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The light streams in overhead, turning the water of Lake Melassani aquamarine. The small rowboats filled with tourists float on a lake of clear, blue light. Birds flit between the plants and the rocks that make up the lake's island and all of it - every bit of it - is underground. Melissani Lake or Melissani Cave, as it is also known, is an underground lake in a cave on the Greek island of Kefalonia. It is part of the island's interesting geography and just one of the sites that draws tourists to the Ionian island.
Lake Melissani is on the east side of Kefalonia , just a few miles from the port of Sami. The 328 foot-long long cave and lake were known in ancient times. Originally two large chambers, a cave-in thousands of years ago changed the cave and lake's shape to that of the letter B and created the island and oval opening in the ceiling. The lake was rediscovered in 1951 by Giannis Petrohilos, a speleologist, who found an ancient lamp currently on display at the Archeological Museum of Argosotli. Another excavation in 1962 produced a few minor Minoan relics including oil lamps and plates with pictures of Pan and nymphs, and uncovered what is believed to be ruins from a temple to the God Panas on the island in Lake Melissani. Also known as the Cave of the Nymphs, Melissani Cave is named after the nymph, Melissanthi. Myth holds that Melissanthi drowned herself in the lake when Panas rejected her love.
In 1963, Lake Melissani was opened to the public. Visitors descend down a steep ramp through the cave's entrance where row boats wait to take them across the lake. The boats, with their charming and sometimes even singing boatmen, are the only way to tour Lake Melissani. It is recommended that tourists visit on a sunny day so they can enjoy the full effect of the light streaming through the hole in the ceiling of the first hall of the cave. The channel that connects the two halls is too narrow for the boatmen to row through, so they pull the row boats through using a rope. On the other side, the ceiling opens to a dome, and the cave is decorated with stalactites and stalagmites.
The water in Lake Melissani is brackish, a mixture of fresh and salt water. The surface of the lake is 3.28 feet above sea level, and the lake has a maximum depth of 98 feet. Melissani Lake receives some of its water from the Katavothres on the other side of the island. The Katavothres are a series of swallow holes that sea water flows into. In the past they were used to turn water wheels. No one was sure where the water went until dye was dropped into the Katavothres. Fourteen days later the dye turned up in Lake Melissani, proving there was at least one hydrologic connection under the island.
Kefalonia, or Cephalonia as it is also known. Is an island with many caves. There are more than 17 caves around Sami alone, including one next to Lake Melissani that is open to tourists. Cephalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands. It was named after Kephalos, the area's first king; four of the island's main cities - Sami, Pahli, Krani and Pronnoi - were named after his four sons. The island has at times been ruled by Romans, the Franks, Venetians and Spaniards. In modern times it has fallen under French, Russian, Turkish and English rule before finally uniting with Greece in 1864. During World War II the island was occupied by Italian troops. The story of the subsequent massacre of 5,000 Italian soldiers was documented in the novel 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' by Louis de Bernieres.
Today, the only ones invading the island are tourists flocking to Cephalonia to enjoy the island's rich history, beautiful scenery, and fantastic sand and pebble beaches. There are holiday villas, cottages and vacation rentals scattered across the island and any amenity a visitor might need. Seaside restaurants serve native dishes, and charming shops hold local treasures. Lake Melissani is the glowing underground gem tucked away in an exceptional Greek getaway.
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