Date : Sept 26th -28th/2020
Place: Corfu Old Town
By: Lili Naveh
Yom Kippur in Corfu Old Town
Amazingly, fast and efficient checkout, through Corfu airport's border control, welcomed us upon evening landing, along with a much cooler, friendlier, though a bit drizzly weather.
As much as it is hard to believe, the nicest Taxi driver who actually could communicate in English, gave us a lift from the airport and dropped us 15 minutes later, at an elegant small quaint hotel at the heart of Corfu Town.
The Arcadion hotel overlooks Spianada main square, and from its rooftop, breathtaking views of the ocean, old fort and old town can be seen.
Here in town we have found a renewed unlimited freedom of movement
by foot which we enjoyed for the next 2 days,
Corfu Island (Korkyra, in its Greek name)
This Greek Island is the second largest, out of the 7 Ionian Islands with a pop. of about 105,000.
The island is bound up with the history of Greece from the beginnings of Greek mythology. Its rich cultural heritage is full of battles and conquests from ancient Greeks, Rome empire, Venetian ruling, French conquests to British mandate.
The experiences of, briefly, visiting the Island in 2016, for the first time ever, with my 2 daughters and baby Leo (only 4 months then), already left wonderful impressions, with a "taste for more" which its recollection I recorded stating:
"The island is one of the greenest, densely vegetated with lemon and fig trees, olive groves, cypress clumps, and many flowers and vegetable gardens along the roads .
The beauty of its landscape, and vistas of mountains, lush green hills, sea coves or noble mansions, wherever one turns, is breath-taking.
The island is a very popular tourist destination, rich in history and culture.
From end to end it is filled with interesting museums, monuments and archaeological sites, offering a plethora of worth visiting attractions.
Furthermore, it's fantastic beaches, top hotels, restaurants, as well as sport activities: ski, jet ski, para sailing boating and scuba diving, and on land: hiking, trekking, riding and cycling excursions, guarantee a great vacationing time.
The principal Town of the island (pop.~ 31,000) is also named Corfu.
As the visit in 2016 was limited to the MarBella resort in the south-east part of the island, I was excited for the opportunity to explore this unique capital's old town.
Old Town of Corfu, off the western coasts of Albania and Greece, is situated in a strategic position at the entrance of the Adriatic Sea, and has its roots in the 8th century BC.
The name Corfu means "Peaks" and refers to its tween hills, each topples with a massive fortress.
The forts of the town, designed by renowned Venetian engineers, were used for 4 centuries to defend the maritime trading interests of the Republic of Venice against the Ottoman Empire, thus the Italian flare in the Town is still felt.
The Old Town, sitting between the two overpowering fortresses, is a tight-packed warren of winding lanes, bursting with fine restaurants, lively bars and intriguing shops, and above its many narrow alleys, colorful laundry hangs off lines, which stretch from balcony to balcony.
On the late Saturday evening of our arrival, the care-free lively cheerful ambiance, which sounded of he fully occupied restaurants, bars and Cafes,
at Spianada square, was like heavenly music to our ears.
A mix of tourists and locals were exhibiting a pre-corona normalcy, without social distancing or face covering, while no policing threatening the crowd with ticketing, could be detected anywhere.
See this update about Corona safety in corfu updated to Sept 23
Although the narrow Town's streets were no longer mobbed, nor really empty of visitors, we however, didn't take any unnecessary chances and had kept our distance and our face covered, at all times.
The Old Town's majestic architecture
It includes mainly neoclassical housing and public structures, partly from the Venetian period, partly of later construction, notably the 19thc.
As a fortified Mediterranean port, Corfu’s urban and port ensemble is notable for its high level of integrity and authenticity as are the splendid Liston arcade, and high-class museums.
There are at least 39 churches, many lavishly decorated. The liturgical music, which ascended from few of them, could be heard on our Sunday's morning walk, during most comfortable sunny weather .
Most befitting was the visit to the Town's Jewish Quarter just on the eve of this year's Yom Kippur
Corfu Town's Jewish Quarter
In the late 12 c, Jewish traveler Benjamin de Tudela encountered a lone Jew on Corfu. 3 centuries later, however, Jews had become so numerous here that the Venetians, then in control of this much-coveted, strategically important Adriatic island, had them confined to ghettos..
The Jewish Quarter - the old Venetian “ghetto” that is still called Evraiki in Greek today, stretched across the southeast section of the city and is sign-posted.
It can be accessed either from the Old Port / New Fortress area, or from the main street linking San Rocco Square and the Old Town. It was criss-crossed with alleyways lined with faded, multistoried houses, as in Venice.
The ghetto lost its urban unity due to the bombardments of the II World War.
