AskDefine | Define corfu

User Contributed Dictionary


Proper noun

  1. One of the Ionian Islands, Greece.
  2. The capital of Corfu.



Extensive Definition

Corfu (Greek: Κέρκυρα, Kérkyra, Ancient Greek Κέρκυρα or Κόρκυρα, Latin: Corcyra, Italian Corfù) is a Greek island in the Ionian Sea. It lies off the coast of Sarande, Albania, from which it is separated by straits varying in breadth from 3 to 23 km (2 to 15 mi), including one near ancient Butrint and a longer one west of Thesprotia. The island is part of the Corfu Prefecture, and includes twelve of the sixteen municipalities or communes in the prefecture and over 96 percent of its population (2001 census). The four excluded municipalities are Ereikoussa, Mathraki, Othonoi, and Paxoi, which are all separate islands.
The principal town (pop. 28,185) of the island is also named Corfu, or Kérkyra in Greek, as is its municipality (pop. 39,487). Corfu is home to the Ionian University.
The island is steeped in history and perennially connected to the history of Greece from the beginning of Greek mythology. Its Greek name, Kerkyra or Korkyra, is connected to two powerful water symbols: Poseidon, god of the sea and Asopos, an important Greek mainland river. According to myth, Poseidon fell in love with the beautiful nymph Korkyra, daughter of Asopus and river nymph Metope, and abducted her, as was the custom among gods of the era's myths – Zeus himself was a serial offender. Poseidon brought her to the hitherto unnamed island and, in marital bliss, offered her name to the place: Korkyra, which gradually evolved to Kerkyra (Doric). In 2007, the city's old town was named on the UNESCO World Heritage List, following a recommendation by ICOMOS.


The name Corfu is an Italian corruption of the Byzantine Κορυφώ (Koryphō), meaning city of the peaks, which is derived from the Greek Κορυφαί (Koryphai), meaning Crests or Peaks, denoting the two peaks of Palaio Frourio. as opposed to the Byzantine architectural style of the greater part of Greek Orthodox churches.

Neo Frourio

The new citadel or Neo Frourio (Νέο Φρούριο, "New Fortress") is a huge complex of fortifications dominating the northeastern part of the city; the huge walls of the fortress dominate the landscape as one makes the trip from Neo Limani (Νέο Λιμάνι, "New Port") to the town, taking the road that passes through the fishmarket (ψαραγορά). The new citadel was until recently a restricted area due to the presence of a naval garrison, but old restrictions have been lifted and it is now open to the public, with tours possible through the maze of medieval corridors and fortifications. The winged Lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice, can be seen at regular intervals adorning the fortifications.

Ano and Kato Plateia and the music pavillion

Near the old Venetian Citadel a large square is also to be found, divided by a street in two parts: "Ano Plateia" (literally: "Upper square")and "Kato Plateia" (literally: "Lower square"), (Ανω Πλατεία and Κάτω Πλατεία in Greek). This is the biggest square in South-Eastern Europe, and replete with green spaces and interesting structures, such as a Roman-style rotunda from the era of British administration, known the Maitland monument, built to commemorate Sir Thomas Maitland. An ornate music pavilion is also present, where the local "Philharmoniki" (Philharmonic Orchestra) (Φιλαρμονική), mounts classical performances in the artistic and musical tradition for which the island is well-known. "Kato Plateia" also serves as a venue where cricket matches are held from time to time. In Greece, cricket is unique to Corfu, as it was once a British protectorate.

