I forget sometimes that planes and trains aren’t the only way to travel. There are ferries, too. We were heading to southern Albania and had a choice between a long drive from Tirana in the north or a short ferry from Corfu, the seventh-largest of the Greek islands and birthplace of Prince Philip, husband of the late Queen Elizabeth II. Having seen something of Greece a few years back, we were happy to go back and check out yet another of the Greek islands. And because it was a transit point rather than a destination, we had zero expectations.
With rare exceptions, we usually pay the money to stay in the old town, if there’s an old town, that is. We like to walk and what we might save by staying outside the city, we lose in time. Something for something. We wouldn’t have had time to visit even one of the island’s 115 beaches, so we chose culture over cocktails.
A hundred-plus euro won’t buy you many stars on a Thursday night in early June. Not in the Old Town, a UNESCO site. Other than location, of course. Manage those expectations. Our window looked out onto someone’s backyard. The decor was too dated to be retro but creatively advertised as ‘tastefully furnished featuring pastel colours’. The place screamed TIRED! But the neighbourhood cats were in full voice so sleep was in short supply.
It’s a short taxi ride from the airport to the old part of Corfu town (€12). Better to take the #15 bus (€1.70). Our bus driver was very helpful. We’d told him where we wanted to go and were following along on Google Maps. When we got to the square we needed, we stood and got ready.
Sit! he roared.
What do you do? Who do you listen to? Google or the man? He pulled up some minutes later at a right turn (not a bus stop).
Right. Right. Right.
We wandered down by the water, looking out across the Ionian Sea at mainland Greece. We passed the new sixteenth-century fortress on the hill as large commercial planes flew overhead. The juxtaposition of old new and new new wasn’t lost on me. The island was mentioned in ancient Greek manuscripts and writings in 1300 BC and being able to clearly read the numbers on the tailfin of a RyanAir flight while standing in the shadow of the sixteenth century was a tad surreal. On a walk later that evening, we spotted the old sixth-century fortress across the water.
We didn’t have a guidebook. I’m sure we could have maximised our time by mapping out what we wanted to see but where’s the fun in that? We had no expectations. We had nothing on our list. This wasn’t our destination. And with that realisation came the freedom to wander, to explore, to check out the statues and the monuments and figure out who was who.
The Jewish community was almost entirely decimated by the Nazis and much of the rich history of Jews on the island has all but been forgotten. Two hundred fifty years ago, they made up 10% of the population. The Jewish Museum of Greece has a fascinating online exhibition if you’re interested in knowing more: At the Crossroads: The Jewish Community of Corfu.
The National Resistance Monument (lower left) is testimony to the Greeks’ determination in WWII. It honours their fight against the occupying powers of Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. National Resistance Day is celebrated on 25 November, the day the Gorgopotamos Bridge was blown up in 1942. Operation Harling shows what can be done when various groups cooperate.
Another statue, with a relief of a man holding a rifle, is inscribed ΤΙΜΗ ΚΑΙ ΔΟΞΑ ΣΤΟΥΣ ΠΕΣΌΝΤΕΣ – Honor and glory to the fallen.
We wandered through the narrow streets of the Old Town as vendors hawked their wares. Friendly. Not oppressive. Not souk-style. There’s not much you can’t buy. What I absolutely LOVE about Greece is that it’s big on locally made clothing. Not stuff designed there and made in China, but designed AND made in-country. Yes, you pay more, but it’s worth it. Greece is about the only country in which I go looking for t-shirts. Check out the Modous story.
At night, the Old Town is even more spectacular. Windows open onto other worlds. It’s a hive of activity cloaked in a murmur of conversation and a chortle of laughter. But there’s a sedateness about the place that is palpable. I’ve no idea what the beach resorts are like but here, in the Old Town, there’s a lovely sense of simply being.
The town of Corfu is like a blank canvas. Each corner turned imprinted a new memory on my mind. Each sign sent me looking for more information. For instance, I had never heard of Albert Cohen.
Through four different books, Cohen’s fiction can be considered as one long autobiographical fiction. It is the story of the radiant Solal – Cohen’s double – a handsome and successful civil servant of the League of Nations whose charismatic identity is a constant struggle between his Jewish roots and his social status.
His novel, Belle du Seigneur, made Le Monde’s list of 100 books of the twentieth century. The inscription on the Synagogue reads: A child was born in this neighbourhood and here he took his first steps. The child was Albert Cohen.
The buildings, too, have stories.
The island is a rare mixture of elitist reminiscence of the majestic past, emotional tranquillity, and sea peace.
Where to eat/drink in Corfu
You can get just about anything you want to eat. And, being so close to the water, the fish or gyros debate rages. On a tight budget (as we always are) himself did his thing and came up with a small taverna on the sea walls looking out on Vidos Island: Taverna Mouragia. The award-winning chef/owner Maria specialises in Corfiot and Greek dishes and it’s as real as it gets. The staff speak English and are a happy, friendly, helpful lot. It’s well worth checking out.
For breakfast, go to Xenia Café. The coffee is excellent and the filled pastries drizzled with caramel honey will keep you going for the day.
If it’s wine you’re after, and you like your art, then be sure to stop by the Arthaus Café and Wine Bar for ‘art, coffee, wine and some delicious homemade side dishes.’ The painting of the poppies at the top of the stairs? I have my eye on that one. All the art is the work of the owner, a concept we’d also see later in Albania.
If you’re taking the ferry to Italy or Albania and have time on your hands, Del Mar opposite the international port gates does a mean cocktail and serves up some delicious-looking gyros plates. The #15 bus stops here, too.
For next time
- Check the filming locations for the TV show The Durrels and read the books, again.
- Watch the movie Deep Soul
- Check to see if my painting is still at the Arthaus