Adriatic Odyssey: Achilles Slept Here

A Corfu street scene
A Corfu street scene

CORFU, Greece – There’s an old tradition on this island: To marry a man from Corfu, a woman must spend a year in the house of her future mother-in-law. If she can still smile after this experience, she’ll make a good wife.

A challenge, admittedly. But if it meant I could live the rest of my life on Corfu, I just might be able to manage it.

What a special island this is.

Wandering through the town here on the sixth day of our AdventureSmith Explorations cruise, all the great Greek mythology you’ve ever studied comes to mind. It practically hits you in the face.

Take the Homeric hero Achilles, for example. Most of us know that the expression “Achilles’ heel” comes to us from an injury suffered by the Greek hero – who was impervious to injury except for one spot on his heel. When Paris shot an arrow into that spot, in combat, Achilles was brought down.

Among the beautiful places to visit in Corfu is the Achilleion, where Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria built a palace. She filled it with paintings and statues of Achilles. The sculpture of Achilles dying, with the arrow in his heel, sits in the gardens of the Achilleion.

The "new" Corfu fort
The “new” Corfu fort

In the mythical sea adventure of Homer’s Odyssey, Corfu is the island of the Phaeacians, where Odysseys meets Nausica, the daughter of King Alkinoos. According to myth, Poseidon, god of the sea, fell in love with Korkyra (the Greek name for Corfu) and abducted her. In marital bliss, he offered her name to the place, and it stuck.

The UNESCO World Heritage Old Town of Corfu is packed with Venetian architecture, including the Old Venetian fortress built in the 14th Century, and narrow cobblestone streets (these days traversed by motor scooters rather than chariots) filled with churches, cafes, arcades and piazzas.

We strolled through the gardens of the Museum of Asian Art of Corfu, at the Palace of St. Michael, where its collection of 12,000 artifacts, mainly Chinese and Japanese, includes a Greco-Buddhist art collection that shows the influence of Alexander the Great on Buddhist culture.

If you tried to visit every museum in town it would take as much time it takes a Corfiot mother-in-law to allow you to marry her son. A Byzantine Museum . . . a Banknote Museum . . . a Music Museum . . . an Achilleion Museum . . . and the Church of Saint Spiridon with its priceless collection of icons . . . are just a start.

The Archeological Museum, inaugurated in 1967, was constructed to house the exhibit of the huge Gorgon pediment of the Artemis temple in ancient Corfu, excavated at Palaiopolis in the early 20th Century and described by the New York Times as the “finest example of archaic temple sculpture extant.”

Our multicultural ship offers idiomatic language lessons every day. When we swim off the boat, we feel what Americans call warm spots in the water. Our British friends call it “stripe-y water.”

To celebrate our night in Greece, four dancers from Corfu came to our ship and performed the athletic dances of this country. Not content with watching us sit complacently clapping to their music, they brought us into the action, teaching us a few steps of the dance and bringing a few male “volunteers” to fan the belly dancers with branches as they moved sinuously around one contented passenger in Greek robes and temporary long black beard. The activities on board began with ouzo and octopus as appetizers. Our Greek captain Giorgios Hatzidakis and Greek hotel manager Yannis Pilarinos enjoyed the performance almost as much as we non-Greeks did.

Photos and video by Timothy Leland

Greek dancers aboard the Panorama

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