History of Corfu Town
It was bound to be! Corfu’s significant role in Mediterranean history was pre-destined thanks to its strategic position at the mouth of the Adriatic Sea. Whoever controlled Corfu had a good chance of controlling the most important trade and military routes between east and west and north and south. The Greeks knew this, as did the Romans, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Neapolitan Angevins, the Venetians, the French and the British. All came and went, leaving behind them a multi-layered historical and cultural heritage that is still very much in evidence today.
Corfu Town sits on a small peninsula about halfway down the east coast of the island, a site chosen for its natural port and the two peaks that lent themselves to fortress-building. The small mediaeval town that grew up during Angevin rule (1267-1368) was enclosed by thick defensive walls and guarded by two imposing castles that looked out to sea and the Greek mainland. But it was under the Venetians, who stayed for some 400 years (from 1386-1797) that Corfu Town really prospered.
The Venetians brought not only their great commercial know-how but also their architectural prowess and soon Corfu Town became a thriving economic centre with northern-Adriatic flair and impregnable defences (they significantly updated the Old Fortress and built the New Fortress). The Ottoman Turks laid siege to the town on numerous occasions over the centuries, but always in vain. Space inside the city walls was limited and so the streets were narrow and labyrinthine, much as they remain today. Not a great many Venetian buildings survive, but the two fortresses, the Liston promenade-piazza, the Spianada park, the Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo (once a theatre but now Corfu City Hall), several palazzi, the canal separating the Old Fortress from the town and the occasional depiction of the winged lion, symbol of St Mark and Venice, all bear witness to the extended presence of the great maritime power.
With the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, France took control of Corfu… but not for long. During the complex events of the Napoleonic Wars Corfu became capital of the newly instituted State of the Ionian Islands (1799-1807), a French conquest once more (1807-1814) and then, with Napoleon finally vanquished, a British Protectorate as part of the United States of the Ionian Islands.
The British remained in Corfu for 50 years, during which time a succession of High Commissioners got to work remodelling and modernising the town. Many Venetian sections of town were demolished to accommodate grander Neoclassical housing, and a series of civic buildings, including the Palace of St. Michael and St. George (residence of the High Commissioner and home of the Ionian Senate), was erected. As was their won’t, the British also founded a university, set up a reading society and promoted a host of other cultural activities.
In 1864, the British returned home, leaving Corfu to join the Kingdom of Greece. The capital city did not become a provincial outpost, however, but continued to attract holidaying aristocracy from around Europe, many of whom stayed for considerable periods of time, colonising the elegant Liston area or, in a few cases, building superb palaces just out of town. One such is the splendid Achilleion, built at the behest of the Empress of Austria, Elisabeth of Baveria (better known in some quarters as Sisi).
Corfu Town was badly bombed by German forces during the Second World War, with almost a quarter of the town being reduced to rubble. Fortunately, much of the mediaeval quarter, known as the Campiello, survived and in 2007 UNESCO awarded Corfu Town the status World Heritage Site: “The urban and port ensemble of Corfu, dominated by its fortresses of Venetian origin, constitutes an architectural example of outstanding universal value in both its authenticity and its integrity.” A day or two spent in Corfu Town, strolling through its lovely streets and discovering its historical secrets, is thoroughly recommended.
What to see and do in Corfu Town
The Old and New Fortresses: fascinating not only for their historical relevance but also for their stunning views over the town, the sea, the Greek mainland and much of Corfu island. Please note that the New Fortress, despite its name, dates back to 1578!
The Palace of St Michael and St George: built by the British in 1815 as a residence for the High Commissioner and seat of the senate, this impressive palace now houses an excellent Museum of Asian Art, brimming with Japanese prints, Indian sculptures and many other oriental treasures.
The Campiello: the mediaeval heart of Corfu Town. Just wander, get lost, look up and around you and stop occasionally for refreshments!
The churches: there are nearly 40 Greek Orthodox churches in Corfu Town and we recommend you visit a few, including the Church of St Spyridon (resting place of the island’s venerated patron saint – built 1596), the Orthodox Cathedral (1577) and the Byzantine Church of St Jason and St Sosipater (filled with sublime icons and time-faded frescoes – built in the 11th century).
The Spianada: the large park between the Old Fortress and the Liston in the east of town, which you will probably cross at some time during your visit. The British used to play cricket here and the Victorian bandstand at the centre harks back to another era completely!
The Liston: bordering the Spianada, the Liston is the chicest part of town, an elegant piazza-cum-promenade whose arcade is lined with cafés, restaurants and boutiques. Although it dates back to Venetian times, it was the French, during their brief sojourn on the island, who gave it its Parisian feel.
Museums: both the Archaeological Museum and the Byzantine Museum are worth a visit. The former’s star exhibit is a 17m-long bas relief of Medusa’s grizzly end dating back to the 6th century BC, while the latter, housed in a 15th-century church, features some exceptional examples of icon art dating between the 13th and 17th centuries.