My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.
Corfu, Greece, an Ionian Paradise
Corfu (Kerkyra), Greece, is across the bay from Saranda, Albania, my home for a couple of years. Depending on the weather, it looks as if you can throw a baseball and reach the island with little effort. However, the view is quite deceptive as the distance is about 18 miles from the furthest point and about 2.5 miles from the closest point.
A few years before my relocation to Saranda, I stood on the shores of Corfu, looking across the Ionian Sea, and remember commenting, "I think that land mass is Albania." Little did I know that a few short years later, I would be living in Albania, specifically Saranda, the town I was viewing.
A Bit About Corfu
The Greek name, Kerkyra, is named after Korkyra, a mythological nymph that became the wife of Poseidon. According to mythology, her parents were against the marriage, so Poseidon and his bride ran away and hid on the remote island, which at the time was unnamed. The island was compared to paradise, and to immortalize it, he named the island after his love. The name, Corfu, is Italian and translates to "peaks or crests" due to the fact that much of the island is mountainous.
Similar to other Mediterranean islands or cities on the sea, Corfu has seen its fair share of violent occupations throughout history. Its geographic location has made it ideal for strategic invasions.
During the two World Wars and the Civil War of Greece, the island was of huge importance to its occupiers—not only for its location in the sea and its proximity to mainland Europe—but also for the refuge it provided troops who found themselves in danger of annihilation. The longest period of occupation was by the Venetians, so still today, as you wander the serpentine streets of Old Town, that influence is evident.
Corfu Comes on the Radar
Written in Homer's Odessey, historians find evidence of Corfu as early as 1300 BC. In Greek mythology, it is thought that Corfu was been the home of the Argonauts, the burial location of the sickle that castrated Uranus, and the island Poseidon fled to with his bride.
The Venetians Rule
Until the 17th century, Corfu, located in the Gulf of Venice (the name during that period), acted as a fortified defense wall against Ottoman invasion and was therefore considered to be the "door of Venice." Although Venetian occupation had ended, until the mid-20th century, many Venetian families still called Corfu their home. The influence was so strong that a language referred to as Veneto da mar, a combination of Greek and Italian words, was widely spoken. Some of this antiquated dialect is still spoken on the island.
The number of narrow streets, multi-story buildings, archways, and notable buildings remind us of this fourth-century occupation by the Venetians. Having been there several times, I can honestly say that Corfu is quite impressive!
Having been liberated by the 40th Royal Marine Commando, which landed in Corfu on 14 October 1944, the island is made up of three municipalities:
- Central Corfu and Diapontia Islands (which includes Old Town, A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- North Corfu
- South Corfu
The Diverse Environment and Topography of Corfu
The topography of Corfu is divided distinctly into three aspects from north to south, defined by the Pantokrator range and Saint Decca (Agioi Deka) range.
The northern part of the island is covered with mountains, the central region has valleys and hills, and the southern region consists of exceptionally fertile plains. Having the most rainfall in all of Greece, the land is perfect for the agriculture of olive trees, vineyards, kumquats, and bergamot oranges.
The island, being the second largest in the Adriatic region, offers mountains, beautiful beaches with 217 km of coastline, two lakes, four rivers, and opportunities for city living. The leading economy of the island is based on tourism, and it seems that with all Corfu has to offer, it truly can cater to many diverse groups of tourists.
My Time and Experience in Corfu
The first few times I had the pleasure of spending time in Corfu was as a result of cruise itineraries. After I moved to Saranda, Albania, Corfu took on a different meaning to me. It became my departure point when I would fly and it also became my day trip getaway destination.
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Things to See and Do
Old Town of Corfu is, unsurprisingly, the location of the port where cruise ships dock. At first glance, it seems Corfu is just another Greek Island, a tourist trap, or a place to shop. But not so fast on the judgment . . .
Because of its diversity, beaches, and it's quaint, welcoming atmosphere, it is quite the destination. It is an ideal place for group or family vacations offering an abundance of things to do and see.
Esplanade is considered one of the most beautiful esplanades in Greece, separating the Old Fortress from Old Town. Built by the French under Napoleon to resemble the Rue du Rivoli in Paris, today it is the center for trade, recreation, social activities, and important city events. Sprinkled with historical monuments, as I strolled the Esplanade (Spianada), it was easy to get an idea of the historical value of Corfu throughout time.
The Old Fortress
This is separated from the town by a moat. Built on the site of a former Byzantine castle, it has provided protection for the island from invading armies. Inside the fortress is the Church of St. George, constructed by Venetians in the fashion of a Doric temple.
The Museum of Asian Art
This is housed inside the Palace of St. Michael and St. George and is famous for collections of Asian porcelains, Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Indian sculpture, and Tibetian temple art.
Shopping, Restaurants, and Cafes
Whether it was as a tourist disembarking a cruise ship or visiting as a "local" from Albania, the shopping, restaurants, and cafes were a dream come for me! There is an abundance of boutique shops as well as large department stores such as Marks and Spencer, H&M, Verizon, and rumors of Ikea (which I never found!).
