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Corfu Town, Corfu, Greece

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A street in Corfu Town, Corfu, Greece.

The town of Corfu is the main habitation on the island of Corfu. Both the town and the island are known as Corfu in English, and Kerkyra in Greek. The town is situated on the east coast of the island, facing Albania and mainland Greece across the Ionian Sea. Half of the population of the island lives in the town, making about 40,000 permanent residents.

Corfu town is a busy, noisy place and can seem a trifle hectic and hot if you are coming from the laid-back resorts, but it is beautiful and well worth a look.

History

The original town of Kerkyra was situated on the headland south of the modern centre of Corfu Town, in the area now known as Paleopolis (which literally means 'old city'). Kerkyra was a city state, ruling itself and the countryside around it and in constant trade and competition with the other city states of Greece, such as Athens, Corinth and Sparta. Kerkyra doesn't come into the history books much, but it is recorded that it won a sea battle against Corinth in 664 BC and successfully prevented the Corinthians from invading the island.

About a thousand years later, in the 6th Century AD, the island was part of the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The town of Kerkyra was destroyed by an invasion of Goths. The people fled northwards about a mile and settled on a rocky headland, where the Old Fortress is now situated. They fortified the headland, building a sort of defensive wall to protect it from the mainland. Because of the two rocky hills on the headland, this town became known as 'Korfyro' (which literally means 'the summit'); over the years this name changed to become the modern name of Corfu.

With the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 13th Century, Corfu changed hands a few times, ending up under the control of the Venetians in the 14th Century. The Venetians were a seafaring nation based in Venice at the north end of the Adriatic Sea. Their navy ruled the Mediterranean, and the island of Corfu is positioned right where the Adriatic opens up into the Mediterranean, so it was of great strategic importance. The Venetians made major changes to the town of Corfu and rebuilt it in the form it is today.

They removed the old Byzantine fortifications and dug a deep trench across the neck of the headland, making it into an island. They fortified the island with massive walls, making it cannon-proof. They moved all the inhabitants out, leaving the newly formed island completely military in purpose. This massive fortress (now known as the Old Fortress) protected the town from sea attack.

They built a new town in front of the fortress. This forms the centre of the modern town of Corfu. They then built another massive line of defenses to protect this town from land attack, and built another fortress (now known as the New Fortress) on a hill just outside the town to protect the town from land attack and to protect the harbour.

The Venetian defenses were so comprehensive that they successfully withstood four separate attempts to conquer the island by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire; while most of Greece suffered under the Turks for centuries, Corfu remained Venetian for 400 years.

Eventually the Venetians were defeated elsewhere by Napoleon, and then Napoleon was in turn defeated by the combined British and German forces. Corfu came briefly under French control and then under British control. Eventually in the mid-19th Century, the island was united with Greece. The town was renamed Kerkyra in Greek, after the ancient Greek town a mile or so to the south.

Sights

The Esplanade and the Liston

The centre of modern Corfu is the Esplanade, a green space surrounded by trees. Half of the Esplanade is a park while the other is set aside for car parking. Along the west side of the Esplanade is a line of buildings called the Liston: these have a covered walkway with arches looking out onto the Esplanade. Here you will find restaurants and places to stop and have a cool drink and to watch the locals go by, which they do in their hundreds every evening in the traditional southern European custom of promenading.

The Old Fortress

To the east of the Esplanade is the bridge across to the Old Fortress. This massive structure occupies the whole of the original pre-Venetian town of Corfu on the headland that is now an island. The Venetian walls still stand as they have done for centuries, but most of the buildings within the fortress have been destroyed over the years in many wars. Watch out for the winged lion of St Mark which is the symbol of Venice.

Those buildings still standing within the fortress date from the British occupation (19th Century). Look out for the lighthouse at the very top, the clock tower and the Church of Saint George, which is a Greek Orthodox church built by the British in the style of an ancient Greek temple. There are also a few small archaeological displays.

It is worth climbing all the way to the summit of the rocky hill, beside the lighthouse, because the view from the top is second to none.

The Venetian town

West of the Esplanade is the Venetian town. This consists of a maze of tiny streets, with markets, tourist shops, coffee shops and houses where real people live. In the area known as Campiello, the town is built on a hill, giving the added complication of steps and curved streets. Despite the hill and the lack of any water, the whole place is very reminiscent of Venice, with tall buildings, little squares and washing lines strung across narrow alleys.

The Church of Saint Spyridhon

In the heart of the Venetian town is Corfu's most important church, the Church of Saint Spyridhon, the patron saint of Corfu. You can easily spot the huge bell tower with the red roof, as it is the tallest in Corfu. When visiting the church, make sure you are dressed respectfully - no exposed shoulders or stomachs, although you'll get away with bare arms and legs. And men should remove their hats.

Like all Greek Orthodox churches, this one is plain on the outside but elaborate on the inside. The entire ceiling is painted with scenes from the life of the saint. There are icons (pictures of saints) around the walls. A marble wall called an iconostasis separates the altar at one end from the main nave of the church. In the iconostasis there are three doors, with the central door leading to the altar. The right-hand door leads to a small chapel which contains the body of Saint Spyridhon in a silver coffin.