Palaia Anaktora and Gardens

Just to the north of "Kato Plateia" lie the "Palaia Anaktora" (Παλαιά Ανάκτορα: literally "Old Palaces"): a large complex of buildings of Roman architectural style used in the past to house the King of Greece, and prior to that the British Governors of the Island. Today they are open to the public and form a complex of halls and buildings housing art exhibits, including a Museum of Chinese Art, unique across Southern Europe in its scope and in the richness of its Chinese and Asian exhibits. The gardens of the Palaces, complete with old Venetian stone aquariums, exotic trees and flowers, overlook the bay through old Venetian fortifications and turrets, and the local sea baths (Μπάνια τ' Αλέκου) are at the foot of the fortifications surrounding the gardens. A café on the grounds include its own art gallery, with exhibitions of both local and international artists, known locally as the Art Café. From the same spot, the viewer can observe ships passing through the narrow channel of the historic Vido island (Νησί Βίδου) to the north, on their way to Corfu harbour (Νέο Λιμάνι), with high speed retractable aerofoil ferries from Igoumenitsa also cutting across the panorama. A wrought-iron aerial staircase is also to be found, closed to garden visitors, descending to the sea from the gardens, and used by the Greek Royal Family as a shortcut to the baths. Rewriting history, locals now refer to the old Royal Gardens as the "Garden of the People" (Ο Κήπος του Λαού).

The old city and Pontikonisi

In several parts of the old city houses from the Venetian era are to be found. The old city's architectural character is strongly influenced by the Venetian style, coming as it did under Venetian rule for a long period; its small and ancient sidestreets, and the old buildings' trademark arches are particularly reminiscent of Venice. Of the thirty-seven Greek churches, the most important are the city's cathedral, the church dedicated to Our Lady of the Cave (η Παναγία Σπηλιώτισσα (hē Panagia Spēliōtissa)); Saint Spyridon church, wherein lies the preserved body of the patron saint of the island; and finally the suburban church of St Jason and St Sosipater (Αγιοι Ιάσων και Σωσίπατρος), reputedly the oldest in the island, and named after the two saints probably the first to preach Christianity to the Corfiots.
The nearby island, known as Pontikonisi (Greek meaning "mouse island"), though small is very green with abundant trees, and at its highest natural elevation (excluding its trees or man-made structures, such as the monastery), stands at about 2 m. Pontikonisi is home of the monastery of Pantokrator (Μοναστήρι του Παντοκράτορος); it is the white stone staircase of the monastery that when viewed from afar gives the impression of a (mouse) tail which lent the island its name: 'mouse island'.

Othoni and Erikoussa

Othoni (Οθωνοί) is the westernmost settlement and island in all Greece; Erikoussa is the northernmost of the Ionian Islands, and all areas lie below the 40° N. About a quarter of the villages' names end with -ades, while some villages outside Corfu also include names ending in -ades, especially those in the prefecture of Ioannina on mainland Greece, exactly opposite the southern end of Corfu. Villages at the southern end, and on the Paxoi islands, also feature names ending with -atika or -eika, notably Gramateika.

Lazaretto Island

Lazaretto Island, formerly known as Aghios Dimitrios, is located two nautical miles northeast of Corfu; the island has an area of 17.5 acres and comes under the administration of the Greek National Tourist Organization. During World War II, the Axis Occupation of Greece established a concentration camp there for the prisoners of the Greek National Resistance movement.
During Venetian rule in the early 16th century, a monastery was built on the islet and a leprosarium established later in the century, after which the island was named. In 1798, during the French occupation, the islet was occupied by the Russo-Turkish fleet, who ran it as as a military hospital. During the British occupation, in 1814, the leprosarium was once again opened after renovations, and following Enosis in 1864 the leprosarium again saw occasional use., and its earliest inhabitants the Phaeacians (Φαίακες). At a date no doubt previous to the foundation of Syracuse it was peopled by settlers from Corinth, but it appears to have previously received a stream of emigrants from Eretria. The splendid commercial position of Corcyra on the highway between Greece and the West favoured its rapid growth and, influenced perhaps by the presence of non-Corinthian settlers, its people, quite contrary to the usual practice of Corinthian colonies, maintained an independent and even hostile attitude towards the mother city. This opposition came to a head in the early part of the 7th century BC, when their fleets fought the first naval battle recorded in Greek history (about 664 BC). These hostilities ended in the conquest of Corcyra by the Corinthian tyrant Periander (Περίανδρος) who induced his new subjects to join in the colonization of Apollonia and Anactorium. The island soon regained its independence and henceforth devoted itself to a purely mercantile policy. During the Persian invasion of 480 BC it manned the second largest Greek fleet (60 ships), but took no active part in the war. In 435 BC it was again involved in a quarrel with Corinth and sought assistance from Athens (see Battle of Sybota). This new alliance was one of the chief immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War, in which Corcyra was of considerable use to the Athenians as a naval station, but did not render much assistance with its fleet. The island was nearly lost to Athens by two attempts of the oligarchic faction to effect a revolution; on each occasion the popular party ultimately won the day and took a most bloody revenge on its opponents (427 BC and 425 BC). During the Sicilian campaigns of Athens Corcyra served as a supply base; after a third abortive rising of the oligarchs in 410 BC it practically withdrew from the war. In 375 BC it again joined the Athenian alliance; two years later it was besieged by a Lacedaemonian force, but in spite of the devastation of its flourishing countryside held out successfully until relieved. In the Hellenistic period Corcyra was exposed to attack from several sides.
In 303 BC after a vain siege by Cassander, the island was occupied for a short time by the Lacedaemonian general Cleonymos, then regained its independence and later it was attacked and conquered by Agathocles. He offered Corfu as dowry to his daughter Lanassa on her marriage to Pyrrhus, King of Epirus. The island then became a member of the Epirotic alliance. It was then perhaps that the settlement of Cassiope was founded to serve as a base for the King of Epirus' expeditions. The island remained in the Epirotic alliance until 255 BC when it became independent after the death of Alexander, last King of Epirus. It subsequently fell into the hands of Illyrian corsairs, until in 229 BC it was delivered by the Romans, who retained it as a naval station and gave it the rank of a free state. In 31 BC it served Octavian (Augustus) as a base against Mark Antony.

