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 Islands Information

Place: Corfu Greece

The Greek Island of Corfu   by George Nellas

Crescent shaped Corfu, the second largest and most beautiful of the Ionian Islands (the "Eptanissa" or "Seven Islands") is located in the north of the Ionian Sea, across from Italy and 3 km from the Albanian coast on the east. The name is derived from the Greek "korifo" or summit, which refers to the Acropolis where the city stands and where refuge was sought from pirates during the Byzantine period. To the Greeks it is known as Kerkyra, from Corcyra, its ancient capital city. Verdant and fertile from abundant rainfall and lavishly picturesque, its great natural beauty and local color is its enchantment. Unlike the islands of the Cyclades (Mykonos, Santorini, etc.) the scenery is not composed of white cubic houses on barren stretches of rock. Corfu is endowed with a landscape of rustic scenery and woodlands, rich plains, hills, flourishing olive groves, imposing mountains, valleys, lakes, charming harbors and bays, long coasts with broad beaches, and traditional villages, which provide spectacular vistas and quite a variety of destinations for the tourist. Many powers dominated the island over its long history but it was the lengthy presence of the Venetians that gave the island its character and permeated the culture, art, music, and mostly notably, the architecture, and cuisine. It was the setting used by many writers from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," to Lawrence Durell's "Prospero's Cell," and Gerald Durell's, "My Family and Other Animals."

Inhabited since around 70,000 to 40,00 B.C. (Upper and Middle Paleolithic periods), it is widely believed the ancient seafaring Phaeacians resided there (when Homer's Odysseus came ashore before reaching Ithaca). The colony of Corcyra, the ancient capital, was settled by Corinth in 734 B.C. and never part of the Golden Age of Greece but in the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) Athens came to the aid of Corcyra against Corinth. Under Roman rule in 229 B.C. Corfu opposed Augustus Caesar (31 B.C.) to support Antony and Cleopatra and was punished by having its monuments destroyed. The Romans finally lost control; in the 6th century A.D. the Vandals wrought havoc on the island, and in the 11th century the Normans' rule was interspersed by the raids and plundering of Crusaders. After laying siege to Corfu the Byzantines rid the island of the Normans. The French controlled it in intermittent spurts and then lost it when Napoleon fell from power.. The Ottomans did not oppress the island for four hundred years as they did the rest of Greece but working in partnership with the Russians from 1799 to 1807 they signed the treaty that formed the "Seven Island State" of Corfu. The British were the last to rule before it became part of Greece in 1864, and contributed to developing agriculture, building schools, roads, bridges, administrative buildings, and hospitals. Mussolini invaded in WW II and when Italy surrendered to the Allies Germany retaliated by massacring Italians; the whole community of Corfiote Jews was wiped out.

Indeed the first destination as a tourist is Corfu Town on the east coast, when coming in by ferry from the port of Igoumenitsa on the mainland (an hour and a half ride). The visibly green and historic town seems to spill up onto the promontory and outwards, as the ship glides in at the dock at Mandouki The town is divided into districts: the historic center with the old port and Byzantine Fourio (fortress), the old Venetian neighborhoods of Campiello above the harbor; Kofineto with the well known Esplanade used for public events (the cricket pitch at one end was left by the British), flanked by the arcaded street, Liston, designed during the French occupation to look like Rue du Rivoli in Paris, now lined with cafés; the commercial district next to it and the area of the new fortress with the market and what is left of the old Jewish quarter. Renovations made after the 1994 EU summit have left it quite attractive. The old town, with its Venetian air is captivating and colorful; diverse architectural styles, 18th century shuttered buildings, a Catholic Church above a steep stairway, narrow alleyways, clotheslines hung between tenements (a characteristic feature of Corfu town), tourist shops and boutiques weave an interesting tapestry.

Numerous worthwhile sites await the tourist. The Archaeological Museum showcases the well-preserved massive (17m) archaic sculpture of the Gorgon Medusa from the 6th century B.C. Temple of Artemis at Corcyra. The impressive Asian Museum, housed in the Palace of Sts. Michael and George, built as a residence for the British High Commissioner in 1819 and later used by the Greek monarchy, contains a fabulous collection of Oriental Art (screens, porcelain, bronze, etc.) amassed and donated by a Corfiot diplomat. Nearby is a museum dedicated to the famous 19th century Greek poet, Dionyssios Solomos, who penned the Greek national anthem. In the restored church of the Panagia (Our Lady) of Andivouniottissa, the Byzantine Museum houses a fine collection of church frescoes and mosaics from the site of Paleopolis (the old city), pre-Christian artifacts, and icons from the 15th to 19th centuries. The most famous church in the town is Agios Spyridon, where its patron saint's mummified relics can be viewed. St. Spyridon (who attended the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 A.D. and for whom much of the island's males and females is named after) is accredited with saving Corfu from a plague in 1632 and from famine in the 17th century; during WW II the church was untouched by Nazi bombs. The relics are paraded in Corfu town on Palm Sunday, Easter, and August 15th, when the town is transformed into a stirring spectacle of cramped streets flooded with townspeople trailing in religious precession (accommodations are booked solid for those days so plan ahead).

On the outskirts south of the town, the woodland estate of Non Repos, built in 1824 by the British and given to Greece in 1864 was the birthplace of Prince Phillip, husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth. Its museum contains archaeological finds, period furniture, and modern exhibits. Temples dedicated to Poseidon and Hera are on its grounds. Just 4 km south of the town, where once sat the ancient capital of Corcyra, is a peninsula. The gorgeously green hill above it, with a stunning vista, is the area of Kanoni where the French had artillery in 1798 (one cannon remains). At the tip of Kanoni, below the hill, is the most photographed, tiny, tree filled islet of Pondikonissi (Mouse Island), one version claims it to be the petrified ruins of one the Phaeacian ships that took Odysseus back to Ithaca; Vlaherna and its little white convent of the same name is the islet next to it, attached to the peninsula by a causeway.

A huge new water park, "Aqualand" is 9 km west of the town in Agios Ioannis and offers family activities. There are also many excursions and boat trips from Corfu town to keep one on the go. In the rustic village of Gastouri (4.5 km sw) lies the Achillion, the neoclassical summer palace of the Empress Elizabeth ("Sissy") of Austria, built in 1890 with an interior of mixed styles and frescoes of heroes and philosophers. A museum in the morning, at night it turns into a casino; located on the top floor, it opens onto a romantic terrace, lined with statutes of the muses and surrounded by a lush, overgrown terraced garden leading to the sea. The famous statue of Achilles, her favorite hero, graces the garden; beyond is a magnificient view of the island.

Touring the island further south on the east coast is the popular resort town Benitses that has toned down its wild image over the years; besides lots of accommodation and good food, there is traditional village with winding streets, a fine shell museum, and ruins of a Roman bathhouse. Further down at the tourist resorts of Moraitika and Mesongi the beaches are better and Ano Moraitika has an unspoilt village a steep walk up At Boukari the coast of pebbled beaches is quieter and, inland, is the out of the way woodland of Argirades, ideal for nature lovers and peaceful walks. Almost at the southern tip inland, amongst lovely olive groves, is Corfu's second largest town, Lefkimi, situated on the largest plain of the island; some interesting architecture and several pretty churches can be seen and as its limits extend to the sea it is a port of call and has a lovely bay and cape.

