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The ruined hilltop fortress of Assos

The ruined Assos castle on Kefalonia is one of the biggest in Greece

The fortress at Assos is the largest castle on Kefalonia, the only other island castle of note being Agios Georgis near Peratata.

Built on a west coast rock outcrop , it commands impressive views over the horseshoe bay of the quiet resort village of Assos on one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline of the island.

The castle is, indeed, one of the largest in Greece in terms of area anyway, and was built by the Venetians in the early 17th century in response to a request from Kefalonians for protection from raids on the island by passing Turks and pirates.

The Venetian's decided to build a fortress big enough to house the local population and the Assos peninsula was considered impregnable with sheer drops of 155 metres to the sea below.

It has two kilometres of perimeter wall entirely circling the large rocky bluff of Assos interspersed with five bastion towers. The hilltop Venetian fortress has now been listed as a World Heritage Site.

The ambitious plan to make Assos the capital of Kefalonia were scaled down after the locals proved reluctant to move inside. The hilltop has no natural springs for a water supply and, despite building some very large water cisterns, the grand plan was reluctantly dropped, although the castle did become the seat of Venetian government on Kefalonia until the end of Venetian rule in 1799.

Even today, the fortress is not an easy place to reach. A zigzag trail climbs the steep hillside through woods and fields. Much of it was unpaved with crumbling edges in a poor state of repair although parts have recently been cobbled. Vehicles were banned some time ago and the walk to the top is long and hot with no amenities when the visitor reaches the top.

The castle has had a chequered history. A quarantine compound for around 1,700 people in the early 1800's, a small community carried on living there after Greek independence in 1865.

It became a prison farm in the late 1920's and was used as a military lock-up in the Second World War, then a place to incarcerate political opponents of the Greek Junta in the 1950's. The inmates didn't stay idle for long; like prisoners before them they set up a small farm enterprise growing cereal and vines.

The castle remained a prison until 1953 when it became home to a small community known as the Kastrani, who scratched a poor living cultivating olives and grapes.

A small community it may have been but the castle still housed more than double the numbers that occupied the small village of Assos today with around 200 houses in the castle. But the Ionian islands were devastated by a major earthquake in 1953 when the prison was closed and the castle abandoned. A 1961 census shows six people living in in the fortress and the last inhabitant left in 1963.

Originally, the castle had four gates but only the two larger ones still standing today while the smaller gates lie in ruins. Visitors at the main gate enter through a small tunnel while, on the other remaining gate is a carved emblem of the Venetian Lion on the archway above. Not much else remains of those that originally built the castle, only the ruin of a Venetian building called Gentilini House named after its former owner the Venetian High Commissioner.

The modern day visitor may be disappointed by the ruins that remains, none of which have been excavated. There is plenty of wild scrub which carpets much of the site and it is difficult to locate the 200 homes and 65 public buildings which once stood here.

Modern-day visitors can see the remains of the prison yard and cells, still pretty well intact, in the centre of the fortress. . The domed buildings with many small windows is where the prisoners were housed.

Some ruins remain of the former German army barracks and a nearby church that is known as the 'French Church' as it was used by French occupiers. There were once several churches here including one to Agios Markos, built in 1604, and seen to the left as the visitor enters through the main gate.

A little lower down the hill there is another chapel dedicated to Agios Elias built in 1888 on the ruins of a former church and with a beautiful wooden carved iconostasis.

But the most impressive views are those over the sea and the bay below. Stunning views are a bit of a cliche but the hilltop vistas almost warrant the description and a camera is an essential for visitors.