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The island of Corfu (Kerkyra in Greek) has everything one would expect of a great Greek holiday: a rich architectural tradition, a strong cultural presence (there are no fewer than 19 philharmonic bands) and ample opportunity to sample moussaka and dolmades.
Corfu, 40 miles long and 20 miles across, also has some of the best beaches in the region; chief among them are Agios Stefanos-Avliotes, Agios Spyridonas, Boukari and Arillas. It, along with many of its Ionian counterparts, is also lush with tropical flora and fauna -- a significant departure from, for instance, the stark, desert-like climate that permeates Greece's Cyclades series of isles.
Beyond all this, there is something textured, something different about Corfu that sets it apart. Maybe it's as simple as the fact that the island -- hanging off the northwest coast of Greece and within a heartbeat of Albania -- has been occupied by so many cultures: the Byzantines, the Venetians, the French, the Russians, the British. It wasn't until 1864 that Greece annexed Corfu, the best known of the seven Ionian Islands.
Throughout its history, Corfu has been an island power. Its earliest colonists came from Corinth, and Corfu soon became quite competitive; the in 664 B.C., first recorded naval battle in Greek history occurred between fleets of the two. The rivalry, some 200 years later, was an igniter of the Peloponnesian War. For 400 years between the 14th and 18th centuries, Corfu, under serious threat from Turks and pirates, was protected by the Venetian Republic. That republic disintegrated, and during the Napoleonic wars, Corfu and other Ionian islands were briefly part of the French empire. After that? It was Great Britain (the island became the seat of the British High Commissioner); after withdrawing in 1864, the Ionions then joined the Greek kingdom.
Most visitors to Corfu head first to Corfu Town. A bustling contemporary city, it's the capital of the island and, within its walls, contains its old town. What a delightful mish-mash: Italianate architecture ... Venetian monuments ... an exceptional Byzantine church ... The Liston, a French arcade that is the center of cafe life ... a museum of Asian art in an English palace ... a cricket field on Spianada, the town green ... and all of it framed by two hillside fortresses, one dating back to the sixth century.
The historic town center's primary shopping and restaurant district lies just behind the Liston. This maze of tiny Venetian alleyways hosts some of Old Town's most picturesque architecture with a pleasing blend of Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassic styles.
Its winding, narrow Venice-like alleyways can get especially crowded during the island's high touristic season (July and August, particularly), but just think of it as a pleasant hum to accompany your visually enriching tour through largely pedestrian-only streets. And, as they say in Greece: Siga siga. "Take your time. Slow down." And enjoy.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Zadar
Most shopkeepers and restaurant employees on the island, Kerkyra in Greek, speak at least a little English (but not necessarily a lot). Menus in Old Town typically include a section in English. If you're looking for a specific street address, particularly in Old Town, it can be challenging, as most signs are only in Greek (just ask a shop owner to point you in the right direction).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency has been the euro. The current exchange rate is roughly one euro to $1.35 U.S. (though we recommend you visit www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates). The cheapest and easiest way to get cash is to use your debit card at an ATM, which are plentiful.
During Venetian times, 4.5 million olive trees were planted on Corfu and olives, and olive products remain an important cash crop. In addition to black olives and olive oil, you'll find soaps and sachets made with olive oil, as well as sculptures made from olive wood. Other souvenirs: dried fig pies, kumquat marmalade and liquor, gold and silver jewelry, and religious icons.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock right at the New Port. They typically offer free shuttles to the passenger services terminal (if you get lucky, your ship will also operate shuttles to and from Corfu Town, a few miles away) where you can find auto rental kiosks and a sparkling duty-free shop. You have to exit the terminal to find taxis (typically the first queue is for passengers looking for island tours; you have to walk way down to the end to find those cars that'll take you on the shorter hop to Corfu Town.
There's nothing of compelling interest nearby, so scoot.
A taxi ride to Old Town is about 8 - 10 euros. It's a 30-minute walk from the port. Editor's Note: Many shore excursions conclude with a quick walk through Old Town before returning to port. Depending on ship departure times, passengers may consider extending their visit in town, returning to port by foot or taxi.
Corfu Town: It's a divine place for shopping, cafe-hopping and dining (just meander along the Venetian-like walkways. The most touristic stores are located within the walls of Old Town; more contemporary shops and boutiques are found in the adjacent city. Beyond that, there are a handful of significant historic sites in Corfu Town and Old Town. These include:
Ayios Spyridon Church, which is tucked behind the Liston and considered to be the most important church in the Ionians. It is dedicated to Corfu's patron saint, whose body is kept in a sarcophagus next to the altar.
The Old Fort (Esplanade) began in the 16th century by the Venetians; the moat came first. It's a great stop as much for the ambience as for the views, which look out to Albania, east, and Corfu, the island, on the west.
The prime attraction of the Archeological Museum (Demokratias and the Esplanade) is the pediment from the Temple of Artemis; it has lots of other ancient treasures, as well.
