For most people, the Mediterranean is synonymous with la dolce vita. Epicureanism, a philosophical tradition that emerged in Greece over a millennia ago, still shapes the local culture — on the Greek island of Corfu, time seems to slow down as the rhythm of daily life is punctuated by simple pleasures. The mornings can start only after a jolt of traditional bittersweet Greek coffee. The blistering heat cuts the day in half, as businesses shut for mesimeri, the early afternoon nap ubiquitous to the Mediterranean. And as the sun sets over the Ionian Sea, social life picks up, with lively evening meals and conversations that linger into the night.
Beyond the sea, sun, and the sand, there is a lot to explore and a lot else to contemplate about — after all, it is the cradle of one of the world’s oldest civilisations. The water nibbling on your toes as you stroll on Corfu’s beaches, for example, once also lapped on Odysseus’ ship as he returned with his crew, weary and lost, from the Trojan war. Corfu’s olive groves and vineyards also stand as they would have centuries ago, when the islanders first started pressing olives to make oil and producing wine, ingredients that are still prominent markers of Mediterranean cuisine.
Walking through Corfu’s Old Town is the best way of unravelling the island’s cosmopolitan and layered history. Getting lost in the kadounia — the small, crowded lanes of the Old Town, is the best way of admiring the elegant Venetian facades that stand as testament to the 400 years Corfu spent as a nautical port in Venice’s expansive trading empire. On an amble along the famous Liston Arcade, a colonnade lined with fashionable cafes and restaurants, one can admire the influence of the Napoleonic empire on the island. The centre of Corfu’s nightlife, the Liston Arcade was designed after Paris’ famous street, Rue de Rivoli, and built at the time when Corfu was a stepping stone for Napoleons’ infamous Egyptian Expedition in the late 1700s. The street overlooks the remnant of another imperial power: Spianada Square. Incidentally, it is home to one of the only cricket fields of the Mediterranean, harking back to the time when the sport was introduced to Corfu by British colonial troops.
But the picturesque veil of the island hides a more violent chapter of Corfu’s past, noticeable in its architecture: its shores are lined not with one, but two fortresses — old and new, made necessary by repeated Ottoman invasions. The new fortress is the starting point for anyone looking to explore a lesser-publicised aspect of Mediterranean history, on the sleepy islet of Vido. A short boat ride away from Corfu’s vibrant port, Vido is a place that evokes desperation and death in the Balkan imagination — which is also why the personal and the political collided for me as I explored Vido.
A hundred years ago, when Europe descended into the carnage of the World War I, Serbia was the first country to be attacked. Overwhelmed by the scale of aggression in the first months of the conflict, over 1,50,000 Serbian soldiers retreated to Greece, along with thousands of civilians. The entire Serbian state — the king and his advisors, the National Assembly, church and treasury — all fled Belgrade, traversing the Balkans by foot, alongside its weary population. Corfu became host to the entire Serbian state in exile and thousands of refugees, including some of my direct ancestors.
Vido, originally meant to double up as hospital grounds, became the final resting place for thousands of Serbian soldiers wounded, sick and exhausted from the exodus. The islet quickly became a graveyard — the death rate started increasing so fast that the hospital staff had to resort to burying soldiers at sea. A cove around the island is still known as the blue tomb. My great-grandfather’s village of Silopaj, nestled in mountainous central Serbia, lost an entire generation of men at Vido, like many others in the Balkans. Their descendants continue to light candles on the rocks along the shore, in remembrance of souls long departed. The solidarity that Greece showed Serbia in its time of need is reflected in a white marble memorial on the islet, overlooking the blue lagoon that was the final resting place for thousands of men.
Walking along Vido’s cypress-lined alleys, the scent of pine needles thick in the air, I reflected on the beautiful, dark blue sea in front of me. It had been the backdrop to some of the world’s biggest events, from the military expeditions of the Crusades to the air raids of the Luftwaffe. For centuries, the sea was a forum of exchange of goods and ideas, leading to the flourishing of societies on both banks of the Mediterranean.
Today, the clock seems to have turned full circle. The sea has, once again, become a scene of displacement, as thousands of refugees, desperate for the safety of Greek shores, cross over in makeshift dinghies. The Greek islands continue to show a tremendous amount of hospitality for people in need. And the Mediterranean has become a cemetery again, a blue tomb for the unfortunate souls that perish in their dangerous journeys, adding another chapter to the region’s complex, layered history.