The main influence in determining the character of Corfu Town is Venetian, as a result of the four hundred years or so of their rule. They were evidently not too keen on losing the place to invaders, so their main concern was to build a fort. There had been earlier forts, one in Kassiopi to the north, which has been there since Roman times which was added to by the Angevins. Angelokastro in the west and Gardiki in the south were built by the Byzantine Emperors during the 12th century. These earlier forts were not for the protection of the population, but just for the town garrisons.
Building on the remains of an earlier fortified acropolis built by the Byzantines, the first Venetian fort was located on a small headland which was separated from what is now Corfu town, by cutting a narrow sea channel (known as Contra Fossa) creating an artificial island. This was evidently quite successful as it withstood the first of the Turkish sieges in 1537. Due to the increasing use of artillery, the fort was in need of upgrading, and one of the best Architects and military engineers of the time, Michele Sanmicheli, was sent from Venice. His work was finished in 1558. This later became known as the ‘Old Fortress’ (palio frourio) when later in the 16th century the town was enclosed by a new wall and, a ‘New Fortress’ (neo frourio) was built on the high ground to the northern end of the town under the direction of the military engineer Ferrante Vitalli. The works were extended and improved in the 17th century by the engineer Verneda and in the 18th century by Marshal von der Schulenburg. The fortified walls of the town were dismantled around 1864 when Corfu joined the New Greek state. This then allowed the town to spread beyond the old boundaries and merge with the suburbs that had for some time grown outside the walls.
Within the walls of the town, the principal streets had been laid out in a more or less geometric manner, whilst secondary back streets grew in a totally unplanned way creating a highly complicated network, as inhabitants exploited every bit of space they had to the limit. Amid the narrow streets small squares were formed, left by the inhabitants as service areas. The area of the town known as Cabiella literally means an area with lots of courtyards. These often had a well in the centre, above a cistern catching surface water, which typically would have been the main water source until the English arrived and built an aqueduct to bring fresh water from the hill above Benitses, some miles to the south, which terminated in a square just behind the church of St. Spiridon. Whilst the town was developed with narrow streets and multi-storeyed buildings because of the lack of space, a large square, ‘Spaniatha’ was created opposite the old fort, being about a third of the size of the total settlement, by clearing dwellings that had previously stood there, in order to allow a wide firing range without protective cover in case the town was captured.
Today facing the old fort across the Spaniatha is the elegant arcaded building known as ‘Liston’ which is just about the only French building to be seen on the island, although it was also the French who planted the Spaniatha in the way that is seen today. The Liston follows a similar styling to the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, being a long, straight, monumental structure with regular repeating grand arches facing the wide paved avenue where the locals now perform their evening promenade. It was designed by Mathieu De Lesseps in 1807. The ground floor of the building is now given over largely to cafes that have their main seating areas under the trees lining the other side of the avenue. A large part of one end of the building was originally the Grand Hotel St. Georges, now all converted to flats.
Walking along Liston you can see the imposing and most important of the building works to have been included in the legacy left by the British during their years in control of Corfu. This is the Palace of St Michael and St George, a fine Georgian structure which fills the northern end of the Spaniatha. This was one of the first neoclassical style buildings in Greece, and was the official residence of the British Lord high Commissioner. This was built in1823 having been designed by Colonel George Whitmore of the Royal Engineers, who chose white Malta stone for the construction. Modelled on Palladian styling, with a Doric colonnade and two monumental gates of St Michael and St George, through one of which traffic now passes going toward the port beyond. The palace building is now a museum which houses an interesting if incongruous donated private collection of eastern artefacts which is apparently the largest of its kind outside of the Far East and well worth a visit. During such a visit you also get to see many rooms of the palace, the interiors of which, including the original furnishings, having been designed by Colonel Whitmore who clearly was an extraordinarily talented and prolific designer. Of passing interest is the little neoclassic ‘rotunda’ located in the gardens of the Spaniada, and again built by Colonel Whitmore. It’s a monument in the form of a ring of Ionic columns in honour of Sir Thomas Maitland, High Commissioner from 1816 to 1824. Colonel Whitmore had himself previously served in Malta under Sir Thomas Maitland and whilst there had been responsible for the design and construction of the Royal Naval Hospital Bighi.
One of the most impressive external spaces is Corfu town’s main square, Platea Demarchiou. The main building centred on the lower side of the square was built in the 17th century by the Venetians when it was known as the Loggia Nobili. It was converted into a theatre in the 18th century and named the Teatro San Giacomo before becoming the Town Hall in the early 20th century following the demolition of an extension that formed the theatre’s entrance hall which projected out into the square and hid much of the decoration of the original building now thankfully restored to its former glory. To the side of the square is the Roman Catholic cathedral of St James again dating from the 17th century, with the Catholic Archbishop’s 18th century residence, now a branch of the Bank of Greece, at the top of the square facing the Town Hall. The remaining side of the square now has a few untidy but quaint old buildings huddled together which seems odd in such a formally laid out square. In fact there was originally the residence of the Venetian Governor here which would have completed the grandeur of what would have been certainly one of the most important spaces in the town.