Medieval History

Eclipsed by the foundation of Nicopolis, Kerkyra for a long time passed out of notice. With the rise of the Norman kingdom in Sicily and the Italian naval powers, it again became a frequent object of attack. In 1081-1085 it was held by Robert Guiscard, in 1147-1154 by Roger II of Sicily. During the break-up of the Later Roman Empire it was occupied by Genoese privateers (1197-1207) who in turn were expelled by the Venetians. In 1214-1259 it passed to the Greek despots of Epirus, and in 1267 became a possession of the Neapolitan house of Anjou. Under the latter's weak rule the island suffered considerably from the inroads of various adventurers; hence in 1386 it placed itself under the protection of Venice, which in 1401 acquired formal sovereignty over it.

Venetian rule

Kerkyra remained in Venetian hands from 1401 till 1797, though several times assailed by Turkish naval and land forces and subjected to four notable sieges in 1537, 1571, 1573 and 1716, in which the great natural strength of the city and its defenders asserted itself time after time. The effectiveness of the powerful Venetian fortifications of the island as well as the strength of some old Byzantine fortifications in Angelokastro, Kassiopi, Gardiki and others, was another strong factor that enabled Corfu to remain the last bastion of free, uninterrupted Greek Christian civilization in the southern Balkans after the fall of Constantinople. Will Durant, a French historian, claims that Corfu owed to the Republic of Venice the fact that it was the only part of Greece never conquered by the moslem Turks.
A series of attempts by the Ottoman Turks to take the island began in 1431 when Turkish troops under Ali Bey landed on the island, tried to take the castle and raided the surrounding area, but were repulsed.
The Siege of 1537 was the first great siege by the Ottomans. It began on the 29th August 1537, with 25,000 soldiers from the Turkish fleet landing and pillaging the island, and taking 20,000 hostages as slaves. Despite the destruction wrought on the countryside, the city castle held out in spite of repeated attempts over twelve days to take it, and the Turks left the island unsuccessfully because of poor logistics and an epidemic that decimated their ranks. The success is owed in no small part to the extensive fortifications, where Venetian castle engineering had proven itself once again against considerable odds. The repulsion of the Ottomans was widely popularized in Europe, where Corfu was seen as a bastion of Western civilization against the Ottoman tide. Today, however, this role is often relatively unknown, or ignored.