Up to the 16th century, Corfu was considered an important Jewish Community, with 2 main synagogues – the Romaniote and the Italian (Apulian) one.
Out of the 4 synagogues that existed in the ghetto before World War II, only one - the Romaniote (La Scuola Greca) remained.
Built in the 18thc, the synagogue of a yellow stucco, two-story structure with a gabled roof, and marked with a star of David, is situated on Velisariou Street off Solomou Square
Sadly, it stood solemnly closed, when we paid a visit on the eve of Yom Kippur, either due to the pandemic or because hardly any of the once large community
stayed around. Apparently it was open on Rosh Hashana.
Several street names record the Jewish past.
To the east of and parallel to the synagogue is Alvertou Koen Street (the Greek form of novelist Albert Cohen’s name). The next street, Lazarou Mordou, is named for a prominent Jewish doctor (Lazar Shabbetai de Mordo). And the next street after that is named Evraion Thymaton Nazismou—“Jewish Victims of Nazism.
A plaque on a memorial statue states “Never again for any nation.”
Close to the entrance to the New Fortress stands a bronze Holocaust memorial consisting of a nude group: a woman cradling an infant and a man seemingly helpless to protect a boy who hides his face in the man’s thigh.
This sculpture, by Georgios Karahalios, was erected in 2001 by the city and the Jewish community.
In June 2002, 58 years after the deportation of Corfu’s Jews, a memorial plaque that bears their family names was placed inside the one reminder synagogue.
More Jewish History
Jews have lived in Corfu since at least 1160. They were persecuted by both Byzantine and Anjou rulers, but in the 14th century they obtained some rights, including documents of protection and exemption from most taxes.
They owned land, including vineyards. They prospered under Venetian rule (1386-1797), lending money to the Venetian rulers, provisioning the army and even joining its ranks
But the local inhabitants kept attacking them and in 1622 the Doge ordered the Jews to move to a ghetto for their protection
During the Turkish siege of 1716, Jews contributed to the Venetian war effort
After the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, some settled in Corfu
Until the 15th century, Jews lived within the Old Fortress, as did other residents, but later were forbidden to worship there.
Newcomers lived outside the fortress in an area called Jews’ Mountain.
During the Venetian period, Jews exported cotton, salt, wine, olive oil, etrogs, silk and gold fabric and works of art. They were also bankers, doctors and clerks.
Corfu was a center of Torah learning and of the composition of liturgical poems
When Napoleon conquered Corfu in 1797, he gave the Jews equal rights. More Jews came from Italy and the Ottoman Empire, and by 1802 the community had grown to 1,229 (of 45,000 inhabitants).
But when Corfu became a British protectorate in 1815, though cultural life blossomed and magnificent buildings were erected, the Jews lost their civil and political rights. In 1856, and 1891 and in 1915 and 1918 Corfu jews suffered blood libel accompanied by continuing attacks by Greeks, which caused one-quarter of Corfu’s Jews to immigrate to other parts of Greece as well as to Turkey, Italy, Egypt and England.
During the 19th century, the Jews of Corfu excelled in the arts of printing and bookbinding. Jews had also close ties with the Land of Israel. They collected money to buy land near Hebron.
In the early 20th century, Zionist organizations were established and some Jews left for Palestine.
On the eve of World War II, Corfu had 2,000 Jews, two-thirds of the Italian community and one-third of the Romaniote. Under the Italian occupation, from April 1941 to September 1943, the Jews were relatively safe.
But then the Germans invaded. By April 1944, they had lists of all the Jews,
On June 9, some 1,800 Jews were brought to the Kato Plateia (lower square) and then held nearby in the Old Fortress, where they were forced to hand over their valuables. By June 17, all had been transported by sea and land to Athens. From there they were taken by train to Auschwitz, where 1,600 were immediately sent to the gas chambers. very few survived from the community.
Gradually the community managed to rebuild itself. The one of the synagogues mentioned above was restored and a new cemetery was bought.
Today the community has ~ 65 members.
Recommended Restaurants we sampled in Old Town
Restaurant Barbas - Porta Remounda (Gate)
It is located just around the corner from the Arcadion Hotel. The very good traditional Greek food we enjoyed on our first evening was spiced up with changing of the season rain pour, straight into the our dinner dishes served in the roof-less open air.
Restaurant Rex - Kapodistriou Street
An elegant place on one of the most central streets in Corfu town.
Our breaking meal before of the fest was eaten here.
I loved the beauty, old grace and lively city beat of Corfu Town and would return gladly to further explore it, at any given chance.
However we had other plans, so at the end of Yom Kippur we drove away
to our next destination, climbing over the steep curvy mountain ridge, and down the white sand shores of the Island's charming Northwest coast.
To be continued....