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Corfu

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Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO)

 

About Corfu

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Corfu lies off the coast of Albania, from which it is separated by straits varying in breadth from 3 to 23 km (2 to 15 mi), including one near Butrint and a longer one west of Thesprotia. The island is part of the Corfu Prefecture. The principal town of the island is also named Corfu, or Kerkyra in Greek. Corfu is home to the Ionian University. The island is steeped in history and it is perennially connected to the history of Greece starting from Greek mythology.

Its Greek name, Kerkyra, is connected to two powerful water symbols: Poseidon, god of the sea and Asopos, an important Greek mainland river. According to myth, Poseidon fell in love with the beautiful nymph Korkyra, daughter of Asopus and river nymph Metope, and abducted her, as was the custom among gods of that era's myths - Zeus himself was a serial offender. Poseidon brought her to the hitherto unnamed island and, being in marital bliss, offered her name to the place: Korkyra, which gradually evolved to Kerkyra. Together, they had a child they called Phaiax, after whom the inhabitants of the island were named: Phaiakes, that was then transliterated via Latin to Phaeacians.

This myth, with its themes of romance between a powerful god and a beautiful nymph, with a trace of adventure, centred around the element of water, is suggestive of the special ambiance of the place.

The island's history is full of battles and conquests, indicative of Corfu's turbulent position in a historical vortex that lasted until modern times, when after the unification with modern Greece in 1864 the history of the island became one with the mainland's, with no more foreign intervention. The legacy of these struggles remains in the form of castles that exist in strategic locations all over the island. Two of these castles enclose the city. It is the only city in Greece to be surrounded by castles this way and as a result has officially been declared as a Kastropolis (Castle city) by the Greek Government.

Geography and urban landscape

General overview

The name Corfu is an Italian corruption of the Byzantine Κορυφώ (Koryphō), meaning city of the peaks, which is derived from the Greek Κορυφαί (Koryphai), meaning Crests or Peaks, denoting the two peaks of the fortresses that enclose the city. In shape it is not unlike the sickle (drepanē, δρεπάνι), to which it was compared by the ancients, the hollow side, with the town and harbour of Corfu in the centre, being towards the Albanian coast. It is about 40 miles (60 km) long, and its greatest breadth is about 20 miles (30 km). The area is estimated at 227 sq miles (580 km²). Two high and well-defined ranges divide the island into three districts, of which the northern is mountainous, the central undulating and the southern low-lying. The most important of the two ranges is that of San Salvador (Αγιος Σωτήρας), probably the ancient Istone, which stretches east and west from Cape St. Angelo to Cape St. Stefano, and attains its greatest elevation in the summit from which it takes its name. The second culminates in the mountain of Santi Jeca, or Santa Decca, as it is called by misinterpretation of the Greek designation Άγιοι Δέκα (Hagioi Deka), or the Ten Saints.

The whole island, composed as it is of various limestone formations, presents great diversity of surface, and the views from the more elevated spots are magnificent. Beaches are found in Agii Gordi, the Korissi lagoon, Agios Georgios, Marathia, Kassiopi, Sidari, Roda, Palaiokastritsa and many others.

Coastline and beaches

The coastline is about 217 km including capes. The highest point is Mount Pantokrator (906m); the second is Stravoskiadi (849 m). Capes and promentories include Agia Aikaterini, and Drastis to the north, Lefkimmi and Asprokavos to the southeast and Megachoro to the south. There is an island in the middle of Gouvia Bay which extends across much of the eastern shore of the island; it is called Ptychia. Camping grounds can be found in Palaiokastritsa, Agrillos, four in the northern part, Pyrgi, Roda, Gouvia and Messonghi.

Flora

Homer names, as adorning the garden of Alcinous, only seven plants – wild olive, oil olive, pear, pomegranate, apple, fig and vine. Of these the apple and the pear are now very inferior in Corfu; the others thrive, together with all the fruit trees known in southern Europe, with addition of the kumquat, loquat and prickly pear and, in some spots, the banana. When undisturbed by cultivation, the myrtle, arbutus, bay and ilex form a rich brushwood and the minor flora of the island are extensive.

Agriculture

The island has again become an important port of call and has a considerable trade in olive oil; under a more careful system of tillage the value of its agricultural products could be substantially increased.

Old town

The town of Corfu stands on the broad part of a peninsula, whose termination in the Venetian citadel (Greek: Παλαιό Φρούριο) is cut off from it by an artificial fosse formed in a natural gully, with a salt-water ditch at the bottom, that serves also as a kind of marina. The old city having grown up within fortifications, where every metre of ground was precious, is a labyrinth of narrow streets paved with cobblestones, sometimes tortuous but mostly pleasant, colourful and sparkling clean. These streets are called "kantounia" (Greek: καντούνια) and the older ones sometimes follow the gentle irregularities of the ground while many of them are too narrow for vehicular traffic. There is promenade by the seashore towards the bay of Garitsa (Γαρίτσα), and also a handsome esplanade between the town and the citadel called "Liston" (Greek: Λιστόν) where upscale restaurants and European style bistros abound. The name Liston came from the American "List on" meaning the list of the vendors' fare, in other words the menu.

Palaio Frourio

The old citadel (Palaio Frourio literally: Old Fortress (Παλαιό Φρούριο)) is an old Venetian fortress built on an islet with fortifications surrounding its entire perimeter, although some sections especially on the east side are slowly being eroded and falling into the sea. Nonetheless the interior has been restored and maintained and it is used for cultural events such as concerts (συναυλίες) and Sound and Light Productions (Ηχος και Φως) whereby historical events are recreated using sound and light special effects. The ambience of the place is dramatic as one is surrounded by ancient fortifications while the surrounding Ionian sea glimmers in the background. In the middle of all this the central high point of the citadel rises like a giant natural obelisk complete with a military observation post at the top, with a giant cross at its apex. At the foot of the observatory, St. George's church, in classical Greek architectural style with six Doric colummns, as opposed to the Byzantine architectural style of most Eastern Orthodox churches, is quite an imposing sight. Taking in a concert or other event at night in such a place under the moonlight while surrounded by the sea, immersed in this history steeped environment with all its diverse and unexpected architectural elements, is an experience that even the most discriminating connoisseur of life would appreciate.

Neo Frourio

The new citadel or Neo Frourio (Νέο Φρούριο) meaning New Fortress is a huge complex of fortifications that dominates the northeastern part of the city. The huge walls of the fortress dominate the landscape as one makes the trip from Neo Limani (Νέο Λιμάνι meaning New Port) to the town, taking the road that passes through the fishmarket (ψαραγορά). The new citadel was until recently a restricted area due to the presence of a naval garrison. However, the old restrictions have been lifted and it is now open to the public, and tours can be taken through the maze of medieval corridors and fortifications. The winged lion, the symbol of Venice, can be seen at regular intervals adorning the fortifications. It is worth noting that at the feet of the lion lies an open book, symbolizing that the Venetians came to Corfu not to conquer but to defend.

Ano and Kato Plateia and music under the stars

Near the old Venetian Citadel is also a large square divided by a street in two parts: "Ano Plateia" and "Kato Plateia" (Ανω Πλατεία and Κάτω Πλατεία in Greek). It is officialy the biggest square in the Balkans and is replete with green spaces and interesting structures such as a Roman style rotunda from the time of the British administration, called the Maitland monument. There is also an ornate music pavilion where the local "Philharmoniki" (Philharmonic Orchestra) (Φιλαρμονική) plays choice pieces of classical music coming from the rich tradition of music and arts for which the island is famous. Listening to classical music overtures in "Ano Plateia" (literally: "Upper square") at night, while gazing at the old Venetian citadel bathed in light that is in turn reflected upon the bay of Garitsa, is an enchanting experience. "Kato Plateia" (literally: "Lower square") also serves as a place where cricket matches are held from time to time. Out of all of Greece, Cricket is unique to Corfu, since it used to be a British protectorate.

Palaia Anaktora and Gardens

Just to the North of "Kato Plateia" exist the "Palaia Anaktora" (Παλαιά Ανάκτορα: literally "Old Palaces") which is a large complex of Roman architecture buildings used in the past to house the King of Greece. Today they are open to the public and they form a complex of halls and buildings housing art exhibits including a Museum of Chinese Art unique in Southern Europe in its scope and richness of Chinese and Asian exhibits. The lavish Gardens of the Palaces complete with old Venetian stone aquariums, exotic trees and flowers and overseeing the bay through old Venetian fortifications and turrets are a place where anyone can have an "espresso" or "frappé" or even Greek coffee with "ouzo" at the garden café after a dip in the local sea baths (Μπάνια τ' Αλέκου) at the foot of the fortifications that surround the gardens. The palace café comes with its own art gallery where one can take in exhibits of local and international artists and it is aptly called Art Café. At the same time and from the same place one can gaze at the majestic cruise ships passing through the narrow channel of historic Vido island (Νησί Βίδου) to the north, on their way to Corfu harbour (Νέο Λιμάνι), sometimes announcing their arrival by blowing their horn. High speed retractable aerofoil ferries from Igoumenitsa, hovering above the water at high speed, impatiently leave their frothy wake on the blue Ionian sea (Ιόνιον Πέλαγος), to remind visitors to the Gardens that this is the 21st century. There is also a beautiful wrought iron aerial staircase, closed to garden visitors, that descends to the sea from the gardens and was used by royalty as a shortcut to the baths. Rewriting history, the locals now refer to the splendid old Royal Gardens as the "Garden of the People" (Ο Κήπος του Λαού).

Echoes of Venice and Pontikonisi

In several parts of the old city may be found houses from the Venetian times. The old city architecture is strongly influenced by the Venetian style as it was under Venetian occupation for a long time. The small and ancient sidestreets and the style of the old buildings with their trademark Venetian arches are strongly reminiscent of Venice. Of the thirty-seven Greek churches, the most important are the city's cathedral, the church dedicated to Our Lady of the Cave (ἡ Παναγία Σπηλιώτισσα (hē Panagia Spēliōtissa)); Saint Spyridon church, where lies the preserved body of the patron saint of the island; and finally the suburban church of St Jason and St Sosipater (Αγιοι Ιάσων και Σωσίπατρος), reputed the oldest in the island, named after the two saints who were probably the first to preach Christianity to the Corfiots.
The nearby island named Pontikonisi (Greek meaning "mouse island") although small is very green with many trees, and the highest natural point, (not counting the trees or man made structures such as the monastery), is about 2 m. Pontikonisi is home of the monastery of Pantokrator (Μοναστήρι του Παντοκράτορος). It is the white stone staircase of the Monastery that when viewed from afar gives the impression of a (mouse) tail that gave the island its name: Mouse island.

Othoni and Erikoussa

Othoni (Οθωνοί) is the westernmost settlement and island in all of Greece. Erikoussa is the northernmost of the Ionian Islands. All areas lie below the 40° N. About a quarter of the villages names end with -ades, while there are some villages outside Corfu whose names also end in -ades, especially in the prefecture of Ioannina on mainland Greece exactly opposite the southern end of Corfu. The villages at the southern part and on the Paxoi islands have names ending with -atika as well as -eika, notably Gramateika.

 
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