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Discovering Zante’s wild side by bike

Far from Laganas’ lager louts lies a Greek island swathed in mystery and charm, finds Heidi Fuller-Love

Thursday 10 December 2020 12:47
<p>Room with a view: celebrating Zante’s more natural side</p>

Room with a view: celebrating Zante’s more natural side

The pine-tree-lined road spools ahead of me like a liquorice coil. Sitting back on the saddle of my e-bike, I lift my feet from the pedals and enjoy the sensation of flying. Normally, Zante’s narrow roads are packed with cars. Thanks to Covid, however, I'm the only person in sight and the only sound - apart from an eagle’s shrill cry high above - is the wind whistling through the blur of my spokes.  

Famed for its notoriously boozy Laganas nightlife strip, and for that famous shipwreck which pops up perennially on IG feeds, Zante - or Zakynthos as it’s known in Greek - has a far more authentic side beneath the tarnished reputation. I’ve decided to pedal out to find it.

Leaving Castelli, the cosy family-owned boutique hotel where I spent the night, I skim effortlessly through Laganas’ scrappy suburbs and out into glorious countryside. I’m planning to visit the rizochoria - the so-called ‘root villages’ at the foot of the island’s highest mountain - and then cycle out to explore Zante’s wild northerly tip.

A short ride from Laganas, but already miles away in terms of ambiance, Mouzaki is one of this Ionian atoll’s oldest villages. Abandoning my bike, I explore leafy lanes lined with traditional one- and two-storey stone houses: some still have facades daubed with the traditional carmine-coloured local plaster that’s made with the skins of Avgoustiatis grapes. Further afield I discover Sarakina, a spooky Italianate mansion buried in lush undergrowth that could easily star in an episode of The Addams family.  

Although Zante town was ravaged by a massive earthquake in 1953, many of the surrounding villages were unharmed. As I cycle on towards Lagopodo - past low hills furred with olive groves and gridded with vines - I spot countless ornate facades that testify to the architectural influence of the Venetians, who ruled the island from 1484 to 1797.  

Finding private coves in Zante’s less touristy side

From Lagopodo I take a winding road fringed with fennel spikes that scratch my bare legs and perfume the hot air like ouzo, to Grampsas winery. Zante is famed for Verdea, a wine that’s made with unripe grapes to increase its acidity, and this family-owned boutique winery produces some of the island’s best.  

Hot from my ride, I linger here until late afternoon, sipping the family’s peppery white Verdea and fruity Avgoustiatis reds and chatting with guest Christian Marstrander who’s about to open Cotton Club Zakynthos, a spin off to his celebrated Cotton Beach Club in Ibiza. “I couldn’t believe how wild and beautiful it is in this part of the island when I first came here,” he enthuses. “My new club is right up in the hills so there are spectacular views.”

Zante is full of architectural surprises

Back in the saddle by 5pm, I wobble onto Macherado. Hidden in a bottle- green sea of pine trees, the island’s second largest village clusters around the candy-striped domes and white turreted walls of Agia Mavra, a 14th century church renowned for its miraculous icon.

The church is closed when I arrive so I pedal across country, blessing the ease with which my e-bike swallows the steepest hills, then spin down towards Tragaki as the sun melts like vanilla icecream over the hot, glittering sea. Pitching my tent at Camping Zante. I fall asleep to the soft tooting of Scops owls.

I take a winding road fringed with fennel spikes that scratch my bare legs and perfume the hot air like ouzo

After a sunrise dip from Tragaki’s near-deserted beach next morning, I’m back in the saddle and heading for Tragaki village, where I order a gritty thimble of elleniko coffee and a garlic-loaded plate of skordostoubi melitzana (aubergine stew) to set me up for the two-and-a-half-hour ride to Cape Skinari.

With barely any traffic to bother me, I spin along sand-dusted back roads fringed with palm trees and pink oleander bushes, stopping from time to time to eat plump, sweet grapes or peer down at the tiny pebble-strewn coves far below.  

A strong stench of rotten egg tells me that I’ve reached Xigia Beach, where I stop off to splash around in the resort’s sulphur-rich waters that are said to cure everything from arthritis to cellulite. A few miles further on at Mikro Nisi, a picturesque huddle of fisherman’s houses on a rocky peninsula, I abandon my bike behind a bush and head for a small café surrounded by pine trees, where I polish off several feather-light slices of Zante’s sumptuous whipped cream and cinnamon speciality, frigania.  

Sunset over the water

I end my two-day trip at Skinari lighthouse on Zante’s northeast tip. Built in 1897, this solid stone tower is not usually open for visitors, but a friendly lighthouse keeper lets me climb to the top. The view is mesmerising: the rugged blue rump of Kefalonia’s Mount Aenos rises from the ink blue sea opposite, and beneath me the age-old cliffs, mottled like elephant hide, plunge steeply into water that glitters like turquoise glass. “Do you see why the Venetians called Zante The Flower of the Levant?” the lighthouse keeper asks.

I certainly do now.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Wizz Air has return flights to Zante at the end of October from £97.

Staying there

Castelli Hotel (adults only) is open until early November. Pool suites from £120.

Camping Zante is open until the end of November. Pitches from £15.

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