Friday, 6 September 2019
The beaches and churches
at Homer’s last stop in
Corfu on his way home
Earlier this week, I visited Palaiokastritsa (Παλαιοκαστρίτσα) on the north-west coast of Corfu, about 26 km from Corfu town and airport. It is a popular tourist resort today, but its appeal also lies in its steep wooded slopes, blue sea and several lovely bays with bathing beaches.
Corfu is said often to be the island of the Phaeacians, named in Homer’s Odyssey as the last destination of Odysseus in his 10-year journey home from Troy to Ithaki. The bay of Palaiokastritsa is identified as the place where Odysseus was shipwrecked and was found by Nausicaa, daughter of Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians.
The Rock of Kolovri in the bay is said to be the petrified ship of Odysseus – although similar stories are told about the monastic islet of Pontikonisi or ‘Mouse Island’ off Kanoni, near Corfu town.
Another legend says the Rock of Kolovri is the ship of an Algerian pirate intent on looting the monastery on the headland. As the ship approached the shore, it was turned to stone in answer to the prayers of the abbot.
Boat trips from the harbour take visitors along the coast to see the many caves and grottoes and out around the Rock of Kolovri.
However, the name of Palaiokastritsa, ‘the place of the old castle,’ is derived not from any legendary palace of the Phaeacians but from the nearby Byzantine castle of Angelokastro, built on a precipitous rocky outcrop on the coast.
The castle may have been built in the reigns of Michael I Komnenos, also known as Michael I Angelos, who took Corfu in 1214, and his son Michael II Komnenos. Giordano di San Felice took possession of the castle in 1272 for Charles of Anjou, who had seized Corfu from Manfred, King of Sicily, in 1267.
From 1387 until the end of the 16th century, Angelokastro was the official capital of Corfu and the seat of the Provveditore Generale del Levante or Governor of the Ionian islands and commander of the Venetian fleet stationed in Corfu. Angelokastro was instrumental in repulsing the Ottomans in three sieges of Corfu in 1537, 1571 and 1716.
The nearby Monastery in Palaiokastritsa dates from 1225. There is a museum inside. On the headland farthest out to the sea is the 12th century Monastery of the Theotokos, still working and with a famous icon of the Virgin Mary.
One of the first modern people to fall for the charms of this part of Corfu was Sir Frederick Adam (1781-1853), British High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands in 1824-1832. However, the area was virtually inaccessibility, Adam had a road built to the village, with plans to build a military convalescent home there.
The planned home was never built, but Adam found the new road made it much easier to take regular picnics in Paleokastritsa.
Later travellers to visit Palaiokastritsa included the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the English writer and artist Edward Lear.
Today Paleokastritsa is a family resort with three main coves – Agia Triada, Platakia and Alipa – and many other tiny, secluded beaches around it, separated by the round-shaped capes, and there are spectacular views from the hills above the resort from the village of Lakones, where I had lunch.
It was a short visit, and I never got to visit Angelokastro or the monasteries of Palaiokastritsa and the Theotokos. But close to the main beach, jutting awkwardly between the coffee bars and a souvenir shop opposite the chaotic car park is the tiny, pink Church of Saint Spyridon, with a bell tower built in 2002.
The church is so small it is hard to imagine it holding a congregation of more than 10. But the door is open, candles are lit, and tourists are made to feel welcome to pop in and look at the icons or find time to pray.
The icons are all modern, with two archangels flanking the iconostasis or icon screen, which includes an interesting icon of the Samaritan woman at the well, and topped with a row of 12 icons of the apostles.
Keeping a traditional yet modern church like this open for the curious and for tourists in the middle of a busy resort beside a popular beach strikes me as a fine example of what mission should be today.