Created | Updated Feb 23, 2009
A Greek isle, and the most pleasant place that ever our eyes beheld for the exercise of a solitary and contemplative life... In our travels many times, falling into dangers and unpleasant places, this only island would be the place where we would wish ourselves to end our lives.
- Anthony Sherley, 16th Century English Privateer
Corfu, or Kerkyra, is one of the northernmost islands in Greece and the greenest in the Mediterranean. The whole place seems to be covered in flowers, both wild ones growing in the olive groves and ostentatious clusters of colour around people's houses. There are many butterflies, birds and lizards. The nightlife is not bad either... with the frogs croaking and the fireflies flashing, better than a disco. And the ouzo makes the bouzouki sound quite bearable.
Corfu is a Greek island of 590 square kilometres in the Ionian Sea, which is off the west coast of the Greek mainland. Corfu is so far north that the north end of the island faces Albania across a narrow strait.
The island is crescent-shaped with a lump at the north end. The north of the island is separated from the rest by a line of mountains, the biggest being Mount Pandokrator. The centre of the island is a flat plain while the south consists of steep hills and valleys.
Corfu has a Mediterranean climate, with mild winters and temperate summers. The island gets a lot of rain in spring and autumn, so it is very green, much more so than other Greek islands. The rain tends to stop at the beginning of May and doesn't start again until October so the tourist season is fairly free of rain, although there is the occasional thunderstorm and sudden outburst.
The gentle climate makes the island very suitable for growing olive trees. The Venetians who controlled the island for four centuries planted over four million olive trees; most of these are still there and some are over 500 years old. Corfu produces about 3% of the entire world's production of olive oil. Corfu olives are very salty; they have to be soaked in water and rinsed daily for 60 days before they can be eaten and even then they are an acquired taste!
The gentle, moist climate also makes the island ideal for mosquitoes. Visitors will get bitten, although the locals seem to be immune to the bites. Thankfully, the mosquito bites do not carry any diseases, but they can be extremely irritating and in some cases can lead to severe allergic reaction.
To avoid mosquito bites, close your windows at dusk and only open them after all lights have been put out. Use an electric mosquito repeller in your bedroom, which must be refilled each day with a chemical tablet. When going out to eat in the evening, spray exposed skin with mosquito repellent.
Corfu is a lovely place to spend a week in the summer. The accommodation tends to be basic, but this is made up for by the genuinely friendly Greeks, who will always make you feel at home.
Corfu is a small island so it is easy and cheap to travel around by bus. From Corfu Town to the farthest reaches of the island costs only €3. Alternatively, you can hire a car easily at most resorts.
The sea is warm enough to make swimming pleasant. It is slightly warmer on the west coast than on the east, although it can also be rougher. The sea temperature increases steadily over the summer so that by September it is like a warm bath.
Food and Wine
Since you are never far from the sea in Corfu, you will find fresh fish on offer in most restaurants. You'll also find the 'international cuisine' favourites of spaghetti bolognese and pizza. You should, however, try some of the local Greek dishes. Meat dishes tend to be well done so that the meat is falling apart. All Greek food is served warm rather than hot.
Saganaki - A popular starter, this consists of cheese fried in olive oil.
Moussaka - A base of minced lamb with a topping of aubergine (eggplant) baked in the oven.
Souvlaki - The Greek name for shish kebab - cubes of meat, usually pork or lamb, cooked on a skewer over a barbecue.
Gyros - The Greek name for doner kebab - a huge hunk of meat cooked on a rotating grill and sliced off as needed.
Stifado - A veal stew with tomatoes and red wine.
Sofrito - Veal cooked with vinegar, garlic and parsley.
Kleftiko - Lamb cooked in a foil parcel with garlic and herbs.
Greek salad - There are various recipes, but they should include tomato, cucumber, feta cheese and black olives.
Baklava - A dessert based on filo pastry soaked in honey.
Greek wine is poor in quality but adequate. What it lacks in taste, it makes up for in value - a jug of local wine will set you back about €2. For better quality wine, try reds from Crete or whites from Santorini. Retsina is white wine to which pine resin has been added, giving it a taste like high-quality turpentine.
