WONDERLUST AT SEA
The only people, on our side of the Ionian Sea, who mention the Strophades* in their daily conversation are fishermen…they sail to them, weather permitting, for abundant catch. For the rest of the local population these two islets at open sea are an unreachable…somewhat fictional destination. The distance from our neighboring village of Marathoupoli and its Proti island is 27 nautical miles north and they are at an almost equal distance south west from the island of Zakynthos. Throughout its long history Strophades have been inhabited only by monks, since 1241, when the fortress monastery was founded on the larger island of the two upon request of Princess Irene, daughter of the Nicea Emperor who survived a shipwreck thanks to those islands. The last monk who lived there has left the monastery a few years ago. Since then the islands are almost deserted …almost as there are two alternating guards who stay who look after the area on behalf of the Zakynthian Archdiocese protecting it against vandalism.
Since the very first moment I have learned about the existence of Strophades, which are mentioned by Virgil in the Aeneid among Aeneas’s wanderings on his way from Troy to Italy, and knowing of the presence of the rare Byzantine fortress made me dream about visiting the islands …
I have been imagining the moment in which they would appear on the horizon with the colossal monastery soaring over the sea and land….
And yes, only a few days ago I finally strolled, so happy, under the huge shadow cast by its fortifications.
The only way to reach these islands is by private boat and from the west coast of Messinia trips like this one can be arranged at the Ionian Sail which organizes two day recreational sailing excursions to Strophades. (also here)It takes about 5-7 hours to reach the islands with a sailboat.
These hours passed very quickly and soon enough we were facing the contours of Strophades on the horizon and looking for calm waters to dock for the afternoon and the night. We chose to stay near Arpia, the smaller island of the two, having the monastery across from us…truly seeming to raise above all…ARPIA ISLANDThe name Arpia comes from the ancient belief that the islands where the dwelling place for mythological Harpies**…monstrous winged women with eerie faces with lower bodies of birds. Meanwhile the islands are a resting place for more than 1200 different winged creatures that is birds on their migratory path; among the different specimen there are turtledoves, cuckoos, goldfinches, hoopoes and swallows.There are only two buildings on Arpia, a stone home and a church dedicated to St Onuphrius, both built by monks, which are currently abandoned and ruined…The land is fertile and flat and the highest point is 20 metres above the sea level. Sweet water is abundant with many ancient wells carved in stone and still functional…The ground is dark and covered with moss…and tiny flowers.The overall feeling while walking on the island was of mystery but safety too. After exploring the island our afternoon and the evening were well spent on collecting shells, swimming, reading, fishing, picking capers and the day ended with a moonlit feast of copious fresh fish and salads!!!…On the next day…we sailed to the second Strophade, Stamfani…and the Byzantine fortress of my dreams…
* Strophades are also colloquially known as Strofadia
According to legend, the islands’ name, meaning “Islands of Turning,” came as an outcome of an adventure of two brothers: Zetes and Calais, sons of Boreas, who while voyaging with the Argonauts rescued Phineus from the Harpies**. They succeeded in driving the monsters away but did not kill them, as a request from the goddess of the rainbow, Iris, who promised that Phineas would not be bothered by the Harpies again. The brothers were turned back at the Strophades by Iris ceasing the pursuit of the creatures.