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Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2014
Mediterranean Cruise - Part 3
Corfu, the second largest island in the Eptanisa, a group known as the "Seven Islands," is special. Most of the Greek Islands are located in the Aegean, yet Corfu is in the Ionian Sea. Corfu also possesses a far more temperate climate than Greece's other isles. Corfu is dotted with cypress and olive trees, and the air is perfumed with the scent of orange and lemon groves.
We had last visited Corfu in October on the Queen Victoria and the QE was docked in the same port area. There were Cunard shuttle buses to the Old Port Square, at a silly price for those on bargain fares, so, once more, we decided to walk into town instead. It is straightforward and only involves following the path along the waterfront until we reached the Square and the Spilia Gate into Old Corfu Town after about 25 minutes. The Old Town spreads between the New and the Old Fortresses and we had visited both in October, as well as the Roman Catholic cathedral of St James, the Greek Orthodox cathedral, the church of Aghios Spiridon, the Town Hall, the Palace of St Michael and St George, the Mandrakina, and the Byzantine Museum. It had been a very busy day, and this visit we were looking forward to a more gentle amble. It was also a Sunday so we expected much of the town to be closed, including the supermarkets, but more people as the locals come out to promenade and have lunch. Even on a Sunday the town is full of cafes and souvenir shops selling cheap clothes, olive and kumquat products. Perhaps it was also due to a large cruise ship at the end of the season.
There was plenty of time for a leisurely stroll through the narrow cobbled streets, instead of a rush down the main Nikiforou Theotoki street which is the direct route to the Esplanade. At the end of Paleologou the street narrowed and we passed a bakery selling specialty local cakes and sweets. It was too early for snacks but we promised ourselves that we would return later. For future reference, the narrow street continued and emerged at Sp. Arvanitaki. Turning left along Evgeniou Voulgareos we passed the Town Hall and then emerged at the Liston with its colonnaded cafes. It was built by the French, modeled on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. The Liston looks out onto the Esplanade which used to be used to play cricket, but the grass was far too rough for that now. The pavement cafes were already full and very busy. Down the side street there was a glimpse of the church of Aghios Spiridon, the patron saint of Corfu and a bishop from the 4th century. On the north side we passed the Palace of St Michael and St George and the Museum of Asiatic Art. The building was the town residence of the British Lord High Commissioners, and is made of Maltese limestone. In 1864 it was given to the King of Greece and became known as the Royal Palace. Further exploration of the narrow streets between the Palace of St Michael and St George and Ag Elenis Square led into a different world where sheets were hanging to dry between the houses and there were cooking smells in the air.
We were now ready to find something to eat and retraced our path to the local bakery where for 10 euros we purchased two excellent local sticky cakes, covered in extra homemade kumquats and honey sauce. Sitting on a bench shortly afterwards in the esplanade we realised that the cakes were very large and we only managed to consume 3/4 and kept the last pieces for tea later. They were delicious but very sticky. We walked across the Esplanade to find a tap for cleaning our hands having noted on the last visit there were a few free toilets in the area. We took the opportunity to look over the narrow canal towards the Old Fortress, then back across the grass to the main street and into the maze of small streets before eventually going in search of an ice-cream. The best shop is just before the church Panaghia ton Xenon. We also visited Ag. Ioannis Prodromos, which was almost opposite.
It was after 1300 and we were starting feel it was time to return but we passed the Banknote Museum which was open until 1400, and was free. The Ionian Bank had the privilege of printing paper money from 1839 to 1920, and the building is the Museum of the Ionian Bank. We were welcomed by the lady curator who explained the displays in english, and gave us a free brochure and a book printed in 2014 to celebrate 150 years of the union of the Ionian Islands with the Greek State. It was a very interesting visit, much more than we had expected and it was surprising that we were the only visitors at the time - the custodian said there were many schools visits during the week. The restored building was the first Main Branch of the Ionian Bank and dates from 1845-46.
The entry towards Kotor offers spectacular views as you cruise slowly down the long winding channel bordered by towering limestone cliffs, and many people were on deck to listen to the commentary. This is one of the most indented parts of the Adriatic Sea and the entry is much like the Norwegian Fjords or the Sounds in New Zealand. Some have called it the southern-most fjord in Europe, but it is a ria, a submerged river canyon. The port itself is a medieval gem: its narrow, asymmetrical streets are lined with ancient stone houses, old palaces, and churches dating from the 12th century. Kotor is also used as a tourist gateway to the cultural and scenic wonders of Montenegro, from the old royal capital at Cetinje to the marshes and wildlife of Lake Skadar National Park. The city is quite small and only has a population of 13,510 and is the administrative centre of Kotor Municipality. The old Mediterranean port of Kotor is surrounded by fortifications built during the Venetian period. Kotor and its surrounding area form an impressive and picturesque Mediterranean landscape which is now a World Heritage Site dubbed the Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor. In recent years, Kotor has seen a steady increase in tourists attracted both by the natural beauty of the Gulf of Kotor and by the old town of Kotor itself - many of them are from cruise ship visits but the city is not yet spoilt and does not even have a McDonalds that we could find unlike every other world heritage site we have visited in Europe.
