Corfu. A peninsula snipped off when red hot and allowed to cool for thousands of years in the wide, blue surrounding Ionian Sea.
And now crawling with tourists.
And with all the accompanying commerce and tat tourists cry out for every summer.
BUT there is still a secret Corfu. Or, if not a secret Corfu, at least a Corfu that has managed to, somehow, keep its charms and hide them from the hordes.
It’s easy to see why the tourists come of course. Corfu shines in the middle of the sea, lying in its untroubled blue, serene and satisfied, gleaming like sickle.
It’s an incredibly green island, providing a stark contrast with the naked bareness of many other Greek islands, and in complete opposition to the dry, bald, rocky mainland glimpsed back over the 20 miles of sea from Corfu’s eastern shore.
Roses and clematis grow wild. Olive fields blanket the hills. The sea offers up daily freshest fish, calamari, octopus.
Main Corfu town is a world-heritage site, looking more like a classical north Italian town than Greek – a legacy of its Venetian heritage. And through the centuries the French and the British have left their stylised mark on the town too.
But now its old balconies and colonnades – its tiers of tumbling, pastel coloured, buildings – look out onto thronging summer holiday makers.
The large, yellow clock-towered, 500 year-old church, where the island’s patron saint St Spyridon lies, is surrounded, attacked, like an old elephant by a tenacious pack of hyenas selling carved wooden trinkets, football shirts or bottles of Corfu’s signature bright orange kumquat liqueurs.
Corfu is famous for its Easter traditions – and they are incredible…
The drum beats and sombre brass bands and funeral processions of ornate coffins around the streets on Good Friday night; the performance of the old women taking centre stage on Saturday – proudly, ostentatiously, talking up on their house balconies to their neighbours across the alleyway streets in pure, thick Corfiot; and then the completely unique crescendo of these Easter celebrations: a sky full of huge red clay pots raining down again and again from high windows on the main Spianada square, smashing into millions of pieces.
*The smashing of the pots tradition is said to be either to wake up Persephone, the goddess of Spring, or an old tradition of getting rid of the old so that the new year will bring good, new, things.
However, this tradition, the Corfu cascading pots, happens all over the island in most towns and tiny villages. It is not necessary to stand in the scrum, in the well-trodden centre, with the thousands of neck-craners and camera-pointers.
An uncommon, undisclosed, magical haven exists everywhere, to be discovered, throughout the island.
Corfu dining might not necessarily be one of these magical experiences though.
“Oh, you live here in Corfu?” I was asked when I complained about the substandard fare I’d been served in one restaurant. “I thought you were holiday makers and we’d never see you again…” Typical blunt Greek honesty, to be appreciated, I suppose, even if the cooking wasn’t the typical Greek victual flair I’d hoped for.
The Corfu dish of Sorfrito – veal cooked in wine and spices – can be a great, tasty heavy meal served at a friend’s house. Or an expensive disappointment in a central restaurant.
Bars and tavernas in centre Corfu Town heave. Many are sadly not worth the wait.
For good fare, in distinctive but unflashy surroundings, the island visitor should take themselves slightly out of town, opposite Corfu’s port – where many will have entered – and there they’ll find Hayiati.
The crushing Corfu crowds won’t be there, but they won’t find solemn dining quietude either.
Amateur Greek rebetiko musicians regularly set up stall in this taverna, under the faded pictures of famous rebetiko musicians of times past: music and song going on late into the evening, lusty singing from the local Corfiot diners, accompany the good plates of grilled meats and tzatziki.
Similarly in the centre of town there is Berdes on Prosalendou Street – a street lined with packed tsipouradika: old fashioned bars for the drinking of tsipouro.
Even at the height of summer, strangely but happily, Berdes seems to remain only a Corfu insider’s interest.
The old fashioned bar is festooned with the art of rebetiko music and Greek shadow theatre, with puppets and musical instruments hanging from the ceilings and walls – the local music university students who hang out here often plucking them down to play.
No full meals are served, but along with every small bottle of ouzo or raki you order, you’re brought a free meze plate of food. So just keep ordering the raki.
