Conference in Corfu

Corfu Travel Blog

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I hadn’t realized before that Corfu was actually the center of Phaeacian culture mentioned in the Odyssey, and a major Greek power from 700 BCE to 400 BCE. After this it declined in importance, and willingly joined the Roman Empire to protect itself from raids in 229 BCE. It stayed in the Byzantine Empire through the breakup, with the aid of the Venetians, until 1207 CE, after which it was directly controlled by the Venetians. Control by Venice blocked give major Turkish attempts to overtake Corfu, making it the only part of Greece not conquered by the Ottomans (which accounts for why it became the centre for cultural revival). The Venetians controlled Corfu until they submitted to Napoleon in 1797, then in 1814 the British wrestled it from the French and controlled it until it was granted to Greece in 1864.

Our conference centre was at Dasia, on the beach looking out to Albania. The first day was filled with stem cell research and naps, with a late dinner in a local tavern, with disgusting quantities of food, and an embarrassing display of tourist-orientated “local” dancing. On our second day they rewarded our patience with B cell development by taking us on a tour of Corfu. We saw Roman ruins and Greek beaches, made slightly surreal by the ever present eucalyptus trees. We saw the British High Commission Gardens, and Pontikonissi (little Mouse Island) and Vlachernes Monastery. Afterwards we went through Corfu Town.

The history of Corfu explains the Venetian style of the old town residential buildings in the town, and the twin fortress which dominates the skyline (with the old bastion build by the Byzantine and Venetians, and the new Fortress built by the Venetians and reinforced by the British, to block Ottoman invasions). Also of interest was the Town Hall, built in 1661 as an Officers club for the Venetian fleet, before being converted to a theatre (explaining the unusual faces decorating it) and now the Town Hall. The town itself has unusually dense housing, with buildings five or six stories high, and packed so close together that small squares were dotted throughout the city to give people a ventilated space to sit in during summer. The reason why the city is so dense is that the British prohibited the building of houses outside the city walls, and also mandated against the building of houses within a cannon shot distance from the fortress (resulting in what is now the largest town square in Europe, constituting a third of the total area of Corfu Town). My love and I enjoyed the chance to sit together in the square and watch the children play, before going out to the conference dinner at the Fortress.

The most peculiar part about Corfu Town was St Spyridon’s church. Plain on the outside, it is lavish inside, with a magnificently decorated roof and oil burners. Most strikingly, St Spyridon himself is there, the Bishop who took part in the First Ecumenical Synod of Nicaea in 325 CE. Or more precisely it may be St Spyridon, since after his death he was buried in Constantinople for a hundred years, before flowering on his grave and a nice perfume was taken as proof of his sainthood and he was dug up and kept in Constantinople until the Fourth Crusade. After the city was put to the sword by the crusading Christians, a monk arrived in Corfu carting a body on a donkey, and sold it to a rich family as the rescued corpse of St Spyridon. They built the church for their purchase, after which he became the patron saint for an island he had never visited.

The odd thing is the supernatural powers a supposedly monotheistic religion grants the embalmed saint. People come to the Church and pray to him for hours, and the priests open his silver casket for people to kiss him on his red shoes and through the glass to kiss his petrified face. Some days they don’t open the casket, where it is firmly believed that he keeps it shut to allow him to walk around town performing miracles, to the extent that each year the city buys him new red shoes to replace those worn out by walking (cutting up the old ones into scraps for the believers). Four times a year they cart him around the city, once for his feast day (12th September), once in thanks for a miracle he performed (when dead) of relieving Corfu from famine in 1533 (the Good Saturday Procession), the Palm Sunday Procession for deliverance from plague in 1629 and 1673 (deliverance being the island had a few people survive), and the Procession of the 11th of August (for the alleged deliverance from Turkish invasion). Very strange behaviour, it is hard to comprehend people doing this not out of tradition, but because they actually believe a dead saint wakes up and walks around in his new red shoes performing miracles.

Our third conference day was early T cell development, with interesting talks on microRNAs, alpha chain rearrangement and notch/wnt pathways. After two big nights the conference dinner was smaller and shorter, quite enjoyable to chat with people around a table. My dearest was horrified to learn of our Finnish dinner companion having his infant son in the sauna (only once he was old enough to sweat, of course) and letting him role around in the snow afterwards. The final conference day was the best, with excellent talks on regulatory T cells, IL17 and cytokine locus association. After the talks my brave fiancée and I went swimming in the cold ocean during the rail and hail with the two Sasha’s, then enjoyed the final conference dinner, before finally retiring to our flooded room.

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photo by: TaxMonkey