This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
When to go
Immediately. Lord Palmerston is determined to shortly cede these lovely islands to Greece, and it is feared that amenities currently favouring the visitor will disappear. Spring is best for the landscapes recorded
by Mr Edward Lear, a Corfu resident, in his Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, just published in London. If you are here in late April, go to the first horse race of the season at the stadium, where the high society of British Protection – English officers, landowning Italian signori and rich Greek merchants – mix together. It might be the last time.
What to take with you
A ripping yarn, say WE Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, written just before he came to Corfu as lord high commissioner five years ago.
If your ship arrives via Gibraltar, and there has been plague or yellow fever on the Rock, you may end up in quarantine. At least Corfu has one of the best lazarettos (maritime quarantine stations) in southern Europe. It now offers personal fumigation – a kind of sauna with disinfectant vapours – as an alternative to a prolonged stay. Take some quinine and window-gauzes as preventatives. (Still, there has not been plague on Corfu since the war in Crimea a decade ago.)
You can still go by stagecoach through France and Italy if you do not trust the steam locomotive. Then best take
an Austrian Lloyd company steamer from Ancona. Travelling in Italy is less troublesome now that some order has been restored after unification under Piedmont.
Since the British took over at the end of the war against Napoleon the currency has been the Ionian obol, equal to a British half penny. You may find Greek drachma and the odd Turkish para turning up in change. Make sure you transfer cash through the reliable Ionian Bank, on which the Protectorate administration depends for credit. It occupies a fine Venetian edifice in the centre of town, so you cannot miss it.
Sights and activities
The carnival at the end of February is as lively as any in Italy, though a few years ago the Protection passed a law limiting the wearing of masks as a cause of sedition. Watch the garrison playing cricket on the great esplanade opposite the Palace of St Michael and St George, built in 1824 to house lord high commissioners.
You can hire a dragoman in Corfu to accompany you on a tour of European Turkey and Greece, if you don’t mind extreme discomfort and the risk of being kidnapped. Less taxing is to hire a small yacht and see the other islands.
Sleeping and accommodation
Corfu was not on most people’s grand tour in the old days, so lodgings are still so-so. Hotel Konstantinoupolis in the port is brand new and has decent facilities. If you have the right credentials, get yourself invited to stay with Venetian aristocrats in one of their sumptuous villas. Best of all would be Sir Spiridion Valaoriti, head of one of the few leading families who still remain loyal to the British.
This is a plus. So many foreign powers have passed through since the Venetians left in 1797 that the cuisine is more varied than ever. There is spicy Italian fare – local pastisado is derived from the Venetian dish spezzatino. There is Greco-Russian fusion – lots of eggs, vegetables and fish – thanks to the strong Russian presence; their troops may have gone after the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, but their influence has never entirely faded.
The English are leaving a mark on drinking in Corfu at least. There is good ginger beer, but also extremely poor ale selling in vast amounts when the Mediterranean fleet is around. Its flagship, HMS Marlborough, is anchored now within sight of the Old Fortress.
Here there is plenty of choice. The town is full of carriages and equestrians going to entertainments – the Duchess of Montrose was here recently with an entourage. In the evening take refreshment in the Liston arcade, built by the French before they left in 1815 (its architect designed the Rue de Rivoli in Paris). For French and Italian opera there is
the Nobile Teatro di San Giacoma, while British army bands perform by the Rotunda named after that tough old Glaswegian architect of Protection, Sir Thomas Maitland.
Dangers and annoyances
Respectable ladies, local and foreign, never go near the harbour at night alone.
British soldiers are generally well-behaved, but the same cannot be said for Jolly Jack Tar. English tourists may wish to avoid the quarter populated by the inhabitants of Parga who fled to Corfu in 1819 after Lord Liverpool’s government handed their town on the adjoining coast to the ferocious Ali Pasha. They are still angry.
Do not get into arguments with the Ionians themselves. They are notoriously rowdy and handy with knives – getting Ionian traders out of scrapes is the bane of English consulates all over the Levant.
Robert Holland is visiting professor, Centre for Hellenic Studies, King’s College London. His book Blue-Water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean since 1800 has just been published by Penguin
Corfu is still a key stepping stone on Europe’s last great sea route – the ferry service from southern Italy to Corfu and Patras on the Peloponnese – but most visitors don’t arrive this way. Instead, millions come each year on flights from the UK, Germany and Scandinavia. They pour in to what remains a deeply beautiful island, aiming for resorts like Glyfada, Ipsos and Sidari. Few head to the Hotel Konstantinoupolis, which remains a timeless, welcoming place to stay.
If this has you thinking you need to search elsewhere for the Corfu which Gladstone lived in, then a closer look can be revealing. Corfu’s old town is studded with historic buildings and memorials which invoke the memory of the island’s time as an outpost of the British empire, including a Venetian citadel and a memorial to 19th-century lord high commissioner Sir Thomas Maitland.
There are also plenty of coastal areas, especially in the wooded north-east, which will reward those on the trail of another notable resident – nature writer Gerald Durrell. The best way to follow this theme round the island is to do as visitors have done for years – follow a trail through the trees to a pebbly beach, take a swim in the Ionian Sea waters then break at the seaside taverna that’s usually waiting nearby.
If you like this…
For the next stop on Homer’s itinerary, then the neighbouring Ionian island of Ithaki is where you’ll find your Penelope. Alternatively, to follow Gladstone’s trail a little closer to home, you can visit his library at St Deniol’s in Flintshire – and even sleep in comfy rooms there.
Tom Hall, editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of Tom’s articles at the website