Although Corfu, unlike the mainland, does not actually have a tradition of ouzo or raki, or of northern Greece’s spirit of choice, tsipouro. Local wine being Corfu’s palliative.
And before any other concerns anyway, the first, most vital, fundamental in any town in Greece must always be where the best place to get a souvlaki or gyros is.
The pita kebab is the petrol for the Greek, and surely Corfu’s best grill house – O Artemis – can be found by the open air market – the laiki – in the centre.
It can’t be missed, you will see the line of hankering meat eaters queuing down the street – Greeks are loyal to the point of compulsion with their choice of pita place once they finally find the one that suits them.
The pitas in Artemis are ridiculous. About the size of your head, always generously packed and always with good meat – unlike many in Corfu.
At other places in the town often a poor quality pita will have been served up. safe in the knowledge that the transient diner will be away, fumbling with a sad looking rolled carpet of kebab while the shifty Corfiot owner sits back in his shop and counts his change.
Corfiots have gained and learnt a lot through the tourism that has docked on their island.
With the huge numbers that have poured ashore here though, good service or treating the customer right is not always the one thing that many have ever really felt the need to learn, however.
* In Corfu, all souvlakis or gyros in pita are served accompanied with a cooked, tangy red sauce, more like a spaghetti sauce – the Italian influence again? Obviously it’s always good to do as the natives do, so I don’t usually quibble when they add this ‘kokkini saltsa’, but it really doesn’t improve the souvlaki experience. In fact, to be honest, I feel the Corfiots manage to rather ruin it for themselves.
Head out of town, north, up into the unfashionable and unfancied town of Agros and amongst some authentically falling down stone houses and dilapidated roads, you will find Kyria Maria’s taverna.
So old and veritable is this place that for any of the dishes the ancient Maria serves, you must phone her at least 3 hours in advance to let her know whatever it is you fancy her to make.
Usually, when you arrive, you’ll find she has no other customers in her dark old tavern and you wonder just what she does during this cautioning cooking countdown that she demands, but when you taste the food.. Christemou! The advance warning always proves worth it.
Keep touring along the roads in the north west of the island and you’ll eventually find Paleokastritsa – in the good weather you can just follow the endless motorcades of sun-seekers and sea-swimmers making their way there.
* A local tradition for those heading to the beaches on Corfu is to stop off at Perithia where several of the major roads in the north of the island meet. Right on the crossroads, appearing like a welcoming mirage, is the traditional Spiggos ice-cream parlour. Here, over the best ice cream you can find on the island, you’ll overhear old friends, locals, peregrinators, who have just happened to have chanced on each other, standing and gossiping about each of their routes onwards from Spiggos’s and to which of their particular personal favourite beach they are aiming for: and like souvlaki shops, everyone has one.
Paleokastritsa is probably Corfu most famous seaside destination and while it has a pair of undoubtedly beautiful beaches, with the imperious monastery looking down from up on high on its tree lined bluff between them, it often seems the whole of Corfu has come to enjoy these two beaches at any given time.
The wiser Ionian wader would do better to try and find the more hidden near-by beaches, such as Rovinia.
*The clued-up swimmer should also know that Paleokastritsa, up here on the north western side of Corfu, with the deeper seas out towards Italy, has some peculiar water currents that actually mean that the sea here, even at the height of summer, is the coldest on the island. Often, when it’s said that someone is going for a swim at Paleokastritsa, even in the 90+ degree heat, the never-shy-of-hyperbole Greek will reply “What? In that water? Do you want to die??”)
On the main Eparhiaki Odos Palaiokastritsa–Peleka road, try turning off at the small village Liapades before you get to Paleokastritsa.
Once through the twisting turns of the village look for a dirt track (nothing will be signposted to Rovinia). Halfway down the track, abandon the car for a 10 minute sweating trek down a path of stones and thorned plants.
And then, suddenly you’re out on a secluded bay, hidden from the hotels of Paleokastritsa.
