The Complete Guide To: Corfu
Mountains. Over 200km of coastline. Royal connections. Sunshine. It's time to visit this Greek gem, says Cathy Packe
Saturday 21 June 2008
The second-largest of the Ionian Islands was one of the first Greek destinations to embrace mass tourism. Yet Corfu has far more to offer than just sun, sea and souvlaki. It is located just west of the Greek mainland and the southern coast of Albania. Shaped like a sickle, with its hollow side facing inwards, the island is about 65 kilometres long and 32 kilometres across at its widest point.
There are 217 kilometres of coast, although anyone venturing inland will find that the interior has at least as much to offer as the shore. Much of Corfu is mountainous. At 906 metres above sea level, its highest peak, Mount Pantokrator, is visible from most places on the island.
These days, Corfu caters for everyone, including those who prefer to travel independently or who want to elude busy resorts. Resident Janet Balaoura has seen the island change in the years since she first moved there, and remembers the bad press resulting from the over-development that took place in the Eighties. "It's seen a lot of changes," she says. "It's coming back now. It's a beautiful island – I love it with a passion."
Where should I stay?
Some resorts, including Sidari on the north coast and Kavos on the east, still cater predominantly for mass tourism. First Choice (0871 200 7799; www.firstchoice. co.uk) and Thomas Cook (0870 010 0437; www.thomascook.com) are among the many companies offering package holidays to resorts all over the island.
Villa accommodation is popular in the north-east of the island, where the mountainous coastline and beautiful bays offer spectacular settings for secluded houses. Among the operators that are offering properties in this area is James Villas (0800 074 0177; www.jamesvillas.co.uk), a family-run business which has a number of attractive villas on the island. Most of the properties sleep six people, although some are larger.
One of Corfu's best-known budget options is the Pink Palace (00 30 26610 53103; www.thepinkpalace.com) at Agios Gordios beach in Sinarades. The rose-coloured building sprawls across the hillside, and offers dormitory accommodation from €18 (£15), and double rooms from €27 (£22.50) per person; these rates include breakfast and a three-course dinner, as well as free transport from ferries, planes and buses.
For those who just want a taste of the place, Corfu is a destination on a number of cruises, including the 10-night tour "Around the Ionian Sea" operated by easyCruise (0871 210 0001; www.easycruise. com). Cabins are available from £210 for the trip; meals and travel to and from Athens are extra. The ship docks at 10am, and remains in the harbour until 5am the following morning, giving passengers plenty of time to explore a little of the island, or to enjoy the charms of Corfu Town, the only Corfiot settlement of any real size. Corfu Town is towards the south of the island; both the international airport and the port are a short walk from the old town.
Worth a look?
Most definitely. Corfu Town is a thriving metropolis in comparison with most other Greek island "capitals", and is also very attractive. The town was a target for several foreign armies in the course of its long history, and the two fortresses which now protect its harbour were built by the Venetians, who ruled the island for four centuries and whose influence continues to give the town an Italian feel. From the old fort, or Palaio Frourio (open 8.30am-3pm daily; admission €4/£3.35), there is an impressive 360-degree view over the town and the coast beyond it.
Just behind the fortress is the Spianada, a pleasant green space that incorporates a cricket pitch, a legacy of the early 19th century, when the British conquered the island. Running along the Spianada is the Liston, an attractive avenue part-shaded by trees, partly covered by arcades. With its many restaurants and cafés, it is a perfect spot from which to watch the world go by – although resident Alexandros Ardonidis advises caution before you order. "If you sit somewhere for lunch, check the prices first and double-check the bill afterwards," he warns.
A few blocks back from the Liston is Corfu Town's best-known landmark, the dark red bell-tower of St Spiridon church; the area all around is a mixture of quiet squares, intriguing alleyways and lively shopping streets.
Should I venture inland?
Most visitors concentrate their attention on the coast, which means missing the opportunity to experience Greek island life untouched by tourism.
