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‘Elaphon nisos’ means ‘island of deer’. A mediaeval Arabic manuscript also appears to refer to the island as ‘Ashab al baqar’, which means the same. The deer are all now gone, together with the dense vegetation which once provided for and protected them. Elafonisos today is thinly inhabited and only partially treed, but it lives on a small but vigorous fishing fleet—and on the fame of its few, very fine sandy beaches which draw people in the summer months from all over Greece. Slowly its population is rising, as holiday-makers fall prey to its enchantment and decide to stay and build a house: it remains to be seen whether this tendency can be kept within the limitations of the capacity and tranquillity of the island. The island is only 400m from the mainland of the southern Peloponnese, just west of Neapolis in the Gulf of Laconia. In Antiquity it is mentioned by Strabo as a promontory called ‘Onou gnathos’ or ‘ass’s jaw’, perhaps from the profile the island presents to the bay. After an earthquake, said to have occurred in 375 ad, it was severed from the mainland and separated in the process from an ancient settlement of considerable importance— the Bronze Age site at Pavlopetri, now on the promontory opposite and partly underwater between the present coast and the islet of Pavlopetri. In the vicinity of the embarkation point for the island at Pounta, towards the north west, are the remains of ancient sandstone quarries and the base of an interesting pyramidal funerary monument, which was seen by Pausanias. It was also in these protect ed waters in the lea of the island on 30 September 1827, three weeks before the Battle of Navarino (the last naval battle in maritime history to be fought exclusively with sailing ships), that Admiral (Sir Edward) Codrington met with the French and Russian naval high commands, to discuss a strategy that was in the end to give unstoppable momentum to the movement of Greek Independence. The port of Elafonisos is at the northern extremity of the island. The water that separates it from the mainland is of an unforgettable colour when the wind is still, since the strait is shallow and has sand below: as if in competition, the fishing-boats also seem more colourful here than usual. The town’s main church, Aghios Spyridon, stands on a promontory to the west side of the harbour. The church was founded in 1852, and later restored in 1880: it has an impressive, ornately carved iconostasis in poros stone, with an intricate vine motif incorporating a variety of birds and animals. Four kilometres down the west coast of the island, against the foot of the hill to your left on entering the inhabited area of Kato Nisi, are the remains of a round tower. The fact that its design is of a kind similar to those found on the mainland in the Mani has led people generally to give the tower a late date; but its masonry more accurately suggests mediaeval construction. The stones in the interior are densely and meticulously packed, and sealed with a deep red mortar, which was prepared with crushed tiles: the tower must have been, for its size, remarkably impregnable and was probably a defensive out post built by the local landowners to protect the barely cultivable lands of the Kato Nisi valley. At 4.5km the road terminates at the church of the Panaghia, built over the site of an earlier Byzantine church. Approximately 200m to the west of the church, a Mycenaean cemetery with rock-cut tombs has been identified. The road down the eastern seaboard, leaves Elafonisos by the church of Aghios Ioannis; after 4km it passes to the left (east) the western slope of Frango Hill, on which there are the vestiges of an ancient settlement. Some ancient materials have been re-used for the construction of a more recent (possibly mediaeval) habitation at the north end of the area. The road ends 300m beyond at Simos—one of the most beautiful beaches in the whole area—backed by junipers and small cedars, and looking across to the acropolis-like promontory of Cape Elena, with its delicate and picturesque isthmus.
Elafonisos Island, Greece