Island life

 

GO CORFU:A brilliant speck in the Ionian sea, the struggling island of Corfu seduces and charms even in its difficulty, writes PETER MURTAGH

LAWRENCE DURRELL’S WHITE HOUSE sits at one end of Kalami Bay, its turquoise waters twinkling gently in the midday sun. It looks rather as he described it in Prospero’s Cell, his account of life on Corfu, that “brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian Sea”, where he lived with his family from 1936 to 1939.

The red-tiled, three-storey, square house is indeed “set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water”. Durrell fled England, whose culture and weather he loathed – “English death” he called it rather harshly – for his “unregretted” Greek island home.

A former fisherman’s house, it’s a rather simple building, yet utterly beautiful – sturdy and tranquil at one and the same time. You gaze upon it at the far end of the crescent-shaped beach and think: “My God, what would it be like to live there and write every day in the morning?”

It must be a little gold mine for the Atheneos family, Tassos and Daria, whose ground floor taverna spills onto the venerable rock on which the house stands, as well as on to the boardwalk jetty. From May to September, they are rarely short of customers. The upper floors of the White House, which Durrell helped the Atheneos family to build, contain rooms to let.

Across the road, there is also the Tassos Boat House Apartment. The Elena Apartments and Villa Elena are beside it. And if you fancy eschewing the holiday car hire, you can always hire a Tassos Kalami Boat and flit from bay to bay ( corfu-kalami.grand kalamicorfu.com). We cooked gently in the sun while lying on the pebble beach, occasionally basting ourselves with a swim in crystal-clear, snorkel-friendly water, before ambling over for lunch. You sit there, totally relaxed; a mature wisteria providing welcome shade; the sea lapping gently against the rocks.

Tassos and Daria make the most of their association with Durrell who rented the house from their family. On a pillar in the centre of the terrace, his kindly face and genial smile greets diners. As a gesture no doubt to the memory of his brother, the naturalist Gerald (My Family and Other Animals), there are colourful ceramic creatures – a fox, a snail, an owl and a rabbit – dotted about the place.

For lunch, I have “Durrell’s Pasta Salad” – a delicious mix of spaghetti, olives, chopped tomatoes, cucumber and feta cheese garnished with chopped fennel. Moira, my wife, has a Greek salad (tomatoes, cucumber and feta) and the children, Patrick (22) and Natasha (20), go for sole. There are a few starters, tzatziki (cucumber, yoghurt and garlic dip), hummus (chickpea dip) and grilled haloumi (rubbery, salty cheese, a Cypriot speciality), pita bread and olives, a beer or two and a litre of house white.

The lot (all delicious and what a setting!) comes to €80 for the four of us, one of our more expensive holiday lunches but worth every cent, as the Greeks are the first to appreciate.

Corfu, like the rest of the country, needs all the visitors (and their euros) it can get. Signs of what has happened to Greece are apparent the moment you leave the airport. On the coach to our hotel, the outskirts of Corfu town are littered with closed premises; one can only assume they have gone bust. In our resort, Gouvia, about 10km north of the town on the island’s east coast, the picture is even worse.

At either end of the strip that makes up the resort, it appears that at least three out of four businesses have gone wallop. A closed car hire firm is followed by a shuttered shoe shop, then a taverna, a little travel company and another car hire firm. This is followed by a still open but lifeless looking mini-market. The pattern repeats itself every 50 metres or so until, at the centre of the strip and its side streets, there is a critical mass of spending to keep outlets ticking over.

It is all a little gloomy but our hotel, The Park ( parkhotelcorfu.eu), turns out to be excellent. It is a little down at heel in places (the en-suites badly need refurbishing) but the staff are very cheery and obliging, and to my surprise, the deal includes not just breakfast but an evening buffet as well. The pool area is a definite winner.

A car for nine days (a good deal, unlimited mileage for €250, from Costas at cosmoscarhire.com) gives us the freedom of the island. We head west to Paleokastritsa. There’s a spectacular descent to three small bays. The water is an alluring turquoise and deep blue but the beaches, each perhaps just 200 metres long, are a bit too crowded for our liking.

