A town of roommates
Few things define the landscape of Corfu town more vividly than its “Kantoùnia”: these alleys might be just as narrow as their fellow Cycladic ones, but the ambiance is completely different. See, in Corfu, there are no blinding whitewashed walls, but ocher-painted facades embracing visitors with the warmth of their colors.
Contrary to the tiny, cubic Cycladic houses, those of Corfu town are tall and impressive, a reflection of the Venetian architecture, since the island was under the rule of the Republic of Venice for almost 4 centuries -from 1401 to 1797. To protect the island from enemy invasions, Venetians built high fortifications, thus forcing the city to stay behind the towering walls and rise only upwards.
Corfu town’s Kantoùnia (deriving from the Italian cantoni, meaning canton), just like the alleys of their mother city, are a delight to explore. Cozy, with plenty of shadows to keep visitors fresh, they are the heartbeat of the community. Once you are there, remember to cast an eye over the half-opened, dark-green shutters, a floor or two above the ground: this is where Corfu’s ladies are chatting, while hanging their laundry on ropes strung between opposite windows. In many parts of the town, the neighbors live so close with each other that it almost feels like they are roommates: eating from the same pan, singing each other’s sorrows, using the same laundry ropes.
This neighborhood of roommates is vividly sketched by Ninetta Laskari (1927 – ) in the first extract below. Laskari was a fervent researcher of the Corfiot multiculturalism: in her book “Corfu, a glance in time”, she invented brilliant dialogues using local idioms more likely to be understood by a Venetian reader than by a Greek one. In another selected extract, Laskari describes the back-room of a pharmacy reserved for doctors to examine their patients. In the 1860s, this camara scura hosted forbidden debates that set the ground for the imminent union of the island with Greece.
Gerasimos Chitiris (1913- 1997) was another major connoisseur of the island’s history and traditions. In 1987, he gathered all the words and idioms of the Venetian-influenced dialect in a dictionary and wrote essays on various social, political and financial issues concerning the island. From the early 1970s and for over ten years, his weekly columns opened a window of knowledge for exploring lifestyles, local customs and mentalities. The selected extract talks about the particular role that the Corfiot pharmacists were holding in the community and recites the sacred vow they were taking.
The citinotes open up with an excerpt from one of the oldest travel records from Corfu, written by Pietro Casola, a 15th-century pilgrim who made a stop in Greece on his way to Jerusalem. There is also a quote by the famous British novelist and travel writer, Lawrence Durrell (1912- 1990). In 1935, Durrell, only 23 years old at the time, convinced his wife and family to move to Corfu. They all settled at a fisherman’s cottage by the sea and lived like bohemians for many years.
Confined to grow upwards
The buildings are numerous and so closely packed that their roofs can touch one another. This way the sun does not bother the inhabitants.
Viaggio a Gerusalemme, 1494, Milan, 1855.
The architecture of this city is Venetian.
The houses above the old harbor are built on scales, as if on small terraces, with narrow alleys and colonnades everywhere. Red and yellow, pink and ocher – a mix of pastel nuances that the moonlight transforms into a dazzling white city, like a decoration piece on a wedding cake.
Journals in Κωνσταντίνος Τσουμάνης, Η Κέρκυρα μέσα από τα μάτια των περιηγητών, Έψιλον, 2010.
Streets were built all narrow and perpendicular to the Spianada so that it would be easy for people to run for their lives into the fortress. Churches were built around an imaginary central axis very close to each other so as to form an impregnable wall of orthodoxy. […]
Confined between its walls, the city was forced to only grow upwards. What was lost in width was gained in height. Some streets were so narrow that passers-by could not walk through them with an open umbrella.
Like one single family
In 1401, Corfiots asked the Venetians to build fortifications for the protection of the city. And not just simple walls, but the tallest walls possible. […] The latter prevented the horizontal expansion of the city and forced it to rise upwards – some old houses have up to seven floors […].
Behind the towering walls, in the narrow streets -the so-called Kantoùnia- the living conditions were difficult and unhealthy; the houses were often sunless, and the climate was humid with rains starting in mid-November and continuing non-stop through Christmas. […]
At the Kantoùnia streets there was poverty, humidity and darkness; Corfiots were tired, poor and ill, always feeling bitter from the fear of a Turkish raid or a new plague. They were reaching out to their windows and could almost touch hands with the tenants of the opposite building…the neighbors were so close with each other, that one could hear the life of the other…it was as if they lived together.
