A Venetian fortress in the city of Corfu
You would not expect such an idyllic island to have been the site of much resistance, expanding from defense fortifications that date as early as 6th century AD. As you sail in between the Gulf of Kerkyra and Garitsa Bay, Corfu’s namesake greets you in the guise of an artificial island.
Originally containing the old town of Corfu before it outgrew the peninsula, the Old Fortress of Corfu emerged from the Gothic invasion that ravaged the ancient city of Corcyra. Skip a few centuries and the Byzantines upgraded the structures. Two peaks and their towers, which still overlook the citadel today, were lauded poetic names by the Venetians – “Castle near the Land” and “Castle by the Sea”.
Venetian rule also saw new fortifications that successfully repelled Ottoman sieges, the three great sieges of 1537, 1571 and 1716. Its ultimate defense? The Contrafossa moat wraps around, with a drawbridge as the connection between mainland and fortress. This simple but effective barrier still sees present-day action in form of holiday yachts and mooring boats.But don’t let us bore you with a long-winded history lesson! Entrenched within the Old Fortress are collections of Byzantine sculptures and images, and a public library worth centuries of Corfu history.
Archive of historical records aside, the complex itself is an open-air museum of architectural highlights that denote the various residents that have once inhabited this citadel. A masterpiece of military design, its interior is surprisingly aesthetic. Lingering buildings bake red under the sun where Espianada Square unfolds in lush greens between the central gate towards the bastions of Savornian, Martinengo and Mandraki. Other architectures are notably British in origin as most Venetian constructions were ravaged by war occupation and time. Of those, even against the barracks, clock tower and lighthouse, the church of St. George stands out.
Beneath a triangular capstone are solid Doric columns, the white edifice taking after that of an ancient Greek temple. A dominating icon that can be viewed from along the coast, St. George church was actually commissioned in 1840 for British soldiers stationed there in the 1800s. This Anglican Church later turned Orthodox; it is now a revered heritage site open for service only once a year, occasionally hosting concerts and exhibitions.
Don’t miss out on the lower levels either. What used to be a military hospital is now the Department of Music Studies of Ionian University. Just high enough to offer sweeping views over the bay, can you imagine a more inspiring place for the arts?
And at the base of this low esplanade are the modern luxuries attached to the citadel. You’ll find the offices of Corfu sailing club and an adjacent sailing club restaurant. The menu offers classic Corfu fare with freshly sourced ingredients, but it is the view that will reel you in. Bask in the magical ambiance as the sun glides down into the water, indulging in the serene environment after a long day of historical exploration.
The Old Fortress may no longer be the packed citadel it used to be, but it accommodates the way only heritage sites can – with an honest visual expression of what it once was, and small compromises that blend the old with newer additions.