From Kotor Montenegro, our ship cruised down the Adriatic Coastline until we came to Greek territorial waters, the Ionian Sea, off the coast of northern Greece. Our destination was the island of Corfu and its main town, also called Corfu. Although a long way from Athens, Corfu is closely bound up with the history of the Golden Age of Greece and features significantly in the history and mythology of the Greek fifth century. Its original name was Korkyra and at the time was a impoprtant naval power and the naval battle of Sybota was a key event leading up to the Peloponnesian War. Like the other coastal Adriatic cities, Corfu was bound up in the wars against the Ottoman Empire and its fortresses were used by the Venetians in these battles. Corfu was taken over by the British after the Napoleonic Wars and was ceded to Greece in 1864
Corfu is along way from Australia and I don’t have any Greek heritage but it was the place on this trip that I was most looking forward to visiting. This was because a set novel for my last year of schooling was a book called My Family and Other Animals, the story of the famous Durrell family who spent four years living on Corfu between 1935-39 before the impending war sent them home to England. The stories of the writer Gerard Durrell about this time on Corfu have been covered by television and cinema extensively in the late 20th and the 21st centuries. I was very pleased to find the memorial to Gerald Durrell on the edge of the canal that separates the town of Corfu from the fortified Island where the Old Fort sits.
Our stop at Corfu was not a long one and was pretty much confined to a self-guided tour of the promontory on which the old fort built by the Venetians was located. This promontory was in fact where the original town of Korkyra was built and survived here until the 15th century when the Venetians decided that significant fortification was necessary to stave off the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The Venetians created the moat which separated the fort from the rest of Corfu, converting the citadel into an artificial island. Three separate sieges by Ottoman forces were repelled by the Venetians’ military infrastructure. It was this ‘island’ and its forts that we explored; we unfortunately didn’t have the time to investigate the ‘New’ Fort built on the other side of Corfu by the Venetians in 1577.
Like the rest of the Adriatic coastline, Corfu suffered greatly from the invasion of Axis powers during the early 1940s. One of the saddest stories of this period is commemorated in the city by a memorial to the Jewish citizens of Corfu who were rounded up by the Nazis in June of 1944, incarcerated in the old fort before being shipped off to be murdered in Auschwitz.
The map below of Corfu town gives an indication of the limited nature of our walk around the esplanade in between the town and the Old Fort and a stroll around the fortified island.
The overhead shot below gives the best idea of the layout of this artificial island. Visitors access the island by the long pedestrian bridge that crosses the canal (Sea Moat), continuing along this path to the next piece of fortification, the Land Moat, before gaining access to the Old Fort’s Island.
We spent our time walking around the grounds of the fort, turning right early on and wandering down to have a look at what appeared to be a remarkably new looking Greek Temple. It was the Church of St George built in 1840 to meet the ‘religious needs’ of the British soldiers who served on the Island from 1814 to 1864 when Corfu was handed back to the Greeks.
One of the confusing aspects of this fortress island is that there appears to be two forts constructed here. The one closest to the land is called the Castel de Terra (Land Castle) and the one further along the peninsula with the lighthouse on top is called the Castel de Mere (Sea Castle).
We walked around the forts and back along the Mandraki Harbour where the locals kept their gorgeous yachts. From the island we decided we would walk back over the bridge and walk down to the archaeological museum at the other end of the Esplanade. The photo below is looking back at the citadels from the sea-front on the way to the Museum.
The Archaeological Museum of Corfu (image left) houses a small collection of materials that have been gathered from local excavations over the last century. The most significant archaeological remains that have been dug up in Corfu is the Temple of Artemis that was excavated from 1911 in the grounds of the Monastery of St Theodore in a suburb of Corfu. The finds associated with this ancient temple are significant in that they are much older than found in excavations of other Greek temples on the Greek mainland; it was the first Doric temple built completely from stone from the archaic period (from around 640 BC). The ruins of Temple of Artemis were originally found by Napoleonic soldier digging trenches.
There were pediments on the front and back of this temple; the one on the front has survived in reasonable condition and is displayed in this museum. The figure in the centre below is a large relief of the Gorgon Medusa. The figures from the pediments are considered the first substantial specimens of Greek sculpture from a Doric building.
Another Temple pediment (see above) found in a Corfu excavation featured a sculpture of Dionysius that dated from artound 500 BC.
Time pressure forced us to hurry our visit to the Archaeological museum as we also wanted to have a quick look at some of the streetscape of Corfu before we rushed back to the boat. Below are a couple of photos from our town walk.
PART 2….Corfu to Athens