This is not the most likely location for a Museum of Asian Art (Esplanade, north end), but here it is, anyway. This one is really excellent and features porcelains and bronzes from China's Shang Dynasty (1500 B.C.) to its Ching Dynasty (19th century); there are Japanese wood cuttings and paintings, as well.
Pontikonissi and Vlaherna: Pontikonissi (or Mouse Island as it is popularly known) and Vlaherna are two tiny islands that serve as Corfu's visual signature. If you've ever looked at photographs of Corfu, you've probably seen a shot of these neighboring islets. Vlaherna houses a small convent while the heavily wooded Mouse Island is known for a 12th-century Byzantine church. There are boats at Vlaherna, reachable from the mainland by a causeway, that ferry tourists to Mouse Island, which costs two euros. On the hillside overlooking the islands across the road from Hotel Royal are a couple of nice cafes and souvenir shops. It's a terrific place to admire the view. To get to Vlaherna, a 30-minute walk from Old Town, just follow the coastline south, past Mon Repos beach.
Speaking of beaches, Corfu's most admired beaches are a bit of a drive from town. But Mon Repos, a 15-minute walk on the promenade south of Old Town, is a local favorite with its imported sand, taverna, bar and changing rooms. Just behind the beach is Mon Repos estate, or Paleopolis, which houses some of the best preserved archeological ruins on the island. Among the remains: Roman baths, an ancient dockyard, a Doric temple and an early Christian basilica. Summer hours are observed through October 31: Tuesday - Sunday, 8:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. Tickets, three euros; free admission for students, people under 18 and 65 or older.
Been There, Done That
Achilleion Palace is a little kitschy, but how can you not love a place with this back story? A beautiful, but naughty princess had a wretched life. Her two children died, she battled an eating disorder and eventually was assassinated. Later, a German emperor rescued the princess' palace. Achilleion, located in the village of Gastouri just south of Corfu Town, was built in the late 1890's and was the inspiration of Elizabeth, Empress of Austria. A neoclassical mansion, Achilleion was named for Achilles and a huge four-ton bronze sculpture of the mythical hero dominates the back gardens. The palace itself has some nice frescoes and sculptures, but the real standout is Colonnade of the Muses -- a black- and white-tiled terrace lined with statues of gods, heroes, muses, poets and philosophers. Achilleion, the site of the 1994 European Union summit, is open daily, 8 a.m. - 7 p.m. Admission prices range from five to seven euros.
Aqualand. This heavily advertised waterpark just five kilometers west of Corfu Town will give you all kinds of reasons to get wet: Crazy River, Kamikazes, Twister, Black Hole and Hydro-Tube. Generally speaking, the park is open seven days a week, May through October, and times vary depending on the season. Admission prices start at 11 euros.
Old Town is packed with restaurants, cafes and bistros. For afternoon cocktails and a quick snack, there's no better place than the Liston arcade and the line of cafes across from it -- if for no other reason than the people watching.
On Kapodistriou Street behind the Liston, Rex is a popular family restaurant known for its wide-ranging menu. Among its Greek Corfu specialties are veal with garlic, chicken with kumquat sauce, Corfu-style rooster, rabbit in white wine sauce, and, of course, moussaka and dolmades. Lunch prices typically range from eight to 12 euros. There is outdoor and indoor seating. But really, just about any eatery along the Liston or on Kapodistriou Street, which is parallel, will do.
For a memorable gourmet experience, head deep into Old Town to Venetian Well (Plateia Kremasti, 26610-44-761). An enchanting restaurant way off-the-beaten tourist path, its chef-owner-waiter offers "trans-national" cuisine -- defined as incorporating Greek cooking traditions and local ingredients with a contemporary flair (the "drunken" mussels appetizer, incorporating a fruit salsa with a hint of ouzo, was marvelous).
Also deep into Old Town is the family-owned Bellissimo (Plateia Lemonia). Consisting only of outdoor tables in a quiet plaza, it offers reasonably priced traditional fare.
While many shore excursions offer walking tours of Corfu Town (which frankly, most folks can do on their own), look for those half-day adventures that take you around the island (and spend the remaining time allotted in town, independently).
Greek cooking lessons was the most imaginative of the tours offered on our cruise; it's a half-day, hands-on experience at a local restaurant.
Palokastritsa (and Corfu Town) takes you to the small village of Palokastritsa, known for its monastery of the Virgin Mary.
Off-road Jeep rides through the island offer a chance to visit out-of-the-way villages and admire the lush scenery.
Staying in Touch
In Corfu Town, there are two popular internet cafes:
cybercafecorfu, I. Gardikioti 3, just 200 meters from the port.
cafeonline, Kapodistriou 28, behind the Liston arcade.
For More Information
On the Web: www.kerkyra.net and www.ionian-islands.com
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--by Ellen Uzelac, a finance and travel writer based on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor.
--All images (except for main shot) are courtesy of Kathleen Tucker, Publisher of Cruise Critic.