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Zante has cultural loading to Greeks, which you need to be aware of to understand what I was looking for here.
- The Ionian islands are portrayed in Greek literary and artistic history as Greece’s window to the west. Western music and art had their first foothold here.
- Western literary trends were followed longer, and in a much larger area—we have Petrarchan sonnets from Cyprus, written not that long after Petrarch himself. But going into the 19th century, Western literature was happening in Constantinople and the Ionian islands. (And Modern Greeks have had ideological reasons to ignore the former.)
- Zante is seen as the main centre of artistic creativity of the islands. People refer to Zante serenades, even though you’ll hear the same serenades in Cephallonia.
- Zante produced three rock star poets at the same time: Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827), Andreas Kalvos (1792–1869), Dionysios Solomos (1798–1857). Solomos wrote the poem that the Greek national anthem excerpts.
- An earthquake in 1953 completely destroyed the main towns of both Zante and Cephallonia. The towns there were rebuilt from scratch.
So, coming to Zante, I expect a former capital of the arts, with nothing in the landscape left to indicate what it was.
And indeed, my first impression of the place was pleasant regional beach town, rather than epicentre of Greek literary culture. That impression got filled in by a three block walk, and wasn’t refuted by a walk along the length of the town.
(I have to confess, first impressions are what I’ve been working off throughout this trip. I’ll form an impression in a few minutes, and will delight in my skill as an impressionist painter in phone photos on Facebook, extrapolating that initial impression.)
My impression of Zante Town is necessarily informed by me having been to Corfu Town first, and by the 1953 earthquake destroying a lot of the town that would have looked more similar to Corfu. From the model of 1930s Zante in the post-Byzantine museum, it does seem that the buildings indeed used to be a lot closer to the Corfu model, three-storey and closely packed.
Zante 1930s, from the north.
(Zante 2020s, from the south. I never said I was any good at panoramic photography.)
With that proviso in place, the impression I have formed is that Corfu was always a bustling town, and the centre of where things were at in the region. Zante has history; some of it still peeks through the landscape, and the town has been rebuilt as a very pleasant resort landscape.
But there is something a bit too laid back and leisurely about the urban landscape, and even about what very little of the original Town seems to remain. This does not seem to have been the centre of where things were at.
There is something striking about this view of the south of the town, taken from the Central Square.
Zante Town is not big: 10k in the 2011 census, which makes it same size as Sitia. Yet such a small town prominently features the signs of two distinct nougat workshops (ΜΑΝΤΟΛΑΤΟ). In fact, there’s clearly at least a half dozen workshops in town, judging from the offerings on sale.
That struck me at the time of the photo. What struck me after walking the town is that Zante genuinely feels 5 times bigger than Sitia, a town built from scratch in the late 19th century. And that already tells you this is a weightier place than my first impression tells me.
The Central Square is lovely and well ordered, yet somehow too big and empty, compared to Larisa, which seems to have perfected the art form. But as the 1930s model confirms, the square is the size that the Venetians had made it. They thought big.
My hotel is close to the north edge of the town, so heading further north, Zante looks a bit more Anytown, Greece. Nice bell tower though (Church of the Holy Trinity, I think?)
Same applies southern edge of town, near the cathedral.