Greek beer is rare - there seems to be only one Greek-made beer, the pleasant-tasting 'Mythos'. You will however find plenty of beer from Germany, the Netherlands, etc.
Greek spirits include Metaxa, a crude brandy, and ouzo, a liquorice-flavoured pastis-like drink which should be taken with water. Raki is a highly alcoholic drink somewhat akin to paint stripper. Corfu's speciality is kumquat liqueur.
Corfu was inhabited by the Ancient Greeks who had a city just south of Corfu Town called Kerkyra. Never a major player in the history of Greece, virtually the only mention in the history books is a naval battle between the Kerkyrans and the Corinthians in 664 BC.
Being the closest point in Greece to Italy, the island was the first to be invaded by the Romans, in 229 BC. Corfu remained part of the Roman Empire for nearly 1,500 years. The Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th Century AD, but the Eastern Roman Empire lived on, with its capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul) and became known as the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantine Empire was conquered by the West in 1204 and Corfu changed hands a few times until it came under the control of Venice in 1386. The Venetians were a great seafaring nation. Corfu was important to them strategically, so they held onto it for four hundred years, until the defeat of the Venetian Republic by France in 1797.
Once again, Corfu was passed around - first the French and then the British controlled it. Finally it became part of Greece in 1864.
Corfu's most famous inhabitants were probably the Durrell family who lived in the countryside near Corfu Town in the 1930s. Louisa Florence Durrell was a widow and mother of four children, three of them (Lawrence, Leslie and Margo Durrell) young adults, while the fourth (Gerald Durrell) was a ten-year old boy. Surviving on a civil-service pension and a considerable inheritance from her husband, they were well enough off to live like lords in Corfu and stayed there for five years until the Second World War forced them to flee to England. Because both Lawrence and Gerald became writers, the exploits of the family are well known, particularly through the writings of Gerald in his hilarious classic, My Family and Other Animals.
Gerald Durrell's Corfu, experienced in the 1930s, was a very different place from the island today. Motorised transport was rare and tourists were unheard of. The island's abundant wildlife moulded Gerald into the animal collector that he later became.
For Lawrence, the Greek lifestyle, with its close ties to the land and sea, provided the link to the classics of Ancient Greek literature which he felt could not be truly understood without an understanding of modern (1930s) Greece.
The Rise of Tourism
During the war, Lawrence Durrell, forced to flee to Egypt, wrote his book Prospero's Cell describing Corfu in artistic terms, because he felt that the Greek way of life could not survive the war. Ironically, the Greek lifestyle emerged from the war relatively unscathed, only to be destroyed twenty years later by an influx of tourists, mainly British and some of them lured to the island by his and his brother's writings.
The first tourist resorts, Ipsos and Benitses, were wild places. The British wanted beer and partying, and they got them. Then in the 1980s, the young crowd stopped coming, perhaps lured to other shores by names such as 'Ibiza'. The tourist industry was in difficulties and had to redevelop, concentrating more on family-style holiday makers. New resorts sprang up all around the island, catering for tourists from Germany and Eastern Europe as well as Britain and Ireland. One wild resort remains: Kavos in the extreme south of the Island.
Corfu is a riot of wildlife, although it is not quite as much in evidence as it was in the days of Gerald Durrell, when he spent five happy years tracking it down and bringing it back to his ever-patient mother's house. Particularly noteworthy are the following:
Swallows and housemartins - These birds build their nests under the eaves of houses and swoop around noisily catching insects and even taking drinks from swimming pools without landing. Housemartins are black and white while swallows have bluish-black plumage with a red patch on their throat.
Yellow and green butterflies - It is hard to believe anything could be so brightly coloured.
Lizards - The morning is the best time to see these as they sun themselves, catching a few rays before they start the day. The most usual sort is brown with a bright blue patch on their throat.
Sea urchins - You won't find these wandering the roads, but you should watch out for them at the beaches; they are small balls covered in black spikes. Standing on one can be very painful.
Tortoises - These are still fairly common.
Corfu appears to come alive at night. Frogs and the scops owl fill the air with sound, while fireflies provide visual effects. Unfortunately, night is also the time for mosquitoes.
The scops owl - It is unlikely that you will see this tiny bird, but his cries echo out over the island, not so much 'to wit to woo' as 'clop ... clop'.
Pipistrelle bats - When it gets too dark for the swallows and housemartins, their place is taken by tiny bats which flit around catching insects. Those with good hearing will hear their high-pitched 'tsp tsp' call, or even the clicking of their sonar.
Frogs - Where there are pools of standing water, you will find frogs. Their croaking is much louder than you would expect for the size of them.
Fireflies - On a good night, away from the streetlights, you can see hundreds of these tiny flashing lights floating in the air. With luck you can even catch one in your hands and watch him (her?) flashing away.
Mosquitoes - Unfortunately with the warm climate comes the mosquitoes. These have been discussed earlier.
A Quick Guide to the Island
Corfu has no major 'sights', with the exception of Corfu Town, the Kanoni peninsula and the Achilleion Palace. These are all described in the entry on Corfu Town.
With the exception of Lefkimmi, all the major towns are on the coast, so this quick tour will start at the capital, Corfu Town, and go anti-clockwise around the island.
Corfu Town - This Venetian town is fully described in its own entry.
Dassia and Ipsos - These resorts have settled down since the 1970s and now offer high-quality accommodation with a good beach.
Mount Pandokrator - This mountain dominates the northern part of Corfu. There is a small monastery on the top, as well as a radio transmitter. The name Pandokrator means 'Ruler of the World' and is a title given to Jesus Christ.
The North-East Coast and Kalami - The slopes of Pandokrator come right down to the sea. The road is a sequence of sharp bends with tiny little towns and picturesque coves sandwiched between the mountain and the sea. Kalami is probably the best known of these. Lawrence Durrell stayed here for a year just before the Second World War. The house where he stayed is now the White House restaurant.
Kassiopi - A picturesque little harbour on the north coast which is rapidly turning into a tourist resort.
Rhoda - A pleasant resort popular with British visitors.
Sidhari - Another one for the Brits. Sidhari's beach is rather dirty, but there are interesting rock formations to the west.
Ayios Yeoryios (North) - This resort is hidden on the west coast of the northern part of the island. It is the most isolated spot on Corfu, difficult to get to even if you have a car. An excellent beach.
Paleokastritsa - On the west of the island south of the mountains, this town is very popular. There are two small beaches in spectacular coves surrounded by cliffs. There is also a monastery.
Ayios Gordhis - A quiet resort with a pebble beach.
The Korission Lagoon - This shallow stretch of water was built by the Venetians. It is now a nature reserve and you can see all sorts of wildlife here. The beach between the north end of the lagoon and the sea is popular with nudists (although this is officially illegal) because of its remoteness.
Issos Beach - Between the lagoon and the sea is Issos beach, one of the best.
Ayios Yeoryios (South) - At the south end of Issos Beach, a remote and growing resort popular with Germans.
Ayii Gordhis Paleohori Beach - A deserted beach without any resort nearby, you will need a car or scooter to get to here. Expect there to be five or six other people on the beach on a busy day.
Kavos - At the southern tip of the island. If you like excessive beer drinking, night clubs with names like 'G Spot', vomiting, sex on the street and bungee jumping, then Kavos is the place for you!
Lefkimmi - Inland from Kavos, this is the only real Greek town on the island outside of Corfu Town itself. Here you will see old ladies dressed in black on donkeys, and old men sitting outside the coffee house playing backgammon.
Petreti - This little fishing harbour has a couple of restaurants and is pleasant enough but lacks a good beach.
Boukari - This tiny hamlet has some very good seafood restaurants.
Messonghi - A quiet resort popular with Irish and Czech visitors.
Moraïtika - A lively spot with a good beach.
Benitses - Another lively spot, although the beach is not as good.