Outside and around the church there were old fashioned stores selling various cheap cards or slightly more expensive pieces of pressed aluminium each with a picture of a part of the body.
The explanation is that if you have a bad knee then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and then leave it there securely fastened in bunches to railings and picture frames so that God or Jesus or whoever doesn’t just forget about it seconds after you have gone.
In return for this service it is the custom to light a candle and leave it flickering at the door. Six foot candles were burning away with such intensity it might have been what it was like to be caught in the middle of the Great Fire of London. It all looked rather dangerous to me but there were men on hand whose job it was to extinguish the flames as soon as the worshipper that had left it there was an appropriate distance away down the street and then whisk the unburned portion away for immediate recycling and to cut down and sell later to another pilgrim!
Emerging from the shady streets back into the sunshine we passed the Esplanade, once the exclusive place for nobles and important residents and then the cricket pitch, which looked lush and green and rather out of place in this dry dusty town and is a quirky legacy of fifty years of British rule from 1814 to 1864 and where matches are still played today.
I don’t suppose many people would expect to find cricket being played in Greece but it was introduced to Corfu in 1823 when a match was played between the British Navy and the local Army garrison. The Hellenic Cricket Federation was founded a hundred and seventy years later in 1996 when Greece became a member of the European Cricket Council and an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council. There are now twenty-one cricket clubs in Greece, thirteen of which are based in Corfu and Greece competes annually in the European Cricket Championship.
Never mind Captain Cook or Clive of India or Cecil Rhodes, it seems to me that Cricket is probably the most important legacy of the British Empire. Currently 104 of 193 World Countries have some sort of affiliation to the International Cricket Council. For some reason that I cannot explain there are 211 football countries (?) affiliated to FIFA. There are about twenty countries that play the pointless game of US
I certainly wouldn’t park my car that close to the boundary especially in a T20 match…
Close to the harbour we completed our visit to Corfu town with a look inside the old fortress where we wandered around the lower levels where, to be honest there wasn’t a lot to see because seventy- five years ago the German army destroyed most of it to celebrate the end of their occupation of the island.
So then we tackled the long climb to the top where there were some impressive views of the town, the island and the sea but the weather was beginning to change and from out of nowhere a strong wind whipped up the dust and started to rattle the pavement furniture so we left, crossed the canal moat and head once more to the centre of the town where we passed a memorial to the two thousand Jews of Corfu who were deported from the island during the Nazi occupation.
Everywhere in Europe from Iberia to the Baltic to the Balkans we stumble across these sad stories. In June 1944 the Corfiot Jews were told to present themselves the next morning at the old Fort. When they heard the ultimatum, some escaped to the countryside but most did as they had been told. There, the Nazis forced them to hand over their possessions and subsequently they were led to the prison inside the Fortress.
The incarceration at the jail of the castle, under horrible conditions and without rudimentary amenities lasted for some time until finally they were transported to concentration camps in Eastern Europe.
Out of the two thousand that were forced to leave Corfu only one hundred and twenty eventually returned. Let me say that again. Out of the two thousand that were forced to leave Corfu only one hundred and twenty eventually returned. I love Europe, I love being a European but when it comes to war and genocide, Europe has a lot to answer for.
It is facts like these that can make me feel temporarily uncomfortable as we nonchalantly drift through history in sandals and shorts enjoying our holidays and our travels, stopping for a coffee or a beer or a cocktail but then occasionally uncovering unpleasant pieces of information that serve to remind that times were not always so good. Let us hope that we learn from history this time because we haven’t been so good at that previously.
Back now in the cramped shopping streets and back alleys the Kim and Margaret did some souvenir and gift shopping and then to the other side of the town to the New Fortress.
There was a long climb to the entrance and seeing a pay kiosk I was prepared for another entrance fee but bizarrely there was no one there to collect money and a sign in the window saying free admission between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon. It didn’t explain what the arrangements were if you wanted to visit outside of these hours!
A photograph taken in 1984…
The New Fortress was built by the Venetians to compliment the older one and it was completed by the British during the Protectorate period. The British liked building fortresses in other people’s countries and also constructed some elaborate sea defences but rather like the Germans in 1944 they blew these up when they left when Corfu was handed over to the new Greek State in 1863.
It was a long hot walk but it was worth the effort for the views from the top of the battlements and from the flat roof of the old barracks and on balance (and I am not just saying this because it was free entrance) I think the New Fortress was more interesting to visit than the Old.
So we made our way back to the jetty and sat and waited in a friendly taverna under wildly flapping parasols for the speed boat and the return journey. The wind continued to get stronger and a concerned owner came outside several times to examine his umbrellas which seemed to be going through some sort of pre take off routine. The sea was getting rougher and I began to get nervous about the ride back.
The boat arrived and it looked rather flimsy bobbing about in the water as the hissing wind whipped up meringue peaks on the waves whilst overhead in the sky a fleet of steel grey battleships chased away the flotilla of dainty white sailing boats that scattered towards Albania but clearly the skipper was happy to make the journey and we set off back to Kalami.
I was confident in his nautical abilities of course but I also hoped that Saint Spyridon was watching over us because amongst all his other responsibilities he is also the patron saint of sailors, protecting them from shipwrecks and helping them to safe harbour during storms.
Another picture from 1984…
The architecture of the town is Venetian; the houses above the old port are built up elegantly into slim tiers with narrow alleys and colonnades running between them; red, yellow, pink, umber – a jumble of pastel shades which the moonlight transforms into a dazzling white city…” – Lawrence Durrell –“Prospero’s Cell”.
Travelling to Corfu town by speed boat seemed a good option rather than taking the long tedious journey by car all around the bay because even though it was rather expensive (€23 each) it only took twenty minutes.
The boat bounced over the gentle waves and we looked unsuccessfully for dolphins as the direct route to Corfu town bypassed all of the holiday resorts and modern concrete hotels that punctuate the horseshoe bay below Mount Pantokrator and then passed below the monstrous cruise ships in the harbour which seemed almost as tall as the mountain and shortly after that we disembarked at a small jetty quite close to the old fortress.
The old town of Corfu with its pastel-hued, multi-storey Venetian styled shuttered buildings, peaceful squares and graceful arcades was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.
History has left the Ionian isles with a fascinating cultural legacy, the result of Corinthian, Byzantine, Venetian, French and British influences that extend from architecture to cuisine, English breakfasts, lunchtime pasta and fine French evening dining.
Corfu Town boasts the stateliest of Neoclassical buildings, legacy of the nineteenth century British Protectorate of the Ionian islands. Earlier during two short spells of Napoleonic occupation the French left their mark. This influence is best seen in the arcaded Liston, a tribute to Rue de Rivoli in Paris and a sun-drenched venue for sipping coffee and people-watching. Before all this, the Venetians bequeathed all of the Ionian islands a distinctive landscape of Italianate buildings, silver-leafed olive trees and grape-heavy vines.
Margaret and Kim explore the old town…
Finally we arrived at the focal point of the city, the tall, red domed church of Agios Spyridon where lies the mummified body of the patron saint of the island, Saint Spyridon himself, and inside tourists jostled with Corfiots to push their way into a tiny side chapel to visit his heavily embossed silver tomb where “…he lies in hibernating stillness in his richly wrought casket, whose outer shell of silver is permanently clouded by the breath of the faithful who stoop to kiss it” (Lawrence Durrell).
We passed through the heavy doors into an alternative world of black robed beardy priests, local worshippers and travelling pilgrims all lining up to kiss the lavish icons of their favourite Saint.
I don’t know for sure if this was a special day in Corfu for Saint Spyridon but I suspect it might have been because inside the place was so busy it resembled the first day of the Oxford Street January sales and people were pushing and shoving and waiting in a long line for their turn to visit the silver casket and to make a request for a miracle cure or for the winning lottery numbers. And the queue wasn’t moving very quickly because having stood in line for so long the pilgrims had plenty of time to draw up an expanding list of requests and having finally made it to the front no one was inclined to rush the experience of an audience with the preserved corpse and everyone seemed to stand around for eternity kissing the icons and the casket and saying personal prayers.
All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to wipe away the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.
After almost two thousand years the preserved relics are not in great shape and the right hand is missing altogether because that is in Rome, so the mummified skin and bone is covered in a sort of embroidered carpet, I assume so that it doesn’t scare the children half to death!
Spyridon is a very important to Corfu who at various times is said to have saved the island from foreign invaders and from outbreaks of deadly disease and because he does his best to try and deliver on the requests of the visitors to his tomb. He is so important to Corfiots that apparently Spiros is even today the most common boys name on the island.
