Greece's "Emerald Island"
With its abundant pine trees and olive groves, Corfu is the greenest of the more than 2,000 Greek islands, inspiring the nickname the “Emerald Island.” But there’s more to Corfu than the splendid greenery. It is surrounded by miles and miles of beaches—some rocky and rugged, but most covered with smooth creamy sand. The crystal-blue waters make the island a favorite among tourists with a passion for swimming and water sports. The island, which is 35 miles long and 11 miles wide, also boasts impressive historical architecture, festive nightlife, and fine cuisine and accommodations.
Corfu has an important place in Greek mythology. According to those ancient tales, it was named Corcyra, after the nymph-like daughter of the Asopos river and mistress of sea god Poseidon. But it’s real-life history is every bit as colorful as any Greek myth. A few of the famous who fought over the island’s position include Alexander the Great, Dimitrios the Besieger, the Roman emperors Brutus and Claudius, Napolean, and the pirate Barbarossa.
Today, Corfu’s most visible historical influence dates back to the period of Venetian rule, 1386-1797. Today’s Corfu Town, a principal port, is filled with impressive samples of Venetian architecture. You’ll see that the town was built between two Venetian castles. Corfu’s numerous arches, sea walls, and narrow, flagstoned streets also attest to the Venetians’ long-running rule.
The Venetians were finally dislodged from power by the French (who ruled from 1797-1799), who were in turn ousted by Turko-Russians (1799-1807) and then the British (1814-1864). In 1864, Corfu formed a union with Greece. During World War II, the island was bombed by Italian war planes and then occupied by the Italians. When the Italians surrendered, Germany took its turn as occupier, but withdrew in 1944, near the end of the war. Since then, Corfiots have been building to keep up with the burgeoning tourist trade, but they’ve maintained the island’s charm with a pleasing mix of the old and the new.
In planning a trip to Corfu, keep in mind that Greece is too cold in the winter months for a beach vacation. In July and August you may have more fellow tourists than you bargained for, because that’s when Europeans typically take their long annual “holidays.” The best months to visit Corfu are May and June or September and October when the weather is mild and the beaches aren’t overcrowded. You can partake of Corfu on an organized tour, but we recommend that you rent a car so that you can discover on your own the island’s beaches and diverse topography. And driving on Corfu is nowhere near as insane and treacherous as navigating through the streets of traffic-clogged Athens!
For a taste of what life must have been like a century or more ago, you may want to explore some of the more than 200 quaint villages in Corfu’s center. But most people make Corfu Town their focal point. And the hub of that focal point is the Esplanade (Spianada Square). One of the largest squares in all of Europe, here you can visit one of the many cafes and bars that were built underneath the arches of the “Liston.” The Liston is probably a name derived from a similar promenade in Venice, but it was built during the French occupation and is said to be reminiscent of the “Arcades” of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. So as you sip your wine or nibble on a sandwich in this area, you are blessed with a charming atmosphere that’s a little bit of Greece, a little bit of Italy, and a little bit of France.
Standing over the Esplanade is the Old Fortress. It’s linked to Corfu Town by an iron bridge that was once wooden and capable of being drawn up to protect the fortress. Construction of the Old Fortress dates back to the 6th Century A.D. and it was fortified by various groups over the centuries. Today, you’ll be able to view walls built by the Venetians, but most of what survives of the Old Fortress was built during British rule.
Just north of the Esplanade is the Palace of St. Michael and St. George, a majestic landmark built during the time of the British. Be sure to view the robes, medals, and other items on display in the elegant palace throne room.
Leaving the Esplanade area, follow Arseniou Street – the coastal road – to have a look at the Old Harbor of Corfu and the Venetian castle known as the New Fortress. The narrow road also leads to the Campielo, the oldest section of the town, where you’ll see many of Corfu’s historic churches. Corfu’s churches sponsor the most popular annual event on the island – the celebration of the Christian Holy Week. Processions and reenactments culminate with a huge fireworks display on Easter.
Another fascinating site in Corfu is the Archaeological Museum, which houses a collection of items that cover Corfu’s entire history, including gravestones from the 6th Century B.C. and artifacts from the Bronze Age and the Neolithic period, plus sculptures, statues, coins, and evidence of ancient temples.
Other museums of interest include the Museum of Asian Art—a unique, 10,000-piece collection mainly donated by Corfiot diplomats—and the World of the Deep, a collection of Mediterranean-related photos and finds.
Two of our favorite Corfu beaches—Glyfada and
Agios Gordis—are just a 25-minute drive west of
Corfu Town. If you want to stay near these beaches,
we can highly recommend the topnotch Grand Hotel Glyfada,
phone (0661) 94201, and the Agios Gordis Hotel, (0661)
53320. For the more budget-minded traveler, the Pink
Palace, (0661) 53103, in Agios Gordis is the place—especially
if you like to party. This beach resort’s “happening”
place is the Pink Palace Palladium Night Club, advertised
as being “like a spring break every night.”
You can drink till 3 or 4 in the morning at the 100-foot-long
We prefer to stay at the beach and frequently drive into town for dinner, sightseeing, and shopping. But if you’d rather stay in Corfu Town, the lovely Hotel Corfu Palace, (0661) 39485, can’t be beat. If gambling’s your thing, the Corfu Hilton, located in Kanomi, just a few miles from Corfu Town, has a casino, (0661) 56245, in which you can play blackjack and roulette.
Dining and Wining
Ah, to the food. There are scores of good restaurants in all price ranges on Corfu. Greek food is fairly simple and standard. Olive oil, onion, garlic, and pepper are the basic elements of every recipe. The best and most cost-wise dishes are Greek specialties, such as the traditional Greek salad, which is made of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and feta cheese. Do try some of Corfu’s own specialties, including “sofrito,” slices of veal cooked in a spicy sauce with garlic; “pastitsada,” thick macaroni with veal cooked in a strong tomato sauce; “bourdetto,” a special type of fish cooked in a sauce heavy with red pepper and onions; and the “salad roka and antrakla (glistrida),” greens including radish leaves plus small tomatoes, black salted olives, olive oil, salt, and vinegar or lemon juice.
On the spirits side, be sure to sample some “mandolata,” a delicious liqueur concocted from strawberries and tiny Japanese cumquats. Corfu also produces an excellent variety of white and red wines.
Now that we’ve whetted your appetite for Corfu, here’s how to get there. You can take a 50-minute airplane flight from Athens on Olympic Airways, which also provides bus service connecting the Corfu airport to Corfu Town. You can also travel to this beautiful island via ferry from Brindisi, Italy, or Patrai, Greece. Corfu taxis are reasonably priced, but again we recommend seeing the island on your own by renting a car...a motorbike...or even a horse!