One of the great things about travel is that even well-known destinations still have the capacity to surprise you. Take Corfu: this Greek island is famous for its sunshine, beaches, food and walks – no surprises there, I’m sure. What might catch you out, though, is its longstanding love of cricket.
Unless you’re a serious follower of the sport (and I suppose if you’re reading this you may well be), Corfu isn’t exactly an obvious candidate for cricketing capers – not like England, Australia and India. But, Corfu was once occupied by the British, and it’s here that the island’s cricketing story begins.
How Corfu got into cricket
Given that if you didn’t already you now know that Corfu was held by the British for a spell, it’s likely you have a fairly accurate inkling of how cricket became so popular on the island. It was indeed the British that got the islanders into it – something that happened in 1823, to be precise.
That year, officers of the Royal Navy and the British Garrison played a cricket match here on St George’s Day. Seeing the game, the locals’ interest was piqued, and they began asking questions about the rules and the scoring – and the rest is history. Over time, the Corfiot players developed their own lingo for the sport, and its nickname became ‘fermaro kai issia’, which in English translates as ‘block and wallop’.
The role of John Forte
While Corfu got into cricket back in the 19th century, its path wasn’t always smooth. For instance, after the second world war its popularity waned – a problem largely perpetuated by a lack of equipment and funding. While it’s impossible to know what could have been, cricket might have vanished from the island had it not been for a man named John Forte.
John Forte was Britain’s honorary vice-consul on Corfu, and he noticed how the play of cricket dwindled after the start – and following the end – of World War II. He decided to take action, writing in the late 1950s to the Daily Telegraph appealing for people to send any equipment they no longer needed to the island.
The response was strong; as a result of the appeal, roughly 350 balls and 50 bats had been sent to the island within a few months of its publication. After this, Corfu cricket grew and grew – and today’s prestigious reputation is a testament to this resurgence in popularity and gameplay.
His role is a really important part of Corfu’s heritage – something that’s clearly shown in the fact that the first ever John Fort International Cup was played on the island this September (2013).
Corfu’s cricket status
So, now we know all about Corfu’s cricketing past, let’s take a look at its present. I think one of the most telling things about its status is that it’s home to 11 of Greece’s 14 cricket clubs – that’s a pretty hefty proportion for just one little island!
In fact, it’s believed that the country’s admittance to the International Cricket Council back in 1995 is largely down to Corfu’s passion for – not to mention skill at – the sport. Praise indeed!
There are five cricket grounds here in total, one of which is utterly unique and a must-visit. In fact, even if you weren’t a cricket fan I’d put money on you coming to this site anyway (even if you didn’t know that’s what you were doing), because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Corfu Town.
This is Spianada, the largest town square in the Balkans. In its centre is a cricket pitch, and it has the claim to fame of being the only working sports ground in a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world. It’s great to see a few games played here, so make sure you check it out during your trip.
Other vestiges of British and European culture
One of the things that interests me most about Corfu’s cricketing heritage is how it’s indicative of the island’s wider culture. You see, Corfu has quite a different feel from the rest of Greece, which is largely down to the fact that it has been occupied by European countries for so much of its history. As I mentioned above, the British were here for around 50 years, but the Venetians and the French occupied it at various times too.
As a result, it has an almost European ambience, and it took a lot of its cultural cues from Europe too. For instance, the early days of modern Corfu were characterised by European learning (the island was an important seat for this), and the establishment of educational institutions, libraries and more. This heritage can be discovered easily today.
In my opinion, one of the best places to head to is the Palace of St Michael & St George in Corfu Town. This is because it was once the residence of a series of British high commissioners, meaning it’s a good place to get an idea of the British occupation. But it’s also now the home of the Museum of Asian Art, showing the importance of art, culture and learning on the island.
Beyond cricket: other sports and activities
While cricket may be Corfu’s passion, there’s lots else going in here in terms of activities, which is good news if you like the sound of an active break. Perhaps the most obvious option given the fact that Corfu’s a sun-drenched island, water sports are really popular here and there’s a decent variety to choose from.
For instance, this is a brilliant place to try something like sailing – and you don’t need to have a firm grasp of it already in order to do it. Companies like Corfu Sea School offer sailing lessons, as well as things like yacht charter services.
If you want a change of scenery from the beach, I thoroughly recommend hitting one of Corfu’s brilliant walking routes. The most famous of these is the Corfu Trail, a 220 km route that runs from the southernmost point of the island all the way up to the north.
Admittedly, unless you want to spent most of your break hiking you might not want to cover the full 220 km, but you can always just tackle a shorter section – doing so is a great way to experience a little of the real Corfu, since it’ll take you off the well-trodden tourist path. That said, if you do want to see some major sights while you’re walking, you’re best off sticking to the northern sections, since there’s a higher concentration of traditional attractions here.