We’re heading to Greece, hurrah! This is a sneaky extra trip, just because. It’s been a rubbish year and we’re desperate for some Autumn sunshine and cheer. And why Corfu? Haven’t you read Gerald Durrell’s books, about his island childhood? My Family & Other Animals is such a great title, especially if you were brought up in a large, mad tribe like I was. If not, then maybe you’ve watched the BBC series based on his work? Either way, I defy you not to be seduced, and feel like jumping on a plane right this minute.
The Durrell family made a spontaneous decision to move to Corfu in August 1934, due to financial difficulties and the appalling British weather. Yes, in August! That made me smile too. Arriving in April 1935, they lived on the island for four years. It’s described in Gerald’s books as an earthly paradise, with endless blue skies, welcoming people and an endless variety of fascinating flora and fauna. The view from my window seat already has me convinced.
The tiny airport is packed. A flight has arrived before us from Doncaster, just a day ahead of a South Yorkshire travel ban. A young couple ahead of us have their masks around their necks, well, I think they’re young but it’s hard to tell through the botox. They are showing off lots of flesh too. Why do people think that’s attractive? A moment later, they are rummaging frantically in their bags – oh dear, a passport is missing. Now I can use my favourite German word – schadenfroh – I’m definitely feeling pleased about the misfortune of others in this case!
Having dodged the random covid testing (Phew! The husband would not be happy about having swabs shoved up his nose) we’re soon in a taxi for the 10 minute ride into the main square of Corfu Town, the Spianada. We pull up outside the beautiful old Palace of the British High Commissioner, now the Museum of Asian Art. We’ve rented an apartment near here and our landlady is waiting for us outside Aubergine Cafe with a wide smile, ready to give us a quick tour and hand over the key.
It’s a gorgeous space with exposed 500 year old walls, but the best attribute of our home from home is the location. Walk down a narrow alley and turn right for the Liston, Corfu Town’s famous pedestrian street, modelled on Paris’s rue de Rivoli. It’s a beautiful expanse of marble slabs lined by elegant colonnaded buildings filled with street cafes facing out over the gardens of the Spianada.
Guess what? It’s time for lunch. And what could be better to start off with than a classic Greek salad with huge salty slabs of feta? I’m poured a large glass of local rose, and I sit happily watching a couple of dogs gambolling around the sunny square. I think I’m in heaven. We are officially in Greece.
Once fortified with food and wine (I’m very clear on my priorities) we’re ready to explore. Corfu, or Kerkyra to the Greeks, has a rich history. In Greek mythology, it was visited by Odysseus on his journey home after the Trojan War, and then by Jason and his Argonauts on their hunt for the golden fleece. What can I say? Clash of the Titans was a childhood favourite. It doesn’t get much better than this.
The island, and particularly the capital, is a product of its strategic location. Seen for centuries as a bulwark of Europe against the Ottoman Empire, it was heavily fortified and coveted as a rich prize – seized by the Romans, the Venetians, the French and then the British before eventually uniting with Greece in 1864. The influence of successive occupiers can be seen in the architecture of the old town. Amongst the maze of medieval laneways or kantounia are arcades, squares, palaces and churches left behind by different cultures. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our landlady has recommended that we visit the ‘beach’ just beyond the Palace at the northern end of town, so we head there for late afternoon drinks. There’s no sand, but that doesn’t stop the locals from diving in and enjoying the clear water. And the views… I’m speechless, I can’t think of anywhere more stunning I’ve been lately.
As we follow a tunnel down to the sea, ahead of us is the forbidding bulk of the Old Venetian Fortress. To the north the coastline of the island curves around to Kalami Bay, where the Durrells made their home. The hills of Albania across the water blend into the Greek mainland to the east. And above it all is a brilliant blue sky. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be right now, certainly not Maidenhead!
We take a seat in the sun outside the Enplo cafe and watch the Corfiots young and old at play – eating, drinking, swimming, sunbathing, there’s even a bit of flirting going on. It’s easy to while away an hour or so here with a carafe of local wine before heading back for a pre-dinner snooze.
In the evening, we head up the alleyway outside our apartment into the warren of streets and immediately stumble upon the delightful Arthaus Wine Bar. A pre-dinner drink comes with a plateful of nibbles, but the owner checks if we want any – she doesn’t want to spoil our dinner. As if she could! We don’t travel with any hope of losing weight, just bring it on.
As darkness falls, we stop at Achilleus Taverna for dinner. The tzatziki is super strong, and our waiter sternly informs how to make it properly. You must never buy garlic from the supermarket, he says. I may never buy garlic again after this, I feel like I’m breathing fire! Every dish arrives with a yamas, yamas, yamas (Cheers), encouraging us to drink more local wine. As if we need any motivation. A second carafe is ordered. I share a huge piece of swordfish with the taverna cat, who sniffs each morsel delicately before accepting it. The food is simple but delicious, just as you’d expect.
The Old Town is even more photogenic at night as we weave our way home to bed. I can’t say I have a great night’s sleep though. I can hear singing until 3am, so clearly nothing closes down early here. Church bells from the many nearby churches ring out early next morning, so no hope of a lie-in either. There are some drawbacks to staying in the heart of town. Never mind, I’m keen to get out and see more of this wonderful place. Thank you Gerry for the recommendation!