Corfu, situated off the north western coast of Greece’s mainland is a diverse island comprising of historical towns, pretty villages and shingle beaches with a more temperate climate than Greek islands in the southern hemispheres. The airport is alarmingly close to Corfu Town where the average taxi ride from baggage collection to the centre is less than fifteen minutes.
Corfu Town, the island’s capital is full of surprises and largely unrepresentative of a destination that has become associated with package holiday culture over the years. The old town itself couldn’t be further away from the brash commercialism of 18-30 holiday playgrounds and as a UNESCO heritage site is saturated with vintage buildings and atmospheric streets within a sedate but bustling community. It is also culturally unique reflecting over seven hundred years of European influence due to occupation by the Venetians, French and the British who all left their mark. The main English import here isn’t fish and chip shops and Bingo but cricket, landscaped gardens and a bandstand that could have come straight out of Regent’s Park. It is from this much loved Victorian leftover that locals and visitors can enjoy listening to an eclectic mix of brass band music while a nearby green space is home to cricket matches watched over by coffee drinkers in colonnaded splendour.
In 2007 the old town was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and for good reason due to its architectural heritage ranging from Greek Orthodox churches to buildings reflecting its past occupiers. With its winding streets and picturesque squares that pop up unexpectedly around corners, the town exudes elegance and youthful vibrancy due to a busy local populace and lively student presence. Unlike many ‘museum’ towns that can be found on the tourist trail, Corfu Town feels like a city where people actually live and work, even if it appears at times they are outnumbered by invading visitors in Justin Bieber t-shirts. Of course along with the vibrancy of a living town also comes the inevitable realities of graffiti and neglected outer areas but in general the aesthetic pleasures of this friendly and atmospheric mini metropolis outweigh the detritus of economic depression and political slogans sprayed on walls. It is all the more interesting (especially for walkers) for not being a pristine Disneyfied set piece, but a place that combines both beauty and shabbiness in equal measures.
Forts & City Vistas
The Venetians ruled here for over four centuries and this is reflected in what could be seen as the city’s major signature landmark – The Old Fortress, towering above the sea and guarding the city like a humungous granite bouncer. It’s little wonder that with such a formidable presence threatening outsiders the city was never invaded by the Turks.
The Old Fortress which can be visited and explored to the top for panoramic city views is also one of the most dramatic backdrops for swimmers down below at the foot of the city wall. A lack of sand is cleverly compensated by sun-lounge bedecked concrete pontoons and a man made sandy playground with access to a beach cafe (offering superb Club sandwiches) and chic night bar.
Corfu town not only has one fort but two, the latter built around 1576. Comically referred to as the ‘New Fortress’ it is younger by just twenty three years. Despite its central and imposing position it is mainly ignored by tourists which makes it one of the most enjoyable vintage sites to potter around (a small cafe provides alcoholic and soft drinks) and like the Old Fort also provides stunning views of the city and vistas across to the mainland and mountains of Albania.
Exploring Corfu Town
Small, compact and in places warren like, it doesn’t take more than a few days to feel you know and own the town’s streets. The Esplanade, a mixture of park and town square circumnavigates the front of the town and offers shade and tranquillity away from the busy epicentre.
First stop to get one’s bearings in the town and enjoy a coffee or cool drink amid bustle and elegant surroundings is The Liston overlooking the cricket ground. A colonnaded building housing cafes and built by the French in 1807, this copy of Rue de Rivoli in Paris echoes a period when the Venetians made a ‘list’ of noble families, the only ones allowed to walk along its parade.
The most important and holiest church in Corfu with the tallest belfry on the island. Built in 1589 and named after the saint Spyridon whose mummified body lies inside a silver casket. The interiors contain beautiful frescoes and a plethora of silverware brought by pilgrims over the centuries.
Palace of St Michael and St George
Built by the British in the 19th century as the residence of Sir Thomas Maitland, the building now functions as a museum and houses the Museum of Asiatic Art. The two floored classically designed venue hosts superbly presented exhibits of antiquities.
