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Corfu: Everything You Need to Know About the Idyllic Greek Island

Paleokastritsa, Corfu
Paleokastritsa, Corfu. Credit: Greek Reporter

Corfu is one of Greece’s most beautiful and storied islands. It shares its name with its most populous city, Corfu, which also serves as the capital of the Ionian Island archipelago along the coast of the Ionian Sea.

Corfu has become a must visit place for anyone looking to experience what the Greek Islands have to offer. Its breathtaking scenery, mountain ranges and beaches are amongst the most unforgettable in the country, and its blend of cultural histories and influences –French, English, Venetian, and, of course, Greek — will leave you with a unique understanding of how the culture of the Ionian Islands developed.

The History of Corfu Island

Corfu’s history can be traced back all the way to Ancient Greece and Greek mythology. Corfu is known as Kerkyra in Greek, a name derived from the nymph Korkira. In Greek mythology, Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, falls in love with Korkira, kidnapping her and hiding her away on the island that now bears her name.

The myth claims that Poseidon and Korkira gave birth to a line of people who became known as the Phaeacians. Corfu later makes an important appearance in another notable myth — on Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca, he becomes shipwrecked and washes up on the shores of Corfu, where the phaeacians help him continue on his journey back home.

It’s no coincidence that Corfu features prominently in the world of ancient Greek mythology — there’s archaeological evidence that shows the island had developing societies all the way back to the Paleolithic Era. In fact, people were living on Corfu before it even became an island — the sea that encircles Corfu was only a lake until the most recent Ice Age caused the sea level to rise between 10,000 — 8000 BC.

Corfu became a central trading hub while inhabited by the Phoenicians. Corfu became closely aligned with Athens during the Peloponnesian War. In 338 BC Corfu was conquered by the Macedonians, and was subsequently contested over by the Spartans, Illyrians, and Romans.

After the dissolution of the Roman Empire, control of Corfu then disputed by the Normans and the Venetians; eventually the island settled into Venetian rule in 1386, and remained under their power for four centuries.

Corfu became a part of the French state in 1797 after Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice. The Ionian Islands flourished under the French, and this prosperity continued under the British occupation in the 1800’s — the British supported the use of the Greek language, built infrastructure throughout the island, and established the first Greek university.

On May 21, 1864, the Ionian Islands rejoined the Greek state, becoming part of the modern nation. The history of Coru’s Venetian rule lives on in it’s Italian inflected architecture and music, which has a distinct cultural fusion unlike other regions of Greece.

The Channel of Love

One of the most beautiful and well-known beaches on the island of Corfu, the picturesque Canal d’Amour or “Channel of Love,” is known throughout Europe and worldwide as the beach for true lovers who want to stay together forever.

The Canal d’amour at Sidari, Corfu. Credit: Maksym Kozlenko, CC BY-SA 4.0

Located on the north of the island near Sidari, about 32 kilometers (20 miles) from the main town and on the westernmost tip of the island’s northern shore, it is remarkable for its sculpted sandstone rocks which rise up on either side, forming a natural fjord-like canal.

According to local legend, couples who swim the length of the canal will stay in love forever, while those who swim to its furthest tip will find the love of their life. Many visitors, however, prefer to simply toss a coin into its waters and make a wish for true love.

A unique spot favored by tourists, celebrities and many film crews over the years, according to the locals, the Canal d’Amour also boasts detoxifying and healing properties. This is attributed to the rich deposits of clay that form in the sea as the rocks are weathered by the wind and saltwater, creating small lagoons and exquisite caves.

Corfu’s Old Town and Paleokastritsa

Because of Corfu’s past under Venetian rule, the island has many breathtaking Venetian buildings and defensive architecture in Corfu’s Old Town. In fact, many of the fortresses were constructed in order to protect the island from further conquests. The Old Fortress in Old Town is the most staggering example: it overlooks the sea on the promontory where the ancient town of Corfu once was situated during the Byzantine Era.