Venetian policies and heritage

Corfu Town looks very different from most Greek towns, because of Corfu's unique history. From 1386 to 1797, Corfu was ruled by Venetian nobility; much of the town reflects this era when the island belonged to the Republic of Venice, with multi-storied buildings on narrow lanes. Many Venetian-speaking families settled in Corfu during these centuries and until the second half of the 20th century, the Veneto da mar was spoken in Corfu. During this time, the local Greek language assimilated a large number of Italian and Venetian words, many of which are still common today.
The Venetian feudal families pursued a mild but somewhat enervating policy towards the natives, who began to adopt some segments of Venetian customs and culture. The Corfiotes were encouraged to enrich themselves by the cultivation of the olive, but were debarred from entering into commercial competition with Venice. The island served as a refuge for Greek scholars, and in 1732 became the home of the first academy of modern Greece. Many Italian Jews took refuge in Corfu during the venetian centuries and spoke their own language (Italkian), a mixture of Hebrew and Venetian with some Greek words.
The Venetian influence was important in the development of opera on Corfu. During Venetian rule, the Corfiotes developed a fervent appreciation of Italian opera, which was the real source of the extraordinary (given the conditions in the mainland of Greece) musical development of the island during that era. During 18th and 19th century, the Opera house of Corfu was the Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo, named after the neighbouring catholic cathedral, but the theatre was later converted into the Town Hall. A considerable number of local composers, such as Antonio Liberali, Domenico Padovani, Spiros Samaras and others, developed their career with this theatre.
The internationally renowned photographer Felice Beato was born in Corfu from a venetian family in the 19th century. The architecture of Corfu remains considerably more Italian than anywhere else in Greece.
Venetians promoted the Catholic church during their four centuries rule in Corfu. Even if today the majority of Corfiots are Greek Orthodox (following the official religion of Greece), a percentage of Catholics (5%) nevertheless owe their faith to these origins. These contemporary Catholics are mostly families who came from Malta, but also from Italy during the Republic of Venice, and today the Catholic community takes in about 4000 people, (2/3 of Maltese descent) who live almost exclusively in the Venetian "Citadel" of Corfu City, and harmoniously side-by-side with the Orthodox community.
The island's way of life received Venetian influence in a variety of ways ; its local cuisine, for example, took in such elements and today's Corfiot cooking maintains some amongst these Venetian delicacies and recipes: "Pastitsada", deriving from the Venetian "Pastissada" (Italian: "Spezzatino") and is the most popular dish in the island of Corfu, "Sofrito", "Strapatsada", "Savoro", "Bianco" and "Mandolato".

19th century

By the Treaty of Campo Formio, Corfu was ceded to the French, who occupied it for two years as the département Corcyre, until they were expelled by a joint Russian-Ottoman squadron under Admiral Ushakov. For a short time it became the capital of a self-governing federation of the Heptanesos ("Seven Islands"), under Ottoman suzerainty; in 1807 after the Treaty of Tilsit its faction-ridden government was again replaced by a French administration, and in 1809 it was besieged in vain by a British fleet, which had taken all the other Ionian islands. When, by the Treaty of Paris of 5 November 1815, the Ionian Islands became a protectorate of the United Kingdom as the United States of the Ionian Islands, Corfu became the seat of the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. The British commissioners, who were practically autocrats in spite of the retention of the native senate and assembly, introduced a strict method of government which brought about a decided improvement in the material prosperity of the island, but by its very strictness displeased the natives. On 29 March 1864, the United Kingdom, Greece, France, and Russia signed the Treaty of London, pledging the transfer of sovereignty to Greece upon ratification. Thus, on 28 May, by proclamation of the Lord High Commissioner, the Ionian Islands were united with Greece.

World War I

During the First World War, the island served as a refuge for the Serbian army that retreated there on allied forces' ships from a homeland occupied by the Austrians and Bulgarians. During their stay, a large portion of Serbian soldiers died from exhaustion, food shortage, and different diseases. Most of their remains were buried at sea near the island of Vido, a small island at the mouth of Corfu port, and a monument of thanks to the Greek Nation has been erected at Vido by the grateful Serbs; consequently, the waters around Vido island are known by the Serbian people as the Blue Graveyard (in Serbian, Плава Гробница, Plava Grobnica), after a poem written by Milutin Bojić after World War I.

