Southern Corfu has busy beach resorts like Benitses, historical buildings like the Achilleion Palace and Gardiki Castle, and wildlife at the Korision Lagoon.
The southern half of Corfu, from the capital down, is much less mountainous than the north but is much more varied in its landscape. The wildlife here is much more of the natural rather than the human variety, although there is one notable blot on the landscape, the package holiday resort of Kavos almost at the southern tip, and given its 24-hour party atmosphere that is probably the best place for it.
For the culture-loving visitor the first stopping off point south of Corfu Town is the Achilleion Palace, which is not to everyone’s taste with its mish-mash of styles, but you cannot deny that it is unique. It was also ‘a monstrous building’, according to the British writer Lawrence Durrell, who grew up on Corfu with his brother Gerald, the naturalist and writer.
The Achilleion was built in 1890-91 on behalf of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-98), wife of the Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916). Elizabeth used her new palace as a retreat from the difficulties she was experiencing at the Hapsburg court at the time, not least the unfaithfulness of her husband. Elizabeth’s second son, the Archduke Rudolph, had also committed suicide at Mayerling.
Elizabeth commissioned a design from an Italian architect which reflected her admiration for Achilles, after whom the palace is named and who features prominently in statues and paintings throughout the house and gardens. The gardens are one of its best features, taking full advantage of the climate to produce a riot of colour with several terraces leading down to extensive views along the coast. Inside the house some of the original furniture remains, although after the assassination of Elizabeth in 1898 the palace lay empty for nine years, till bought by Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941).
Nothing could be further from the rarified atmosphere of the Achilleion than the mass holiday resort of Benitses, a few kilometers down the coast. Its main appeal is to young people out for a good time, and in midsummer little remains of its Greek origins as a fishing village, but if visiting in spring and autumn you might be able to get a glimpse of the way things used to be. There are a few Roman remains here, including part of an old bathhouse, but hardly worth breaking a journey to try to find.
Beyond Benitses the resorts are more spread out, and you can enjoy driving down the coastal road with the Ionian Sea on your left and green hills dotted with villas on your right. The bustle builds up again as you approach the twin resorts of Moraitika and Mesongi, now more or less merged into one, and just south of here on the western coast is one of the most interesting areas in the south, the Korision Lagoon.
It is not in resorts like Benitses that you will find the best beaches on Corfu – in fact the one at Benitses is very poor – but here alongside the Korision Lagoon. The lagoon stretches for about 5km (3 miles), cut off from the Ionian Sea only by equally long expanses of beach and sand dune. They are far from undiscovered, but so big compared to the number of people who venture here that you are sure to be able to find some quiet stretches to yourself.
The peacefulness attracts wildlife, which also appreciates the abundance of fresh water that the lagoon provides, which is rare on Corfu despite its greenness. You may see ibis and egrets, along with waders such as sandpipers and avocets, while rare Jersey orchids flower here in the spring.
To the north of the lagoon stands Gardiki Castle (open access), which was built in the 13th century by Michail Angelos Komninos II, the Byzantine Despot of Epirus and the man also responsible for the Angelokastro near Palaiokastritsa. The walls and some of the towers of Gardiki still stand, and near here some of the oldest human remains on Corfu have been found, dated back to 40,000BC.
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