Corfu: Introduction

  • © Ljupco, iStockphoto.com

    © Ljupco, iStockphoto.com

DISCOVER CORFU!

The plane starts its descent where the Adriatic merges into the Ionian Sea. The first small Greek islands welcome you from below. Then, Corfu rises up out of the sea. In the north, the narrow sandy beaches are bordered by an impressive, steep coastline; further south, wide bays are fringed with broad sandy beaches. The island (population 112,000 inhabitants) is the most northerly and, with its 611 sq km (236 sq mi), the second largest in the Ionian Sea.

The plane descends even lower, glides over a dense carpet of olive groves interspersed with the sharp tops of cypresses. Centuries-old villages dream below, hidden away on the hillsides, mountain slopes and in the small valleys. We fly on over the island’s capital where we get a clear view of the harbour and the two Venetian castles that form the boundary of the Old Town.

The high mountains on the Greek and Albanian mainland soar up on the other side of the strait. A radio beacon at Lefkími lets the pilot know it is time to turn and the final descent begins. He soon sinks below the ridges of the green hills on the coast and appears to almost brush the villages along the shoreline. It looks like the plane is going to land on the water but it sets down accurately on the runway that was built in a lagoon. 

The Corfu experience begins! Kérkyra – the name the Greeks use for the town and the whole island – is just a short walk from the airport. The path leads us along the promenade towards the Old Fortress, one of the five Venetian castles on the island. The green expanse of the Esplanade opens out in front of its entrance. The British gave free rein to their eccentricity: they placed a water  tank in the shape of an ancient temple at one end and an imposing palace for their island administrator at the other. There is a statue of one of them – wearing a Roman toga – in front of it.

Pavement cafés under shady arcades

The French, who controlled the island for a short time before the British, were more sensible: they left a row of pavement cafés under the shady arcades behind them. That is where the old Corfiots like to sip their Greek coffee, while the younger ones prefer iced coffee.

This is a real hotspot in the early evening when the Corfiots celebrate their traditional volta – promenading back and forth in front of the cafés to see and be seen. There is more activity on the broad, marble-paved streets between the Esplanade and Old Harbour, with all their enticing shops under the arcades. There are many more shops in the former Jewish area in the Old Town, Evraiki, while the largest district Cambiéllo is entirely residential.

Kérkyra is a perfect year-round destination for a city trip. However, there are hardly any other cultural attractions anywhere else on the island. On the one hand, there has been little excavation activity because the ancient settlements are now the sites of modern housing and, on the other, its position on the periphery of ancient Greece made it less important.

Only when the Venetians took over control of the island in 1386 did Corfu gain in status. The new rulers used it principally as a provider of olive oil, which was used for lighting at that time, and did all they could to promote the cultivation of olive trees. The Corfiots have the Venetians to thank for never coming under Turkish dominance. There is absolutely no Turkish or oriental influence on Corfu. That also makes the island quite different: there are no mosques as there are elsewhere in Greece. Corfiot folk music lacks the oriental touch of the Aegean and the Ionian Islands – with Corfu as the main one – also followed its own individual artistic path.

The west coast has a great variety of beaches

The summer holidaymakers are mainly interested in the beaches. The island is surrounded by them, and there is such a great variety that everybody can find their perfect dream beach. Those on the east coast facing the mainland, where most of the large seaside hotels are located, are mostly of shingles or smooth pebbles, often several hundred metres long and always fairly narrow.

Many of the hotels directly on the beach offset this by providing lush, green lawns around the pool, tavernas place deckchairs in their flowery gardens and hang hammocks between the trees. Wooden jetties jut out into the protected bays of the straits. This is where the sun worshippers lie, before climbing down ladders into the water. Some are used as water-sport centres, and the east coast is perfect for waterskiing, paragliding and for paddle boats – however, surfers will be rather disappointed. This area, with its gently sloping beaches, is ideal for families with children. The bathing shoes that can be bought in any supermarket increase the pleasure even more.

The north coast is better suited for those who like long, wide beaches. The tavernas and lounge bars make a stopover on long strolls along the beach even more enjoyable. It is especially worth visiting them at sunset when the fiery ball sinks into the sea somewhere between the last Greek island of Othoní and the Albanian mainland.

Corfu’s west coast facing the open sea offers the greatest variety of beaches. They begin at Cape Drástis in the far northwest where the brave climb into the water from white rocks and, if the sea is completely calm, swim out along the white sandstone cliffs. Near Peruládes, steps lead down from the steep coast to the long, narrow sandy beach stretching under the cliffs. The golden crescents of sand in the bays of Ágios Stéfanos and Ágios Geórgios Pagón are miles long, while most of the 20+ beaches on the fragmented Paleokastritsa Bay are hidden away and can only be reached by boat. 

Some large hotels have opened on the few beaches in the middle of the west coast: in Glifáda, Pélekas and Ágios Górdis. It then becomes more secluded. The beach at the northern spit between the sea and Lake Chalikúnas is almost completely deserted and the few bathers to the southwest of the lake lose themselves in the expansive, Sahara-like dunes of Ágios Geórgios Argirádon. In the extreme south, a noisy counterpoint is provided by Kávos with its narrow strips of sand where there is an all-day party and plenty of close contact on the beach.

Where Greek hospitality is still very much alive

No matter how attractive the beaches are, the interior of the island is just as beautiful and varied. Many narrow, rollercoaster-like paths lead uphill and down dale to fresh lookout points. If you leave the beaches, you will come across many small villages that are hardly ever visited by tourists and where you can still experience traditional Greek hospitality.

One of the last nuns in the convent near Lefkími might even invite you to a cup of Greek coffee that they – like many other Corfiots – perk up with a shot of ouzo. When you visit a church, the sacristan will often give you a piece of blessed bread without being asked; in a fish tavern in Búkari, you can pick your own dessert from the fruit trees in the garden. These are gestures of human warmth that the Corfiots also appreciate receiving from their visitors. In this way, your holiday will be full of happy memories.


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