In the 15th century, it was not always peace and tranquility in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The Venetians, the current rulers of Corfu at that time, seemed to be aware of the plans of the hostile neighboring countries in advance, and thwarted the plans of the Moors or the bloodthirsty pirates who prowled the region. Throughout the ages, other countries have always been particularly interested in Corfu. In fact, this is still the case today, however now in a peaceful way as a holiday destination. In olden days, their interest was of a more permanent and hostile nature.
At that time, there was no satellite warning of attacks! So instead, they decided to erect a strong building at high altitude from where they could scan the surrounding sea. Therefore, they erected a Byzantine castle/fortress on the rocky promontory in Corfu Town, which had already been fortified by previous inhabitants. They built the old fort on this high rocky outcrop that gave superb panoramic views over the Ionian Sea towards the mainland. The enemy ships had to be very clever to avoid being detected on their way across the sea.
A similar watch post was also built on the west coast of Corfu, named Angelokastro. With a little bit of imagination you can think of the two bastions staying in touch with one another, using beacon fires and long distance runners. Note for younger readers: mobile phones and Internet did not exist then!
The ships sometimes came from the south and could see the dominant colossal fortress from a distance. Even now, it is still the first thing that attracts your attention when you approach Corfu by the ferry. The mass of stone had such an impressive and frightening effect that many prospective occupiers immediately made a U-turn and turned their attentions elsewhere. By digging a wide trench around the peninsula, where the fort was built, it was detached from the rest of the island making it even easier to defend.
A movable wooden bridge connected the fort to the town of Corfu. This allowed food to be transported to the fort, as the mass of rock produced nothing edible. The town’s people could also take refuge there in times of trouble and were safe with the removal of the bridge.
The British, subsequent occupiers of Corfu, did not like that. Thus, early in the 19th century, they burned the wooden bridge and created again a permanent connection to the mainland of Corfu. This magnificent bridge, situated quite high above the water, offers a beautiful view on both sides over the water to eastern Corfu. Crossing the bridge, you find two showrooms on either side of a large portal. Both of them contain a part of a large collection of Byzantine objects, which have been left in Corfu over the centuries. They are well worth a visit.
Further down, at the foot of the fortress, you can find the Public Library of Corfu. It also accommodates a school of music. If you are lucky, they maybe practicing with a window open. The day I passed through it was a delight to hear a beautiful version of the music from The Godfather. With some surprise, they heard my applause, but bowing politely I was thanked by the musicians.
Once you passed the more modern buildings, climb up to the huge cross at the top. By doing so, you will see the view that the guards in the past centuries looked over during their work. What a hardship to work in a place with such a view! It is a fifteen to twenty minutes stiff climb and clamber through shadowy passageways and steep staircases, but once you are there, it is well worth the effort. Maybe your calve muscles will be on fire but you have plenty of time to recuperate. Take a rest in the shade of the Citadella, the storage house located on the top, enjoying the view and then make your tour along the ancient fortifications. Enjoy a fantastic view on Corfu town, looking down on the esplanade or Spianada. Alternatively look seawards over the Ionian Sea, the port of Corfu and the bay of Garitsa. Perhaps you will see some extremely expensive yachts of the rich & famous. As icing on the cake, you can also see across town to the new fort, something that is only newer, but certainly not new anymore.
On the west side of the fort, you should most certainly take a look at the temple of Saint George. This remarkable building, which can be seen from Garitsa, is today still regularly used for concerts, music festivals and other cultural issues. Yours truly was there when Eric Burdon and the Animals made their appearances and the square in front of the temple was filled with enthusiastic music lovers. With the erection of this temple on the rocky soil, the builders had the aim of creating a sacred building and they must certainly have turned in their graves when we received House of the Rising Sun with such great acclaim.
- Published in About Corfu