One of the most romantic routes in Greece can be found on its lush western coast linking the charming seaside town of Parga with the island of Lefkada.
Taking a ferry thronged with other vacationers to a summer hotspot is a treasured holiday ritual for Greeks and visitors alike. It’s festive; anticipation fills the air. But braving the high seas is far from a prerequisite to get away from it all; in Greece there are a number of glorious destinations easily accessible by road.
Maybe you want a little of everything – a gorgeous seaside town with a little Venetian glamour, a visit to an island, a famous beach… and a sense of solitude. A road trip along a stretch of the Ionian coast, from Parga to Lefkada’s famous Porto Katsiki beach (which regularly features in numerous top ten lists) has it all.
Parga, with colorful buildings, its own tiny islands just offshore and a Venetian castle up a steep hill, famously has the charm of an island. It’s all fishing boats and fairy lights by night, awash in a happy crowd of visitors spoiled for choice as they seek out the perfect seaside table for a romantic meal.
That Venetian fortress is a steep climb, and worth it, but one maybe best undertaken before dinner, which is what we did. Once up there, it’s fun to explore the narrow pedestrian alleys with their whitewashed shops – all catering to tourists, but no less the charming for it. The scent of jasmine mingled with fried calamari lured us to an out-of-the-way place with a mainly Greek speaking crowd and no photos on the menu (usually a good sign). We didn’t miss the view.
The agenda for the next day was a full one – from Parga we would head down the coast to Lefkada. There we would do a full circle of the island with a long break for a swim at its most famous beach.
A road trip really should be more than a trip by car to a final destination – the road itself is a star in its own right, not just a means to an end. There’s nothing like nearly abandoned-looking narrow stretches of asphalt patched up with tar to inspire a sense of adventure. And it’s better still if the drive takes you through territory that time seems to have forgotten. Highway 18 is just such a road and the stretch from Parga to Lefkada is thoroughly romantic.
It’s also remarkably green. The Ioanian coast and islands are, of course, famously lush. But while we were prepared for green, we were still stunned by the sheer variety, texture, and above all size of the plant life. The breeze was sweet with the bracing scent of Eucalyptus from groves of trees taller than elsewhere in Greece. There were also numerous cypress trees, emphasizing the Ionian’s Italian mood.
Driving to Lefkada
Lefkada is connected by bridge and causeway to the mainland, making this a perfect destination for an impromptu visit by car – no ferry reservations (and the associated cost) necessary. Just outside Lefkada town, the road narrows and nature takes over: tangles of ancient olive trees, the sound of cicadas, and a whisper of thyme in the air. Colorful beehives dot the landscape, and soon so do the many, many stands selling thyme honey. The island is famous for it, and you won’t find finer honey nor a fairer price than the 9 euros per kilo most stands charge.
The other thing the Ionian coast is famous for is the color of the sea. It looks like it has been photoshopped by someone with no sense of restraint. From your first glimpse of the sea all the way to Porto Katsiki beach at the other end of the island, the road just keeps getting lovelier (and narrower). Internet gossip reported that the road is rough, but we found this to be untrue – it has a fine surface all the way to the destination.
What makes a beach a regular in the top ten? Simple: unbelievable natural beauty, with enough of a climb down to feel like you’ve earned it. White cliffs surround a beach of smooth white stones. There are caves both on the beach and in the water, and small islands of rocks to swim to. The best test of all though is that, even though the beach gets very busy, nobody minds. We are all just elated to be here, sharing the pleasure of it all together, taking pictures of each other posing in the sea caves and exchanging polyglot greetings. And the icing on the cake: the cantina on the hillside delivers right to your beach towel.
Vassiliki and beyond
Porto Katsiki is on the west side of the island, towards its southern tip. Driving down into Vassiliki on the island’s southern coast, you’ll glimpse a bay crowded with sails skimming across the whitecaps at dizzying speeds in this renowned windsurfing hotspot. The road then takes us high above the coast again, offering grand clifftop vistas, before descending to the much quieter marinas and seaside villages of the eastern shore.
Off the sleepy coast of Nydri, and about as far from a cosmopolitan mood as you can get, is Skorpios, a private island that once belonged to Aristotle Onassis. Maybe he was seeking the same kind of remote, wild beauty we were. From here it is a short trip back to Lefkada town, and then back to Highway 18 again. We stopped in Preveza (absolutely crammed with yachts) for a late shrimp dinner, but you may find the road calls you further.
– Some stretches of road are gloriously remote – when you do see a gas station, top up your tank.
– You’ll be amazed at what some drivers consider an acceptable passing window on a shoulder-less road. Heed the (ominous) road signs.
– You’ll feel like you have the Ionian coast all to yourself – until you don’t, that is. With such nearly empty roads, you’ll wonder where all those people in Parga and Porto Katsiki came from. Don’t even think twice about paying for parking – a well-spent 5 euros in both Parga and at Porto Katsiki saves on time and cuts down the hike considerably.
– You won’t find more roadside stands anywhere in Greece as you will along this stretch and they are a charming site. Specialties are melons and figs, and once you’re on Lefkada, honey – possibly the best you’ll have tasted. Being able to stock up on local specialties is one of the pleasures of travel by car.
Sakis, Patatoukou Themeli (close to the Venetian castle), Parga (+30) 2684 032262
Porto Katsiki – about an hour’s drive south of Lefkada town along the west side of the island – consult a map or GPS
The Crazy Shrimp, Adreanoupoleos 7, Preveza (steps from the harbor- just in from the kiosk and the Piraeus bank). (+30) 2682 025691
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Sign Up for Premium Content, Special Offers & More.
Destinations10 Reasons why I Fell in Love with Nisyros