“The architecture of the town is Venetian; the houses above the old port are built up elegantly into slim tiers with narrow alleys and colonnades running between them; red, yellow, pink, umber – a jumble of pastel shades which the moonlight transforms into a dazzling white city…” – Lawrence Durrell –“Prospero’s Cell”.
Travelling to Corfu town by speed boat seemed a much preferable option than taking the long tedious journey by bus all around the bay because even though it was rather expensive (€18 each but both children free) it only took twenty minutes.
The boat bounced over the gentle waves and we looked unsuccessfully for dolphins as the direct route to Corfu town bypassed all of the holiday resorts that punctuate the horseshoe bay and then we passed the monstrous cruise ships in the harbour and shortly after that disembarked at a small jetty quite close to the old fortress.
The old town of Corfu with its pastel-hued, multi-storey Venetian styled shuttered buildings, peaceful squares, graceful arcades and swooping swifts was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007 and stands on the broad part of a peninsula at the end of which the old Venetian citadel is cut off by a natural gully with a seawater moat. To begin with we walked in the opposite direction along Arseniou, the old coastal road with the sea on one side and the elegant buildings on the other.
History has left the Ionian isles with a fascinating cultural legacy, the result of Corinthian, Byzantine, Venetian, French and British influences that extend from architecture to cuisine and Corfu Town boasts the stateliest of Neoclassical buildings, legacy of the nineteenth century British Protectorate of the Ionian islands.
During two short spells of Napoleonic occupation, the French left their mark, as well. This influence is best seen in Kerkyra’s arcaded Liston, a tribute to Paris’s Rue de Rivoli and a sun-drenched venue for sipping coffee and people-watching. It runs alongside the town’s huge grassy open space, the Spianada. Before all this, the Venetians bequeathed all of the Ionian islands a distinctive landscape of Italianate buildings, silver-leafed olive trees and luscious vines.
Corfu town is an odd mix of pretty streets and unappealing modern buildings and this is because sadly a lot of the town was destroyed in the Second-World-War when the Luftwaffe bombed Corfu as they grasped control from the Italian invaders following Italy’s surrender to the Allies. The overall impression is that of a cosmopolitan and Italianate city so we picked out our photo opportunities carefully concentrating on the stylish mansions courtesy of the Venetians, the large public buildings and parks left there by the British and the esplanade thanks to the French and all looking faded, dilapidated but splendidly elegant framed by the big bold sky.
Suddenly we spotted a fairground ahead so before the children noticed it we deftly made a change of direction and disappeared into the mazy labyrinth of streets in the old town where shopkeepers pleaded with us to buy and waiters waved menu cards under our noses. It seemed to me that Corfu was unusually quiet for the middle of high season and there was a lot of competition for tourist cash.
Eventually we found a café that we liked and stopped for ice cream and a drink before continuing our walk through the cobblestone streets and up and down the steep steps which sucked us towards the very centre. Having been developed within the confines of the fortifications the old town is a warren of narrow streets, which, as we walked through them were sometimes hard work as they followed the gentle irregularities of the ground. Except for the uneven surface it was quite safe however because most of the streets are just too narrow for modern vehicular traffic.
Finally we arrived at the focal point of the city, the tall, red domed church of Agios Spyridon where lies the mummified body of the patron saint of the island, Saint Spyridon and inside tourists jostled with Corfiots to push their way into a side chapel to visit his silver tomb. “He lies in hibernating stillness in his richly wrought casket, whose outer shell of silver is permanently clouded by the breath of the faithful who stoop to kiss it” (Lawrence Durrell). Spyridon is so important to Corfu that apparently Spiros is even today the most common boys name on the island.
Emerging from the shady streets back into the sunshine we passed the Esplanade, once the exclusive place for nobles and important residents and the cricket pitch, which looked lush and green and rather out of place and is a quirky legacy of fifty years of British rule from 1814 to 1864 and where matches are still played today.
I don’t suppose many people would expect to find cricket being played in Greece but it was introduced in Corfu in April 1823 when a match was played between the British Navy and the local Army garrison. The Hellenic Cricket Federation was founded a hundred and seventy years later in 1996 when Greece became a member of the European Cricket Council and an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council. There are now twenty-one cricket clubs in Greece, thirteen of which are based in Corfu and Greece competes annually in the European Cricket Championship despite being banned for a year in 2008 for cheating.
Back close to the harbour we completed our visit to Corfu town with a look inside the old fortress where there were some commanding views of the town, the island and the sea but the weather was beginning to change and from out of nowhere a strong wind whipped up the dust and started to rattle the pavement furniture so we made our way back to the jetty and sat and waited in a taverna under wildly flapping parasols for the speed boat and the return journey. The wind continued to get stronger and a concerned owner came outside several times to examine his umbrellas which seemed to be going through some sort of pre take off routine. The sea was getting rougher and I began to get nervous about the ride back.
The boat arrived and it looked rather flimsy bobbing about in the water as the hissing wind whipped up meringue peaks on the waves whilst overhead in the sky a fleet of steel grey battleships chased away the flotilla of dainty white sailing boats that scattered towards Albania but clearly the skipper was happy to make the journey and we set off back to Kalami.
I was confident in his nautical abilities but I also hoped that Saint Spyridon was watching over us because amongst all his other responsibilities he is also the patron saint of sailors, protecting them from shipwrecks and helping them to safe harbour during storms.
When I was a boy my parents used to take me now and again to a place called Wicksteed Park near Kettering in Northamptonshire where there were a few rides and attractions including a water chute where a flat bottomed boat was winched up a launch pad and then released into the water and if you happened to be at the wrong place at the right time then you could get a complete drenching and that of course was the whole point of taking the ride.
Well, I was in the wrong place at the right time today for certain because only a few minutes out at sea the boat hit a large wave and water cascaded over the side and although people on either side of us remained completely dry me and my granddaughter Patsy caught the lot and got a thorough drenching!
At the end of the ride back the skipper apologised several times which was quite unnecessary and then gave me a refund for getting me wet which I thought was a nice gesture so we went to a taverna by the sea shore and spent it on Mythos and ice cream.
Some more of my boat journeys recorded in the journal: