpture.
Rising in the west in a chain of limestone peaks to level out to the east in a fertile plain, the island produces olives, citrus fruits, raisins and good white wines. The coast to the north and west is rocky and imposing, a labyrinth of sea caves including the famous Blue Grotto. To the east and south there are and innumerable picturesque beaches of fine sand with sheltered bays and coves, particularly at Laganas. The climate is ideal for agriculture, with plentiful rain and many days of sunshine.
Most of the local specialties on Zakynthos are meat dishes: the "rages", a kind of braised beef, stuffed rooster and pork cooked in wine are some of the more familiar local dishes. Zakyntos is famous for its excellent raisins and for "ladotyri" a savoury cheese.
The island of poetry and music, the birthplace of Dionyslos Solomos the national poet of Greece, Kalvos and Xenopoulos, Zakynthos has consistently maintained a vigorous cultural tradition. The influence of Venice blends with the Greek tradition to create the culture of Zakyntos. Every form of artistic activity has flourished here. The Venetian period saw the development of the celebrated Zakynthos "kantada" or serenade, which is still composed today It was here that Greece saw the foundation of its first school of music. The island has given birth to many musicians who have gained International distinction. The theatrical arts have also nourished here since the time of the Venetian rule. The satirical Omilies a kind of popular review and the classic Italian opera are still very much alive and keenly enjoyed. In fact, Zakynthos is one of the most important centres of cultural activity in Greece today. Zakynthos hosts a number of festivals, all of them religious. One of the highlights of the year is the Holy Week celebration.
The local people's sensitivity to the environment has prompted them to leave large areas of the island undeveloped. They have endeavoured to preserve the natural eco-systems and to save rare species of marine life from extinction. This is the home of the famous Mediterranean turtle Caretta Caretta which has used the southern shores of the island as a breeding ground for millions of years. This is also true of another rare species, the monk seal Monachus Monachus encountered on the southwestern shores of Zakynthos.