The Venetians also established many churches, squares, and monuments on Corfu as well. The Old Town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO writes on it’s website:

“The ensemble of the fortifications and the Old Town of Corfu is located in a strategic location at the entrance to the Adriatic Sea. Historically, its roots go back to the 8th century BC and to the Byzantine period. It has thus been subject to various influences and a mix of different peoples. From the 15th century, Corfu was under Venetian rule for some four centuries, then passing to French, British and Greek governments. At various occasions, it had to defend the Venetian maritime empire against the Ottoman army. Corfu was a well thought of example of fortification engineering, designed by the architect Sanmicheli, and it proved its worth through practical warfare. Corfu has its specific identity, which is reflected in the design of its system of fortification and in its neo-classical building stock. As such, it can be placed alongside other major Mediterranean fortified port cities.”

The sublime Paleokastritsa

Located 25 km (15 miles) northwest of Corfu  is Paleokastritsa — arguably the most famous picturesque village of the Greek island of Corfu.

It is chiefly memorable for its exceptional scenery, along with its superb beaches. The cool crystal waters are ideal for swimming and water sports.

Paleokastritsa one of the best-known sites on cosmopolitan Corfu.

On most of the beaches, there are taxi boats, sun beds, umbrellas, motor boats, and canoes for rent. It is well worth it to visit all the beaches, which number approximately 15, with most reached only by boat. The famous Paleokastritsa caves are also best seen by boat.

For the really active, the rocks, the caves and the crystal waters of the seas surrounding the island provide great areas for diving.

The word Paleokastritsa literally means old fortress, witnessing the existence of such a castle on the rocky cave where now stands the Monastery of the Virgin.

Across Corfu Island: Syvota, surrounded by secret coves

Facing the southern tip of Corfu, Syvota is considered to be one of the most exotic destinations in Greece.

Sandy shores, luscious green islets, long sheltered beaches with crystal clear waters and secret coves, are just some of the small town’s many features.

It is the perfect stop for sailors in the Ionian archipelago, but nevertheless it is an essential destination for all who travel to western Greece.

The protected harbor of Syvota. Credit: ERWEH/Wikimedia commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 de

Just a short distance from the coast you’ll find the small islands of Mavro Oros (“Black Mountain”) Agios Nikolaos, and Mourtemeno as well as other, smaller islets.

Take note that it is worth it to rent a boat and sail the calm waters of the area on your own. Discover your own secret coves or shores and let the magic of paradise overtake you.

The most renowned beach, located in Agios Nikolaos is none other than Pisina; you’ll enjoy its fine white sand and blue-green transparent waters against a backdrop of a luscious green scenery.

In Mourtemeno, head for the second “5 star” beach of the region, Bella Vraka, which you can easily reach by foot by crossing over a narrow strip of golden sand from the mainland.
Near the town visit Zavia Beach with its green landscapes and turquoise waters.

And don’t miss the northern part of Syvota where Zeri and the white-sand Gallikos Molos Beaches stand out.

Leaving Syvota and heading towards Perdika you’ll have two more lovely beaches waiting for you, Mikri and Megali Ammos (meaning small and big sand) where you can engage in sea sports.

The Durrells’ scenic Corfu backdrop

Corfu received international attention after it became the backdrop for the British PBS TV series “The Durrells.” In 2018 it was voted the most Top European Film Location. The island was nominated by the Hellenic Film Commission for the shooting of the popular ITV and PBS TV series.

The UK drama was based on the life of author Gerald Durrell, and on a trilogy of books written by Durrell when his family lived on the Ionian island in the 1930s.

The series follows Louisa Durrell and her four children, ranging from age 11 to adulthood, as they move to Greece due to economic pressures and the loss of their father. There they experience intriguing personal journeys while adjusting to a new home and culture.

Corfu is deservedly famous for its staggering beauty. Take a look at this aerial view of the Ionian capital to see for yourself:

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