The Argonauts and Byzantines, the Venetians and the British all put so much effort to make beautiful Corfu the interesting island that it is

 

There’s nothing you can’t find in Greece – in particular, I’m talking about one and a half thousand islands, generously sprinkled across the Ionian and Aegean seas. However, Corfu Island stands out even among so many of them. And it’s not because its shape, which looks like a ballet dancer’s elegant leg, is easy to spot on the map.

I’ve never been a fan of spontaneous traveling. I tend to carefully plan and arrange my routes for each day. But suddenly, out of the blue, I got a phone call and I was asked: “Would you like to go to Corfu for three days? Departure is in thirty-six hours.” My inner German pedant shuddered, but for some reason, I gladly took on the challenge.

The name Corfu itself could have been one of the primary reasons for me making such an irresponsible decision. On hearing it, my mind was immediately flooded with the memory of my favorite books – from the writings of Gerald Durrell to The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller and The Magus by John Fowles. And now, on board of the plane we see the bluest sea beyond the side-window, and we seem to be landing right onto the waters... After we landed, it turned out that the airport named after Ioannis Kapodistrias (by the way, it happened so that this person was the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Empire, and the first governor of independent Greece as well), is located practically in the center of Kerkyra, which is capital of Corfu. Moreover, the runway is at an arm’s length from the sea. And in this case, “the arm’s length” is just a slight exaggeration on my part.

My hotel is situated at Cape Kanoni, just under the “knee” of the dancing leg. When bathing in the sea you could watch the planes taking off and landing. They flew so low above our heads that some people wanted to wave their hands to the passengers.

The sea in Corfu is wonderful, the sunsets and sunrises are of rare beauty. However, spending the entire vacation in a relaxed way is not for those who are used to doing one hundred things a day. Local sightseeing attractions were calling my name.

A small island in the middle of the sea right in front of the hotel looked appealing. Its shore was overgrown with cypresses through which the bleached walls of the monastery could be seen. Pontikonisi – Mouse Island – looked so neat, as if it had been erected to honor my arrival. Only the name sounded not too much inspiring for me. Fortunately, I was explained that the island owes its name to a snaky white path leading to the small monastery: it really looks like a mouse’s tail.

As you are approaching the islet by boat, you learn that in fact the place itself is not an island, but a ship which Poseidon had turned into stone. When Odysseus returned home from his long voyage and was very close to his native Ithaca, Poseidon suddenly got angry and turned the hero’s ship into stone. So he had to get off on the Phaeacian island of Corfu where he got acquainted with a beautiful girl whose name was Nausicaa – well, it was a blessing in disguise. By the way, Corfu was extremely popular with ancient heroes. The Argonauts, for example, found here a good escape from Colchis.

Today, elegant peacocks and tourists (not so elegant) loiter around Pontikonisi. It will take you a mere hour to walk round the whole island, which includes time for a swim, coffee and a visit to the monastery.

Another neighboring islet is connected with the mainland by a pier, and it’s major attraction is a tiny monastery of Our Lady of Vlacherna. You can spend all day on this piece of land trying to capture the most beautiful view of Pontikonisi, as everything here changes every minute depending on the lighting. I chose to spend my time in a different manner, and the main impression of the first day was awaiting for me in my own hotel, when I accidentally stumbled upon a faded photo hanging in the hall. Two friends – the first was unfamiliar to me, but I was convinced I had seen the face of the second one somewhere: a cheerful, gray-haired, blue-eyed... Looks like Porthos, who had moved to warmer lands in his declining years.

“This is my father with Gerald Durrell,” said the innkeeper, noticing that I was idly snapping my fingers, trying to remember the name. Well, of course, Durrell! My brother and I were literally snatching his books out of each other’s hands, and once we decided to read some Durrell’s book together without fighting, but this attempt failed as Kostya was reading faster than me, and we would again have a quarrel, almost tearing in half the Three Tickets to Adventure book which we had borrowed from the library.

Children in the Soviet Union were loyal fans of Durrell. They read his books non-stop. It was obvious that he was a person who faithfully and unrestrainedly loved the living world in all its entire variety, from a giant elephant to a small bug. As I had pictured it in my childhood mind, Corfu Island occupied the territory of the whole of Greece. It was here that little Gerald dreamed of owning a zoo, and took the first steps in this direction, collecting beetles and hunting frogs.

I could not help staring at the photo, and the innkeeper as a gesture of compassion, promised to introduce me to his father in the evening. It was a very old, but still strong man who listened to my excited speech with dignity and finally said:

“Yes, all Soviet people went completely mad at Jerry. Recently, we had some girl from Latvia who was sitting on the tree and sobbing in front of our window. It turned out that since childhood she had dreamed of seeing a strawberry-pink house!”

Those wishing to see an educational institution of the future should definitely go to Prater, a huge amusement park, because the campus of the Vienna University of Economics designed by a partnership of six leading global architectural companies is located right next to it.

