Now some quick and messy history. Before the French Revolutionary Wars, the Ionian Islands had been part of the Republic of Venice. Then the 1797 treaty dissolved the Republic of Venice, and Corfu was annexed to the French Republic as the French departments of Greece. In 1798-9, the French were driven out by a joint Russo-Ottoman force. The occupying forces founded an island republic which enjoyed relative independence under Ottoman and Russian control from 1800-7; Greek was to be the primary local language.
The Ionian Islands were briefly re-occupied by the French, but very soon after, in 1809-10, the UK defeated the French fleet and captured some Greek Islands. After Napoleon, many countries were interested in the control of the prize island, Corfu island. Thanks to the aid of a Greek General, a treaty was signed in Paris in 1815 that recognised autonomous Ionian islands under exclusive British control.
Venetian buildings in Corfu Town
A formal federation, the United States of the 7 Ionian Islands, was created in Aug 1817 via a Parliament with a 2-house legislature. The government was organised under the direction of a Lord High Commissioner, appointed by the British monarch on the advice of the British government. Then the Supreme Council of Justice was established.
The first (1815-23) British high commissioner (and Governor of Malta) was Sir Thomas Maitland, a rather repressive dictator who quickly stirring strong complaints from the locals. Yet the British era (815-64) was probably the most flourishing period in the history of Corfu. Corfu established the first Greek University, the Ionian Academy, which was established by Frederick North, 5th Earl Guilford in 1824. Its 3 faculties included Medicine. The establishment of schools, which had been neglected by the Venetians, was improved and by 1850 there were 200 schools. Corfu gained its first Philharmonic Orchestra and the first School of Fine Arts.
There were extensive public works providing prisons, hospitals, marsh clearance, a widened road network and a public aqueduct water-supply system that still operates. Commerce with the neighbouring countries grew impressively.
Despite these benefits, the islanders came to resent British rule. And it all came to an end when a 1863 treaty demanded Britain renounce the Ionian islands. In March 1864, representatives of the UK, Greece, France and Russia pledged the transfer of sovereignty to Greece, under the newly installed King George I of the Hellenes. And in May 1864, by proclamation of the Lord High Commissioner, the Ionian Islands were united with Greece. The city of Corfu lost power in favour of Athens, but the rest of the island began to prosper both politically and economically.
Even then, British influence continued. Way back in 1823, a cricket match was held in Corfu between Royal Navy officers and men in the British Garrison. Thus began a lasting union of this most British of games and the Greek island of Corfu. Of the many cricket clubs drawing excited crowds on the island these days, the loveliest field is Spianada square in town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a view of the Old Fortress. Also organised by local British-ex pats, Corfu was where the first tennis clubs opened in Greece.
But the biggest attraction for British tourists now seems to be the tv series The Durrells (2016). Based on The Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrell and set in 1935, the Durrell family left home in Britain and settled near Corfu Town. So modern tourists want to rent a villa in the pretty NE corner, where The Durrells was filmed, or stay in the flats at the White House in nearby Kalami, where Lawrence wrote. The lovely bay of San Stefano has the tortoises that fascinated young Gerald, especially in late June. Plus pods of dolphins and sea-turtles.
The quotation inscribed at the foot of a statue of author and naturalist Gerald Durrell in these beautiful gardens was dedicated to him and his brother Lawrence. The brothers’ writing, especially ‘My Family and Other Animals’, popularised this green isle in the world’s imagination.
Corfu Town is a unique blend of histories, with a nod to all the nations that controlled it during its mixed history. On arrival in Mandracchio harbour, the Old Fort can be seen from the water. Fit visitors climb to the top of the fort and can enjoy the magnificent view over the town. Then the fit and the unfit can visit the blackened remains of St Spyridon, Corfu’s patron saint, in his church. The public buildings of the Venetian rule blend well with narrow winding streets, lovely little bars and shops, and small secluded squares.
Cultural sites are everywhere. Once home to Greece’s King George I, the elegant Saint Michael and George Palace sits on top of a hill outside Corfu Town. The Palace, also the birthplace of Britain’s Prince Philip, opens its elegant interiors to the public and hosts a museum displaying artworks, statues, historical and archaeological treasures.
The British Cemetery is near San Rocco square. Founded in 1814 by the British Protectorate it was used as a garden cemetery where the British officials, soldiers and residents were interred. After the departure of the British, the cemetery served as the graveyard for the foreign families who stayed on (and it is still being used as a cemetery for the Anglican residents of Corfu today). Note the monument to the seamen of the two Royal Navy destroyers mined by the Albanians in The Corfu Channel Incident of 1946.
100 cricket matches are played each year,
against local Corfu teams and against touring sides