Why Corfu?

By: | Post date: June 10, 2023 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Culture, Greece

I came to Corfu and Zante in my 50s, out of a nebulous query that I had formulated in my teens.

The Ionian islands were the only part of Greece not to have been ruled by the Ottomans. They had 600 years of continuous rule from Venice instead. How did that make them different from the rest of Greece? How differently did they tick?

I’ve found when I came to Greece that my cousin Irene has pondered the same question in her time. But Modern Greece being such a strongly centralist state, with such drive to realise homogeneity (like the mini-France it has turned out to be), the time to come to Corfu to get an answer to such a question was 1880, 1930 tops. And even at that time, it would have needed three months of close anthropological observation, not a week of strolling around two towns. Not to mention that it’s a question hardly innocent of Turcophobia.

And as the social realist stories of Constantine Theotokis show (a lot more on him later), the Turkish or Venetian layer of influence didn’t reach all that deep; Greek peasantry was not ultimately all that different whether their suzerain was the Ottoman Empire, Venice, or one after the other one, as in the case of Crete.

But a curiosity about the Ionian islands did get me here, and I am glad that it did. I have found my time here profoundly relaxing (to the extent that I don’t know how I’m going to resume work on Monday), I’ve enjoyed the urban landscape and the history I’ve picked up along the way, and I’ve picked up lots of anecdotes and curiosities to share.

What I haven’t quite formulated is an answer to the question, what is Corfu like? I can’t answer the initial question, as I was hardly in a position as a tourist to get inside of the head of Corfiots; but even this more straightforward question is a challenge. Corfu Town is beautiful, but how would I describe it?

… Corfu Town is in some ways an 18th century theme park, just like Old Rhodes is a Mediaeval theme park. In some ways: Corfu Town in the summer welcomes a steady tramp of cruise ship passenger processions; a few streets in the Old Town are as weighed down with tourist tat as any in Old Rhodes; the alleyways and genteelly decaying two-storey buildings are postcard ready.

But Corfu Town retains a heft about it, a heft that Zante Town lacks, and that Rhodes Town is too theme-park now to carry. Corfu Town was where decisions were made, and history happened; and it still feels like it might. Not as much now as it used to—the town only has a population of 30k, it very much feels on the periphery, a bit too laid back (although the right amount of laid-back that I was looking for). But your heart swells to walk through those cobblestones and alleys and battlements. This was a place that mattered: it tells you it’s a privilege to walk through it.

(And any regional town where you can get drinks at a bar at 1 am, as I did to finish a work task, is a place that has my respect.)

And if anything jumps out about Corfu about being out of the ordinary for Greece, it’s not its Venetian heritage. It’s its British heritage. The British made sure the cityscape commemorated the fifty years they ran the island, from 1816 to 1864. And in several little ways, the material culture of the island has held on to reminders of it. Even without the steady flow of British tourists here.

There is more to the place, but I was a shy tourist, I wasn’t going to start quizzing people…

… although I am a lot more relaxed about chatting to strangers now than a month ago: the country is rubbing off on me.

Leave a Reply

  • June 2023
    M T W T F S S
  • Subscribe to Blog via Email

%d bloggers like this: