By Jim Ferri
It doesn’t take long to see how Corfu, on Greece’s western Ionian Coast, differs from other Greek islands.
Step off the plane or the ferry from the mainland, and you find it’s much greener than the islands of the Aegean in eastern Greece.
You also quickly realize something even more obvious: its architecture is more Italian than Greek, the result of 400 years of Venetian occupation after the island was cleaved from the Roman and Byzantine Empires.
Occupation of this beguiling bit of real estate continued with both the French and British nesting here until forced out prior to Greece unification in the 19th century.
This colonization mash-up has had a pleasant consequence, however: it’s embedded Corfu with a unique blend of cultures found nowhere else in Greece.
I visited the island for a few days, and stayed in Corfu Town, the little cosmopolitan capital that’s the perfect location for exploration of the island.
Exploring Corfu Town
On the first morning of my visit I had breakfast below a wisteria arbor in the garden of my hotel, the lovely little boutique Bella Venezia Hotel, in the old city. Over eggs and coffee served from a little garden kitchen, I planned my day.
After 45 minutes, I was down the steps of the Bella Venezia with map in hand. I crossed the street and cut across a little park to Gilford Street, a cobblestone pedestrian street lined with restaurants, cafés and a multitude of shops.
The entire area was a maze of zigzagging streets and the occasional narrow lanes, above which housewives hung their laundry, giving it all a colorful and Old World atmosphere. I soon found myself only a few minutes from the sea.
The Lure of Shops and Singing
It was 9 o’clock in the morning, and the town was still very quiet, the only noise that of chattering children on their way to school. I soon began passing people out walking their dogs, and an occasional shopkeeper opening for the day.
The city began to rouse as I neared the old British cricket field, where the cafes and shops in the French-built colonnaded buildings provided more than a nuance of Paris’s Rue de Rivoli.
There was a cruise ship in port and by 9:45 am a few tour buses had arrived, their passengers soon swarming through the shops in the warren of souk-like lanes nearby.
I milled about with little groups of them, taking in the local color before I was lured further up one street by the sound of singing. I followed my ears and found it was ecclesiastical refrains wafting from services at two Greek Orthodox churches within a block of one another.
I spent the rest of the day just wandering about aimlessly.
I walked back towards the Cricket Ground, still much used by local teams, and then onto the nearby Palace of St. Michael and St. George.
The oldest official building in Greece, it was built by the British for its High Commissioner and then became the home of the Greek royal family when the British left Corfu in the mid-19th century. Today it’s home to a few governmental offices and a Museum of Asiatic Art.
I later drove around the colorful port area pass the Old Fortress on the east side of the old city, and later past the New Fortress on the west side, both built by the Venetians during a 30-year period.
It was a delicious way to enjoy a few hours exploring the old city, meandering here and there, poking into shops along the way.
In the afternoon I drove south down the coast about a half hour to the popular Achílleion Palace, built for Empress Elizabeth of Austria, it’s said, as a getaway from the pressures of the Hapsburg court. In the 1980s though, it became better known as the set for the casino scenes in the James Bond film For You Eyes Only.
It’s now an interesting museum, made all the more so since there are no signs around saying “no flash” or “don’t touch anything.” It’s rather fascinating, especially the terrace on the top floor, with its busts and statues of famous Greeks and others, and its beautiful view out over Corfu.
North to Palaiokastrítsa
The next morning, following another breakfast in the garden, I decided to drive northward to Palaiokastrítsa, a popular resort area on the island’s west coast. Corfu is so small it was a relatively short drive across the island, only about 10 miles.
I had been to Palaiokastrítsa years ago and remembered it as a beautiful area, three small coves separated by a forested headland with a monastery atop it, with few tourists and no hotels. Now, however, I found that civilization had arrived.
The area has been taken over by resorts catering to the British and Germans, although, thankfully, the beaches themselves weren’t packed with tourists. I looked around for a half-hour or so and then drove up the headland to Moní Theotókou, the monastery I had seen from below years earlier. Unlike the coves below, it turned out to be just as I had imagined it.
Although it is no longer home to monks, the 17th-century Moní Theotókou is a beautiful place. In its church there’s a carving of The Tree of Life on the ceiling; outside bougainvillea appears to cascade everywhere. There’s a little museum there also, which I found interesting, that contains everything from ancient religious icons to a giant clamshell.
Up Through the Mountain Villages
Instead of heading directly back to Corfu Town, I took the road up through the mountains to Lakones, which I heard provided a spectacular view of the coast. I reached the tiny village after a three-mile serpentine ride, with beautiful wildflowers cascading out onto the pavement all along the way.
The town was tiny, and the road became one lane as it wove through it. Along it were a few cafés where people sat sipping and chatting as they whiled away the day. All about was a the down the coast that was nothing short of spectacular.
I continued through Lakones and several other tiny villages, passing through ancient olive groves terraced on the mountainside. In the nearby little village of Makrades, every house seemed to be a mom-and-pop shop selling olive oil and honey on its front steps.
I continued along the road through small olive groves that wafted into little vineyards and then into forest that climbed to the top of the mountain. After a while, I came to a sign that said Corfu Town was 20 km away. I looked around and thought the two areas were so different it could easily be 200 kilometers away.
One could easily succumb to lingering in the villages of the mountains and these western coast towns, and I considered it. But I decided to stick with my original plan and headed directly back to Corfu Town.
In the old city the day before I had found a restaurant whose menu had been calling me to dinner all afternoon. It was a Corfu Town experience I didn’t want to miss.
If you go:
Bella Venezia Hotel
Napoleontos Zampeli 4
Kerkira 491 00, Greece
+30 2661 020707