Clear king fisher-blue sea. Your own cave in the white-rock cliffs to explore. No beach bar, umbrellas or facilities. And all the better for it.
Along the south of Corfu island are further miles and miles of untouched beach. Beaches magnificently separated from the outside world by a thick barricade of forest.
Halikounas is a popular beach lying next to Lake Korission. (The lake is a ‘Natura’ protected natural habitat for many different species including, quite surreally, flamingos.)
But leave Halikounas beach’s congeries behind you and instead strike out on your own on an unheralded path leading away over a small wooden bridge over a thin trickle of a river.
Follow the path and eventually you’ll be in the shade of trees, a tenacious stubby forest, and stumbling up large sand dunes.
Emerging, disorientated from pushing through the woods, you then find yourself happily faced with a long curve of clear, ambrosial, sandy beach disappearing far into the distance.
If by pure bad luck you find a lone person sunbathing where you’ve battled out of the undergrowth, well, you only have the rest of the countless acres of untended beach to choose from instead.
If, however, you can’t venture that far or you find yourself hot and bothered in the centre of town, there is a sort of hush-hush, unclaimed, swimming place in the centre too.
In Mon Repos gardens, which circle and envelope the, now quite tired and dirty looking Mon Repos Palace, where once upon a time, almost a hundred years ago, the Queen of England’s husband Philip was born, you will find, set behind the house, an almost unknown, almost unreal, pretty, beckoning, small shingled shore.
* Corfiots seem quite unaware that through Prince Philip they are linked to the British Royal Family. “Oh really? ” they say when informed, giving a pleased with themselves, chuckling shrug “Heh heh…we Greeks, we get everywhere.”
The lagoon-like beach, called Kardaki, has crowds of trees nudging and falling over themselves down from the palace’s gardens to the sea, offering cool shade at the back of the beach.
There’s a long stone slip out into the water, presumably built for young princes once upon a time to dive out into the deeper blue, now often quite ignored by the Corfu residents and tourists.
They, strangely, seem to prefer to look for a bit of desperate in-town bathing by the main busy coast road with its brick, tussocky strips of bathing spots. And with thundering trucks and Corfu sightseer buses passing by.
Agni Bay has no road on the shore.
Instead, three tavernas sit on the small arch of beautifully scraggy pebble beach.
Green humped capes lie out in the cove. Bright and blue calm water. And the coast of Albania beyond.
Nikolas’ Taverna is the oldest and best: laid-back, family-style. And the only one not to have completely given in to pandering to the super-rich who powerfully scud right up to the wooden jetties – that have been provided for small sailing boats – in their over-sized sleek yachts.
After dinner you are invited to use the sun loungers provided by the tavernas on the beach for the use of post-diners only.
The temptation to lie there and sleep off the retsina and the shrimps Agni is famed for is great, however, be strong and instead try and follow in the tread of old local resident Lawrence Durrell and take a walk out towards St Arsenios shrine. Durrell’s “second birth place”.
Taking a small, dark earthy path directly behind – actually through – Nikolas Taverna, the walk is not especially easy.
Up, and then more dramatically down, off the path, through wooded rocks – the mulishly adamant searcher will be rewarded eventually with the prospect of deserted, heavy barrelling rocks to dive off into sudden deep sea.
There are nooks and small sea-caves to swim into and explore, and all watched over by the tiny, forsaken, benevolent looking church sat, hunched, on its rock.
Lawrence Durrell’s actual “unregretted home” is in the bay of Kalami, the next bay up from Agni.
The house set like a dice on a rock (although with expert Corfiot care and exactitude the plaque on the wall proudly tells the onlooker how the home was the residence of Gerald Durrell).
Kalami is still a fairly peaceful village, the clear-sea bay ringed by a coliseum of green, tree-thick hills.
It is possible to imagine it in the time of the Durrells here. As it is possible to see the Corfiots themselves, unchanged down the years.
The tourism may have altered some ways of doing things, and altered the pace of life: the openness of many in Corfu is now often only an exterior, not so durable to anything other than loose association, as opposed to the attitudes in Corfu of the past, or of Greeks in other, wilder, less mercantile areas of the country.
