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ZAKYNTHOS, or Zante had the misfortune of being hit by a series of earthquakes measuring around 7 on the Richter scale in 1953, right when Greece was really beginning its efforts to rebuild its economy and civil society after 10 years of war, occupation, famine, almost total destruction of its infrastructure and, finally, 4 years of bloody civil war. In those 10 years, 2.5 million people died of war and famine and the country was in ruins. The UN relief organizations were still here doing their work and the government had just devalued the drachma. That was when the Ionian seismic fault line awoke, and, in 3 consecutive massive earthquakes, over 4 days, it left Zakynthos and Cefalonia a pile of burned ruins, never to recover their former grace and beauty. It is almost certain that, had those 3 tremors occurred today, massive amounts of reconstruction funds would have flowed from the Greek budget, the European Union, and the Greek immigrant communities worldwide to rebuild the stricken islands as they were before the earthquake. In 1953, though, when the country was not even able to feed itself, there was hardly any thought of rebuilding Zakynthos to its pre-earthquake splendor; the primary concern was providing shelter not preserving architectural grace, and the main economic strategy was jump-starting commerce and agriculture, not rebuilding a traditional tourist attraction. Tourism was not even a glint in anybody's eye in 1953. So, Zakynthos, the favorite island of the Venetians, the "Fiore di Levante" (the Flower of the East) of the Serene Republic, was lost forever, not only as far as architecture and grace but also in social terms, as a large number of the surviving members of the island's aristocracy fled it. The social effect of the tremors was to put an end to what was, until then, one of the few pockets of a western European-style bourgeois society on Greek soil, one that developed uninterrupted by Ottoman rule. Zakynthos was a place of charm and grace, of arts and culture. Dionysios Solomos, the poet who wrote the Hymn to Freedom, whose first two stanzas became the Greek national anthem, and Andreas Kalvos, the poet of Odes, a very important Greek poem, were born here. These two are credited with playing a major role in helping evolve the Greek language to its present form (the Dante Aligheris of Greece, so to speak) and are considered as two of the greatest Greek poets of modern times. Solomos composed his 152-stanza poem during the Egyptian Army's 1827 siege of Messolonghi, the town where Lord Byron died a few years before, across the straights, on the mainland shore. Greece's national poet, sitting at his hilltop estate, on Strani Hill above Zakynthos Town, is said to have written his magnum opus with tearful eyes, moved by the sound of the great Egyptian cannons pounding the walls of the heroic town of Messolonghi.

One of the island's homegrown attractions and lasting influences on the rest of the country is its music, the "cantades". Although influenced by the Italian tradition of bel canto, Zakynthian cantades have a distinctive sound, and they celebrate love for women and love for Zakynthos. To this day they are sung in the street, by bands of wandering singers accompanied by guitars, sometimes under the window of someone's object of desire. This is the Zakynthos way of expressing love and admiration in an agreeable manner. Today cantades can also be heard in various restaurants around Bohali, the hilltop suburb of Zakynthos town, and, most recommended, in Arekia, a small, friendly little outdoor tavern, on the coastal road, about 500 meters north of Solomos Square. Like every Ionian Island, Zakynthos has a Patron Saint. In this case, Agios (Saint) Dionysios, whose preserved body is displayed in his Cathedral, on the harbor. The legend says that the saint, a monk, gave shelter to the assassin of his brother who was being chased by the Turks. Zakynthians are very protective of their Patron Saint: in typical Greek fashion they swear by and at him, alternatively, hundreds of times a day. In his honor, most Zakynthians are named Dionysios (which, affectionately, becomes Nionios) and Dionysia (ditto, Soula). Some Zakynthians will state, with a straight face, that they don't really believe in God at all, BUT they believe in Agios Dionysios. Go figure, but this is part of the charm of the place. The eastern part of the island is very accessible, with nice beaches along the coast and the town of Zakynthos in the middle. The western part ends in cliffs that plunge into the deep blue waters of the southern Adriatic and provide some spectacular swimming spots, like the famous Navagio ("Shipwreck") and the lagoon at Limnionas. In recent years Zakynthos has been associated with the worldwide effort to save the caretta-caretta loggerhead sea turtle from extinction. The unplanned and, for many, grotesque building boom at the Laganas and Kalamaki beaches, geared toward attracting as much of the British €100-a-week-including-airfare crowd as possible, has destroyed the turtles' breeding grounds on those beaches raising serious doubts about their future.

The Gerakas beach is the only remaining refuge for the giant beasts, although the locals have started being more conscious lately and there is some active involvement on their part in saving one of the island's natural attractions. The save-the-turtles movement maintains an information center on Solomos Square as well as at various beaches around the island

 

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