Corfu's second-largest conurbation, Lefkimmi, is located in the middle of the countryside and its inhabitants seem oblivious to the crowds that descend on other parts of the island during the summer months. The streets are quiet and there are no tourist shops. Many of the houses have a lemon tree or a couple of vines outside; colourful flowers bloom in old paint tins and olive oil containers, and chickens peck in the yard. Toothless old women dressed in black sweep the front steps while the men sit in one of the local bars drinking black coffee or something stronger.
In complete contrast is Corfu's most popular inland destination, Aqualand Water Park in Agios Ioannis, about half way across the island heading west from Corfu Town. Contained within the park is a selection of slides, tubes, pools, rafts, pirate adventures – anything that can be turned into a water-related attraction. The park opens 10am-6pm daily May-October, until 7pm in July and August. Admission costs €25 (£21) for adults, €17 (£14) for children.
I want to be alone
This could be the moment to take a trip up Mount Pantokrator, the highest point on the island. Remarkably, considering it compares in altitude to the highest peaks in England, you can drive all the way to the top. Cyclists might want to pedal up the slope starting in Ipsos.
The road winds up and up, through a series of seemingly impossible curves that carve their way through the grey rock; in spring, the mountainsides are carpeted in flowers. The summit itself, bristling with radio masts, is a disappointment, until you look around and absorb the breathtaking view: the map of Corfu, with its bays and headlands, seems to come to life before your eyes.
If you don't have a head for heights, the Korission Lagoon is a more down-to-earth destination. Take the main road south towards Kavos, turning off at the signpost towards Issos beach. A marked path to the right just before the beach leads to the dunes that surround the lake; from there it is a case of wandering where the fancy takes you.
The vegetation, the water birds and the distant tolling of a church bell provide the perfect setting for a gentle walk that is off the beaten track and overlooked by most visitors.
Where is the best scenery?
One of the most dramatic spots on Corfu's north-west coast is Paleokastritsa, a rocky promontory on the top of which is a ruined castle, the Angelokastro. Paleokastritsa itself is a rocky, densely wooded headland around which nestle a variety of different beaches and coves. Each beach offers different facilities, with a diving school in Ampelaki, and trips out into the bay on a glass-bottomed boat starting from the little harbour of Alipa (00 30 69774 09246). These last 45 minutes, and depart on the hour from 10am-4pm.
The buildings that pepper the hillsides comprise a mixture of rooms for rent and small hotels, each with a path down to the beach. Boat and bike hire is available from the Akrotiri Beach Hotel (00 30 266 30 41 237; www.akrotiri-beach.com).
Perched on a rock above the beaches is Paleokastritsa Monastery, which opens 7am-1pm and 3-8pm from April to October. Inside the gate is a lovely courtyard filled with plants, and a small, intricately decorated orthodox church. But the high point, in every sense, of a visit to this part of the island, is the Angelokastro. The road, which in places is barely wide enough for a single vehicle to squeeze along, winds through the picturesque villages of Lakones, Makrades and Krini before reaching a taverna, above which is the final slope to the castle.
In the 11th century, the Angelokastro was at the frontier between the Byzantine Empire and the West, so it was one of the most important strategic fortifications on the island. Traces of the castle battlements can still be seen, but the real reason to clamber to the top of the hill is for the excellent views over the southern Adriatic. Another popular viewpoint, and an ideal place from which to watch the sunset, is the Kaiser's Throne, a rocky outcrop with a viewing platform above the village of Pelekas that Kaiser Wilhelm II, who spent many summers on Corfu, once regarded as his favourite spot on the island.
A royal connection?
Yes: Corfu regal associations began with Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who chose the island as the location for a summer palace in the late 19th century. The result wasu o the Achilleion, in Gastouri (00 30 26610 56245; www.corfu-casino.gr). After Elisabeth died it was sold to the King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who visited it regularly until the First World War.
The palace is open 8am-5pm daily to visitors, who arrive in by the bus-full to explore a handful of unimpressive ground-floor rooms. Admission is €7 (£5.85). Far more interesting are the terraced gardens, with their classical statues, palm trees and walkways shaded with wisteria.
