One cannot but admit that the Old Town of Corfu, a monument on the UNESCO list since 2007, is one of the strongest attractions of the island – along of course, with its emerald waters and verdant nature. Narrow streets, alleyways, as they are called, keeping the latin name, tall, two-story buildings with tiles on the roof, old churches with ornate spiers and great value paintings, but several museums, gaining the interest of those who choose the Old Town for their rides – one is definitely not enough!
Kampielo is the oldest district, with its narrow streets and tall, Western-style buildings built of stone, one next to another, with handmade tiles and ornate balconies. If you have in mind the typical image of Old Corfu with washing lines sprawling above the alleys from one house to another, you will discover that this is not an image of the past, but a living habit of the residents!
The Old Town of Corfu is in a way “bordered” by the two forts: The Old Fort, on the northeast side and the New Fort, to the south. Both are maintained in very good condition and convey to the visitor the atmosphere of the era, through the monumental buildings. Take your time and walk among the old battlements, the churches and turrets… Today, both these spaces are utilized culturally, with various events, so keep in mind that these are not just two monuments, but spaces perfectly integrated in the modern city life.
The walk around the Old Town starts traditionally from the Spianada, the largest square in the Balkans, with vegetation and dozens of monuments. In one corner stands the Old Fort, right next to it is Bosketo, a beautiful grove above the sea and immediately after stand the impressive Anaktora (palaces). No tour the Old Town of Corfu is complete without an extensive visit to this building, with its many uses and great history.
It was built using Maltese stone (tuff), from 1819 to 1824, by the English Commissioner Thomas Maitland and was dedicated to Saints Michael and George, as it served as the seat of the homonymous religious order. After the Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece (1864), the royal family used the palace as a residence, while today it houses the Museum of Asian Art. The central part above the cornice is adorned with the work of the Corfiot sculptor Prosalendi: reliefs of the seven Ionian Islands and in the middle the cornucopia, considered an English symbol. The interior decoration of the Palace is also impressive, with mainly bronze and marble details while the dome, located in the center, allows plenty of sunlight to bathe the space.
In front of the Palace stands the statue of the English commissioner Frederic Adam, who is remembered as the one who brought water to the city of Corfu. He was married to Nina Palatianou, from Corfu, and it is believed that he loved the island like his home. At the side and rear side of the Palace, with a panoramic view of the sea, is a beautiful garden, where you will find a small café serving the visitors: do not miss the chance to relax in the peaceful surroundings.
The first reaction of visitors when they hear about the Museum of Asian Art in Corfu is bewilderment as to how Asia relates to the island. The reason for its establishment, in 1928, was the donation of the Chinese-Japanese collection of Gregorios Manos. Today this unique museum includes collections of approximately 15,000 Asian art exhibits, from the Far East and India, while rare exhibits from the museum are often presented at international exhibitions. The collection is continuously enriched and today is one of the most important museum collections in Greece.
Immediately after the Spianada, and before you head towards the inner alleyways of the Old Town, you can visit Liston. It is the most famous pedestrian street of Corfu and it has been the heart of the city for hundreds of years. The old mansions that form arches at their last floor are the trademark of Liston, as well as the large street lanterns. The arches of the houses, which the Corfiots call “voltes” (walks), house the most “in” cafes and restaurants of Corfu. In Liston takes place also the famous procession of the Epitaph on Good Friday, one of the traditional customs of Easter on Corfu.
Regarding the “strange” name of the street, its origins have not yet been confirmed, although some scholars claim that Liston means “on list”, meaning the Libro d ‘Oro which was where the names of the nobles and aristocrats of Corfu were listed, and who were the only ones who had the right to enjoy a stroll in this pedestrian area. But in the Venetian dialect, “lista” means “wide and straight promenade” and “Liston” can be found in other Venetian cities, such as Venice.
Entering the narrow alleyways of the Old Town, you won’t know where to look first. The impressive and colorful tall buildings, with the tiled roofs, the chimneys, the washing lines hanging over the heads of the passerby, the churches…
The oldest building of Corfu is believed to be the one at number 18 Filellinon street. It dates back to 1497, and according to popular tradition, it is the same balcony as the one where love struck Romeo climbed to get to Juliet. The Dimarchio (Town Hall) is also impressive and is situated on one of the squares formed by the narrow alleys, next to the old Catholic Diocese of San Giacomo (Agios Iakovos). Its construction began in 1663 by the Venetians in an evident Renaissance style, with carved walls.
Adorned by numerous sculptures, among which is the statue of the Venetian admiral Morosini accompanied by four children, which symbolize the four virtues. The first function of the building was to house the “Lodge of the Nobles”, mainly officers of the Venetian fleet, and in 1720 it became one of the most famous theaters in Greece, named “San Giacomo”, because of the neighboring church. It has operated as a Town Hall continuously since 1903.
The Catholic Diocese of San Giacomo is one of the most beautiful architectural creations encountered in the streets of Corfu. It was constructed in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 1970s, as it was badly damaged by bombing during the Second World War. The Diocese is also called Duomo, in the habit of the Catholics, and is dedicated to Saint James and Saint Christopher. It is a single aisled, wooden-roofed basilica with three side chapels on each side, while the sanctuary is polygonal and large. The facade resembles greatly similar temples in Italy and especially Venice, with the typical baroque curve at the gable, the Gothic tower and the tall bell tower. In this church you can see many relics of ecclesiastical art, such as the icon of Estavromenos sto Agio Vima and the Byzantine icon of Panagia tis Igias.