That is how Jerry himself described the Durrell’s home, “This small square-shaped house stood in the middle of a small garden, and appeared to look like it had an expression of some determination on its pink front”. The innkeeper’s family has now lived here, and they often had to evacuate curious tourists from the trees.

Several houses on Corfu are associated with the Durrells’ name. One of them in Kalami is even available for rent. Not only did Jerry glorified the island, but also his brother Larry – Lawrence Durrell, a serious writer, author of The Alexandria Quartet. At those times only very few people in the USSR knew about the elder Durrell, but now, only lazy people are not aware of his books. While Gerald is slowly receding into the background of everyone’s memory, and children today almost do not read his books.

Reflecting on how fast the glory of the world passes away, I reached the bus stop in front of the hotel, and, half an hour later, I got off in the center of the island’s capital, bright Kerkyra. The word “bright” to describe this place is not an exaggeration. The center is paved with glossy stone slabs, shining in the sun as if they were wet – it was scary even to step on them. Kerkyra, by the way, is also the Greek name of the island. This was the name of Poseidon’s beloved one, a daughter of a nymph and a river god. Their son’s name was Phaeacia, and therefore, the inhabitants of the island were called Phaecians. Corfu is an Italian version of the name, and is translated as “the city of mountains”.

Спианада – главный магнит Керкиры, куда стекаются утомленные солнцем и морем туристы: то ли парк, то ли площадь, где нашлось место и дворцам, и памятникам, и, главное, Листону – местной Риволи, галерее элегантных крытых кафе, куда раньше пускали исключительно по списку. Это уже французский след в истории Корфу. Но где же, собственно, Греция?.. Поверните голову – и увидите громадную свечу колокольни Айос Спиридон, главной святыни острова.

The Italians, or more precisely, the Venetians, ruled Corfu for more than four centuries, so the scenery here, inside the capital, looks typical of Apennine lifestyle. There’s even the winged stony lion of St. Mark on the facades of old buildings. The British response to the Venetians is the croquet field on the Esplanade (Spianade, as the locals call it) and numerous monuments from the era when Corfu was under the British reign.

Spianada is Corfu’s main tourist magnet. This place is like a park or a square, where one can find both places and palaces, monuments, and, where there is the most remarkable attraction – Liston – the local Rivoli, a gallery of elegant indoor cafes. In the past, visitors were only admitted in if they were on a special list. This is already a French footprint in the history of Corfu. But where is, in fact, Greece? Turn your head, and you will see the huge candle of the bell tower of Agios Spyridon, the main shrine of the island. Here, in the silver tabernacle are the relics of Saint Spyridon of Trimythous, one of the most revered Orthodox saints. Maybe you’ll have a chance to come up to kiss the shrine. But they open it only for a short time, and the number of people willing to do the same is impressive. It is much easier to visit the old Venetian fortress of Corfu, Paleo Frourio. The main thing is to gather all your willpower to march in the heat to the cape, to enjoy a magnificent view of the city from there. The ditch that separates the fortress from the mainland actually turns it into an island. This ditch is filled with seawater, and boats are moored at the dock. Fabulous place!

I wish the same were true about the palace of Achilleion, the main tourist attraction of the southern part of the island, built by the Empress Sissi, Elizabeth of Austria. However it makes a strange impression. Elizabeth loved Corfu and often visited this place to relax. Therefore, she decided to build a palace dedicated to Achilles (for Sissi, the death of this ancient hero was associated with the tragic death of her son). This is why there are so many images of Achilles in the yard and park.

It is said that Sissi did not like the finished Palace (she had, no doubt, excellent taste), but she kept on visiting this place until her death in 1898. After that, the palace was empty for more than ten years, then it was bought by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Today tourists visit it, and films are shot in its interiors.

I spent the last day of my trip in Paleokastritsa, where the three bays, with the shore covered with forest, were carefully cut into the cape. This is the most beautiful place on Corfu. And what I thought is that no masterpiece created by mankind at the peak of its talent and the maximum effort could compare with the masterpieces created by nature and God: anyone would give up all the palaces of the island just for having just one glance at Paleokastritsa.

Oh, just not the strawberry-pink House of Durrell!

Details

  • - How to get there
    One of the most popular and most economical options is to fly to Athens first and then, after touring around the capital, buy a bus ticket. The journey takes about 8–9 hours (including the ferry crossing).
  • - Scouting the island
    Exploring Corfu without a car may be challenging. Local buses do not always run on schedule. Vehicles have to be pre-hired, and it’s advisable to get one with automatic transmission, since the terrain here is mountainous, and the roads are far from ideal. It is also advisable to get insurance.
  • - Tours
    There is a ferry connection with the Italian ports of Bari, Ancona, Brindisi and Venice.
 

Теxt: Anna Matveeva

Published on: January 24, 2018