This little green island seven miles off the coast of Corfu island conquers its visitors from the first moment they step ashore. The towering olive trees which cover almost all its surface, its idyllic little coves and the huge rocks with their sea-caves all impress themselves on the mind. All these features are to be found in an area of less than 25 square kilometers. The ground slopes gently up to the west, reaching an altitude of only 250 metres – Ayios Isavros, the island’s tallest ‘mountain’. The inhabitants of Paxi, who number about 2,500, are engaged principally in growing olives, fishing and tourism. The olive oil which they produce is among the finest in Greece and, along with tourism, is the islanders’ main source of income.
Gaios, the island’s harbour, is also its capital. The name comes from St Gaius, who brought Christianity to Paxi and who according to tradition also died here. His memory is preserved in a tomb behind the altar in the church of the Holy Apostles, which for many centuries now has been claimed as that of the apostle Gaius. An old tradition says that earth from the tomb was used by the locals as a cure for snake-bite. The church’s feast day is on 5 November, which is the saint’s day. The most important festival on Paxi is the procession on 29 June, in memory of Saints-Peter and Paul, when the church of the Holy Apostles and the tomb of Saint Gaius are also revered.
The first thing the visitor sees on entering Gaios harbour is the Panayia islet. On the islet stand a lighthouse and a monastery. On 15 August, the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin, there is a custom of offering pilgrims boiled meat. The coasts of Albania and Corfu can be seen from the lighthouse. The islet of Panayia has a rocky coastline with beaches which are very clean and good for swimming.
The islet of Ayios Nikolaos is almost a continuation of the Panayia islet. This islet takes its name from the chapel of St Nicholas which stands on it, in the foreground. There is also a ruined windmill on Ayios Nikolaos, and the islet is topped with a castle. The walls of the castle are ruinous today, but there is a very fine view of the harbour from it.
The northern part of the harbour is called Manesko and this is where the larger vessels dock. The southern part of the harbour is suitable only for fishing-boats.
At the entrance to Manesko is a ruined but magnificent mansion. Gaios harbour is protected from all the winds, and since it is open at both ends the water is constantly in motion; as a result, the harbour is always clean and the water is cool.
Walking south east from Gaios, we soon come to the first municipal beach, called Yannas.
Further along the road we can see the deeply indented and thickly wooded coastline, and we eventually come to Mongonisi.
Mongonisi is a tourist resort with a few range of facilities. Visitors may find interesting folklore events here. To the south of Gaios, we travel through the hinterland of the island and reach the village of Makratika. There are two interesting churches in the village, that of the Pantokrator, built in 1739, and that of All Saints, built in 1700 and renovated in 1885.
As we leave the village -in a westerly direction- we pass the ruins of the old Lessanitis windmill. Behind this is the spot known as Mousmoulis, which has a superb view. This precipice has what is perhaps the island’s finest view, out across the broad ocean to Italy in the west and Africa in the south.
Still further south, the road leads down to a spot where the rocks form a natural arch through which the water flows. This is the area known as Tripitos.
From Gaios, a surfaced road crosses the island on a north-south axis, passing through a seemingly endless forest of olive trees. There are said to be 300,000 olive trees on the island.
Our route into the hinterland of the island brings us through numerous small villages which take their names from the families which live there: Bogdanatika from the Bogdanos family, Vlachopoulatika from the Vlachopoulos family, and so on.
As we leave Gaios to the west, just before the sharp bend by the football pitch, there is a natural water tank in the rock which fills only from the channels which lead to it.
From here, the view of the olive forest which spreads out in front of the visitor is superb. On clear days, Lefkada can be seen, with Ithaca and Cephalonia in the background.
To the right of the road after the sharp bend is the church of St Charalambos, patron saint of the island. We continue to the highest point on the island, Ayios Isavros hill. The altitude at this point is 250 metres. The hill takes its name from the church of St Isavros which stands on the summit, a simple building next to the telephone company tower.
We then descend to the village of Fountana, which takes its name from the fountain in the centre of the village. Today the spring has run dry, but the name remains.
The huge plane tree next to the church of Our Lady ‘Vlacherna’ is the village’s other main feature.
To the north of Fountana is Longos. The port of Longos took its name from a word meaning forest, because of the dense vegetation which is a characteristic of the area. The water in Longos harbour is shallow, and large vessels cannot moor here. To the south east are the beaches of Levrechi, Marmari, Kipos and Kipadi. All these beaches are good for bathing, wind-surfing and even camping. To the north west are the beaches of Fikia and Glyfada, which are still virgin territory.
An old ruined mill is testimony to the history of Longos. The church of St. Nicholas in the centre of the village stands behind a small platform from which there is a wonderful view of the harbour. St Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, is an obvious favourite for the villagers of Longos, many of whom are employed at sea.
The largest family in Longos is called Anemoyannis. The older inhabitants say that the name derives from the fact that the founding father of the family was brought by the wind (‘anemos’) to this place. Today, the Anemoyannis family is one of the largest on Paxi.
Another interesting structure in this village is the Tzilios water-tank, which bears an inscription testifying to its date of building (1837) to the right and left of the entrance. Since the tank was built by the British, the inscription is in Greek and English. There is a large stone-flagged square, the middle of which slopes slightly inwards. Next to the community water tank is the church of St Kyriaki.
Approximately half-way along the road from Gaios to Lakka is the village of Magazia (‘shops’), which takes its name from the wine-shops which used to stand in the village square.
Almost in the middle of the village is the church of the Archangels, which has a large wall-painting of Our Lady above the altar.
On the left as we enter Magazia is a track which leads to the western side of the island. This road ends at the impressing Erimitis precipice, with its white rocks. The precipice took its name (‘of the hermit’) from a monk who used to live there, surviving on the roots of plants he picked on the rock-face.
We descend past the church of the Holy Apostles to a fresh-water spring running into the sea. The angle formed where the rocks end is called Pounta and the whole area is known as Boikatika.
A tall rock which emerges from the sea here, in a conical shape, is always surrounded by the sea-gulls which have their nests there. In the summer, there are swallows from Africa as well.
On the left as we leave Magazia is a track leading north to another equally fine and wild spot on the west coast of the island. This is called Kastanida, and it has dizzy cliffs.
A track leads down to the sea, where a little to the north we can see a rock in the shape of a submarine. Behind it is sea-cave where the Greek submarines used to hide during the Second World War.
Lakka stands on the northernmost tip of the island. Before we come to the steep hill down into the village, we can see an abandoned quarry on the hillside facing us. At about this point is the new church of St Nicholas. It is a simple building with an arched door and windows. Below it we can see the old ruined windmill of Lakka.
The road now runs downhill and passed a community water-tank, another structure erected by the British. Here there is a magical and magnificent view of Corfu and the mountains and coastline of Albania.
Lakka took its name (‘pit’) from its natural position: the village is surrounded by hills, and the houses stand at exactly sea level. The first building we come to as we enter the village is the church of St Andrew, which is the island’s oldest (built in 1686).
The view from the lighthouse at Lakka is superb. The first lighthouse, the ruins of which can still be seen today, was built in 1832 and was accompanied by a chapel to St. Nicholas, now abandoned. The view of the Ionian Sea from the lighthouse on the western side of the bay and of the precipice crowned with bushes is particularly impressive.
From the lighthouse, a footpath leads to the door of an old ruin: called ‘Ellinospito’ (‘the Greek house’) by the locals, it was a kind of refuge and fortress, and it stands beside an almost impassable hollow. The inhabitants of Lakka -and indeed of the whole island- used to take refuge there when pirates and Turks came to call.
We return, stopping for a moment at the fine church of the Presentation. From the belfry there is an unforgettable view of Lakka. The church was built in 1774 and has Renaissance features.