10 moments of inspiration in Corfu
Style & Influence
One of the fascinations of exploring Corfu Town, the island’s capital, is spotting the influence of other cultures, especially in the northern, older quarters. The architecture suggests French, Venetian and Sicilian touches, and even some British style.
The flower and tree-lined Esplanade, or Spianada, Square has a distinctly French mood – in fact, the elegant colonnades of the Liston building were designed to match the Rue de Rivoli, in Paris. This is an ideal spot to take a break from sightseeing, either dining in a superb restaurant behind the arches, enjoying a strong coffee or ice cream, or settling down to watch youngsters playing on the nearby cricket pitch.
Check out the fortresses
Corfu boasts not one but two imposing fortresses – indeed, the island’s English name derives from the older citadel’s two large towers: ‘Coryphe’ in Greek. Both are now dedicated more to art and literature than military defence.
Corfu’s public library and a music research centre are based at the Old Fortress, which was also used a location in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, while the New Fortress is home to a museum of ceramic art. Both were built by the Venetians, in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the older has a museum, café and stunning views to reward the stiff uphill walk.
Feast your eyes on festivals and fireworks
Singing, dancing and fireworks mark the feast of Varkarola, one of the most exciting yearly festivals on Corfu. Choirs take to floating platforms and actors perform set pieces based on incidents in the island’s dramatic history. Each town may have its own interpretation of the event, usually held in early August. Some pay tribute to St Spyridon, who is said to have relieved the island from a Turkish siege in 1716, with the symbolic burning of a boat, while Paleokastritsa hosts a re-enactment of Homer’s legend of Odysseus, shipwrecked on the nearby shores after a storm conjured by the vengeful god Poseidon.
Another lively celebration takes place in late February or early March, when Corfu Town holds its carnival. A colourful parade winds through the centre, with floats, musicians, majorettes and walkers in period costume, and the streets and balconies are packed with enthusiastic onlookers. The climax is the burning of an effigy representing King Carnival, accompanied by ribald readings or a performance of ‘petegoletsia’, or gossip, by actors loudly discussing supposed local scandals.
Other town carnivals may feature a mock wedding, with the bride played by a man, often with a grotesque moustache, a disruptive demon and more bawdy commentary from spectators!
Beloved of naturalist Gerald Durrell, Corfu is an attractive destination for lovers of wildlife and botany. The mild seasons and humidity encourage lush growth of olive groves, cypress trees and Judas trees.
A variety of birdlife is attracted to the coast and lakes – indeed, Halikiopoulos, a seawater lagoon with freshwater streams, is one of the first sights to welcome passengers landing at the main airport. Other birdwatching spots are the Ropa Valley with the Lefkimmi salt pans, the reserve at St Spyridon Lake, and lakes Korission and Andinoni.
Sightings in recent years include spoonbills, species of heron, warbler and bunting, bee-eaters, Scops owl, and short-toed and Bonelli’s eagles, with Mount Pantokrator being a good area for spotting raptors.
Mess about on boats
Along with the sand and the sea, sails soon become a familiar sight for visitors to Corfu. The coastline, with a mixture of well-developed and unspoiled stretches, provides a stunning backdrop for those who take to the water. Experienced boat owners, or those aiming to hire, can find moorings in harbours such as Paleokastritsa, Govia Marina and, in the main town, Madraki, the home of Corfu Sailing Club. The club is based in an awe-inspiring position below the walls of the Old Fortress, and does accept visiting craft, although a call in advance is advised.
Surf the waves
For those happy to cruise the waves under their own power, the offshore breezes provide excellent windsurfing and kitesurfing. At Gardenos, windsurfing courses can be arranged for beginners and those aiming to improve, with professional instruction for adults and children. There are also windsurfing schools at Issos Beach, catering for a range of abilities and with equipment to hire. General advice is that beginners are better taking to the water mid-morning, while afternoon conditions challenge those aiming to test their skills. Plenty of other water activities, like wake and paddleboarding, waterskiing and kayaking are available around the island.
Toast Corfu’s wines
What better way to celebrate the proud wine-growing culture of Corfu than to offer a toast on one of its excellent estates? The Ambelonas Winery, on a hillside in the centre of the island, has its own museum, restaurant and olive groves, and a shop selling local produce, and holds cookery classes among other events. The family-owned Theotoky Estate, in the Ropa Valley near Giannades village, is regarded as one of Greece’s best after 150 years in business. The thick walls of the Venetian buildings are said to be perfect for ageing the wine.
Vlacherna Monastery – a plane-spotting paradise
Centuries of religious devotion, plane-spotting and a visit from James Bond – compact Vlacherna Monastery has a fascinating history. Built by the Venetians in the 17th century on a small island south of the Kanoni peninsula, it can be reached via a stone bridge. Its little chapel is still used for celebrations, and there is a souvenir shop. A tall cypress tree looms over tower of the whitewashed building, close to the flightpath of planes approaching the airport – a great spot for aviation enthusiasts. Scenes in For Your Eyes Only, starring Roger Moore, were filmed on the island, from where boat trips to nearby Pontikonissi, ‘Mouse Island’, can also be taken.
Visit Empress Elisabeth’s Achilleion Palace
Another James Bond location, the elegant Achilleion Palace, built in 1890 by Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, has stunning gardens and offers panoramic views of Corfu. Formerly a hospital, military headquarters and casino, it is now a museum, with many artworks dedicated to Greek hero Achilles. Notable statues include Dying Achilles, created by German sculptor Ernst Herter in 1884 and a bronze by Johannes Götz commissioned by a later owner, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Audio guides are available.