Corfu: The Green Greek Island of 2 Million Olive Trees

The island of Corfu is a fertile swath of green is a group of islands that are mostly stark and glistening white. The northern island is almost in Albania, but the island's history intersects practically every major civilization of the past 2,000 years.

Passengers sailing past the Greek Isles today gaze on rocky almost blindingly white islands. It looks like nothing is growing there, and that is mostly the case. Yet at the time when Alexander the Great was the uncontested champion of the world as it was then known, the islands were fertile green fields equal to any in Europe. Now they are stark and glistening white. There is, however, one green Greek island, Corfu. It is said to have 2 million olive trees.

We once were fascinated by the Greek island of Corfu, way up top left on the map of Greece, almost in Albania. Corfu has nothing like the history of Santorini but it has enough to make most United States tourist destinations drool with envy. Corfu's history goes back to 734 BC when Corinth established a colony on this, the most northwest island off the Greek mainland. In 665 BC the new colony defeated Corinth "in the first naval battle in Greek history" to gain her independence!

She lost that independence in 200 BC when this little island, a mere 250 square miles, became the first eastern conquest of the Roman Empire. Since then Corfu has been raided by Byzantine forces, Vandal, Goths, Slavs, Normans, Venetians, French, and finally British. The British occupation lasted about half a century but when they turned the island over to Greece and departed in 1863 they left behind a legacy of "cricket, ginger beer, and Christmas chutney." And Georgian mansions linked by the best road system of any Greek island, stable agriculture, a proper water supply, a fair judicial system "with model prisons," decent hospitals, schools, and a university.

There is some ambiance of Britain even now in the main streets.

The Convent at Vlacherna with its single tree is probably Corfu’s best known landmark; it was built on previous ruins in 1685 but started to decline as a religious center in the 19th century. A Corfu tenement building

A Cinderella-like coach does not seem like part of the Greek story but the yachts in Corfu harbor remind us that more than four-and-a-half thousand years ago Greece really ruled the waves.

Yachts!

We had greatly enjoyed sailing in Antigua with an English company Nicholson Yacht Charters, which had started on that island in the Caribbean with a single family boat in 1949 then soon had a large fleet of charter yachts. The company moved its home offices to Cambridge, MA in 1973 but it had connections in Corfu.

In Corfu we found a boat representing Nicholson and re-arranged our schedule. We boarded the yacht and headed first to the Venetian Armory, Gouvia Bay. The Gorgon Medusa of the Temple of Artenis, a remnant from 580 BC. Medusa has snakes around her neck and girding her waist. She is wearing a mini-skirt because she is being pursued by Perseus and is in full flight.

Then we bore south about 10 miles to the little island complex of Paxos and anchored at the fishing village of Loggos on its east coast. Paxos is only seven square miles but it is said to have “one bus, three priests, five taxis, seven policemen, 80 churches, 2000 people and 300,000 olive trees.” And now two Americans.

The captain had both a great chef doing the cooking — and an old school friend helping him because he’s injured himself on a recent cruise which may be why his sailboat was available. Our itinerary was pretty leisurely so his cabin mates had time to show us how capable swimmers they were. And just when we were starting to get hungry…

Whatever passengers do on a yacht essentially is what they want to. Although it sometimes seems what the cook wants to do is swim!

So what can you expect if you want to sail in the Ionan Sea? It depends on your sailing experience. If considerable you may want to look into any flotillas that may be planned around the time of your visit where a local yacht expert choses a route and the others follow him. If you don’t have experience you will need a ship’s captain who is usually the owner or his agent .Get one who speaks English!

What can you expect sailing in Ionan Greece? I once asked an American who lived in Greece. He answered, “Light winds, unknown harbors, new cultures, fresh faces and unusual attitudes.”

“Unusual attitudes?” we asked.

“Well,” he said. “I once met a gentle Greek on the west coast of Lefkas who told me, ‘I work in a tourist shop in a village that has no tourists. I’ll be glad when the season is over. I’ll be happy to get back to normal.’”

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.