A tiny monastery, the Holy Bearer of God of Paleokastritsa, is much more interesting. Perched on top of the cliffs giving breathtaking views, it was founded in the 12th century, but only a handful of monks live there now. The small Orthodox church is typical of its type – dark inside, with walls covered by icons and sandy trays of burning candles. Around it, whitewashed small courtyards are brought to life by purple flowering bougainvillea. A gentle breeze around terracotta pots of basil is sufficient to perfume the air with the scent of the herb. Farther south, the beach at Ermones becomes our home for the day. A taverna, one of just two on the beach, serves an excellent lunch of grilled sole, pork and chicken souvlakis (grilled meat on a skewer), tzatziki and aubergine salads, garlic bread, two beers and a litre of retsina, the Greek wine originally flavoured by resin from being stored in pinewood barrels, for €60 for the four of us.

I wonder what Odysseus, who landed here on his way home fromn Troy, would make of it all today: the sun-worshipping tourists and the huge Club Mediterraneo hotel complex overlooking the beach ( grand-mediterraneo.com/eng/corfu-hotel.htm), which even has its own funicular.

We give other places on the west coast the once over in subsequent days – Agios Georgios with its long sandy beach (great for parasailing), Alonaki Bay and its one taverna perched on a cliff top and ideal for dinner against a backdrop of a big, dreamy sunset; and Boukaris on the southeast coast (a quaint, scruffy place unspoilt by mass tourism and whose harbour is filled with small, working fishing boats).

But it is the north east that wins our loyalty. From the resort strips of Ipsos and Barbati (long beaches; bright brash nightlife – fine if that’s what you want!), there’s a necklace of tiny bays – Nissaki, Kaminaki, Kalami, Agni and Agios Stefanos – pearls dotting the turquoise coastline. The little bays and their pebble beaches are reached by steeply descending, narrow winding roads and none is over-developed. As one descends, there is a scattering of villas, most of them tastefully designed and well kept. And at the bottom, there’s a delightful beach with a taverna or two.

The most beautiful, perhaps, (and its hard to chose) is Agni, which has three wonderful, above-average tavernas (Nikola’s, Toula’s and the Agni) and a cottage whose front door opens onto the beach and which is for sale for €600,000 and which I am buying next week when I’ve won the lotto. On the other hand, I might hunt down a villa to rent from the enterprising Agni Taverna’s travel website, agni.gr, which specialises in northeast coastal properties.

A fun way to get an overview of the northeast coast and what it has to offer is to take one of the many day trip boat excursions. They cost about €20 per person on timber boats carrying about 50. Dipping in and out of each bay, they usually end with a barbeque on a remote beach, accessible only from the sea, with lots of jumping off the boat, lazy swimming and wine on tap.

The old part of Corfu town is a delight – full of narrow streets with four-, five- and six-storey 18th- and 19th-century terraced buildings, many of them a little shabby and looking slightly like parts of downtown Havana.

Our last night starts with pre-dinner drinks on the Esplanade and Liston. This is where Corfiot society comes to preen, examine itself and have wedding photos taken, whiling away the hours chatting with friends, reading the papers or merely pondering life’s mysteries over liquid refreshment. It’s the place for people watching.

As evening swallows swoop and screech, darting low along the narrow streets and whirling around the distinctive red-topped spire of the church of St Spyridon, the island’s patron saint, we amble down to En Plo, a restaurant on the water’s edge sheltered by the Old Fortress.

A nightcap at the chic Cafe Bristol, bubbling with life, overflowing with bright young things, brings proceedings to a satisfying close.

Corfu Uncovered

Getting there: We booked online with Falcon, part of the UK’s Thomson Group. The cost for four adults – return flights, all transfers, two twin rooms with sea view balconies and half board hotel – for 14 nights was €3,993.

Eating and drinking:A good lunch may be had from about €10 a head (Greek salad €6; beer/wine €4). For a more substantial meal, most starters are between €3.50 and €7 depending on the dish selected. Main courses can be anything from about €6 for a moussaka (very common dish all over Greek made of spiced minced lamb, aubergine and/or potato cooked in a bechamel sauce), to €10/€12 for souvlaki or stifado (stewed beef and onions in a rich gravy sauce) or kleftiko (lamb, often a knuckle, marinated in lemon juice, cooked long and slow in a sealed pot), to €20- €40 for fish, fresh most costly, frozen cheapest. Wine: retsina can be as cheap as €4 for a half litre; a litre carafe (often a light aluminum flask) of house white generally costs about €10 to €12, while a 75cl bottle of anything else starts at about €18.

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