Spyridhon was born in Cyprus and was an important figure in the early Christian church. He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, in which the basic beliefs of Christianity were worked out. He is said to have illustrated the principle of the Trinity (three people in one God) by performing a miracle, separating a tile into its component elements of earth, fire and water. After he died, his body was mummified and was eventually sent to Corfu for safe keeping - other parts of the Christian Byzantine Empire were being invaded by Turks. Various miracles were attributed to the saint and he became a favourite of the people. About half the male population seems to be called Spyro.

The saint's coffin is often opened and you can see him lying in state, although there is a protective glass cover. The Greeks are very fond of their saints and locals like to kiss the coffin while a priest reads out prayers. If you are lucky enough to be there when the coffin is open, by all means have a look, but be respectful!

The Greek Orthodox Cathedral

For more of the trappings of the Greek Orthodox religion, visit the cathedral. It is sometimes known by the name 'Panayia Spiliotissa' (Our Lady of the Grotto). The building was constructed in 1577. Not to be outdone, the cathedral also has a preserved saint, in this case Saint Theodora. Her claim to fame is that she legitimised the veneration of icons as a central part of Orthodox Christianity.

The New Fortress

If you're interested in fortifications, a trip to the New Fortress is a must. It stands on a hill just west of the Venetian town. The entrance is at the harbour.

The Archaeological Museum

South of the Esplanade is the Archaeological Museum. Unlike most of Greece, Corfu doesn't have a huge amount of archaeological remains, but there are enough to make a visit to the museum worthwhile.

The prize exhibits are the Gorgon Pediment and the Menekrates Lion. The Gorgon Pediment is part of a temple; it is the triangular bit that sits on top of the columns. The temple in question was uncovered on the shores of Lake Halikiopoulou about two miles south of Corfu and dates from 590 BC. The pediment itself is carved with various scenes and is dominated by the figure of a Gorgon (a monstrous snake woman) in the centre. The Menekrates Lion is a beautiful statue of a crouching lion from a tomb close to the museum. Dating from the 7th Century BC, the inscription on the tomb tells of a man called Menekrates who died at sea.

Slightly out of the Centre

Mon Repos

The headland south of the centre of Corfu contains the villa and gardens of Mon Repos. This was built as a residence for the British High Commissioner in the early 19th Century. The estate later became a palace for the Greek Royal family. It was here that Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, was born. In the 1990s, the estate was taken over by the state and now is open to the public.

Because Mon Repos is built on the site of the ancient Greek town of Kerkyra, some of the best archaeological remains were discovered in the grounds. You can see two Doric temples, one dedicated to Hera and the other to Poseidon. The villa itself is worth a visit.

Paleopolis

If you're interested in archaeology, you might like to take a stroll around Paleopolis, the suburb of Corfu town where the original city of Kerkyra was located. There are various archaeological digs. For the more casual visitor, you can take a 'tourist train' at the Liston which brings you for a quick drive around Paleopolis, showing you as much of it as most people would want to see.

Kanoni, Vlaherna and Pondikonissi

The peninsula south of Corfu is known as Kanoni. It is an expensive suburb of the town. It is cut off from the rest of the island on the west side by the swampy lagoon, Lake Halikiopoulou. This lagoon is separated from the sea by a causeway, which joins the southern tip of Kanoni to Perama. Here you will find two little islands: Vlaherna and Pondikonissi. The view from Kanoni of these two islands, with Corfu in the background, is the most famous (and often seen on picture-postcards) in Corfu; you'll see copies of it everywhere.

Vlaherna is a small flat island with a causeway out to it. It is completely occupied by a tiny monastery, which seems to have only one monk. There is a tiny church complete with icons; the icon of the monastery's patron saint, Our Lady of Vlaherna, is in pride of place on a pedestal in the middle of the church. There is also a rather larger gift shop where you can buy copies of the icons or other less religious things such as corkscrews and calendars.

Pondikonissi is a hilly, wooded island. You can take a boat trip to it from Kanoni or from Perama. This island also has a church, although it is somewhat dominated by the telecommunications antenna at the top of the island. The name Pondikonissi means 'Mouse Island', but these days it is more overrun by tourists than by mice.

The picture postcard image described above misses out on one important aspect of this beautiful spot: Corfu Airport. The airport is built on the lagoon and the main runway ends only about 100 metres from the monastery. This makes it an ideal spot for aeroplane watching, as the planes appear to graze the top of the monastery as they land and take off. Standing on the causeway from Kanoni to Perama, you are directly in line with the flight path and can have your hat knocked off by the wheels of the planes. Don't take photographs of the planes, though, because you might be imprisoned, as happened recently to some British tourists.

Further out still

The Achilleion Palace

In the 19th Century, Elisabeth, Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, used to come to Corfu for her summer holidays. She wanted somewhere suitable to stay, so in 1892 she had built an enormous palace which she named the Achilleion, after the Greek hero Achilles. The palace is situated on a steep hillside about 10km south of Corfu and can be visited by organised coach trips, by taxi or by hired car. The palace closes at 2:30pm.

The palace is either the ultimate in classical elegance or a monument to kitsch, depending on your point of view.


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