The island of Koufonisi is the largest of five islands clustered together (Makroulo, Stronylo, Trachila and Marmara being the other four). It is located 3 nautical miles south of cape Goudero off the coast of Lasithi, eastern Crete, in the Libyan Sea. Though regular ferries once linked it to the town of Makry Gialos (10 miles away) the island now appears to be inaccessible following the cessation of these boat trips from Makry Gialos.
However, you can reach Koufonisi via a rather costly ‘hired taxi’ boat ride (or if you’re lucky enough to have a friend with an inflatable dinghy) from the harbours of Goudouras or Atherinolakkos.
In ancient times, the island was called Lefki (Leucea) and used to be ‘an apple of discord’ (Greek mythology meaning an area of discord) between the ancient towns of Ierapytna (Ierapetra) and Itanos, due to its great strategic importance.
Beneath the hot sands covering the largest part of the island lies a wealth of Archaeology as ancient ruins have been found all over the island during excavations headed by archaeologist Nick. Papadakis. These excavations which started in 1976 have uncovered a whole ancient world!
In the northwest, across from Marmara Island, a very well preserved stone theatre, consisting of 12 rows of seats with a capacity of 1,000 people, was discovered. Just beside that, stand the ruins of Roman baths which were in operation from the 1st to the 4th century AD!
A little further back, to the southeast, lies an ancient settlement where one can see the remains of a villa boasting an imposing atrium with eight main chambers/rooms, one of which was used as a workshop for the production of Tyrian purple (also known as Royal purple) which was an ‘imperial dye’ greatly prized in ancient civilizations. .
Lefki was one of the most important producers and exporters of this dye, which comes from the cultivation of the ‘Murex Trunculus’ shell, a species of predatory sea snail. Tyrian purple was well-known for its deep red colour and was a catalyst for the Imperial fabrics of the Roman Age. Each shell yielded a single drop of colour, and more than 60,000 shells were required to produce just a half kilogram of dye. It is worth adding that it sold its weight in silver, making it an item of luxury trade.
On the south coast of the island visitors can visit the site where once stood a temple of worship, whose dimensions were 18 x 15.7m and a 2.5m statue of an unknown god or goddess. While the temple is no longer visible, some fragments of the statue can still be seen. You can also see the ruins of a lighthouse, which was built in 1920 but was unfortunately destroyed in 1944. All over the island ruins from the pre-Minoan period up to the post-Byzantine period can be seen.
Our group set off from Goudouras in an inflatable dinghy with George Sfendylakis as boatman and John Drakakis as an honoured attendant. We were accompanied on this trip by the scorching sun, a very calm sea and an excitement which grew as the island slowly became visible.
Our first mission was to sail around the island. The first thing we noticed was the complete lack of shade. Secondly and more profound was the height: the island has towering cliffs, terrain which is quite rough and hilly with impressive cliffs and caves. The topography is not comparable to that of Chrissi Island which is completely flat; Koufonisi has imposing cliffs which are in places hollow.
Some of the caves on the west coast were used by monks as places of hermitage and figures of saints and Latin inscriptions have been etched on the walls. The fact that the island is in many places hollow may have played some part in its modern day name.
The only permanent residents of Koufonisi are the ever vigilant herring gulls, which continually flew over our heads during our visit to the island. Do not look for any other permanent residents, there are none. In fact the only building on the island is a stone shelter built by the local authorities.
Here below the church of St. Nicholas (the help of a saint is always needed especially in these windswept areas full of reefs) is one of the two most popular camping areas. The second camping area is on “Chromatisti” beach near the ancient theater. It takes its name from the thousands of deep green, shimmering pebbles on the beaches. There is no need to mention that whichever way you turn your eyes will be met with pristine, turquoise water and endless sandy beaches, which promise a perfect swim. The island occupies an area of 3,800 square metres!
Kestrels (Falcons, birds of prey) or ‘Hiliadelfi’ as the locals call them, find refuge on this island and the coast on which they lay their nests also bears their name, while the land’s distinct white colour is the reason this area is called ‘Aspourgi’ (Whitish).
Famous cliches such as “a picture equals a thousand words” begin to lose their meaning as you walk over the island’s majestic hills and you come to realise what they are made of.
There is ridged soil of compressed layers, made up of different compositions and colour, with unique and impressive visual and geological results. You walk in what was once an ancient ocean seabed, as all of Crete ascended to the surface millions of years ago. If you are lucky, you may even find a prehistoric shark tooth in your search between the compact sand.
Time seemed to stand still as we mesmerizingly looked at the half hidden fossils and remains of some Paleolithic, large tusked whale, which so far had not been researched and had already been partly destroyed by landslides.
Article : Ilektra Fatourou
Photos : Hercules Milas, George Patroudakis
Translation : Christopher Haralambakis, Christina Chrisoula