The cafe culture of Greece abounds as locals and tourists alike sit and enjoy coffee or wine for hours on end. The aromas of bakeries and food hung in the air setting the scene as I strolled the lovely streets of Old Town.
The beaches located in Corfu are some of the most beautiful in Greece. On the west side of the island, the beaches are sandy, while the east side is rocky but known to have calmer waters. Corfu is known to mainland Greeks as a vacation hotspot, and many spend their vacations enjoying the turquoise waters on the beaches here.
Most Europeans take holiday during the month of August. My suggestion, if you want to avoid the crowds, is to plan your visit accordingly. Corfu has a hot-summery Mediterranean climate providing warm sea waters from April through late October. Personally, I have been in the water in November and also February, and while a bit cool, the water temperature was still enjoyable.
Since Corfu is an island, the hub of activity is centered around Corfu Town where the port and airport are located. However, within a short driving distance, a visitor will find several villages that are absolutely fabulous!
The Corfiots have, to some degree, commercialized their villages to accommodate tourism but have, at the same time, found a way to maintain the authenticity of the island culture. Many of the villages close to Corfu Town have luxury resorts with amazing beaches, restaurants, and other outdoor activities.
One of the most popular is Benitses, a former fishing village and one of the most traditional Corfiot villages. It offers unique natural beauty and is situated on the eastern coast. Its proximity to the port and airport plays a huge part in its popularity as a tourist destination.
Before leaving the United States and living abroad, I developed an infinity for hiking. The terrain of Corfu makes it a hiker's paradise. Living a short ferry ride from Corfu, I was in heaven.
There are several trails set up specifically for hiking, many of them beginning or ending in villages or on beaches. No matter which trail you choose, I guarantee you will experience spectacular views and connect to the natural beauty of Corfu.
A few of the more popular hikes are:
- Mount Pantokrator hike will take about two to three hours from start to finish. This is Corfu's highest mountain and takes you to about 906 feet elevation. The trail begins outside the village of Old Perithia. It can be a bit rugged, so I don't recommend it for an inexperienced hiker.
- Cape Drastos Loop is a fairly easy trail running about 4.5 kilometers and should take about two hours to complete.
- A fantastic short trail is Donkey Path—taking about 30 to 60 minutes. An added benefit is that the trail is mostly shaded. It begins in the village of Paleokastritis and runs up the hill to the village of Lakones. This trail is a bit rugged and steep, so good hiking shoes are needed. Along the way, you will probably see goats, and there is the possibility of seeing a couple of iguanas. Once you reach Lakones, the views are amazing.
My Time in Corfu
As stated, I have had the pleasure of visiting Corfu many times, not only as a tourist but as somewhat of a local. I've arrived by cruise ship and ferry and flew to and from the island many times. It is my favorite Greek Island. Folks that says a lot!
Compared to many of the popular islands, such as Santorini or Mykonos, it is a remarkable standout. Don't get me wrong, the more popular islands are fantastic and have their place in my heart. But, in general, they tend to be crowded, overpriced, and very commercial. In my humble opinion, Corfu is a more authentic cultural experience of Greece. Yes, it is commercialized in places (especially Old Town), and when cruise ships arrive it can be a bit crowded, but the accessibility of the villages, the mountains, and the opportunity to observe local life makes it a standout for me.
Arriving by Cruise Ship
Corfu is a popular destination on cruise itineraries. The port is modern and well appointed, but both times I arrived, the ship anchored, and we were tendered in. Arriving dockside, we were met by taxis and carriage drivers who offered guided tours of the island. Both times, we opted to walk into Old Town, which from our dropoff location took about 20 minutes. If you have read any of my other articles, you know that I am an avid walker and prefer to experience destinations on foot whenever possible.
Visiting as a tourist was a much different experience than visiting as a resident of Albania since our time on the island was limited. I did, however, get a large enough taste of Corfu to learn that it was a remarkable place, different than the other Greek islands already visited.
Spending the day meandering through Old Town, stopping at cafes and browsing the shops, and speaking with locals was amazing. The Corfuits were friendly and welcoming, anxious to show off their slice of paradise. The atmosphere was unfrenzied and was a fantastic respite from our hurried cruise itinerary.
Pro Tip: At this point, I should note that Greece's islands are all vastly different from a cultural point of view, not only from each other but from the mainland. It's almost as if they aren't part of the same country, offering a completely different perspective of "authentic" life.
Visiting as a Local; Arriving by Ferry or Air
Saranda is located on the southern tip of Albania. The only international airport is located in Tirana, the capital of the country, and is about a five-hour mountainous, nail-biting trip from Saranda. Whenever possible, I would opt to fly in and out of Corfu.
