The Achilleion, built in 1890 by the Austrian Empress Elizabeth
of Bavaria (“Sissi”,) is located a few miles out of town.
The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
Thus, Lord Byron in the third canto of “Don Juan”, written in 1819 just five years before his death. He died of malaria, a casualty of the Greek uprising against the Turks, at Messolonghi off the coast of the Ionian Sea.
Byron was among the many Englishmen, and certainly other western Europeans, to become enamored of things Greek during the classical revival among intellectuals and artists during the 18th and 19th centuries. Byron was a romantic. He loved much of what industrializing England was not: the sunny south; the velvety Mediterranean seascapes evoked by Homer in the Odyssey; the national aspirations of an ancient race in conflict with a foreign occupier.
The Liston promenade in Corfu Town.
The island of Corfu, in the Ionian Sea off the west coast of Greece, was particularly favored by the English. This connection originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, when the British were granted a protectorate to govern the new United States of the Ionian Islands (principally Corfu, Lefkas, Ithaca, Kefalonia and Zakynthos). The British stayed for nearly fifty years (1815-1864) and during that time developed deep and lasting relationship, especially with Corfu, that remains to this day.
The history of Greece has produced a cultural mix, with influences of western Europe, the Balkans and Asia Minor. The western coastal islands across the Ionian Sea from southern Italy had a long-standing association with the Republic of Venice. For centuries Corfu was known as “the Door of Venice”, a strongly fortified island maintained as a buffer against the Ottoman Turks. The Venetians held the island from 1401 to 1797. Then, after a short period of French occupation under Napoleon, came the British and, eventually, in 1864, unification with mainland Greece.
Modern Corfu still reflects its colonial past with
British architecture beautifully maintained.
Corfu abounds in natural beauty—lush greenery and lovely beaches.
So, for the contemporary traveler Corfu represents not only natural beauty—lush green mountains, lovely beaches, splendid sailing on Homer’s “wine-dark sea”—it contains much European history and architecture worth examining.
Venerable Venetian villas remain an integral part of Corfu Town. Public edifices built by the British nearly two centuries ago have been beautifully maintained.
The Liston, a lengthy arcade modeled on the Rue de Rivoli and constructed during the Napoleonic period, is a treasure off the Spianada (esplanade).
Although Corfu is fundamentally a Greek island in terms of ethnicity and language, the cuisine has a pronounced Italian flavor. At restaurants in Corfu Town one will find plenty of pastas and pizzas on the menu and, in the resort locales around the island, lots of British pub fare as well.
Corfu’s restaurants boast stunning views and serve a variety of cuisines.
These beach complexes have become a big package vacation destination for tourists from the UK, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. North Americans? If you have no interest in rubbing shoulders with Yanks or Canadians on your Greek holiday, Corfu is for you. Compared with Athens and the Aegean islands to the east, the American market is practically non-existent here. Corfu is of special interest for the Anglophone traveler interested in literature. Shakespeare may well have had the island in mind as the setting for “The Tempest”. In addition to Byron, Edward Lear and various 19th century British writers and artists who passed this way, the contemporary reader most likely has been exposed to “The Durrell’s in Corfu”. The popular television series has served to introduce many British and American viewers both to the island and to the works of the brothers Lawrence and Gerald Durrell.
Durrell’s former home on the Kalami coast where he lived in
the 1930’s today features a small museum and a seaside restaurant.
The Durrell family moved from England to Corfu in 1935. Shortly thereafter Lawrence, the elder brother, began to publish his early novels and travel pieces. Several of these utilize Corfu as a setting. (The American writer Henry Miller, a friend of Durrell’s, visited him on Corfu in 1939. He describes his time on the island in his Greek travel book, “The Colossus of Maroussi”). Lawrence Durrell’s younger brother Gerald, who was just ten when he arrived on Corfu, soon developed a scientific bent with special interest in the flora and fauna of the island. His memoir “My Family and Other Animals” is indeed the main sourcebook for the TV series.
The advent of World War II war brought an end to the idyllic sojourn of the Durrell family on Corfu. Corfu itself was eventually occupied both by German and Italian forces. During the conflict Lawrence worked as a press attaché to the British embassies in Cairo and Alexandria, later moving on to Rhodes, Yugoslavia, Cyprus and eventually France.
A statue of Lawrence is on the Spianada in Corfu Town
where the affection for the Durrells is notable.
Meanwhile Gerald Durrell had returned to England in 1939. He became a keeper at the Whipsnade Zoo, thereafter participating in several wildlife collecting expeditions abroad. The publication of “My Family and Other Animals” in 1956 brought him public renown as a naturalist. He followed that success with two more books about his Corfu days: “Birds, Beasts and Relatives” and “The Garden of the Gods”.
Corfiots apparently have little trouble combining Greek patriotism with a congenial attitude toward their former occupiers. There remains a large British expat community, and English has long amounted to a lingua franca on the island. An enduring affection for the Durrells is notable (there is a statue of Lawrence on the Spianada in Corfu Town and his former home, on the northeast coast at Kalami, amounts to a small museum, preserved much as it was when he lived there in the 1930s).
Corfu’s New Fortress, known for its 2 levels of construction, was initiated by the Venetians.
Aside from the British influence on Corfu, there is of course much to experience on the island and its environs. The Town of Corfu, with its narrow, winding streets and splendid seaside promenades, offers plenty of old world charm. The Old Fortress, built by the Venetians in the 16th century, has become a museum and exhibition center. The Palace of St. Michael and St. George, a 19th century Regency building, houses an excellent Museu of Asian Art. The Achilleion, a grand residential palace built in 1890 by the Austrian Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria (“Sissi”) is located a few miles out of town and draws thousands of visitors yearly. Mon Repos, a villa built in the 1820s as a summer residence for the British High Commissioner, contains parklands and an excellent historical museum. It is also the birthplace of Prince Philip of Greece, husband to the British Queen Elizabeth.
Notable excursions from Corfu by sea include a day-trip to the southern tip of Albania. The resort town of Saranda is jumping off point for visits to the ancient Greek and Roman city of Buthrotum, a remarkably beautiful ruin on the Albanian coast. The nearby verdant mountains, river valleys and karst springs offer a charming natural environment as yet largely free of commercial development.
The resort town of Saranda is jumping off point for visits to the ancient Greek and Roman city of Buthrotum
Not to be missed is the ferry to the other major Ionian islands, the very pathway described by Homer as he narrates the adventures of Odysseus on his long journey from Troy to his home on Ithaca. It is a full day’s journey from the port of Corfu southward to the islands of Paxos, Lefkas, Ithaca, Kefalonia and Zakynthos.
When sailed in the fine weather of late spring, summer or autumn this voyage is a sensual delight of blue seas, blue skies and green mountains landscapes, the ferry boat weaving its way between the Greek mainland and the islands themselves. All the islands offer travel amenities of their own, so that one might spend weeks simply moving back and forth amidst this sea-field of ancient lore.
Or, if one is pressed for time, the ferry can provide the round trip within two days.
The Palace of St. Michael and St. George, a 19th century
Regency building, houses an excellent Museum of Asian Art.
Paleokastritsa is NW of Corfu town.
Known for its secluded sand and
Reaching Corfu by air from the United States is quite easy. Since Corfu is a popular European vacation destination, most any hub in Europe (London, Paris, Rome, Zurich. Athens, et al.) has regular flights directly into the Corfu airport. That airport is close by Corfu Town and, in fact, not far from any location on an island which covers roughly forty miles in length from north to south and fifteen miles in width.
Bus service is frequent and inexpensive. Taxis are reasonably priced. Car rentals are available at the airport, but note that parking in the old town is quite limited.
As is to be expected on an island with a well-developed tourist infrastructure, lodgings and restaurants are numerous and varied. Prices are around the western European average.
Expect to pay a more for lodgings in the heavy tourist season, which runs from May through September. Note that summers can be quite hot on Corfu—the mildest weather comes in late spring and lasts through mid-autumn. As for rain, anticipate plenty of it especially during the winter and early spring. The Ionian islands experience considerably more rainfall than the Aegean islands to the east. Of course this abundant moisture creates lush hillsides and a floral splendor that is unique among the landscapes of Greece.
Feature by Jetsetters Magazine Luxury Editor, Jerry Nemanic; photos by Entertainment Editor, Donna Nemanic.