The architecture of Corfu Town comprises a rich blend of styles which has been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site. As a rule of thumb, the town houses built by the Venetians were mostly three to four storeys high, although most now have newer additions. They would have been built on very small plots of which they covered 95%. They rarely have a courtyard or garden. Open space was limited to dark and dirty air shafts, no more than a metre wide, that were to one side or to the rear and usually extended along the entire length of the plot. Typical examples of the Venetian apartment buildings include 26 Nikiforou Theotoki Street, which is an example of the narrow type, and 4 Ipapantis Street, an example of the broad fronted type. The British sometimes built six or seven storeys high, a typical example of which is the Hotel Constantinopolis, facing the old harbour. Although these were built on larger plots, and had larger air shafts, access to sunlight is minimal in these buildings, especially on lower floors, because of their disproportionate height in comparison to the width of the streets. All three of these examples can be found within a short walk from the old harbour.
Just to the south of the town on a wooded hill, with stunning views over Corfu town and the sea, is situated the Achilleion. It’s a rambling residence, sadly perhaps not in the best possible taste, but nonetheless interesting and worth a visit. Built in 1890 to 1891 for Empress Elizabeth of Austria, better known as ‘Sissi’, it was designed by the Italian architect Raffaele Caritto. Evidently Sissy didn’t really like the styling either, and rarely visited it, but in any case she was assassinated not long after in 1898. Later in 1907 it was bought by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who spent every spring there between 1908 and 1914. The grounds are in the Italian style and include amongst others a very pleasant formal garden surrounded by a pergola shaded pathway. It’s here that a large marble statue is located depicting the stricken Achilles, from whom the building takes its name. Just up a few steps from here is a paved terrace linked to the first floor of the building, where the facade is lined with a neoclassic colonnade in the Ionian order, with statues of muses and busts of figures from ancient Greek history. For some years it served as a casino with the claim to fame of having appeared in the 1981 James Bond film, ‘For your eyes only’. The ground floor includes mementos associated with the former owners. Having fallen to some extent into decay, extensive renovation was undertaken in 1994, as part of the preparation for a meeting of European government leaders which was held there the following year. The grounds of the house extend down through the wooded hillside to the beach, to which a private road ran to give access to a jetty, near to which the private steam yacht would have been moored. The last part of the road can still be seen as it crosses the coastal road over what has since been named Kaiser Bridge, the sad remnants of which still stand either side of the road, the centre having been dismantled during the German occupation to allow a huge gun to pass on its way to an emplacement on the south east coast.
In the centre of the main town stands the bell tower of the church of Saint Spiridon, with its red painted dome which is a landmark which can be seen from most parts of the town and surrounding area. The church below to which it is attached is certainly the richest on the island, with very beautiful old geometrically patterned decorative marble floors. The walls and ceiling are all covered by figurative painting, probably mainly fairly recently done due to older painting having become too badly damaged by candle smoke and dampness. From the ceiling hang brass lanterns with perforated decoration and there are many personal offerings mostly made of metal in the shape of parts of the body, left here to encourage the healing of ailments. Above the main area of the church is a mezzanine containing the choir, hidden from view behind decorative metal perforated screens. At the front of the church is a marble rood screen full of icons, with a doorway to the right hand side beyond which is the casket in which the relic of Saint Spiridon can be seen.
Amid the old houses behind the coast road at the far end of Garitsa Bay, is the oldest church on the island. Dating from Byzantine times, the church of St. Jason and Sosipater is probably of more interest and historical importance than any other on the island. Unusually for such a monument in Greece, there is a very informative sign outside telling the story of the building in English and Greek, so better if you go and read about it there.
A short walk from this church are the grounds of the former royal residence of the ex-king of Greece, known as Mon Repos, another building undertaken by Colonel George Whitmore. This is the birthplace of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Mon Repos was actually built for Sir Fredrick Adam, the 3rd Lord High Commissioner, in 1831, and was subsequently used by Baron Nugent, the 5th Lord High Commissioner; although he decided he did not need it so the house was given to the Corfu Senate for their use in 1833. It then became a school of fine arts whilst the grounds were planted with more than 2000 plants from all parts of the British Empire to become a public botanical garden. In 1864 when Corfu joined the Kingdom of Greece, the property was given to King George 1st of Greece as a summer palace, and it was the King who named it Mon Repos. The Empress of Austria (Sissy) was a guest here whilst her own house (The Achilleion) was being built. Although the building is not always open to the public, it is usually possible to walk in the grounds, at the furthest point of which stand the ruined remains of a temple, part of the settlement by the Corinthians from the period following their arrival in 743BC. Unfortunately there are only a few columns still standing, and it is not possible to go down close to the site which is frankly not kept in the best condition along with the grounds which have been allowed to go wild.