Around Corfu – Places of interest
A popular excursion out of Corfu town (20 mins bus ride) to the Italian designed ‘retreat’ of Elizabeth Sissy, Empress of Austria and Bavaria whose life reflected in some ways to that of Lady Diana Spencer. Renowned for her beauty and not beyond a little neurotic behaviour herself, she had an obsession with horses, Roman villas, travelling (to counter boredom) and was assassinated in Geneva by an Italian anarchist. The villa is a fascinating mix of styles from Neo Classical to Teutonic. After her death Kaiser Wilhelm II bought the palace in 1907.
Getting there – Take the blue bus from Corfu Town bus station. An all day travel ticket will save hassle.
Prince Philip’s Family Villa
A hidden gem quietly tucked away on the outskirts of Kanoni and standing in what looks like the run down set of Sunset Boulevard. This unassuming and somewhat modest royal residence was the summer retreat of Greece’s royal family and birthplace of the Duke of Edinburgh. A museum since 1967 the surrounding area is home to ancient ruins (Mon Repos) a Byzantine church and the most stunning vista across the Ionian Sea. This shady, tranquil and shabby jewel is best discovered by bike or scooter.
This is a fun, cheap and enjoyable way of seeing what Corfu has to offer although be warned as a mountainous island there can be hills to test even hardened cycle Olympians.
Kanoni & Mouse Island
A relatively non arduous bike ride that runs from Corfu Town’s port (where you hire the bikes) along the bay and towards Kanoni, a postcard perfect peninsula of spectacular views overlooking two tiny islands Vlacherna and Pontikonissi (Mouse Island) the best sights being from the cliff top restaurants.
Swimming at Kanoni
Avoid the scrappy and rather unedifying mini beach at the back of the causeway’s only cafe and instead take the dinky boat (5mins duration) to Mouse Island which is quiet and only visited by a handful of curious folk for its treetop monastery. The adventurous among you should find risking cuts and bruises over the island’s volcanic girdle a minor inconvenience in order to enjoy total solitude in clear, aqua blue waters. The boat service is regular.
Nearby Excursions – Paxos and Antipaxos
Corfu is the best base to explore the northern Ionian islands and is only an hour’s reach (30 miles) by hydrofoil to the diminutive and pretty Paxos island and neighbouring sister Antipaxos, renowned for its secluded sandy beaches. Book tickets for the hydrofoil or ferries from the main port.
During summer avoid the narrow winding streets around late morning and early afternoon until the cruise ship day-visitors have departed for their all inclusive on board bean feasts. Being able to wander around pleasantly uncrowded winding warrens makes all the difference to the atmosphere and feeling you are part of the town rather than just another trinket buyer. The ships are gone by the late afternoon leaving the city to the locals and discerning visitors.
Note that most public buildings and museums are closed on Mondays.
The Cavelieri an 18th century boutique hotel is positioned on the front of the Esplanade facing a spectacular view of the Old Fort. Moderately priced it has one of the best bedroom views I have experienced in Greece looking over the town’s eastern bay and is a five minute walk to the centre. The hotel’s garden roof restaurant (open to non residents) offers superb quality dining and panoramic views.
Nino’s. A central non fussy inexpensive traditional Greek restaurant that serves the most delicious assortment of beef and pork dishes. I would have gone here every night had I known about it at the time.
Drinking and People Watching
The Bristol – cool, vibrant central bar opposite the back of the Town Hall that is an ideal spot for watching the natives while enjoying a range of draft beers, wine or cocktails.
The Liston – The town’s elegant parade where locals and visitors alike enjoy dining, drinking, socialising and people-watching within colonnaded splendour.
Flights from Gatwick direct to Corfu airport are regular and take around 2hrs 40mins. Taxi rides less than 15mins into central Corfu Town.
4 Capodistriou, St, Corfu Town. www.cavalieri-hotel.com