Cats and Cannons on Corfu
by Lance Kramer
It all started when we talked our way into an excellent, late season deal
for a taxi to take four of us to explore the Greek Island of Corfu, lying at
the entrance of the Adriatic only a few miles from the coast of Albania.
In early Greek literature, Odysseus was shipwrecked on Corfu and
rescued by lovely Princess Nausica, the daughter of the Phoenician ruler,
Alcinoos. Our handsome driver called himself “Nick the Greek,” having earned
that likely self-proclaimed name by virtue of his 27 years driving a taxi on
his home island. In addition to wanting to get away from the capital city,
visiting a holy site or two was high on our list.
made a brief stop at George’s Cellar to taste wine made from kumquats and
purchase homemade olive oil, the primary product of the island. Nick then
continued north and east, climbing the mountainous terrain in order to show
us the view of the picturesque, small harbor of Kouloura from on high.
Moving on, the smell of burning branches and the sight of smoke permeated
our senses. Hillside olive growers were burning the ground bare so that ripe
olives falling from the shaken trees would fall on clean soil that soon
after was covered by gathering nets.
Driving further around the
northern end of the island and then heading south on this cloudy day brought
us to the Monastery of Paleokastritsa on the west coast, originally founded
in 1225. After viewing the small but striking entrance and walking though
its arched door, we were struck by the size and number of interconnected
buildings that comprise the architectural style known as an arcaded
Walking toward the
southwestern edge of the property, our eyes were drawn to a sizable cannon
pointed menacingly out toward the northernmost part of the Ionian Sea. As I
bent to examine it more closely, a black cat (thankfully with white
markings) ventured onto the scene. The view from the edge of the cliff on
which the monastery was
built was stunning, with blue-green waves crashing against the rocky shore.
Turning away from the water and the cat’s cannon, a small collection of bird
of paradise plants drew my attention. Wait a minute – a cannon in a
monastery? Birds of paradise on a northern Greek island? That kumquat wine
must be incredibly strong stuff!
We walked down some wet
stairs and viewed the olive press with squeezers made of two ancient,
rounded stones that easily weighed a ton. We silently entered the private
and cramped worship space
adorned by silver lamps, gold and silver etchings of religious figures, huge
cream colored candles, fresh flowers and a donation box. Walking outside was
a bit disorienting, as the multiplicity of building styles melded together
into an orange yellow mélange of walls topped by the ever present three
bells, one on top of two.
The small museum in a
nearby room featured several striking Byzantine icons along with a colorful
drawing of my favorite
saint, St. George, once again standing triumphant over the beleaguered
dragon. A glass cube contained a burgundy and red crown studded with jewels
and pearls snuggled up next to an impossibly shiny gold and silver cross
with small religious paintings on inlaid robin’s egg blue colored ceramic.
Departing reluctantly, we walked by the blue molded door that led to the
quarters of the six monks who lived in this holy place and
past another cat, orange colored this time, that protected it.
our way back around the south end of the island, east and then north, Nick
took us to Kanoni (which means cannon) on the east coast, a vantage point
from which we had an unrivaled view of Mouse Island; according to legend,
the tiny island was formed when the ship carrying Odysseus back to Ithaca
was turned into stone by Poseidon. The day brightened as we approached the
shoreline and strolled along the narrow concrete walk that connected the
tiny monastery of Vlacherna to the small harbor, a stone’s throw from the
island. Looking more closely, we spotted a variation on the three bell
tradition, with the space that normally contained the top bell being
inside, the lumped together nature of the small, interconnected buildings
was again evident. I turned around and saw a sizable cat, caramel colored
this time and part of a large litter, walking along the narrow top of a wall
toward a buttress crowned by a
tiny cross. Climbing more steps, I spotted two raised, flat caskets that sat
literally on the top of one of the roofs, each wearing a horizontal cross.
The small worship space nearby was highlighted by a metal carving of Christ
on the cross and a brilliant red capped hexagon of small icons, resting on a
vibrantly colored sewn cloth.
we left the convent’s quiet beauty, we saw two black garbed priests walking
toward us, bearded and serious and apparently arriving to address some
unknown spiritual needs. When I spotted one of them carrying a digital SLR
camera hung on a Canon EOS strap (the same one who scowled at me as I was
taking his picture with my Canon EOS on a strap), their mission of mercy
appeared less obvious. Another caramel colored cat greeted them at the
entrance. The sight of a lonely and defeated curled up dog further on down
the walkway made it crystal clear to me – the cats and cannons of Corfu are
clearly in control.
Picture credits: Lance Kramer