Have Bag, Will Travel
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In my opening Corfu post I mentioned that I had prepared for the visit by reading Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’ which forms a sort of Corfiot trilogy alongside brother Laurence’s ‘Prospero’s Cell’ and Henry Miller’s ‘The Colossus of Marousi’ all written about many of the same places, and often the same people, but from very different perspectives.
In Corfu town we walked past grand villas with rusting iron balconies, peeling stucco and creaking fading plaster once certainly crimson but now bleached and faded pink by the relentless and unforgiving summer weather and I was reminded of an observation from Lawrence Durrell – ‘Corfu is All Venetian Blue and Gold – and utterly spoiled by the Sun’.
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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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