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Rockfall danger on Lefkas beach

- by Andy Cornish

One of the most famous holiday beaches in the Greek Islands could be closed to the public because of the danger from falling rocks.

The stunning white cliffs of Porto Katsiki beach, on the Ionian island of Lefkas, have been voted among the most attractive in Greece and attracts thousands of visitors each year.

But geologists are concerned at keeping the beach open to the public this year because of the danger posed by rocks falling onto the beach from the high cliffs above.

Now a team of specialists from the geology department at Athens University has carried out an analysis of the cliffs at Porto Katsiki to assess the degree of risk to visitors and investigated what steps can be taken to ensure the beach is safe to use.

Geology professor Efthymios Lekkas, who led the team, said: "We agreed to do a thorough risk analysis of the area to see if the beach will be open to the public this summer season or what additional steps can be taken to significantly reduce the risk."

The dramatic setting of Porto Katsiki, the name means Goat Port, at the bottom of steep limestone cliffs, has made it one of the most photographed scenes in Greece.

But the safety of the beach has been a concern since 2003 when an earthquake caused part of the cliff to collapse. Since then fears have grown at the potential danger to holidaymakers from falling rocks.

Recent damaging earthquakes on the neighbouring island of Kefalonia have heightened concern that Lefkas could be in line for similar quakes.

A series of earthquakes measuring around 6 on the Richter scale shook the island of Kefalonia in January last year causing widespread damage, bringing down houses, triggering landslides and blocking roads.

Scientists recorded more than 250 tremors in the following months. Another severe earthquake measuring 5.1 occurred off the coast of Kefalonia only last November.

Although large magnitude quakes on Lefkas usually happen only every 60 to 70 years, experts cannot rule out the possibility of tremors strong enough to affect the steep cliff face at Porto Katsiki.

Lefkas island officials are reluctant to close the beach completely as it is such a major tourist attraction for the island. Other options to closure may be to fence off parts of the beach and to erect warning signs for visitors.

Officials say there is no immediate danger to holiday visitors but that precautions are necessary given the recent seismic activity in the region.

Few visitors to this spectacular beach will easily forget the beautiful sight of the beach and cliffs. Porto Katsiki is considered one of the most attractive spots in the Ionian, if not all the Greek islands.

Named 'Port of Goats' in Greek it was once so remote that only goats every visited, but improved road links have made it one of the most popular day trip destinations for holidaymakers on Lefkas with a large car park and tavernas now perched high on the clifftops above.

A narrow staircase of around 100 wooden steps leads down the face of the near vertical white limestone cliff to the narrow strip of white pebbles and sand and the brilliant turquoise sea shore.

Landslides in 1999 and 2003 caused sections of the soft limestone cliff to collapse onto the beach, but until the recent seismic shocks it has been considered quite safe for visitors.

Clifftop paths above the beach offer great views over the sands and Porto Katsiki is now one of the most photographed beaches in the Greek Islands.

Although officials say total beach closure this year is 'unlikely' they cannot rule out the possibility of barring public access until safety measures have been implemented.

When quizzed on the likelihood of Porto Katsiki beach being open to the public over the summer, Professor Lekkas replied that it is possible 'to a large extent' but could not guarantee access.

He added: "I don't know whether we can afford to open up the whole beach. Our efforts will focus on the safe areas, so tourists can visit the beach."

After meeting island officials he said agreement had been reached on long-term plans to improve safety on the beach. "However this will be a significant project that will take years to complete," he added.