Through villages and olive groves, along coastline and cliff top, driving Lefkada’s very own Highway One in search of a unique strip of sand is one of Europe's great road trips
First, supposedly, came the Teleboans, followed by the Arkananians and the Corinthians. Then the Macedonians, the Romans, the Vandals and the Huns. The Byzantines and the Epirots came next, and the Franks until they were thrown out by the Venetians. For ages it was the Ottoman Turks, then those Venetians again, the French and the Russians, then the Brits for a while. There was a brief interlude with the Italians and the Germans, before the Lefkadans finally got their chance.
Doubtless I’ve missed one or two, but that is a list of invaders who have occupied this medium-sized Ionian island. And now the tourists? Well, not exactly. Lefkada certainly isn’t an isolated tropical paradise with just you and the coconuts enjoying the scenery, but unlike much of seaside Greece it does at least offer the chance of solitude. What’s more, it claims to have Greece’s most beautiful beach, Porto Katsiki. That’s some boast.
The road down the west coast towards Porto Katsiki climbs quickly out of Lefkada Town, leaving behind the fishmongers and butchers of the agora, the winding jennels, family chapels and summer mosquitoes. I pass the Faneromeni monastery, where on a good day it feels like you can see past the causeway that links Lefkada to the rest of Greece, and all the way to Albania. In the midday heat the mountains of Epirus float above the haze, disembodied, like Mount Fuji on a piece of Japanese graphic art.
After Tsoukalades, the road winds through olive groves, before dropping down to the water’s edge. So close, in fact, that I can taste the salt in the air conditioning. In the distance is the old fishing village of Aghios Nikitas, a classic Greek jumble of houses and boats all stacked on top of each other in an azure cove. From here you can take a short hop by caïque round the headland to Mylos beach, another of Lefkada’s famous strands.
The road clings tight to the sea, past Paralia Pefkoulia, tracking a bay where photographers wait hours to capture the perfect sunset, for a transient opportunity that always disappoints on film. After Aghios Nikitas, I turn inland through terraced olive groves again, this time punctuated with comical Italian cypresses that stand straight and tall like quills in an inkpot. I pass another beach, Kathisma, before the tight corkscrew climb to the village of Kalamitsi.
It’s not unusual here to see women in traditional dress, out cutting wild flowers or walking their goats or riding a mule, but the men of Kalamitsi seem distinctly under-employed. Every time I pass along the village’s one street, they are sitting in the same spot, in the shade by the kafeníon. The road narrows, we exchange nods and I continue up the hill to Hortata.
Climbing higher, olive groves give way to maquis shrubland that covers the wilder parts of Lefkada. The butterflies and dragonflies are hunting in packs, swooping from poppy to gorse, swallows and magpies gather food, and high above an enormous bird of prey, a buzzard or an eagle, looks on.
The road weaves along the cliff top. There’s nothing on my right, no barrier or anything, just a ferry ploughing its way north to the Adriatic and, far over the horizon, the sole of Italy’s boot. The flora becomes ever yellower, before it’s rudely interrupted by Hortata, then the road dives over the brow of the hill and back towards the sea.
The islands of Kefalonia and Ithaki, which may or may not be Homer’s Ithaca, appear on the horizon. The road divides. I make for Komilio and Dragano, past an unexpected alpine pasture thick with daisies, to Athani. It’s worth stopping here, the last village before Porto Katsiki: the Panorama taverna serves a fine meze of fried aubergines, grilled chicken and tzatziki.
As a concession to the faint-hearted, crash barriers appear at the roadside. I pass Gialos beach and Egremni. I twist and turn through a forest of spruce and pine, before a final, hair-raising traverse through coastal scrub that could be mistaken for South African fynbos, along an old goat track cut into the scree, to Porto Katsiki beach.
And it’s worth it: 150-foot cliffs dwarf a strip of sand and shingle a few hundred yards long. The shoreline sweeps around in a double crescent, shaped like the Greek omega ('w') since the beach was cut in half by a landslide. This arc is enclosed on all sides by the white slices of rock that gave the island its name — lefkós in Greek means white.
Round the corner, a little south of here, is Cape Doukato, the southern tip of Lefkada. It’s also known as Sappho’s Leap, from where the Lesbian poet supposedly jumped to her death out of unrequited love for Phaon.
Down on the beach, there’s a handful of sunbathers and a yacht moored offshore. The towering limestone protects us from the harsh onshore breeze and the sea laps gently at my feet. I guess I’m supposed to describe it as azure or aquamarine, but it resembles nothing so much as my piercing blue Colgate toothpaste. Lying there in the afternoon sun, I can hear nothing but a thousand pebbles caught in the backwash. They sound like gently sizzling bacon.
But is this really “the most beautiful beach in Greece”? It’s certainly the best in the Ionian, and getting here is one of Europe’s great drives. But I’ve got about 9,000 more islands to go before I can judge the main prize. I’ll let you know then.