So, those who were living under the same roof were not the only ones considered as roommates; in Corfu, the people of a whole neighborhood had become roommates. Very close to one another, they had so many things to share…like the ropes that dried their laundry, fixed from one wall to the opposite one; or even the baskets that carried the grocery shopping from one window to the other. It was like one single family.
[…] In the summer evenings, women would take a chair out on the alley to breathe some fresh air and begin their chat; they had so much to talk about after a full day of work. Many were the times when the “roommates” were also sharing their supper – an Italian noodle soup or a boiled wild cabbage – and cooking them all together […] at the courtyard of some neighbor, lighting a fire from old wood boards that they gathered from around the corner.
[…] During festivities, guitars and mandolins were taken out of some chest and group singing would start: the Kantada, as the locals call it, were words coming out of the heart and inspired by wine, sung spontaneously without fake ornaments of some artsy intervention.
[…] Walking around the narrow Kantoùnia streets today, one can notice the beauty of the tiny courtyards and the blooming terraces […] that emerge in unexpected places with very little space. Honeysuckle, oleanders, carnations and jasmine bloom everywhere…a jasmine flower that still defines the perfume of the Corfiot evening…an evening that, even today, inside the alleys, has not lost its silence.
In the old days, doctors in Corfu did not have private clinics. They used to hang out at a pharmacy of their choice and you would always find them there during the day […]
The camera scura was a cold dark room in the back of the pharmacy. […] this was the place where they examined patients, and where sometimes the treatment started on the spot: dal detto al fatto. […]
Powders and herbaceous plants for all diseases; antimalaria pills; band-aid and iodine solution for wounds; and rhubarb for coughs; Sloan’s liniment for massage; essence of chamomile and labdanum for nausea; Iodotanico vitamin supplement for strength, and bromuro for the nerves.
Sometimes doctors were given a separate entrance to this room from the back alley. It had no windows because it was just a part of a warehouse. The furniture of the camera depended on the luxury of the pharmacy and the social level of the doctors: A big writing desk, usually with a rack full of pens and an inkpot to write prescriptions. Chairs and armchairs set in a row, a cabinet tightly closed containing drugs, and a frame hanging on the wall with a copy of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson.
The shelves on the wall featured books on various topics; carpets were laid on the cold floor slabs; a medical recliner was used to examine the patients; and, finally, on the dividing wall, a caminetto: a big fireplace. The latter was indispensable for managing the humidity and the winter cold, both of which were unbearable in a room so dark and sunless, as the camera scura. At the back of the room, a coat rack for hanging capes and shawls, tall hats and umbrellas.
The camera scura in Corfu had absolutely nothing to do with the botteghe oscure, the dark bodegas of the Middle Ages, nor with Leonardo da Vinci.[…] It was just a place that gathered cultivated people – they had all graduated from universities in Padua, Bonn, Pavia, Florence and elsewhere; most of them were “medical philosophers”.
And because at that time there was no free press, and public gatherings and debates of citizens were forbidden (clubs were not allowed until 1843), it was in those camere scure where new ideas were formulated, communicated and freely discussed.
This was the place that kindled the flame of liberating battles against foreign dynasties; that strengthened criticism for the French Revolution and other European movements; that stimulated the longing for the union of the island with the Greek State.
[…] At a time when very few injuries were known […] and with little means of diagnosis and treatment […] (those doctors followed) an honorable path with selflessness and dignity; with scientific knowledge and awareness of duty; with self-sacrifice, and above all, with the love for mankind.
The pharmacist vow
A unique type of pharmacy existed in the Ionian Islands. Not only did it work as a pharmacy, but it was also a place for friendly gatherings: doctors used to hang around, as well as intellectuals who liked to discuss every possible topic and tease each other. One can still find old pharmacies with a special lounge for this purpose until this day. (note: the aforementioned camera scura).
These pharmacies not only sold drugs, but also a bit of everything. The pharmacists travelled to Venice to place their orders, adding more items to increase their turnover: Books, candles, guitar strings, musical instruments, masks and spices; the latter, so-called Spitzerika, were exclusively sold in pharmacies.
During the Venetian rule and later on, pharmacists studied in Italian universities. Standing before the examination committee, the students were expected to answer correctly, not only to scientific questions, but also to the code of conduct established by Saladin, in the 15th century:
“The pharmacist should not be proud, nor vain, nor a womanizer, nor an eater, nor an alcoholic, nor a gambler, nor greedy. On the contrary, he must be honest, pious, conscientious, fair, studious, and merciful to the poor. He must be a master of his science, because human life is in his hands. He should collect and take care of pharm plants, roots, seeds, and flowers at the right season and with fear of God.”
Corfu for alley walkers
The most picturesque spots in Corfu old town.