The cities history goes back to Ancient Roman times. Kotor has been fortified since the early Middle Ages, when Emperor Justinian built a fortress above Acruvium in 535, after expelling the Ostrogoths. Kotor was one of the more influential Dalmatian city-states throughout the Middle Ages. Four centuries of Venetian domination has given the city the typical Venetian architecture although it has been through many hands since that time. As far as recent history it became a part of the Socialist Republic of Montenegro in 1945 within Yugoslavia's second incarnation. When that turned to dust in 1992, Montenegro joined with Serbia but, following a referendum it severed its ties and declared independence in 2006becoming the youngest state in Europe. It does not have its own currency and uses the euro and has applied for EU membership. Kotor has however survived all the changes well and still remains one of the best preserved medieval old towns in the Adriatic, in spite of suffering earthquakes in 1537, 1563, 1667 and recently in 1979. Perhaps the most impressive sight from the ship was the fortifications with steep walls and forts rising from water level to the Fortress of St John a thousand feet above the town. They stretch for 4 kms and stand out best when illuminated by the rising or setting sun.
Kotor is a tender port but we only waited for 10 minutes in the Queens Room before we were led down to the tenders, and the journey time to the shore was very short. When we got to shore we discovered that there was an information booth right in front of us with lots of big free maps which was fortunate as the ship had not provided one. They also had baskets of little local delicacies which seemed to be a small donut which we tried and certainly the tour groups were also being welcomed with local vodka but it was too early in the morning for us. The entrance into old town of Kotor is through an arch which has the sign"What belongs to others we don't want, what is ours we will never surrender" and to the right there was a large carving on a wall of a typical Venetian 'Flying Lion'. We had a quick walk along the walls to the left then dropped down to the main level of the town.
We had decided that the first thing we would do after we got ashore was to climb at least part way up towards the fort to get views over the town. There is a little 16th century church, 'The Church of Our Lady of Health' (which features heavily in pictures of Kotor) about 350 feet above the town which looked a good target even if we went no further. We looked on the internet for maps so we knew where the path left town (the far right corner facing the town from the sea) and we knew it was almost entirely steep steps, mostly single width and well worn so Pete had walking boots and Pauline likewise had sturdy footware. There are supposed to be 1350 steps but we did not plan to count. The entry was well signed and had another map we photographed as it also had heights and distances marked. The climb was less grueling than we expected and we took plenty of pictures as the views opened up. We carried on up to the Fortress of St John which we entered through a steel gate. In the summer they charge 3 Euros but it seemed nobody could face the climb on the off chance there would be cruise passengers capable of the climb. Parts were quite well preserved and it was unusual because of the steep slopes and walls and the paths and steps had definitely deteriorated. The views down the 'fiord' with the Queen Elizabeth shining in the foreground were unforgettable and at least a dozen had made it from the ship to enjoy them. We could see many remains of buildings below us and the occasional farm. We expected the journey down to be bad on the knees but it went smoothly although it seemed wetter and more slippery at the very bottom. It is well worth the climb if it is clear and sunny and you are reasonably fit and well shod - you get magnificent views down the fiord even if you only go as far as the church but it gets even better.
The streets were narrow and interesting with plenty of squares, many with tables being laid out although the temperature never really got high enough to make sitting out with a coffee particularly attractive - it was late in the year and the sun was not penetrating a lot of the narrow streets. We found most of the churches we had seen mentioned on on the internet and most were open for us to look round. The Cathedral of Saint Tryphon is interesting with its slightly different towers and the Serbian Orthodox church is also much photographed. One unexpected feature of the town was the large number of cats of all ages, colours and breeds, but all healthy looking. There were squares full of cats and cats sitting on the fountains, cats walking in and out of shops and delightful kittens. We felt we had seen much of the town so returned to the ship for a very late lunch as it was begriming to get chilly as the sun started to fall. We had not been into the Maritime Museum and there were other sections of the walls we may have missed but we hope we will return.
In many ways Kotor is like a well mannered and undamaged version of Dubrovnik - less crowded and not quite so tourist centric with taller walls and forts and the considerable advantage of large tenders taking one right to the Sea Gate across sheltered waters rather than the hassle of shuttle buses and queues.
| Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
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