World War II and Resistance

Italian occupation

During the Greco-Italian War, Corfu was occupied by the Italians in April 1941. They administered Corfu and the Ionian islands as a separate entity from Greece until September 1943, following Mussolini's orders of fulfilling Italian Irredentism and making Corfu part of the Kingdom of Italy.
During the Second World War the 10th infantry regiment of the Greek Army, composed mainly of Corfiot soldiers, was assigned the task of defending Corfu. The regiment took part in Operation Latzides, which was a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stem the forces of the Italians. In early June 1944, while the Allies bombed Corfu as a diversion from the Normandy landings, the Gestapo rounded up the Jews of the city, temporarily incarcerated them at the old fort (Palaio Frourio), and on 10 June sent them to Auschwitz, where very few survived. Approximately two hundred out of a total population of 1900 escaped. Many among the local population at the time provided shelter and refuge to those 200 Jews that managed to escape the Nazis. A prominent section of the old town is to this day called Evraiki (Εβραική, meaning Jewish quarter) in recognition of the Jewish contribution and continued presence in Corfu city. An active Synagogue (Συναγωγή) with about 65 members (who still speak their original Italkian language) is an integral part of Evraiki currently. The Corfu General Hospital was also constructed; electricity was introduced to the villages in the 1950s, the radio substation of Hellenic Radio in Corfu was inaugurated in March 1957, and television was introduced in the 1960s, with internet connections in the 1990s. The Ionian University was established in 1984.

Archaeology and architecture

An architectural overview: From classical to modern

German Kaiser Wilhelm II was also fond of vacationing in Corfu. Having purchased the Achilleion in 1907 after Sissi's death, he appointed Carl Ludwig Sprenger as the botanical architect of the Palace, and also built a bridge to be named by the locals after him: "Kaiser's bridge" (Greek: η γέφυρα του Κάιζερ transliterated as: i yefyra tou Kaizer), to access the beach without traversing the road forming the island's main artery to the south. The bridge, arching over the road, spanned the distance between the lower gardens of Achilleion and the nearby beach; its remains, a monument to imperial vanity as well as impracticality, are an important landmark on the highway. The bridge's central section was, ironically, demolished by the Wehrmacht during the German occupation of World War II to allow for the free movement of its vehicles.

Tradition in Education

Aside from being a leading centre for the Fine Arts, Corfu is also the home of the first University of Greece, the Ionian Academy, an institution carrying through and strengthening the tradition of greek education while the rest of Greece was still fighting Turkish occupation.
It is also home to the Ionian University, established in 1984, in recognition, by the administration of Andreas Papandreou, of Corfu's contribution to Education in Greece, as the seat of the first University of Greece, the Ionian Academy above. The academy was founded in 1824, forty years before the cession of the Ionian islands to Greece, and just three years after Greece's Revolution of 1821.

Student activism

The people of Corfu have in various historical contexts acted as a Western bulwark. In the modern era , beginning with its massive student protests during World War II against fascist occupation , and continuing in the the fight against the dictatorship of Georgios Papadopoulos, students in Corfu have also historically been in vanguard of protest for freedom and democracy in Greece, setting themselves against both internal and external oppression. For Kerkyrans a recent example of such heroism is that of Geology student Kostas Georgakis, who set himself ablaze in Genoa, Italy on 19 September, 1970, in a protest against the Greek military junta of 1967-1974.

Museums and Libraries


Music and festivities


Corfu's musical tradition is significant. In the past, its people would join in the singing of cantades (), impromptu choral songs in two, three or four voices, usually accompanied by a guitar. 'Bands' (Philharmonic societies, or Φιλαρμονικές), which also provide free instruction in music, are still popular and continue to attract young recruits. Nowadays, in the face of rigours of a modern life from which Corfiate society has not been spared, cantades (from the Italian verb cantare, to sing) are only performed by semi-professional or amateur singers, often as attractions for visitors.
Corfu Town is home to three famous marching wind bands, in order of seniority:
  • the dark red-uniformed Philharmonic Society of Corfu, usually called the Old Philharmonic or simply the Palia (Old);
  • the blue-uniformed Mantzaros Philharmonic, commonly called the Nea (New) until the formation of:
  • the bright red and black-uniformed Capodistria Philharmonic, the juniormost of the three.
The bands give regular summer weekend promenade concerts at the Spianada Green gazebo, and have a prominent part in the yearly Holy Week ceremonies. A considerable but mostly friendly rivalry between them persists, and each rigorously adhere to their respective repertoires.


