Old Corfu in one day
Hillsides criss-crossed with olive vines, sleepy white villages and the Mediterranean of Homer infecting everything with blue – this is the Ionian island of Corfu, in Greece, whose spiritual heart is preserved in the capital’s Old Town. Its cobblestone streets – always bustling, with or without tourists – received Unesco protection as a World Heritage Site for a harmonious mixture of architectural styles, with traces of many more or less recent occupations: Venetian, English, French... In one stroll, the centre of the Corinthian Corcyra (or Korkyra) recounts the entire history of the Greek sea, particularly the island’s long occupation – from 1363 to 1797 – by Venetians. Myths, invasions, spirituality and the slow life coexist here. We invite you on a six-step tour to explore Corfu’s magical side.
1 Step 1: Panagía Spiliótissa, the Orthodox cathedral
We start out in the west on an anti-clockwise tour of this ancient city shaped like a falling arrow. The first stop – something often overlooked – is the Panagía Spiliótissa (Our Lady of the Cave). Built in 1577, it has been Corfu’s Orthodox Cathedral since 1841. The remains of St Theodora and gold icons speak of its recent history, but how it came to be reveals centuries of cross-cultural fusion – a very Greek story that’s very typical of Corfu.
2 Step 2: Agios Spyridon
A symbol of the city, the island, the archipelago and – to a certain extent – of the country is St Spyridon Church’s bell tower topped by a red dome, which often figures prominently in photographs of the Old Town. It’s been the island’s tallest bell tower since 1589, and it calls the faithful to visit the sarcophagus of St Spyridon, the local patron saint. His remains are preserved in a delicate silver box and are the reason this 16th-century basilica exists. From the outside, its single nave lends it a humble, box-like air but, inside, the rich iconography made of precious metals belies that impression.
3 Step 3: Banknote Museum
This three-storey, symmetrical pink building tops the list of the Neoclassical additions that are also part of the history of Corfu, though not necessarily to everyone’s taste. It belongs to the Ionian Bank and is one of the world’s best museums of its kind, with a tour that tells the history of the island’s occupations by means of their banknotes – from 1822 to the withdrawal of the drachma in 2002. It concludes with a look at different historic and unique banknotes, including those tied to the country’s past and those issued during World War II.
4 Step 4: The Spianáda and the cafés in the Liston
Somewhere between park and square, the Spianáda is the heart of Corfu. The space faces the sea, and here people celebrate life on shaded benches under colonnades, where they sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, and among fountains and monuments. One monument is dedicated to the Enosis (the unification of Greece in 1864) and another to Greece’s first president, in 1827. Everything has a historical vibe, and it’s all finished off with the Liston, an elegant colonnade created by the French in 1807 that’s home to some of the island’s top establishments.
5 Step 5: Palace of St Michael and St George and the cricket pitch
Spianáda still boasts the remains of what used to be a cricket pitch during the British occupation. Today, it is a lush coastal garden dotted with monuments where you can still see the shadows of writers Lawrence and Gerald Durrell and of the Corfu they described in their books, particularly the life-celebrating portrayal by the latter in My Family and Other Animals. Next to the garden is the Palace of St Michael and St George, the residence of the British High Commissioners, which preserves a throne room (the Greek royal family lived here) and a rotunda with original period furnishings. Its main attraction is the Museum of Asian Art, home to a collection of 11,000 pieces gathered from China, Tibet, India, Japan and Indochina by a Greek collector. Nothing is lacking, from prehistoric bronzes to fragile, millennia-old ceramics, jade figurines and a wide variety of coins.
6 Step 6: The Corfu Reading Society
Inspired by the modern reading society of Geneva, this cultural institution – the oldest in modern Greece – was founded in 1836 with some 30,000 volumes, many of them historic. It is the place to go for a concert or to take a selfie on the delicate staircase and the arcades of its modest façade. On show is the first map of Corfu, dating back to the 15th century.
7 Extra steps: exploring alleyways and their surprises
One of the greatest pleasures of the Old Town of Corfu is losing oneself among its cobblestone streets and the thrum of everyday life (clothing hung out to dry, local Corfiots, the smell of cooking) alongside colourful Italian buildings, gardens and English-style stately monuments, as well as shady colonnades contributed by the French. Of course, there are many more surprises along the way: the Venetian Town Hall dating from 1665 and Dimarhíou, the square surrounding it; the Archaeological Museum and the views of Garitsa Bay, but little compares to finding your own spot frozen in time around every corner.