There is a more modern royal connection at the Mon Repos estate (00 30 26610 41369), birthplace of the Duke of Edinburgh and formerly a summer residence of the Greek royal family. Mon Repos is on the eastern edge of Corfu Town, and is easy to reach by following the coast road around the bay and turning inland when it does. It is a lovely place to wander, with its paths meandering through the shady gardens that are dotted with Doric temples. The grounds open 8am-7pm daily; the museum opens 8.30am-3pm daily, except Monday.
When should I go?
Corfu's season starts with a weekend of celebrations marking the Greek Orthodox Easter – next year, the Greek Easter Sunday is 19 April – and continues until October.
During the winter the island is extremely quiet, with many hotels and restaurants remaining closed. In the height of summer, temperatures average 30C or more; the sun is slightly less fierce in May and September.
How do I get to Corfu?
The only direct scheduled flights are on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) between Gatwick and Corfu. In addition, plenty of charter flights operate from a wide range of UK airports. Corfu's international airport is walking distance from the centre of Corfu Town.
Airsea Lines (00 30 26621 99316; www.airsealines.com) operates regular, although not daily, seaplane services from the Greek mainland to Corfu; flights from Ioannina cost €54 (£45), from Patras €108 (£90). AirSea Lines also flies to the neighbouring Ionian islands of Paxos, Ithaca, Kefalonia and Lefkas; ferries to Paxos are operated by Petrakis Lines (00 30 266 10 38690; www.ionian-cruises.com).
The street opposite the entrance to the port is lined with car-hire offices, most of which are happy to offer reasonable deals, including free airport drop-off facilities.
Holiday reading: Durrell's legacy
The writer Lawrence Durrell spent several years in Corfu, and his book Prospero's Cell records his impressions of life on the island during the 1930s. He lived in the village of Kalami on the north-west coast, in an old fisherman's house on the edge of the harbour. The house is still there, a distinctive building with green shutters; inside, there are photos of Durrell.
The White House Villa (www.white-house-corfu.gr) can sleep up to eight people and is available to rent from May to October; prices start at €600 (£500) a week. Upstairs, Prospero's Apartment, which sleeps up to four people, is rented out separately from the villa from €290 (£242) a week. Perched on the rocks, the bottom floor of the building is a taverna whose terrace juts out over the water.
The hidden harbour
If the thought of a Greek island conjures up images of water, a jetty, the occasional taverna and not much else, you will want to head to Kouloura, a small village on the north-west coast. Hidden away behind a ring of cypress trees, this tiny harbour, full of brightly coloured boats whose nets are piled up on the quayside, must be one of the most perfect locations in Greece.
Clear turquoise water laps against the pebbles on the little stretch of beach, the mountains of Albania across the water look hazy in the sunshine, and the single taverna, its terrace overlooking the water is an excellent place in which to sip a beer and while away a few hours.
This stretch of coast, between Kassiopi and Pirgi, is the most beautiful part of the island, with each little village offering something different in terms of scenery and attractions. At Nissaki, the mountains drop steeply into the sea. The village itself sprawls down the hillside and along the road that runs above the coast; down below is a tiny harbour, with an attractive restaurant, the Olive Press.
Boats can be rented here (00 30 6998 505651; www.nissakiboatrental.com) from €80 (£67) for the day, providing a relaxed form of transport from which to explore the coast. Visit Agni, a tiny cove with a beach and several tavernas; Aghios Stefanos, almost as lovely as Kouloura with its string of jetties along the harbour; or Avlaki, whose north-west-facing location makes it a good windsurfing and sailing centre.
Kassiopi, with its ruined castle and pastel-coloured buildings, is one of the best diving centres on the island. Corfu Divers, opposite the church by the harbour (00 30 6946 821138; www.corfu-divers.com) offers a variety of diving and snorkelling packages suitable for beginners and those with some experience.
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