This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
I first holidayed in Corfu, a large leg-shaped island on the north-west frontier of Greece, when I was 11 years old. We drove all the way in a VW camper van, covering the last leg from Bari to Corfu Town in a ferry. After a week and many adventures on the road, we set up camp in a beautiful two-bedroom cottage on Corfu’s unfashionable south-west coast, near the town of Agios Gordios.
With not enough beds to go round, some of my family (myself included) slept in hammocks. In the morning we’d stroll down a rough track to the nearby beach for breakfast in a cafe. We’d often pass the same old Greek lady, clad from top to toe in black, riding a donkey.
During that trip, and on subsequent ones, I discovered the island’s long and fascinating history. It’s said to be the island Scheria in Homer’s Odyssey, and Jason (of Argonaut fame) is supposed to have married Medea there.
More recently the island was ruled by the seafaring Venetians from the late 14th to the late 18th century, when it was ‘liberated’ by the French. The Venetian influence is still present in the beautiful buildings of Corfu’s old town, now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The jewel in Corfu’s crown, arguably, is the Palaio Frourio, or old citadel, built by the Venetians on an artificial islet, and used today for concerts and sound and light shows. Since my first trip its interior has been restored, and it is well worth a visit. So, too, is the Neo Frourio, or new citadel, a huge complex of Venetian fortifications that dominates the north-eastern part of the town. It used to be off limits, but since the recent departure of its naval garrison, its maze of medieval corridors and bastions has been open to the public.
French control of the island was intermittent and brief. After Napoleon’s fall in 1815, Britain was granted a protectorate over the Ionian Islands (of which Corfu is the second largest, behind Kefalonia). The British Lord High Commissioner set up home in the impressive Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George on the edge of the old town, a complex built in the Roman style by the Venetians. In 1864, after half a century of largely benign rule – with new roads built, the water system improved and Greek established as the official language – the British transferred sovereignty to mainland Greece.
Yet thousands of Britons still travel to Corfu every year to enjoy the island’s rugged landscape, uncrowded beaches and beautiful turquoise sea. It can get a little rowdy in busy ‘British’ resorts like Ipsos to the north of Corfu Town. But venture a little further up the north-east coast and you’ll find a succession of beautiful bays with houses and villas clinging to their steep hillsides. My favourite is Agni Bay with its three fabulous beachfront tavernas. The best is the Nikolas Taverna, run by Perikles (son of Nikolas) Katsaros, a larger-than-life mustachioed patron who welcomes each and every guest – from humble tourist to Hollywood film star – with the same effusive greeting. The piéce de resistance is ‘Greek Night’, held every Thursday, when Perikles gives a sparkling, gravity-defying demonstration of traditional dancing. A more sedate dinner can be had in the neighbouring bay of Kalami at the White House, once the home of 20th-century British authors Lawrence and Gerald Durrell.
Both Agni and Kalami Bays – and indeed the whole stretch of the north-east coast – are a haven for yachts, and that is how I’ve been holidaying on (or, should I say, off) Corfu for the last 20 years. Assuming, like me, you’ve got your helmsman’s licence, you simply pick up a barebones (unskippered) yacht at the Gouvia Marina, north of the old town (and just a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport), and set sail. The anchorages are rarely full, the restaurants are superb, and the sea conditions are, by and large, not too challenging. More adventurous sailors will head for the nearby islands of Paxos and Antipaxos, or even mainland Greece and Albania. I prefer pottering up the coast to the tiny, picturesque seaport of Kassiopi, with its abundance of waterfront bars and tavernas, and dominated by the hilltop ruins of a 13th-century Angevin castle. Just don’t make the mistake of staying in the harbour overnight: music from nightclubs can still be heard at 6am!
If you venture inland from Kassiopi – where the Roman emperor Tiberius is said to have kept a villa – the must-see destination is the village of Palea Perithia, on the north slope of the island’s highest point, Mount Pantokrator. Abandoned in the 1960s, the village boasts a 14th-century Byzantine church, complete with recently uncovered and preserved frescoes. The drive up is long and windy; but, for the view alone, it’s definitely worth it.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
June and September, when the temperatures are not at their fiercest and the sea is cool enough to refresh. Corfu Carnival, which was brought to the island by the Venetians in the Middle Ages, is a colourful and popular affair, which takes place at the end of February or in early March.
Easyjet, Ryanair and Thomas Cook all fly to Corfu Town from most British airports.
What to pack
Swimming costume, diving mask and mozzie spray.
What to bring back
Colourful Corfiot wraps and blankets.
The Old Fort in Corfu town has seen numerous sieges and a really big explosion during its lifetime. It has a fab view as well
I’d highly recommend the poignant Achilleion Palace in Gastouri built by Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria in the 1880s
Corfu is wonderful but hop across the strait to Butrint in Albania for a stunning historical site
Professor Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and author. Read more about Saul’s experiences in Corfu at historyextra.com/corfu