The airport, though small, offers great flight itineraries, and more often than not, the flight cost is less expensive than Tirana. The challenge when using the airport is coordinating the ferry schedule with your flight times. There were occasions when I would need to spend the night in Corfu either before or after my flight.
Pro Tip: The time zone is different in Corfu is GMT +3 while in Albania it is GMT +2, a one-hour difference. When shuttling back and forth, especially if you are catching a flight, this needs to be taken into consideration.
Corfu is about a 30-minute ferry ride from Saranda. During high season, the ferry runs 5 times per day. In the lower season, the ferry schedule changes to three times and then one time per day.
While living in Albania, I would get to Corfu a few times per month for shopping, hiking, or a wellness retreat. The ferry terminal in Saranda is located just outside of the city center, making it very convenient. Once in Corfu, it is about a 10-minute walk to Old Town and a 15-minute drive to the airport. Whenever, I arrived in Corfu, finding a driver at the terminal was never a problem as several are familiar with the ferry schedule and park, waiting for fares.
When I first arrived in Saranda, the borders to Greece were still closed due to the pandemic. Appearing to be close enough to reach out and touch, it was torture to view Corfu and not be able to get there. Prior to this period, I had only visited the island as a tourist disembarking from a cruise ship so I was anxious to spend time on the island as a local and really absorb the ambiance.
The Border Finally Opened
For weeks there were rumors of the borders restrictions being lifted. Finally, the rumors became a reality, and the day the border opened and the ferry began operating, I was on the first ferry of the day.
Armed with my passport and electronic COVID Vaccine Pass, I boarded the ferry, and 30 minutes later, I was standing in Corfu. Fast and easy travel to other European countries was one of the reasons I decided to become an expat. It was at that moment that I realized that Corfu would become my gateway to the rest of Europe.
Final Thoughts on My Adventures
On my first visit, with surreal childlike excitement, I headed for Old Town. Cafes, shops, and meandering were on the agenda. I found some shops that day that I would find myself frequenting on subsequent visits; a spice shop, a dress shop, and Marks & Spencer, a European department store.
Everyone was having a great time; the residents were happy to have visitors and the visitors were happy to be there.
As that first visit ended and we were headed back to Albania, we felt like a celebration was in order. Hitting up the Duty-Free shop at the Corfu ferry terminal, we opted for a bottle of champagne to drink on the way back to Saranda.
I fell in love with Corfu that day. At first, I thought I was enamored simply because the borders had opened, and the freedom to travel was once again a reality. But that wasn't it. I loved the tranquility and the culture of Corfu. The options of hiking and wellness clinics/retreats, shopping, music on the streets, the smiles on the faces of everyone along with the Venetian churches and architecture, and the diversity of the environment are the real attractions.
Drinking my champagne and chatting with my friend on the ferry ride back to Albania, I realized how lucky I was. The sun was setting and the orange and red glow on the horizon with silhouettes of fishing boats on the sea seemed surreal. It was then that I knew my dreams had been achieved.
I had fantasized about living in the Mediterranean since I was 13 years old and there I was living my best life; Corfu in the rearview, Albania waiting for me to return. Although the stories of Mama Mia and Shirley Valentine weren't filmed in my newfound paradise, I reminisced on those movies and felt happy and at peace.
That was the first of many visits to Corfu. The tranquility of the island was one of the things I had been looking for when I made the decision to become an ex-pat. Corfu became my go-to for get-away days for hiking, attendance at wellness clinics/retreats, or just hanging out. I also went there to shop and forged relationships with cafe and restaurant owners along with shopkeepers. As I would sit on my veranda in Saranda and look out over the Ionian Sea, it was as if Corfu was calling me, "I'm here; when you will you return?"
I Challenge You, the Reader
Traveling the world since I was a young child, I have had the privilege of visiting 53 countries. In doing so, I have discovered not only the world, but I have discovered myself. Several years ago, I was advised that there are no luggage racks on a hearse and to invest in memories, not things. Fortunately, I took that advice to heart, and as I continue to travel, I keep those words at the forefront of my mind.
I am a wanderer, an adventure seeker, inquisitive. Many that I know have never left their hometown. There was a time when I didn't understand that way of living, but through travel and living as an ex-pat, I finally understand it. There is security and familiarity in staying put. And while for some, that works, for me, the discovery of our glorious world motivates me to strive for and live my best life.
Admittingly, for a while, I had forgotten about the importance of home—what it's like being surrounded by familiar things, the people I love and who love me. In the song "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell, she sings, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." For me, "home" was never gone, but the importance seemed to elude me. And so I've discovered that for me, my best life is defined as an ice cream sundae: a big scoop of home topped with travel and sprinkled with fabulous, luscious memories and memories yet to be made.
My challenge to you is this: spend time defining your best life and then actively pursue it! Part of my inquisitive nature and desire to learn begs me to ask you to share and leave your thoughts and comments in the section provided in this article.
Until next time, friends, remember, "To Travel is to Live!"
© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin