A Tour of Corfu Town - Hilary Paipeti
This is an exploration of Corfu Town which takes you far from the busy shopping streets, and into the town the Corfiots know - the Jewel of the Mediterranean. The route follows, more or less, the line of the old town walls, and you encounter much of their remains. You can also take the opportunity to visit the two splendid fortresses, with their colossal walls and fine views.
Start at the corner of San Rocco Square, at the Alpha Bank and head up G. Theotoki Street. Take the first street left, fork right and then take the second left to enter the open market, close under the walls of the New Fortress.
The market open early and bustles all morning with locals in search of the freshest produce. Several stalls selling fish first catch the eye. In summer great trays of sardines glint silver in the sunshine, and in winter eels await their fate as bourdetto, Corfu's paprika-spiced fish stew. Amongst the greengrocery stalls which change colour according to the season from winter's cool creams and pale greens to summer's ruby-ripe and purple are little specialist counters, one peddling olives preserved in every possible way, another dried herbs as remedies, and another hand-made baskets. At the corner where the way through the stalls bends right, ascend a set of stone steps on the outside of the bend. From the top of the steps you gain a fine view of the fortress walls. Go sharp right and follow the road; when it comes to a dead end descend to the road below and continue downhill between the main fortress wall and the outlying defences.
Look out for two stone reliefs representing lions set into the wall. They depict the Lion of San Marco, symbol of the Venetian Republic. The lions rest one paw protectively on a book; if it is closed, Venice was at war when the lion was sculpted, if open, at peace.
At the foot of the hill you reach the sea. Here turn right and follow the seafront, where fishing boats and cruisers moor opposite chandlers, travel agencies and various small stores. Soon the road enters the park of the Old Port. Here bear right and pass the main gate of the New Fortress, which is topped by an other Lion of San Marco and ringed by a little park. The bronze statue in the park commemorates Corfu's Jewish population. The Germans deported over 3000 Jews to concentration camps in 1944, and only a handful returned.
Construction of the fortress was begun in 1576 and finished in 1588. It was built to complete the Venetians' defences around the town. Designed by the Italian Francisco Ferdinand Vitelli, the New Fortress with its tunnels and battlements is the most spectacular monument on the island. Its peak is dominated by a citadel, built by the British in 1843. Tunnels running under the Old Town connect the New Fortress with the Old Fortress, and with other locations inside and outside the walls.
Straight on past the gate, you enter Spilia Square. Proceed across the square and at the far side turn right into Solomos Street. The church of Tenedos with its dome and squat belfry is on the right as you climb a flight of steps cobbled with flint. At the top of the steps you reach the footings of the fortress wall, with the visitors' entrance on your right. Take time to stroll round the fortress, and climb to the citadel for the best view of the Old Town.
Just beside the entrance, a tunnel leads back to the market, so if you wish to cut short your walk, you can return to your starting point from here. If you are continuing, leave the fortress gate and follow the wall around the corner into Schulemberg Street and head downhill. Below on the left is the old Jewish quarter.
Leave Schulemberg Street by a flight of steps, which you find on your left just as the wall ends. At the foot of the steps, turn left into Velissariou Street. A short distance on, a building with arched doors abuts the road. This is the synagogue, still operational for the small remaining population. Velissariou Street leads you back into Spilia Square, where you turn right, then take the next street left. Directly ahead is the Spilia Gate, one the two remaining gates of four that used to give entry into the Venetian town. Pass through the gate to emerge into the Old Port Square, where you turn right.
Following the pavement, you pass two narrow streets on the right, then turn into the third, a wide, sloping square with steps that lead up to the Orthodox Cathedral, where the most treasured relic is the forearm of Saint Theodora. Approach its facade and turn left. You reach another small square where you go straight on and then follow signs to the Venetian Well, up steps on the left. The well and eponymous restaurant are located in the picturesque Kremasti Square, so called because of the icon of the Virgin which used to hang (kremasti) on the wall of the church.
The well head, carved with stylized flowers and other symbols, was constructed by Antonis Kokkini in 1699 as a gift to the community. Until the 1840s when the British brought running water to the Town, supplies came from water sellers who hauled it from the nearby river, and from underground cisterns. Most of the Town's squares were built specially to collect rainwater and store it underground, and well heads such as this one gave the local people access to the supplies.
Leave the square at the opposite end to your entry point, at the far corner of the church. Out of the square, take the first alleyway on the left, then immediately go right into an open space with a circular railed garden. Turn left here into a wide street with a linear garden down the middle and descending steps. At the foot of the steps, you turn right and shortly regain the sea wall above the Old Port. The island of Vidos is ahead. The neighbourhood you have just passed through is part of the Campiello Quarter, the oldest part of Corfu Town out of the Old Fortress walls, settled from the 15th century onwards. Many of the buildings date from the 16th and 17th century. You can spot the Venetian houses by looking for certain characteristic architectural features, such as doorways with carved surrounds, intricate wrought ironwork in mezzaluna openings, stone projections above and below windows, arcades and railed balconies with carved supports. Most of the buildings are painted in shades of ochre, but in the 19th century a traveller described the colours as "crushed strawberry and rotten apple", the favourite tints of the 17th century builders. On weathered walls you can see layers of the underlying colours where the ochre has peeled away.
Cross the road and continue uphill along the pavement above the old sea wall. Among the buildings you pass are the Solomos Museum, the Byzantine Art Museum, the Church of Agios Andreas and, just before the corner, the headquarters of the Bishopric of Corfu and Paxos.
The Solomos Museum is dedicated to the poet Dionysios Solomos, who wrote the words of the Greek National Anthem. He lived in the house, which now contains a collection of memorabilia, archives and photographs relating to his life and work.
The Byzantine Art Museum is housed in the restored Church of Antivouniotissa, at the top of a flight of wide steps. It contains a priceless collection of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons, many of them by Corfiot painters.
On the bend at the top of the sea wall, you can descend if you like to the sea at Faliraki, reached by way of a ramp tunnelling down through Saint Nicholas Gate. Here there are a couple of bars for refreshment. To continue the walk, proceed along the road, passing the Reading Society on your right.
Founded in 1836, the Reading Society is the oldest cultural organization in Greece. It is housed in a building designed by the architect John Chronis, and features a characteristic village-style "bodzo", a first-floor covered access balcony. The building contains a fine collection of old books, documents, paintings and prints, mostly relating to the Ionian Islands. Continuing, you pass the rear and side of the Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George, and through an arch, emerge into the Esplanade Square. The Liston with its many coffee bars is ahead.
The Esplanade Square was created in 1537 as a result of a Turkish attack. The population of the Old Fortress has spilled out into the area around the gates, and the commander, fearing the Turks would use the houses as cover, ordered their destruction. Part of the large open space created was used by the British during their occupation of the island (1814-1864) as a cricket pitch, and exhibition games are still sometimes played. Most matches in the local league and with visiting teams are now played on the new pitch in the Gouvia Marina complex. The Liston, with its arches after the style of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, was built by the French during their administration of the island, between 1807 and 1814.
Through the arch, turn along the front of the Palace. The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George was built as the residence of the British Lord High Commissioner of the Protectorate of the Ionian Islands. Designed by the engineer and architect Sit George Whittaker, it is neo-classical in style and is built of marble from Malta. Construction began in 1819 and was completed in 1823. Until 1864 it was the seat of the Ionian Senate and later became the residence of the Greek royal family. It was fully restored for the European Leaders Summit in 1994. You can visit the state rooms, and the delightful Museum of Asian Art in the main part of the building. The east wing contains art galleries with permanent and temporary exhibitions, and a coffee bar. The Order of Knight Commander of Saint Michael and Saint George (KCMG), awarded to diplomats for their services to Britain, originated here, and the Palace is still the official seat of the order.
Rounding the corner after the Palace, you see the picturesque Church of Mandrakina. Here leave the road and to the right of the church, descend the steps into the moat of the Old Fortress, the Contra Fossa, where fishing boats are moored and maintained. Walk along the bank of the moat as far as the bridge, then take the steeply ascending steps up to the gate of the Old Fortress.
In the middle of the 6th century, Gothic invaders completely razed the ancient city of Corcyra, which was located at Palaiopolis on the way to Kanoni. The surviving Corcyrans decided not to rebuild their ruined city, and instead established themselves on the easily defended headland which today is known as the Old Fortress. On this rock they built a new town using materials taken from the walls of the ancient city. The existing man-made defences were added under Venetian rule, and the British built two barrack blocks, one of which has been restored and now contains the Library and Archives. Exhibitions featuring historical and religious aspects of the island run during summer. You can explore the Fortress with its tunnels and walls. From the summit, the town is laid out like a map.
Leaving the Old Fortress, cross the road and enter the park. Bear left, passing the monument celebrating the Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece - a modern structure with bronze bas-reliefs displaying the symbols of the island - the Bandstand and the Maitland Rotonda. Cross the road to the little garden opposite, from which a statue of John Kapodistrias, first President of Greece, surveys the Fort. On the right of the garden descend the wide flight of steps to the promenade. Corfu Town's most luxurious hotel, the Corfu Palace, fronts the promenade. Its garden abuts the town walls, well preserved at this point. You are now outside the walls. Take the first street right. The second building on your right houses the Archaeological Museum, home of many antiquities, including the stunning Gorgon Pediment, the earliest sculpture in Greece.
Continue along this street, past the Tennis Club, to a major crossing street, where you turn right. Then take the second turn left, uphill. A long section of the old wall is visible on the left; you are now inside the old town again. Proceed up the slope to a bend, where on the left a bastion overlooks the Prefecture building and the Theatre.
Continue by following the road to a parking area. The neo-classical Ionian Parliament Building stands on the right side of the square. Take the downhill road to the left, which curves alongside the old wall. Where it meets a crossing street turn right and in a few paces you reach the main street.
Here stood the main gate of the Venetian of Corfu, the Porta Reale (Royal Gate). From here the wide main street, the Strada Reale (Royal Road) led directly to the Esplanade and the gate of the Old Fortress. It was demolished in 1893.
At the main street (G. Theotoki) turn left and you soon regain your starting point in San Rocco Square. Celebrate your arrival with a drink at Banca Bar, on the far side of Alexandras Avenue, the wide street heading left.