Prospero’s Magical Garden Isle
Corfu is back in fashion – though for the true Corfiot lovers and cognoscenti it never went out of style! But being beautiful and close to Italy meant it suffered the first mass tourist invasion of Greece by western Europeans back in the 80s. The heady days of Lawrence and Gerald Durrell’s pre-war childhoods were all but eclipsed and drove away the very people who had made Corfu somewhere very special. But the island has gone full circle and is now quietly again the place to be in the Mediterranean.
The English watercolourist and wit, Edward Lear was a benign tourist in the 1850s, but he could have been writing today. “Wish you were here…could feed you on Ginger-beer and claret and prawns and figs. Anything like the splendour of olive grove and orange garden, the blue of the sky and ivory of church and chapel, the violet of mountain, rising from peacock-wing-hued sea, and tipped with lines of silver snow, can hardly be imagined”.
Corfu has always been blessed with riches from its land so its residents never needed to emigrate to find a better life as so many of the other Ionian islanders did. It has always had style, education, a Western influence in its musicality and tastes, was never fettered by the Ottomans, and has produced men of letters, politicos and clever businessmen. It has attracted the likes of Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacob Rosthchild, and various well-known politicians and oligarchs. The variations of light over rolling hills and shores, the misty serenity and translucence of the sea have drawn countless painters, photographers, writers and poets.
Corfu is like an 18th century estate floating off the coast of Greece. The town is like a country house, somewhat tattered and worn, but beautiful, full of character and interest. The mansions and country villas of the Venetian-created aristocracy are unique in the islands.
Ninety per cent of tourists stay on just ten per cent of the island. There are certain areas for the lovers of Irish pubs and wet T-shirt contests, but these are easily avoidable and Corfu’s physical beauties and historic atmospheres are still very tangible. Clear-water coves, drifts of spring flowers and scents of herbs, wild orchids, tortoises, Venetian belfries, winding village streets, donkeys laden with kindling, imposing country manor houses in lush olive groves, tiny chapels with a solitary candle burning inside – all these are still there. And alongside, so are cosmopolitan classical concerts, opera and theatre, chic and sophisticated shops, sports facilities of every kind, superb swimming, endless wining and dining destinations from simple to expensive. The jewel of all this is the town of Corfu. It’s Venice and Naples, a touch of France and more than a dash of England, apart of course from being Greek. Above all, Corfu is incredibly relaxing and soon de-stresses even the most stressed city worker.
Corfu town - a deserved World Heritage Site. Calm beautiful Ionian seas, easy access from Athens and an international airport. A glamorous social scene in the north east headed by various Rothschild English grandees which is affectionately known as Kensington-on-Sea. Bring your diary and silk kaftans. Some of the restaurants have risen to the challenge and produce extremely good food.
Spring and autumn rains. Thunderstorms can roll, thrashing and booming, for hours, unable to get over the mountains of Epirus and Albania opposite. But how else would the Garden Isle get any watering, and most happen in winter anyway. Overdevelopment of large parts of the coast with undistinguished post-war architecture - amazingly, there are no style restrictions to building in Corfu outside of the town.
Families with children needing activities and social life. Painters and writers, sybarites, glossy house parties, networkers and royalty. Casino addicts (a Bond roulette sequence was shot in the OTT decorated Achilleon, former palace of Sissy, Empress Elisabeth of Austria). Wild flower lovers (there are over 400 species on the island, with 100 on Mount Pantokrator alone), ornithologists (golden orioles, blue rock thrushes and peregrine falcons), walkers (the Corfu Trail is a 137-mile footpath running the length of the island - allow 10 days for it!)
Real hermits who don't want to see any foreigners around, and those looking for Greece the way it was 50 years ago. Those looking for Corfu the way it was 50 years ago should try Ithaca.
A wander in the streets and squares of town when the three-town philharmonia are rehearsing in upper rooms with open windows, their rich brassy sounds floating out into the evening air. A cocktail or latte at the famous Corfu Bar on the Liston (rue de Rivoli copy) it's the HQ for gossip, assignations and celebrity spotting. A parade - splendid helmeted bands in full puff and oompah and a moving flowerbed of swaying silk clergy vestments. Midnight on Easter Even - 20,000 candles proclaim the Risen Christ with gunshots, fireworks and every bell on the island ringing.
Sunset at Pelekas. A summer evening at Morrison's Café within the precincts of the dramatic New Fortress, listening to cool live jazz, a drink in hand, and with a stupendous view over town. A swim at sundown from the lion-gold sands of Myrtidiotissa. Lunch at picturesque Aghios Stefanos on the unspoiled north east coast. Try La Cucina in town, Etrusco in Kato Korakiana, Tripas and the lovely little fish tavernas on Agni beach - Toula's and Nicolas are the in places for Corfu regulars. Stamati's in Viros has a summer garden and winter fireplace. The Old Perithia Taverna may not need a booking, and caters to the hill-hikers who make it up Mount Pantokrator - a magical setting. And the one place in town which only does first-come-first-serve is the legendary Rouvas, close to the market and every workman/student/unmarried professional/countryman-come-to-town's regular for cheap and fabulous Corfiot classics.
Scuba diving at Paleokastritsa and Gouvia (PADI instructors), parakiting, windsurfing, waterskiing (many NE coastal bases), sail-yachts and skippered caiques (a superbly equipped marina/chandlery at Gouvia).
An 18-hole international golf course in the Ropa Valley, tennis, horseback-riding, and of course cricket on the town esplanade (local clubs regularly have fixtures with international teams - often from visiting Naval warships). Sound and Light, movie theatres, museums (the Asian collection in the Palace of St Michael and St George is brilliant). Art exhibitions, concerts, shopping and spa therapies. There are also three English-language local newspapers with extensive guide sections.
Everywhere is BUSY. Take a boat to find the more secluded coves on the north east coasts for swimming picnics. Later on you can dance. Super-packed dance floors or cool beats on the rocks. Boat home again and dine on your villa terrace in the silky night air. Expect to have to book at tavernas and restaurants especially at those with good reputations.
Corfu has a life independent of the tourist season, so is a wonderful place to visit at any time of year, and many would say the best season is off-season. In spring wild strawberries ripen, there is a burst of flowers and growth and the landscape is an embroidery of colours. Easter here is celebrated in a particularly spectacular way, with many Greek visitors.
Autumn means limpid seas, no summer heat haze so the lilac hills, blue sea and deep green of the cypress spearing the skyline are crystal clear. The Albanian mountains opposite will be capped with snow. Town life is chic and mellow - red/yellow/pink/amber tiers of narrow alleys, flights of steps and colonnades, workshops, and uncrowded corner bars. There is woodsmoke, the carriage horses without their knitted town hats graze in country gardens. And bandoliered waiters set off on their mopeds to hunt turtle-doves.