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Corfu Town

Corfu TownKérkyra, the capital of Corfu, is one of the most interesting towns in Greece due to the strong influence of the Venetians who for four-plus centuries controlled the island. So it strongly resembles an Italian city – a more savoury version of Naples comes to mind for some visitors. Like the other Ionian islands (except for Lefkáda), Corfu was never occupied by the Ottomans, which gives it a very different character from the rest of Greece. But Kérkyra Town has had other inputs as well: from the British, the French, and the Greeks and Romans whose ancient buildings are still in evidence at several archaeological sites and the excellent archaeological museum. The compact, strollable old quarter, a protected UNESCO heritage site, nestles between the two Venetian fortresses; its oldest district – the Campiello – is a particular joy to wander aimlessly around. Although the German bombardment of September 1943 caused heavy damage – including the destruction of the sumptuous Belle Époque theatre-cum-opera-house – and most of the low Venetian walls or gates enveloping the town centre (including the Pórta Reále) were thoughtlessly pulled down by the Greeks late in the 19th century, enough has survived to make a pleasing, homogenous ensemble of monumental architecture, narrow lanes (the so-called kandoúnia) and quiet little squares with fountains in the middle. The population of Kérkyra Town is about 30,000, not counting a large student population at the locally headquartered University of the Ionian, which makes it one of the more cosmopolitan island capitals.

Corfu On the west side of the Spianáda (Esplanade plaza), Napoleonic-French style is most evident in the Listón, an elegant arcaded parade modelled on the Parisian Rue de Rivoli. Under the arches shelter some of the most popular (and expensive) cafés on the island; the Olympia (aka Tou Zizimou) is considered the most venerable and stylish. Their tables overlook the Spianáda’s lawns, which used to host weekend cricket matches (a British introduction). Alas, parking demands have shrunk the pitch here and most matches are now held at a newish stadium out at Gouviá, but you can still sit here and sip a ginger beer (another British contribution). It was the French who landscaped the Spianáda, thus creating one of the most attractive town squares in all of Greece; for the Venetians it was merely a patch of waste ground, the site of old houses demolished to permit a free field of fire from the Old Fort, which lies east of the Spianáda, beyond the Contrafossa channel dug by the Venetians and now home to a fishing fleet.
 
Although originally established by the Byzantines during the 6th century, most of the existing Old Fort is of Venetian vintage; the British demolished most of their additions before handing the island over in 1864. Today you enter at the Schulenberg statue via a metal bridge, which replaced the old draw-bridge over the Contrafossa; the adjacent gatehouse has become an excellent small exhibit of Byzantine and post-Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. Further inside, there is the British-built church of Saint George, a popular snack bar, fortifications to climb around for excellent views over town (best before noon), and on the north flank of the fortifications a small marina (with a restaurant) on the site of the Venetian galley port.  

Bounding the Spianáda on the north is the Palace of Saint Michael and George, built between 1819 and 1824 by Maltese stone masons working for the British, and used as the official residence of their high commissioner and the seat of the rubber-stamp Ionian Senate. Today it houses two museums, by far the more interesting being the Museum of Asian Art, containing almost 11,000 Asian artefacts collected by two Greek diplomats with exemplary taste stationed in the Far East. The original, east wing comprises mostly funerary statuary and bowls, pottery and blue-and-white porcelain from various Chinese dynasties. The newer, west wing houses an impressive miscellany: Hindu and Jain deities, relief work from Gandhara (a Hellenistic kingdom in present-day Afghanistan), Buddhist devotional art from every south Asian nation, Japanese folding screens and woodblock prints by such masters as Hokusai and Utamaro.
 
Corfu, Faliraki LidoBehind the palace, once past the little Faliráki Lido with its summer snack-café, chapel and pair of all-year bars, Arseníou Street curls around the Campiello, allowing fine sea views across to Albania and Vídos islet, the final resting place for the most desperately ill or wounded casualties among the retreating Serbian army in 1916. From Arseníou, a flight of steps climbs to the  Byzantine Museum housed in the single-aisled, timber-roofed 15th-century Andivouniótissa church. Once a private chapel belonging to two notable families, it was donated to the state in the 1970s, and now contains a wealth of icons from the 15th to 19th centuries, many from the so-called Cretan School; after Crete fell to the Ottomans, many highly skilled artists came as refugees to Venetian-held Corfu.
 
Nearby there is an Orthodox cathedral, but the primary church in the hearts of Corfiots is the one dedicated to the island’s patron saint, Ágios Spyrídon, just off the Listón, containing Spyridon’s mummified body. Originally a humble shepherd on Cyprus, he became a monk, then a bishop, and took part in the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325AD. After his death in 348 or 349, various miracles were attributed to him, and his exhumed remains were found to exude a pleasant odour – a sure sign of sanctity. They were taken to Constantinople for veneration in the church of the Holy Apostles; when the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, his relics (along with those of Saint Theodora Augusta) were sent to Corfu, where they arrived after three years of adventures. It is claimed that Saint Spyridon has spared Corfu calamity on four occasions: twice from epidemics, once from starvation, and – at the height of the 1716 Turkish siege, on 11 August – by appearing above the defending forces with a lighted torch and scaring the invaders away.
 
Corfu townThat day is now a local feast day of the saint, when his relics are paraded through the streets, as they are on Palm Sunday, Easter Saturday and the first Sunday in November. The soundtrack for the procession is always provided by one of Kérkyra Town’s famous philharmonic societies – rather confusingly, in Greek filarmonikí means a municipal marching band and not a symphonic orchestra as in the Anglo-Saxon world. There are two – or perhaps even three – competing, smartly uniformed bands in the town, and very good they are. (Corfu has a rich musical tradition, and historically many of Athens’ symphony orchestra players were initially trained in the island’s conservatories).  On Spyridon’s canonical feast day (December 12) there’s no musical procession, but his church stays open for 24 consecutive hours from the night before for pilgrims to pay their respects. A goodly fraction of the island’s men are named Spyros (short for Spyridon).
 
Other traces of Kérkyra Town’s heterogenous religious past can be found in the Catholic Cathedral of SS James and Christopher on the stepped Platía Dimarhíou, still open daily for use by the over 3,000 local Catholics, all descended from the Maltese masons brought here by the British, and the sole surviving synagogue at Velisaríou 4, the Scuola Greca; just 60 Jews still live here, too few to support a permanent rabbi who is brought specially from Israel for the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays. Above the old Jewish quarter and the Spiliá neighbourhood abutting the old port looms the New Fort , built between 1572 and 1645 in anticipation of the next, inevitable Ottoman siege.  It’s a masterpiece of military architecture, with some later French and British modifications, but the main reason to show up today (in the afternoon) is for superb views over the old-town rooftops, or if there’s a special event inside.

Museum of the Serbs on CorfuAbove Platía Dimarhíou, at Moustoxýdou 19, one of the many parallel lanes of Pórta Remoúnda district, is the Museum of the Serbs on Corfu, which minutely documents the experiences of the Serbian army and government-in-exile here, when nearly 140,000 soldiers took shelter on Corfu from January 1916 onwards: a little-known episode of World War I. Amongst their other notional allies, only France provided transport, supplies and medical attention to the defeated army – though a period poster, issued by a New York-based relief committee, makes interesting reading (“Save Serbia, Our Ally”)  in light of the American 1990s demonization of the country.   

The only significant sight or site in the sprawling newer quarters is the Archaeological Museum, a short walking distance south of the Serb museum at Vraïla 5. The most celebrated attraction is the menacing Gorgon pediment (c. 585 BC) from the Temple of Artemis, discovered in 1912 at Paleópolis, but rather unfairly it tends to eclipse equally noteworthy finds such as the earlier Archaic Lion of Menekrates, a small pediment from 500 BC showing the god Dionysos and a youth reclining at a symposium, and a dozen statuettes of the goddess Artemis in her primary aspect as mistress of the beasts.

TOWN PRACTICALITIES

Kérkyra Town is ideal for walking around, and you shouldn’t have to use the urban blue-bus system with its base at Platía Sarókko (San Rocco). The extravagant can rent a horse-drawn carriage for a perimetric tour of the town, or take the little train that rides through the old city. The town is the transportation hub for the island and you can get anywhere by green bus (the station is in the moat behind the New Fort), taxi or by renting a car.

There are many different categories of hotels for those who want to stay here to take advantage of excellent town dining and shopping opportunities, venturing out to remote beaches and villages by day. Corfu has a (deserved) reputation as an expensive spot, but the students and locals have to go out somewhere, so a little digging around will uncover some more-or-less normally priced options. Here's some to start with...

Corfu Restaurants

Akamatra Zythopoleio at Odos Prosaléndou 8–10, Spiliá district. Atmospheric little canteen preserving its original medieval arches and pointed brick walls. It’s cheaper at lunchtime, with hearty specials like bean soup, canneloni and giouvarláki (rissole soup). The proprietress would like to ditch the first part of the name that she inherited – a November 17 hangout-village on Ikaría – but Greek bureaucracy being what it is, she can’t without significant bother. As the second tag zythopolío indicates, they’re big on beer, both imported and the local, somewhat pricey, red beer and ale brewed at Corfu’s own microbrewery in Arílas. Tel: 26610 40101. Open Mon–Sat.

La Famiglia Maniarízi & Arlióti 16 (Kandoúni Bízi), alley between Filellínon and Nikifórou Theotóki. Kérkyra Town has about a half-dozen Italian eateries from pizzeria to full-blown trattoria; this basement bistro, owned by a Greco-Italian couple since 2001 I think, is reckoned the best. It’s certainly cozy and usually full, so reservations are a good idea. Expect a menu of salads, pasta dishes like linguini all cozze, a few token Greek platters like leek pie, and Italian desserts. Excellent bulk wine from the Neméa region or Santoríni. Tel: 26610 30270. Open dinner only Mon–Sat, open Sun in August, closed Sun & Mon Nov–April.

Khryssomallis (alias Babis) Nikifórou Theotóki 6. The sign out front reads zythopsitopolío (“beer-hall-grill”), but it’s actually about the last surviving traditional oven-food place in the old town: stews, hórta, mousakás, stuffed cabbage leaves, lentil soup and so forth, washed down by smooth but potent red bulk wine. From the outside tables on the street you can even see the Listón. The Durrells ate here during their 1930s stay; the restaurant has supposedly been around for two decades prior to that. Get there in good time at lunch, before the fixed local clientele descends. Tel: 26610 30342. Open daily until late.

Mouragia
Arseníou 15, Mourágia quay. Competent seaside ouzerí (though views to the water, and Vídos islet, are from the inland side of the street). A good mix of seafood such as flash-fried atherína (sand smelt) and Corfiot specialities like sofríto and pastitsáda, plus competent starters; maybe not as toothsome or copious in the portion as when I first started eating here in 2002, but still good value for the location . Tel: 26610 33815. Open Apr–Nov only (weather does not permit otherwise) .
 
Rex Kapodistríou 66, behind the Listón. If your wallet’s flush and your wardrobe’s flash, this is the place for a special-occasion blowout (count on 45 euros minimum per head). One of the older (founded 1932) spots in town, the Rex does generic Mediterranean recipes with a nice nouvelle twist; on a winter visit I had fish soup, orange-fleshed squash turnover, portobello mushrooms with cheese. In summer, there are less formal tables outside. Tel: 26610 39649. Open daily.

Rouvas Stamatíou Desýlla 13, Pórto Reále bazaar. A classic lunchtime magerío (canteen, cookshop) which despite a decidedly unglamourous location attracts visiting celebrity chefs like Rick Stein to learn just how traditional island cooking should be (a tad on the oily side, be warned). Recipes include pastítsio, artichokes with peas, meat stews, fish soup and hearty salads. Unlike many casserole-dish places, the interior is bright and appealing, rather than dingy. Tel: 26610 31182. Mon–Sat 9am–6pm.

Tsipouradiko Prosaléndou 8–10, behind the Efetío (Appeals Court), Spiliá. This is the budget/bohemian/student hangout for the town, thanks to a reliable buzz and toleration of smokers (upstairs in the winter, out in the courtyard in summer). Groups need to book a table, or be prepared to wait a while. Strong tsípouro (or quaffable bulk wine) here complements grilled mushrooms, courgette pie, tiganiá (pork stir-fry), little fishes, and eggplant recipes. Tel: 26610 82240. Open Mon–Sat dinner only.

Nightlife

As everywhere in Greece, the financial crisis has devastated nightlife venues; forget anything you may have read elsewhere about the “Disco Strip” just west of the New Port – with the exception of durable warhorse Au Bar (www.aubarcorfu.com) it is essentially extinct. Of late, Corfiots and visitors get their nocturnal kicks in more low-key, inexpensive ways, for example at the tiny Café del Arte at Kandoúni Bízi 23 (with acoustic music Thurs–Sat), the Stablus multi-venue complex on Solomoú just below the Spiliá gate of the New Fort (watch for publicity posters on walls), and the evergreen Café Bristol just off Platía Vrahlióti, near the Listón. All visiting name Greek performers schedule their dates out at the superbly intimate venue Seven Arts Centre/Kendro Epta Tekhnon out beyond the airport in Víros village; they’ve no website, just check utility poles/walls for posters advertising events.

Marc Dubin first visited Greece in 1978, fell in love with it, and returned almost yearly until he began living much of the time on Samos in 1989. He has written for numerous travel publishers – notably Rough Guides and Insight Guides – and on a variety of topics ranging from renovating old Greek houses and Greek cuisine to back-country trekking and Greek music. Marc has also compiled two CDs for World Music Network, Rough Guide to Rebetika and Rough Guide to Greek Café. He is  an accomplished photographer and most of the pictures accompanying the articles on greecetravel.com are his. (You can click on his photos above to see them full size.) To contact Marc with offers of writing jobs or praise you can e-mail him through matt@greecetravel.com

Olympico Jewelry

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