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Agia Mavra Castle Lefkas

The imposing Agia Mavra castle

Brooding fortress of Santa Maura commands views over lagoons of Lefkas

Doorway at Agia Mavra Lefkas
Lefkas lagoon a haven for wildlife

No visitor can miss the brooding castle of Santa Maura, or Agia Mavra, as it commands the Drepanos Channel between the island of Lefkas and the Greek mainland.

Originally built in 1300, the castle has suffered more than most from earthquakes, fire, invasions and the ravages of time but it has undergone a major renovation and what is left today is remarkably well preserved.

How the castle got its name is a little confusing. Some say that the Frankish knights who conquered Lefkas island in 1294 named it Sainte-Maure after their home area in the Loire Valley in central France.

Others maintain that it's named after the 15th-century church of Agia Mavra, inside the grounds, that was built by one of the rulers in homage to the island patron saint Agia Mavra.

Either way, the name stuck and, until the Venetians took it over in the 16th century an, the whole island was called Santa Maura, a name which still features on ancient maps.

When the Ottoman Turks conquered the island the leaders installed themselves in the castle and in 1487, the Sultan Bagiazit ordered the construction of an aqueduct and bridge over the lagoon.

More than just a bridge, it was a small town in itself with around 360 rooms built into the archways and a large water tower in the middle. It would have made an impressive sight but it couldn't survive a series of earthquakes. The remains can still be seen resting on the bottom of the lagoon.

Next to occupy the castle were the Venetians and they decided to build a new town on the other side of the lagoon, the modern-day capital of Lefkada when the population of the island rose sharply.

The Venetian strengthened the fortress walls, built ammunition stores and imported cannons to guard the entrance to the lagoon.

They also added new churches and many other buildings such as schools, a barracks and government offices. The castle eventually served as a small town in its own right with houses, chambers and underground cisterns for storing rainwater.

Unfortunately, an explosion in one of the munitions depots in 1888 was followed by a fire that destroyed most of the castle's interior buildings.

After major renovation work, the castle served as a refugee camp until World War II. The thick walls may have been strong enough to survive several earthquakes but they suffered badly in Italian bombing raids.

Briefly occupied by the French and British, even more renovation work was carried out at the castle and it is now a popular visitor attraction as well as a venue for several cultural events.

The church of Agia Mavra, patron saint of Lefkas, host a huge feast day on May 3rd each year and tourists who stroll the battlements can enjoy views across the lagoon to the coastal Mili area with its windmills gracing a wetland habitat, home to many species of protected birds and other animals.

The castle is surrounded by two lagoons, which are classed among the most significant wetlands in the Greek Islands. As well as a wide variety of fish found there, they are the permanent habitat of many seagulls and herons as well as providing a stopover point for a huge variety of migratory birds such as duck, moorhen, pelicans and even swans.