Corfu: a Greek island that will expand your mind (and possibly your waistline)
Good food, stunning vistas and, in Kavos, a resort to avoid – this island has it all
Corfu town: a cosmopolitan city when Athens was still a village.
“Where did you go on your hols?” “Corfu”. “Where’s that?” “I don’t know – we went by air.” Yes, travel narrows the mind, but there’s an essential Greece that’s easily found and is mind-expanding.
Greece thrives on tourism, involving 20 per cent of its workforce and creating 20 per cent of GDP. But in the season, the numbers increase hugely, with every son, daughter and granny drafted in to run the local taverna.
In the season you can fly direct Dublin-Corfu and Dublin- Athens by Aer Lingus, and Dublin-Chania (in Crete) by Ryanair.
So a few words about Corfu, where I live, might be helpful: despite development, especially resortification, it’s still a very beautiful island. Many of its characteristics can be found elsewhere in Greece of course, particularly on islands such as Rhodes or Crete, but Corfu exudes an atmosphere that comes from centuries of beauty piled one on the other. It was a cosmopolitan city when Athens was still a village.
Unlike most of Greece, which was ruled for 400 years by the Turks, Corfu (on Greece’s west coast, in case you go by air) was under the Venetians (and for 50 years under Britain), with an Italian culture visible today in its public buildings, its streetscapes and its two massive fortresses, between which the medieval town huddles for protection.
Yes, we have Marks and Spencer, Benetton, Anaïs, the Body Shop, and of course McDonald’s, but why would you come to Corfu to buy a pullover or an unguent or a Big Mac, when you can visit the century-old Patouni olive soap factory, eat scrumptious local specialities or seek out wineries, imaginative jewellery (for which Corfu has a centuries-old reputation), and olive wood products, everything from salad servers to an enormous salad bowl.
And that’s only Corfu town. Out in the countryside, it’s still possible to find vistas of olive groves and traditional villages as they were a hundred and more years ago.
If in search of outstanding, historic watering-holes, try to get to Elizabeth’s in Doukades (hasn’t changed since the 1930s, and has the best goat’s cheese I’ve ever tasted), Thomas’s in the deserted mountain village of Old Perithia, Mario’s at Almyros (all organic food, the best wild spinach), the White House at Kalami (Lawrence Durrell’s home in the 1930s) and, for fish lovers, heaven on a plate at Klimateria in Benitses. (And none of them knows I’m writing this!)
If you’re flying on a scheduled route you’re unlikely to be taking a package holiday, and in less danger of having your mind narrowed by the experience.
You don’t need to be terribly discerning to enjoy Corfu, or Rhodes, or Crete: just adventurous and enquiring. There’s a well-signposted walking trail (and invaluable guide book) that takes you into the interior – probably the best way to see the island. But if walking its 60km doesn’t appeal, then car rental is inexpensive and the local buses are plentiful, so there’s every possible way to explore the mountain villages.
Places to avoid. Kavos. The name rings like a scary bell to anyone who’s been there, and if you saw the four-part Channel 4 pukumentary, you’ll know they do things one cannot mention in a family newspaper. Every island has one – a destination for the lager louts and loose women: Rhodes has Faliraki, Cyprus (I’ll mention it although it’s not in Greece) has Agia Napa.
Must see: in Corfu town, the exhibition of Asian art (the only one in Greece), the fortresses, the sculpted Medusa in the Archaeological Museum, and the enticing Venetian-style arcaded streets.
Must eat: modest grillrooms such as Chrysomallis and Nino’s (both decades old), Rouva’s, with a discerning clientele from the nearby market (and, like Thomas’s in Perithia, recommended by Rick Stein) and, very upmarket, Rex, or Aegli with a shaded table overlooking the cricket pitch (yes, cricket is a still-alive British legacy).
Food: everywhere in Greece you’ll find moussaka, souvlaki, hummus, but go for the local specialities, octopus, bourdetto (eel in a red pepper sauce), psarosoupa (a version of bouillabaisse), barbouni (red mullet), spit-roasted lamb, sofrito (meat in wine sauce smothered in parsley), and my favourite, pastitsada (cockerel with tomatoes and pasta).
Follow your nose – literally. The charcoal grill aroma comes first, the taste next. Don’t be put off if it looks like a spit-and-sawdust joint – all the better for that.
And if you want nouvelle cuisine, I once ate roasted kid (the four-legged kind) in an egg and spinach sauce that would do a Dublin restaurateur proud. Even in my local village taverna, there’s frequently a new dish; I’m their chief guinea pig: their pork escallops in a wine sauce with wild mushroos was a triumph.
Find and enjoy! Kalo taxidi! Kalos oreksi!