When visiting the old building of the Ionian Bank, you can see a great collection of coins, as since 1981 the building houses the Banknote Museum, which is considered one of the best of its kind in the world. Some of the rarest exhibits of the museum include parish banknotes from the Ottoman era, a Chinese banknote from 1300 AD and the drafts of the first Greek currency, which was designed by Corfiot sculptor Michael Axelos.
On the square of the Ionian Bank are two of the oldest churches in the Old Town, Agios Ioannis (St. John) and the Panagia ton Ksenon (Virgin Mary of Foreigners). The church of Agios Ioannis with its tall bell tower is a single-aisled basilica with an outer narthex and hosts several religious relics and images of Tzane and Chrysoloras, two of the most important artists of Corfu, while the dome is the work of Sperantza (1773). It was a privately owned church by some of the most aristocratic families of Corfu like the Bulgari family, Theotoki, Kapodistrias and Polylas. The temple is constructed from Corfu marble, while the shrine of the temple hosts the relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. John Damascene.
Among the multitude of Corfu residents of all faiths who worshiped in Agios Ioannis of the Old City were said to be Dionysios Solomos, Ioannis Kapodistrias, Iakovas Polylas and the composer of our national anthem, Nikolaos Mantzaros, while Nikiforos Theotokis served as a priest. In Agios Ioannis you will also find an ecclesiastical museum where you can see the priestly uniform and the pectoral cross of Nikiforos Theotokis, among other exhibits.
Adjacent to the church of Agios Ioannis is the church Panagia ton Xenon (Virgin Mary of Foreigners), as it is known in Corfu, dedicated to the Virgin Mary of the Revelation. It was built at a time when mainland Greece was under Turkish rule, and Christian refugees seeked shelter in the islands. It was founded by a great monk, Nicodemos Kolitzas, to serve as a spiritual and welcoming center for newcomers that for the locals were “foreigners”.
In 1689 the church was completed and has since operated continuously. One of the most striking images hosted in the temple, that otherwise has no murals, is that of the Tree of Jesse, showing the prophets and their sayings about the coming of the Messiah. One of the portraits on the Iconostasis of the Temple shows the 19 Fathers of the Church, ten from the East and nine from the West, and is considered unique.
On Holy Saturday at 6:00 in the morning, in the church Panagia ton Xenon you can watch a representation of the earthquake described in the Gospel, as a triumphant after fact of the Resurrection and is one of the most famous Easter customs in Corfu.
Walking along the alleys of the Old Town, we find the church of Agios Spyridon, the patron saint of the island, where the relics of the saint are kept. It is considered one of the most important Byzantine monuments of Corfu and its construction was completed in 1589. It is a simple narrow church from the outside, a single aisled basilica, with an impressive marble frame at its entrance. The bell tower of Agios Spyridon, which stands out in the narrow alleyways, has the form of a tower and was built in 1620.
The impressive marble iconostasis from 1864 is made of Parian marble, and the 17 stunning paintings of the ourania (roof) are the work of Corfiot artist Spyros Prosalentis or according to others of the artist Aspiotis and were painted in 1852. The brocaded panels depict scenes from the life of the saint and from the Gospels. The silver casket where the relics of St. Spyridon are kept was made in 1867 in Vienna and is now located in the crypt.
Two more churches of the Old Town you should visit during your tour of the streets of Kampielo is Panagia Antivouniotissa, a 15th century building, with a stone iconostasis and an imposing bell tower, which serves as the Ecclesiastical Museum with a rich collection of icons and other religious relics, and the Mitropoli (Cathedral) of Corfu.
It is considered one of the most beautiful churches of the Old Town and it has an impressive marble staircase at its entrance, while the purple color of the façade creates a unique impression. The church is a three-aisled basilica built in the Renaissance style, dating back to 1577 and is dedicated to Panagia Spiliotissa. Works by Michael Damaskinos (Virgin Mary, Saint George), the Last Supper of Paramythiotis and Saint Govdelaas by Emmanuel Tzane adorn the magnificent interior of the church, with most notable being the bilateral icon of the Virgin Dimosiana, which is also the oldest (15th century).
Heading towards the opposite side of the town, do not miss the Serbian Museum of Corfu, which recounts a relatively unknown aspect of the Corfian, Greek and world history: during the First World War, 1915 – 1916, immediately after the overwhelming collapse of the Serbian front by the powerful Austrian-German troops, about 150,000 Serbian soldiers and their government, took refuge in Corfu.
The history of these people, along with the horrors of the war, is today housed in the Serbian Museum. Photos from that era, Serbian flags, military uniforms, weapons and equipment, ecclesiastical vestments and objects of the Serbian priests who accompanied the army, medical tools of the Serbian doctors from the island of Vido, as well as medals can be seen in the Serbian Museum in an effort to represent those hard times.
The Venetian and medieval architecture of the Old Town is not exhausted by the description of the few buildings that adorn it. You will also see beautiful small squares, such as the square of Kremasti with the ornate stone well, restaurants where you can taste traditional dishes of the Corfu cuisine, while you can also enjoy a delicious handmade ice cream, or the traditional kumquat, as well as ginger beer, which is still prepared in the traditional way.