Delightful Blend of Corfu Town

Corfu town is a delightful blend of European influences and historic monuments, with the Old Town a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main hub on Corfu, it also has most of the major sites, and is packed in summer.

1. Ágios Spyrídon

The holiest place on the island, Ágios Spyrídon has a distinctive reddomed tower, which guides visitors to this church. Inside, in a silver casket, is the mummified body of the revered Spyrídon, the patron saint of the island. Many Corfiot men are named after the saint, yet Spyrídon himself was not from Corfu but from Cyprus. He entered the church, rising to the rank of bishop. He is believed to have performed many miracles before his death in AD 350, and others since – not least in 1716, when he is said to have helped drive the Otto mans from Corfu after a sixweek siege.

His body was smuggled from Constantinople just before the Turkish occu pation of 1453. It was only by chance that it came to Corfu, where the present church was built in 1589 to house the coffin. The building is also worth seeing for the large amount of silver votive offerings brought by the constant stream of pilgrims. On four occasions each year (Palm Sunday, Easter Saturday, 11 August and the first Sunday in November) the saint’s remains are carried aloft through the streets.

2. Palace of St Michael and St George

The Palace of St Michael and St George was built by the British between 1819 and 1824, using Maltese masons. It served as the home of Sir Thomas Maitland, the first British High Commis sioner, and is the oldest official building in Greece. When the British left Corfu in 1864 the palace was used for a short time by the Greek royal family, but it was later abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. The palace was carefully renovated in the 1950s by Sir Charles Peake, British Ambassador to Greece, and now houses the municipal art gallery, as well as the Corfu Museum of Asian Art.

First opened in 1928, the core of the museum’s collection is the 11,000 items that were donated by Grigorios Manos, a Greek diplomat who had amassed the objects on his travels overseas, and wished to curate the new museum. Unfortunately he died before he could realize this ambition. The exhibits from China, Tibet, Japan, Indochina and India include statues, porcelain ware, screens, armour, silk and ceramics. In front of the building is a statue of Sir Frederick Adam, the British High Commissioner to Corfu from 1824 to 1831. He built the Mon Repos Villa (p69) south of town and was also responsible for popularizing the west coast resort of Paleokastrítsa (p74), one of his favourite spots on the island.

3. Byzantine Museum

The Byzantine Museum, which opened in 1984, is housed in the renovated church of Panagía Antivouniótissa. One of the town’s oldest buildings, it is responsible for some of the museum’s finest exhibits. The small museum takes a bit of finding but the number of magnificent icons on display, dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries, are worth the effort. Many are by artists from the Cretan School who worked and lived on Corfu as the island was a convenient stoppingoff point on the journey between Crete and Venice from the 13th to the 17th centuries during Venetian rule, especially after Crete fell to the Ottomans.

4. Old Fortress

The ruined Old Fortress, or Paleó Froúrio, stands on a promontory fortified by the Byzantines during the 6th century AD. The Old Fortress itself was constructed by the Venetians between 1550 and 1559 and is linked to Corfu town by an iron bridge. The very top of the fortification offers glorious views of the town and along the island’s east coast. Lower down is the NeoClassical St George church, built in 1840. Just inside the fortress is a small collection of Byzantine icons and mosaics that is well worth a look.

5. New Fortress

The Venetians began building the New Fortress, or Néo Froúrio, in 1576 to further strengthen the town’s defences. It was not completed until 1589, 30 years after the Old Fortress, hence their respective names. There are a number of British buildings inside the fortress. The town’s market is held in the former moat to the west.

6. Esplanade

A mixture of park and town square, the Esplanade, or Spianáda, is one of the reasons Corfu town is such an attractive place. Its grand colonnades offer relief from the packed streets in summer, as do the shady park benches and the elegant arcade known as the Listón, which is lined with many good cafés. The Listón was built in 1807 on the orders of French imperial commissioner Mathieu de Lesseps. The name “Listón” comes from the Venetian practice of having a “List” of noble families in the Libro d’Oro or Golden Book – only those on it were allowed to promenade here.

