“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.” ― Gerald Durrell on Corfu, My Family and Other Animals
We only remember yesterday because we’re alive today. We can only understand today if we dissect what occurred yesterday. It’s with that rubric a visitor to Corfu, if interested, can glean this Ionian island’s reality.
If the first-time visitor is already familiar with the classical heartland of ancient Greece encircling the Aegean Sea than the beautiful streetscapes of Corfu Town are in an Italian city. The island’s premiere museum perhaps belongs in London. The charming Casa Parlante offers insights into the daily life of the Venetian nobility.
Yet this is Corfu, and it’s just a short distance from the mainland of western Greece. The reason has everything to do with geography, which means it has to do with politics and trade. The regions that comprise Hellenic civilization for the past several thousands of years were the bridges and battlefields between Asia and Europe, and Corfu represents that reality.
Even olive oil, the gift of Athena to the Hellenic world, has a story. During its 400-year rule over Corfu (1383-1797) the Venetian Empire mass produced olive oil for international export. As a result, the island has over 4,500,000 trees, more than any other region in Greece.
Casa Parlante, a multi-story townhouse dating from 1620, details the life of a 19th century Venetian noble family. This was the social class that reigned over Corfu for 400 years until Napoleon ended the fabled Venetian Republic in the 1790s. Since 2013 the museum’s docents provide room by room tours bringing the family to life.
“To life” is almost real. From the patriarch to the cook, life-size animatronic figures bow, sip tea, read the newspaper and chop vegetables. These entertaining figures were created by the Alaxouzi Brothers, Greeks whose business is based in London. As a guest in this noble house, visitors are greeted with kumquat and rose mint liquors -– an homage to Corfiot’s Venetian inspired love of excessive sweets.
Several insights into life at that time are notable. An only daughter of a noble family could inherit wealth in her own right as well as arrange their own marriage, as long it was to another aristocrat. This was a particular freedom granted only to Corfu women.
Mirrors and hallways were ingeniously positioned to keep eyes on the movements of the servants.
Cooks in aristocratic houses were often at the top of servant status and trusted as “spies” for the owner.
Casa Parlante hosted a small gathering for a unique Corfu Easter tradition. Already the most celebrated holiday in the Orthodox calendar, on Corfu there is the tradition of dropping water-filled red clay pots. Dating back to ancient festivals of trashing the winter’s cooking pottery at the Spring Equinox, in early Christian times it symbolized the biblical earthquake that proceeded the opening of Christ’s tomb. At noon on the Saturday before Easter, after a solemn procession, thousands of people gathered on the narrow streets of Old Corfu Town and the balconies of buildings to drop pots smashing them on the street below.
The Palace of St. Michael and St. George
The Corfu Museum of Asian Art and the Municipal Gallery of Corfu are housed within the impressive neoclassical Palace of St. Michael and St. George. The history of the palace is as interesting as the art on display. The fall of Venice led to a brief period in Corfu of French control. Upon Napoleon’s defeat, Corfu was ceded to the United Kingdom and was administered by the British Empire for 50 years (the Greek nation did not exist at this point).
Constructed in 1819, the palace served as the official residence of the British Lord High Commissioner. Even though present day southern Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1830’s it was not until the 1860’s that the United Kingdom ceded the Ionian Islands. Over the next century the palace served various functions including a royal residence for the Greek monarchy.
The Corfu Museum of Asian Art
The transition of the palace into the world class Corfu Museum of Asian Art started in 1928 with a vast donation by an avid Greek collector of Oriental art expanding over the years to include southeast and central Asia. Today its collection numbers in the tens of thousands of objects, which, fortunately, are not all on display creating a tranquil setting to wander the quiet rooms without feeling overwhelmed.
Municipal Gallery of Corfu
The Municipal Gallery of Corfu’s art collection ranges from priceless medieval Cretan works influenced while Crete was also under Venetian rule (15th – 17th centuries). The fall of Crete to the Ottomans in 1699 resulted in a flood of artist and intellectuals settling in Corfu.
A sizable portion of the collection is of 18th through early 20th century artists inspired by the Romantic and Impressionist movements’ expression of nature, individual life and events. This developed into Corfu’s distinctive Ionian School of Art.
Twenty-first century artists are well represented especially through special exhibits.
Encouraging artistic expression in the newest generations of Corfiots, the gallery sponsors “One Saturday, One fairytale” events. Young artists display their works and participate in events such as workshops with guest artists. In honor of Greek Orthodox Easter, the Municipal Gallery recently displayed a special exhibit of photos taken by Corfu Boy Scouts. The quality was stunning!
Sleep in history: Villa 1870
Built in 1870 in the Venetian style by an English architect for a Corfu merchant, Villa 1870 is ready for discerning guests to experience the magic Durrell felt in the 1930s. Except, unlike the Durrells, your personal chef will be roasting the lamb while you relax by the heated pool overlooking the Ionian Sea. Perhaps after lunch your personal driver will take you the short distance into UNESCO World Heritage Corfu Town or to explore this legendary island’s countryside.
Dimitrious and Nancy bought the house in 2017, made a total restoration, installed the heated swimming pool and opened for their first guest in April 2019. It is possible for one guest to have Villa 1870 to themselves since this impressive house is a vacation rental – five bedrooms, five bathrooms, housekeeper, car and driver and a personal chef to cook to your needs.
Obviously, it’s the perfect venue for an event vacation or destination wedding. Each of the spacious five bedrooms and baths are individually decorated in 19th century style with 21st century conveniences. An antique armoire is still a functioning piece of furniture. Even the rain shower in the marble bath hearkens back to the luxury of Villa 1870 when it was first constructed.
Although Corfu Town with top restaurants is convenient to Villa 1870, Chef Themes Iliabis just might entice you not to leave. From classic slow spit roasted whole lamb at Easter dinner, jewel like meze with late afternoon drinks to sumptuous and surprising breakfast treats dining at the Villa is a special experience.
History is more than facts, and a nation is more than geography. In his epic The People, Yes, the great American poet Carl Sandburg expressed it succinctly, “I am the history; I am the present; I am the culture.” Go to Corfu and discover so much more than an island.
When you go: Corfu International Airport (CFU) serves direct flights from many European cities including London, Frankfurt and Rome. Frequent flights connect the island to Athens and Thessaloniki. Ferry and coach bus connections to major Greek cities are frequent as well.
Where to dine in Corfu: Eat with your eyes: four stellar Corfu restaurants