But the Corfiots themselves can’t avoid their antecedent and the long line running down back through the years.
It’s there is their individual look: the distinct chubby, round face.
Many Corfiots also have blue eyes and blonde hair – uncommon in Greece – stemming from the years of Venetians in Corfu, and the British (both now and then) and the Albanians just across the Straight of Corfu.
The Straight of Corfu, almost swimmable, as many fearfully proved during the era of Albanian dictator Hoja. The island has a hundred stories of desperate young men clinging to tyres, old ladies in bath tubs coming across, aiming for Corfu’s profuse shoreline.
The Corfu language has its idiosyncrasies too.
The common “re” that all Greek’s prefix every conversations, to express surprise or get attention, is replaced by an “o re” only here in Corfu.
Corfiots will also call anyone they meet “agapi” – my love – anyone: strangers, children, old people, anyone. Even during arguements with their most hated foe.
Fools or stupid people get their completely specific to Corfu word “niorandes“.
The muja – the open splayed, contemptuous hand gesture that all Greeks sling in the direction of someone who has just cut-up their car, made a idiotic remark or generally got on their nerves – is replaced on this island by a bunched fist with the thumb poking through the first and second fingers.
And Corfiots like to swear.
More so than in other parts of Greece – and Greeks as a whole are never really shy with a bellowed malediction – the Corfiots will turn to the sky with an inventive series of profanities.
And unlike in other parts of the country, it’s the island’s patron saint of Spyridon that gets the highest traffic of cursed words coming his way. Only then followed by the usual Devils – “Ai sto diaolo!”- and Christs – “Ma ton Hristo!”
And then the Italian influence slips in, unheeded, again: Corfiots use abstruse terms to illustrate, say, the state of their houses – “Libretto” the Corfiots will say of their shutters if they are partially closed – Italian for a half opened book. “Liberta!” if they’re flung open wide.
“Tsito!” the cafe owner shouts at the stray cats around his doorway “Tsito!”
What is this word? Only heard in Corfu. Some strain of Italian, I guess.
I’m told there are over 3,000 words that are particular only to Corfou, not heard anywhere else in Greece.
“I’m going to write a dictionary of them all” says the unshaven Corfiot I see most days sat over his ouzo in the ‘Apothiki’ bar. Of course he never will.
And there’s the accent that, too, is so unusual and peculiar to this island: tragoudista Greeks from other areas call it – a singing voice. Rising on and falling on syllables, like a musical tide.
Maybe this is connected to the Italian influence once more.
Or the musical aspect that exists on this startling island – brass bands in the towns, villagers singing in the fields.
Fields rolling over the hills, over the centre of the island, still largely unvisited. Fields that hold thousand of birds, butterflies and outrageously coloured insects.
Hills with a surf of flowers flowing down them to small roads with tavernas sat waiting. Tavernas that exist only for the villagers, the farmers or the fishermen with their old boats sat on the beaches.
Beaches that smuggle their charms down behind rocky climbs.
Stand up on top of Kaiser’s Throne, soaring above the village of Pelekas – a peak where German Emperor Wilhelm loved to stand and view his cherished island during his holidaying.
Or take the unmarked path between the small towns of Doukades and Agia Anna up to the ancient miniature white-washed church of Agia Simeon clinging completely on its own over a sheer drop towards Paleokastritsa. The surrounding crags and ribs of mountain rock alive with birds.
Or climb to the tiny 10th Century church, Agia Kyriaki – Saint Sunday – left alone, steeply high up mule paths above the village of Gastouri, with its Byzantine frescos on the walls, where Austrian Empress Sissi was said to go to find her peace while living on the island in her crazed Achilleion Palace.
Time it so you are there as the sun sets.
The whole island is spread before you. In a vivid sweep, glowing and altering in the final, leaking light of the sun.
And it’s here that it becomes strikingly clear, unavoidable: there is so much more of Kerkyra than any of us can ever glimpse in just a short Corfu summertime.