Sunday, September 27, 2015

Corfu - First stop on our cruise

Corfu's two summits
The weather forecast was for thunder storms just like we watched at dinner the night previous. Fortunately, the day dawned clear giving us a great opportunity to enjoy this lovely island. Corfiots are proud of the fact that they were never conquered by Turkey like much of the rest of Greece. This fact shows in an unusual way because you don’t see blue and white buildings like you do on most of the other islands. Those conquered islands were not allowed to fly the Greek flag so they used paint instead. Since they were never conquered, Corfiots never resorted to the painting subterfuge.
The name comes from the two summits of the island so it was called the Island of the Korifus (summits). It has long been a favorite summer home and vacation spot for Europeans, particularly the British. Today many of those tourists are from Eastern Europe. The local population numbers about 120,000 with four million olive trees. Because the Viennese paid the Corfiots to plant the trees, they are too close together so the harvest only takes place every other year. The main economic resource is those tourists. 

We began our day with a walking tour of the old town. Partly because Corfu was part of the Venetian empire for centuries, the Old Town has a strong Venetian character with its narrow streets, small vendors, and laundry drying from the balconies. No canals mean no bridges so getting around is much easier. 

Church of Saint Spyridon
One of many outdoor chapels attached to a church
We saw several churches, the largest being the Church of Saint Spyridon, Patron Saint of Corfu built in 1596. Even with a service going on, our guide sent us inside to see the artwork which adorns every available space from floor to ceiling. According to her, people enter and leave services all the time, so we would not be any disruption at all. The church was packed to the gills already, so we had to take turns and only got a quick look to verify our guide’s words of praise for the artwork. Nearly half of the shops sold religious icons and knickknacks. We bought a couple of things before sitting down to a coffee and a milkshake with a WC and free internet. Stanford 41 – USC 31. Big smiles.

The new fortress - a new use for the moat 
A view of the old fortress from our ship
Our bus stopped next to the New Fortress built by the Venetians in 1577-78. To get to the Old Town we crossed what may be the largest city square in Europe. When the British took over the town, they fired a cannon from the fortress. No buildings would be allowed between the Fortress and the cannon ball’s landing site. The square is large enough for Greece’s only cricket matches.

Our other tour stop was the Achilleion. Built by the young Empress of Austria/Queen of Hungary in 1880-91 as a summer palace, it is magnificent structure atop a wooded hill in the village of Gastouri. She and her husband Emperor Ferdinand visited twice a year until she was assassinated by a fame-hungry Italian anarchist in 1889. It was sold by her heirs to German Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1907. 

The young empress
A sample of the fine works of art in the building
Wilhelm made several additions to the building over the years mostly to house his large staff. Perhaps the most significant change was to move the fabulous marble statue of the dying Achilles from its place of prominence overlooking the sea and replacing it with a larger than life bronze of a victorious Achilles. Achilles spear was topped with a gold tip that could be seen from his yacht. Legend has it that the first sailor to spy the spear on each trip was given a monetary reward.

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector's body around the city of Troy
Achilles overlooking the harbor
Achilles removing the arrow from his vulnerable heel
Achilles dying pose
After World War I, the Greek government took control of the Achilleion. It was leased to a private company as a casino from 1962-1983 during which time it was used for the casino scene in For Your Eyes Only. It was restored in 1994 for a European Summit and today is a major tourist attraction. 

A common sight - Men talking over their morning coffee

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