Greece has thousands of islands and each of them has its own identity, even those that belong to the same archipelago. In this highly competitive crowd, however, Corfu – or Kerkyra – stands out.
The northernmost of Greece's Ionian islands, Corfu is a sickle of land crumpled amid the blue sea: a mass of steep mountains and hills covered with dense greenery. Here, there and everywhere dark cypresses stand out, candle-like. The air is golden with that special light that exists only in this part of the Mediterranean. The feeling that you are simultaneously in Greece and Italy becomes stronger because from the highest points of the island you can see both the impenetrable Pindus mountains of continental Greece and Albania, to the east, and the vastness of the open Mediterranean to the west.
Corfu's duality, the result of centuries of Venetian domination, is most visible and palpable in its eponymous main town. The island's capital is a concoction of crumbing Venetian palazzos and neo-classical official buildings (the remains of half a century as a British protectorate). The grand façades lining the main streets in the old centre hide a network of dark alleys snaking between residential buildings with their Sunday laundry drying on lines overhead. The Mediterranean whiff of sewage blends with the aroma of the open sea. Stray cats stroll along the streets, oblivious to the old churches, the new boutiques, the lively cafés and restaurants. Tourists are everywhere. Some arrive from the overcrowded resorts, while others disembark from cruise ships.
The island has been popular with foreign tourists for decades, but its main town has largely preserved its laid-back atmosphere
Nevertheless, Corfu town preserves a gentle, laid-back atmosphere. This could be because of the Mediterranean light, or because few of the old buildings there have been renovated. Most of them, even those on Liston Square, are deliciously neglected, with architectural ornaments crumbling and walls discoloured from moss.
Outside Corfu town, the island remains a place that has found a way between managing thousands of tourists and preserving its authentic spirit.
Yes, there are plenty of resort villages with their tacky souvenirs and entertainment, and overcrowded selfie spots (avoid the Channel of Love at sunset), yet still the inhabitants of the tiny villages around Paleokastritsa, with its popular beaches and monastery, stick to the age-old traditions of Greek communal life. When the sun goes down and the air is balmier, they sit out in the tiny squares or on the steps of their houses and chat with their fellow villagers, discussing the minutiae of their daily lives. They might even crack a smile at the tourists passing by in their rented cars.
Angelokastro fortress, atop one of the island's highest hills, was built by the Byzantines
A strange and mesmerising place, Corfu was among the first Greek islands to attract mass Western tourism. First came royalty. Empress Elizabeth of Austria, aka Sissi, had a summer palace here (The Achilleion is now a museum). The German Keiser Willhelm II bought the Achilleion, added a gorgeous garden to it, built himself a special bridge to reach the beach (tourist traffic still passes under what remains of it) and constructed a place atop the mountain, the Keiser's Throne near Pelekas, to enjoy the vistas. In the 1930s, a number of Western expats settled on the island, lured by the low cost of living and the high quality of life. The most famous of these were the Durrells, whose best known members, writer Laurence and zoologist Gerald, penned mesmerising accounts of Corfu, its spirit and its people. Then came mass tourism, and the remarkable way in which the island preserves its atmosphere of peace and authenticity in spite of it.
A recent addition to Corfu's high-end accommodation is proof of the island's ability to cater to newcomers while remaining true to its own self. Located 20 kms south of the main town, beside Moraitika village, Domes Miramare is a Luxury Collection resort that combines the feeling of being utterly pampered with top-notch design and gourmet food, with an atmosphere of tranquility and freedom that no money can buy. The resort's adults-only concept guarantees that you have all the calm and quiet you need to relax, and if you opt for the waterfront pavilions and villas you will enjoy a rare delight: having the gorgeous sea just a few steps away from your comfortable bed.
The old Venetian fortress in Corfu town
The bell tower of St Spiridon Church is one of the city's main sights
The gardens of Achilleion Palace are a true delight