06 September 2019
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.
The two best-known churches in the old town of Corfu town are the Church of Saint Spyridon, with the body and relics of the saint who has become the island’s patron, and Corfu Cathedral, which is dedicated to the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora, with the revered remains of the Empress Theodora, saint and defender of Orthodoxy. Perhaps only the former convent church on the tiny island of Vlacherna at Kanoni, south of the town, is better known as a church on Corfu.
During my visits to Corfu town over the past two weeks, I have also written about Holy Trinity Church and Saint George’s Church, the present and the former Anglican church in Corfu, and also visited Corfu’s only surviving synagogue.
But, like every Greek town, Corfu seems to have a church on every street and every corner, making it an interesting town for church crawlers and all who are interested in church architecture, history and art.
On one of my walks around Corfu this week, I visited two churches by accident rather than design and realised how easy it is for visitors and tourists to pass by these churches casually without realising the treasures to be discovered inside.
The Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna is an unusual single-nave church on Saint Spyridon Street, built in 1700 and restored in 1765. It is smaller and less known that its immediate neighbour, the Church of Saint Spyridon, but this makes its more peaceful and prayerful, and Olga who showed us around was eager to point out the treasures of the church, including its relics and icons.
The church was consecrated in 1700, after a private house was transformed into a religious building. A plaque in Greek above the main entrance recalls that the church was built by Theodora Vervitzioti, daughter of Nikolaos Vervitziotis, in memory of her parents and opened in June 1700. She later donated the church to the town’s guild of grocers and cheese sellers in 1714.
The church was renovated several times in 1765, as recalled in a second plaque, and in 1850 and in 1915.
The church was damaged extensively during the German bombings of Corfu on 14 September 1943 and was rebuilt in 1960.
Three plaques in Greek on the church façade commemorate its consecration in 1700 and, on each side on the façade, its renovation in 1765 and its rebuilding in 1960. The oldest plaque, above the main door, includes the coat of arms of the Vervitzioti family above the Greek text.
Inside, the treasures of the church include an iconostasis or icon screen topped with 12 icons of the apostles, a collection of relics gathered in one glass case that include relics of Saint James the Apostle and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and a much-revered icon of Saint Anne holding her daughter, the Virgin Mary, who in turn is holding her son, the Christ Child.
The Church of the Panagia Mandrakina is close to the palace of Saint Michael and Saint George, between Boschetto Garden and the Garden of the People in Spianada.
The official dedication of the church is to Agios Panteleimonas, and historical records mote that it was built in the 18th century, although some accounts say it dates from the mid-16th century.
The church is popularly known as the Panagia Mandrakina, referring to the Virgin Mary as the protector of fishermen. It is said to have acquired its name from an icon of Virgin Mary that was found by the fishermen at the small port of Mandraki, the harbour of the Old Fortress of Corfu which stands above it.
The Church of Panagia Mandrakina is a small, orange and crimson church with an impressive and elaborate bell-tower that stands out amid the trees of the two gardens.
Like the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna, it was heavily damaged during the German bombardment of Corfu in World War II. Its present form dates from its restoration in the early 1950s.
Outside, the church is symmetrical with a pediment. The impressive bell tower beside the church is quadrangular and castellated. The church and its small courtyard stand below street level. Today, the Church is popular for baptisms and weddings.