Near the fountain is the Énosis Monument: the word énosis means “unification”, and this celebrates the 1864 union of the Ionian islands with the rest of Greece, when British rule came to an end. The marble monument has carvings symbolizing each of the Ionian Islands. A statue of Ioánnis Kapodí strias, modern Greece’s first president in 1827, stands at the end of the street that flanks the Esplanade and bears his name.

7. Solomos Museum

Dedicated to Greece’s most celebrated poet, Dionysios Solomos (who wrote the “Hymn to Liberty”, two stanzas of which became the national anthem), this attractive museum is located in the house where he lived for many of his later years and died in 1857.

The displays here include personal effects such as the poet’s writing desk and many of his books.

8. Paper Money Museum

This collection of Greek banknotes traces the way in which the island’s currency altered as Corfu’s society and rulers changed over time. The first banknote was issued in British pounds, while later notes show the German and Italian currency of the war years.

The tour ends with the last banknotes issued in drachmas, which were withdrawn in 2002 with the introduction of the euro. Another display shows the process of producing a note.

The museum, which opened in 1981, is housed on the first floor of a charming pink 19thcentury building in which the first branch of the Ionian Bank opened in 1840.

9. Panagía Spiliótissa

The Greek Orthodox church of Panagía Spiliótissa, or Virgin Mary of the Cave, was built in 1577.

It became Corfu’s cathedral in 1841, when the nave was extended. It is dedicated to St Theodora Avgousta, a Byzantine empress whose remains were brought to Corfu at the same time as those of St Spyrídon.

Her body is in a silver coffin near the altar.

 

 

10. Platía Dimarhíou

Within this elegant square stands the Town Hall, a grand Venetian building that began life in 1665 as a single-storey loggia or meeting place for the nobility. It was then converted into the San Giacomo Theatre in 1720, which was the first modern theatre in Greece. A second storey was added in 1903, after a new opera house (destroyed in 1943) was built. Adjacent to it is the Catholic cathedral Ágii Iákovos ke Hristóforos (saints James and Christopher). Consecrated in 1632, it was badly damaged by bombing in 1943 with only the bell tower surviving intact.

11. Archaeological Museum

The Archaeological Museum is a pleasant stroll south from the town centre along the seafront. The collection is small but a highlight is the Gorgon frieze. Dating from the 6th century BC, it originally formed part of the west pediment of the Temple of Artemis near Mon Repos Villa. The museum also displays a number of other fascinating finds from the Temple of Artemis and the excavations at Mon Repos Villa, including the Archaic Lion of Menekrates and a Classical pediment showing the god Dionysos drinking with a youth.

12. Ágii láson ke Sosípatros

Garítsa Bay sweeps south of Corfu town, with the suburb of Anemómylo visible on the promontory. Here, in the street named after it, is the 11th-century church of Ágii láson ke Sosípatros (saints Jason and Sossipater). These disciples of St Paul brought Christianity to Corfu in the 2nd century AD. Inside are black marble columns and porous masonry blocks taken from ancient monuments.

13. Mon Repos Villa

South of Anemómylo is Mon Repos Villa. It was built in 1826 by Sir Frederick Adam, the second High Commissioner of the Ionian state, as a present for his wife, and later passed to the Greek royal family. Nearby are the remains of Paleópolis, with a Doric temple and the Kardáki spring-shrine. Opposite are the 5th-century ruins of the IovianÓs basilica.

14. KanÓni

A short bus ride south of Corfu town is Kanóni, a town with the islands of Vlahérna and Pondikonísi just off the coast. Vlahérna has a tiny white convent that can be reached by a causeway.

In summer boats go to Pondikonísi (Mouse Island), said to be where Odysseus’s ship was turned to stone by Poseidon, stranding Odysseus on the island thought to be Corfu.