This is my favourite story – it is said that at night when everyone is gone and the town is empty he rises from the silver sarcophagus and walks the streets of Corfu granting people’s wishes. Every year he wears out a perfectly good pair of shoes and every year he has to be fitted up for a new pair. This is a true story. Really!
Sadly there really wasn’t time to stand in the line of people and shuffle slowly to the chapel containing the relics and I couldn’t really think of anything to ask for anyway, except perhaps could Leicester City win the Premier League again this year, so choking on incense and elbowing our way past genuine pilgrims who wanted to discuss their ailments we made our way to the door and back out into the sunlit street.
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”…the little bay lies in a trance, drugged with its own extraordinary perfection – a conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses” – Lawrence Durrell
I have been to the Greek Island of Corfu several times, I have stayed at the village of Kalami (above) several times but this didn’t stop me going again and we travelled on this occasion with our good friends Mike and Margaret.
I first visited Corfu thirty-five years previously and spent a couple of days driving around the island and secretively I had a plan to do so again this time and see what changes there have been over the years.
From the picturesque Kalami Bay we headed first to the north of the island to the fishing village of Kassiopi where we stopped for breakfast by the waterside. We were following in the footsteps of visitors more famous. I am not just talking about the Durrell’s of Corfu because according to legend, the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus stopped here for a while, the Roman Emperor Tiberius built a villa nearby and the King of England Richard the Lionheart dropped in on his way home from the Third Crusade shortly before he was captured and held to ransom.
In 1984 I had stopped for lunch in Kassiopi and by using the castle as a point of reference I am almost certain that I found the very taverna. More shops and bars of course but the harbour was the same and the Byzantine castle still stood standing proud above the village.
After a Greek breakfast we walked along a cliff top path with good views across the sea to nearby smoky Albania. Below us boats were gently swaying in the whispering breeze and gently resting on a multi coloured sea which was butter milk cream over the wave polished stones, vivid blue over the caramel sand and imperial purple over the swaying weed.
I liked Kassiopi in 1984 and I liked it again today.
A postcard from 1984…
And a picture from 2019…
From Kassiopi we drove west now along the north coast of the island until we arrived at the village of Roda. Before the tourist boom I am told that this was a sleepy little place with a cluster of showily brilliant cottages surrounding a tranquil village square but it is quite different today as British pubs and bars compete for business and tattooed holidaymakers decorate the rather untidy beach.
I couldn’t remember Roda especially well and I am not that surprised because to be brutal there is not much to recommend it unless you want an all day English breakfast or a pint of Guinness in the Irish Bar so we didn’t stay too long but continued our drive to Sidari.
A postcard of Roda from 1984…
Sidari is famous for its erosion sculptured red sandstone cliffs and I remembered these well enough but even so these looked rather different today from the picture in the postcard below and I couldn’t find this arch anywhere so can only assume that over the intervening years it has been swept away by the sea.
In 1984 Sidari was a quiet, almost remote place, with a dusty main street with only a handful of tavernas and shops off the main road but today it is one of the liveliest places on the island and a favourite with youngsters.
A postcard from 1984…
We walked along a beach adorned with white umbrellas like upturned scallop shells each sheltering a pale creature from another land in the north who had come here in search of the sun but now retreating from its remorseless intensity. Someone should have told them to check the weather forecast before renting a sunbed today because rain was on the way.
All along the beach there are tavernas and bars all looking for customers and the good thing about competition is that this drives the prices down so we picked one out and had a very good value beer and a gyros and finished eating just as we felt the first spots of rain.
The drive back in the downpour was something of a challenge on a difficult potholed road surface but thankfully I wasn’t in the driving seat and Mike skilfully negotiated the conditions and got us back safely just as the rain was easing and blue skies were starting to reappear.
As the rain cleared the view from the balcony was magnificent, the green sweeping hills, the sea in its multi coloured splendour and the bleached beach, a crescent of sparkling shingle. We watched as the day visitors packed their belongings and left as darkness descended, the raucous chant of the cicadas was replaced by the spooky whistles of the Scops Owls and the twinkling lights of the sea front tavernas began to illuminate the edge of the beach inviting diners to drop by like candles attracting moths.
We selected a taverna and chose several plates of Greek traditional dishes and sat by the water’s edge next to the sea, lit up now by a copper moon, a bottomless ink black and silent but for the sound of the occasional wave caressing the polished pebbles.
As I looked across to the White House I imagined Lawrence Durrell sitting on his balcony and enjoying exactly the same view while searching for literary inspiration and discovering himself.
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