Old Perithia: Rising from the Ashes of Abandonment

The picturesque mountain village of Palea Perithia will transport you to a time when the seas were teemed with pirates. Palea Perithia, also known as Old Perithia, is a lovely village on the northern coast of Corfu Island that is only 8 kilometers from Kassiopi. Built at an elevation of 440 meters on the slopes of Mount Pantokrator, it offers panoramic views of the surrounding highlands. According to legend, it got its name from the eponym “peri-thea”, which means “surrounded view”, as it can be seen from the hills that encircle it.

The people of Old Perithia left the village in the 1960s. Hence, the settlement has been considered a “ghost village” ever since. Its recorded history dates back to the third century B.C., but it disappeared suddenly sometime in the second century.
Established in the 14th century, during the Byzantine era, it is Corfu’s oldest settlement. A steady stream of unpleasant guests, from raiding pirates to disease-carrying mosquitoes, arrived on Corfu with the Ionian tides during the island’s early history. Many islanders sought refuge in the hills, where they exploited the abundant natural stone to establish farming communities away from the dangerous coastline.

Old Perithia is the only village like this still standing. Historically, mountain residents relied on sheep husbandry and the cultivation of olive trees and grapes for their livelihood. Although farming had been confined to the highlands at first, it soon spread to the coastline and lower regions when estates were acquired and cultivated there. In those days, the villagers of Perithia would leave their mountaintop homes each morning and travel down to the seaside, where they would spend the day laboring before returning home each night. Each family that had purchased its own land in the late nineteenth century responded to the threat of pirates from the Mediterranean Sea by constructing a second residence there.

Although the people stopped worrying about pirates and raiders, it took a long time for them to stop worrying about getting malaria from the Antinioti Lagoon’s mosquitoes. Until the end of the 1940s, when effective mosquito control measures were implemented, all the locals who experienced their first springtime bites returned to Old Perithia to spend the risky semester there. Horses, mules, and donkeys were used as modes of transportation. Because there were no carriage roads in Perithia at the time, carts and other wheeled vehicles could not be used.

Once malaria became less of a concern in the early 1950s, the residents of Perithia began spending only the summertime in the village. This was the time that the school ceased operations. Nonetheless, the advent of tourism in the 1960s was a major factor in people leaving the community. Population gradually dwindled in Perithia as people fled inland or to the seashore. The village, formerly one of Corfu’s most prominent, flourished until the 1960s, when its café and bakery vanished along with its population of farmers and craftsmen.

In the middle of the 17th century, it had become the island’s most prosperous settlement, and between 1866 and 1912, it served as the island’s northernmost seat. There may have been as many as 1100 residents.
Over 130 homes were constructed there, most of them using Venetian-style designs built entirely out of stone. There are eight beautiful churches, each belonging to a different family, in and around the village.
These days, a trip to the sea takes at most 15 minutes by car. You may also go on walks to the nearby towns or to the peak of Mount Pantokrator.

Kassiopi is the starting point for many bus tours to the area; from there, the route leads to Loutses and Old Perithia. There are several twists and turns along the trip, but the scenery is stunning, giving you the impression that you have left modern civilization behind and are experiencing the allure of a bygone era. At higher altitudes, the air becomes cooler, and the olive trees give way to pines. You could even start to worry that you’ve made a wrong turn before the settlement magically materializes out of nowhere.

When entering the village, you will be greeted by the pink belfry of St. James of Persia, a magnificent religious landmark. On the opposite side of the street is the area’s oldest church, St. Nicholas of Petra. Even the school building is beautiful, with the heraldry of a local aristocratic family over the main entrance. Nearly every home and public structure appears to be in disrepair, with shattered window shutters, rusting doors, crumbling stone walls, shuttered churches, gardens with broken flowerpots, and crooked, cobblestone alleyways.

Buildings that once belonged to affluent families, such as those with arches and marble staircases, carry the legacy of their inhabitants through the ages. You can see the antique oven, the built-in furniture along the walls, and the splintered wooden ceilings, floors, and walls within. Ruins sometimes have overgrown vegetation, such as trees and wildflowers. The opportunity to explore and perhaps enter some of the ruins for a look into the past is a fantastic one. Old stone homes in the village square have been lovingly renovated into traditional tavernas, where you can enjoy authentic Corfiot fare as if you were dining in the home of a long-gone family. Summers see the taverns open nearly every day, but even in the dead of winter, weekend visitors from nearby villages bring business.

In 1996, Old Peritheia was officially recognized as a “historic monument” by the Greek Ministry of Culture. The interiors of the homes had to be repaired to meet their standards, streets can only be paved with stone and vehicles must be parked away from the settlement. The only acceptable lighting is LED. There aren’t any pools. Old Perithia does not always resemble what it looked like 500 years ago.

Since 2010, more than 35% of the structures in the village have been repaired, and its population has grown. The people have taken the initiative to rebuild their homes, churches, and taverns. There are five different taverns in the area, as well as a guest house and some privately renovated houses.

Photos: Corfu Perspectives Guided Tours

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