On Holy Friday, from the early afternoon onward, the bands of the philharmonic societies, separated into squads, accompany the epitaphs of the town's churches. Late in the afternoon, the squads come together to form the whole band in order to accompany the epitaph of the metropolitan church, while the funeral marches that the bands play differ depending on the band ; the Old Philharmonic play Albinoni's Adagio, the Mantzaros play Verdi's Marcia Funebre from Don Carlo, and the Capodistria play Chopin's Funeral March and Mariani's Sventura.
On Holy Saturday morning, the three town bands take part in the epitaph (Epitaphios Επιτάφιος) of St. Spyridon Cathedral in procession with the Saint's relics. At this point the bands play different funeral marches, with Mantzaros playing de Miccheli's Calde Lacrime, the Palia playing Marcia Funebre from Faccio's opera Amleto, and the Kapodistria Philharmonic playing the Funeral March from Beethoven's Eroica. This custom dates from the 19th century, when colonial administrators banned the participation of the british garrison's band in the traditional Holy Friday funeral cortege. The defiant Corfiotes held the litany the following morning, and paraded the relics of St. Spyridon too, so that the administrators would not dare intervene.
The litany is followed by the celebration of the "Early Resurrection" ; balconies in the old town are decked in bright red cloth, and Corfiotes throw down large clay pots (the botides μπότηδες) full of water to smash on the street pavement, especially in wider areas of Liston and in an organised fashion. This is enacted in anticipation of the Resurrection of Jesus (Ανάσταση του Κυρίου), which is to be celebrated that same night.

Teatro di San Giacomo

During Venetian rule, the Corfiotes developed a fervent appreciation of Italian opera, which was the real source of the extraordinary (given conditions in the mainland of Greece) musical development of the island during this era. The opera house of Corfu during 18th and 19th century was that of the Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo, named after the neighbouring catholic cathedral, but the theatre was later converted into the Town Hall. A long series of local composers, such as Nikolaos Mantzaros, Spyridon Xyndas, Antonio Liberali, Domenico Padovani, the Zakynthian Pavlos Carrer, the Lambelet family, Spyros Samaras, and others, all developed careers intertwined with the theatre. San Giacomo's place was taken by the so-called New Municipal Theatre in 1901, which maintained the operatic tradition vividly until its destruction during World War II as a result of a 1943 German air raid. The subsequent absence of a main venue during the postwar years has been judged the main cause of the island's later crisis of musical development.
The first opera to be performed in the San Giacomo had been as far back as 1733 ("Gierone, tiranno di Siracusa"), and for almost two hundred years, between 1771 and 1943, nearly every major opera from the Italian tradition, as well as many others from Greek and French composers, were performed at the stage of the San Giacomo; this impressive tradition, invoking an exceptional musical heritage, continues to be reflected in Corfiote operatic mythology, a fixture in famous opera singers' itineraries. Operatic performers who found success at the theater were distinguished with the accolade "applaudito in Corfu", "applauded in Corfu", as a tribute to the discriminating musical taste of the island audience.

Ionian University and musical tradition

Since the early 1990s a new force in Corfu's musical tradition has emerged ; the music department of the Ionian University. Aside from its academic activities, concerts in Corfu and abroad, and musicological research in the field of Neo-Hellenic Music, the Department organizes an international music academy every summer , which gathers both international students and professors specialising in brass, strings, singing, jazz and musicology.

Ta Karnavalia

Another venerable Corfu tradition is known as the Carnival or Ta Karnavalia. Venetian in origin, festivities include a parade featuring the main attraction of Karnavalos, a rather grotesque figure with a large head and smiling face , leading a diverse procession of colourful floats. Corfiots, young and old, dress up in colourful costumes and follow the parade, spilling out into the area's narrow streets (kantounia) and spreading the festivities across the city, dancing and socialising. At night, in the island's more sophisticated social circles, dance and costume parties are traditional.

Corfu in myth


External links

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