Kérkyra, 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.
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.
Behind 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.
That 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
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.
Above 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.
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...
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org