Coming up around from the southern tip through Agia Varvara, the lovely sandy beach sweeps up toward Lake Korission (5km long), surrounded by dunes and marshes and inhabited by tortoises, turtles, lizards, indigenous birds. Traveling up past numerous beaches, is the inviting Halkouna beach and then Prasouda, and Paramonas. Going inland toward a 13th century castle and further inland are the wooded slopes of the promontory of Agia Deka; below the peak is a monastery and flourishing orchards. Back to the beach at Agios Gordios, popular with backpackers because it's near Mt. Deka and continuing upward are the best beaches on the west coast. Pelakas, reknowed for its lovely beach and spectacular sunsets that can be viewed high above the village at Kaiser's Throne; broad, sandy Glyfada, and the very charming Myrtiotissa whose praises Lawrence Durrell sang in "Prospero's Cell" complete the trio. The area has many large, luxury hotels and facilities for water sports.

Still northbound, the busy resort of Ermones is in a pretty verdant setting with the mountains in the background. Inland on the Ropas plain is the Corfu Golf Club which is perhaps one of the largest in Europe. The stunningly beautiful village of Paleokastritsa with its coves, luscious greenery, dramatic rocky promontory and indescribably beautiful blue green water is certainly the gem of Corfu. It may have been the Homeric city of Scheria where Odysseus was washed ashore and Nausica brought him to her father, the Phaeacian King Alkinous. Diving, water sports, and boat trips to other beaches and seawater caves or grottos offer "fun in the sun" and fantastic views of the coast. Perched above the village is the picturesque 13th century monastery of Theotokou that has a museum with an impressive collection of Orthodox icons and relics of the church. The ruins of the 13th century Byzantine Fortress of Angelokastro built by the Despot of Epiros is 6 km up the coast, accessible from the village of Krini, which offers more spectacular views from above the coast. Nearby, inland, is another unspoilt village, Lakonos.

Further up the coast is Agios Georgios, a busy windsurfing center. The long, sandy beach of Agios Stefanos attracts families; a boat trip from the harbor is a great way to explore the Diapondia islands: Erikousa, Othoni, and Manthraki, thinly populated but boasting stunning views. More tourist resorts wind up around the northern coast: the hilly and picturesque Avliotes, Sidhari (near camping facilities), and Roda with its rocky, swampy beach in parts, camping and horse riding. . Aravi offers a route to the slopes of Mt. Pandokrator, the island's highest peak, passing small hamlets like Lafki and Agios Martinos, another entry point to the slopes, winds north to the western side of the mountain after Pyrgi. Strinylas is a popular village with walkers. Almyros beach is one of the longest on the island. Northeast, the Andinioti lagoon, a haven for birds is near Cape Ekaterinis, the northern end of the Corfu Trail, a 200 km, ten day hiking path opened in 2001 whose southern end is at Cape Asprokavos.

Coming down south from the cape is the resort and fishing village of Kassiopi, another port of entry; it is said that the Roman Emperor Tiberius once had a villa there and the 16th century church of the Panagia Kassopitra may have been the site of a temple of Zeus. Not to be missed: the idyllic setting of the harbor and bay of Kouloura, amidst the pine trees; Kalami, a quaint village noted for its most famous resident, Lawrence Durrell, who lived in the White House (now a taverna) and wrote "Prospero's Cell:" and the cove of Agni where flocks of people come to taste its exceptionally good Corfiot food. Winding down the steep mountain road one comes to Barbarti, the best beach on the northeast coast and popular with families. Closing the circle, outside of the town to its north is the yachting marina of Gouvia and the very popular, narrow pebbled beaches and tree-lined bays of Ipssos and Dassia.

Wherever one goes on Corfu there is always seductively good Corfiot food beckoning in tavernas be it sofrito, bourdetto, traditional Greek dishes or fresh grilled fish and an island nightlife of live Greek music, discos, or local tavernas where guitars strum Corfiot melodies. Accommodations range from back packers specials to quaint or modern apartments to luxury hotels in idyllic locations. Whether its diving in crystal clear waters, walking through olive groves, mountain biking, sailing, windsurfing, horse back riding, or island excursions Corfu offers a unique holiday on an island of rich historical and cultural heritage and much to satisfy one's curiosity.

About the Author

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