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Corfu is a surprise around every corner, both on land and on sea.
The breath-taking Parisien-style grandeur of the Liston arcade in Corfu town, incongruous after the narrow, cobbled quaintness of the honeycomb of streets (“kantounia”) that snake through it; streets so narrow neighbours could reach out and shake hands from one ornate, Venetian balcony to the next, and scooters, weaving and swaying and blasting exhaust fumes are the only motorised vehicles that can squeeze through them.
The delicate purple flowers of the stunning Judas tree that canopies the main square in a cloud of vibrant colour in Spring and early Summer, drawing the eye away even from the architectural splendour of the elegant marble town hall (formerly an opera house) that anchors it.
The majesty of the Sidari rock formation’s black-striped sandstone cliffs commanding the northern headland and arresting the senses, in sharp contrast to the gentle, sheltered coves of the coastlines either side.
The scarlet, magenta and fuchsia bougainvillea that delicately drape every pergola and balcony in sight, a stunning splash of colour against the silver backdrop of the olive trees that throng the hillsides in all directions.
Tavernas worthy of an AA rosette or two, if not the occasion Michelin star, rub shoulders a mere mile or two along the coast with all-day breakfast cafes and happy hour, big-screen bars. A stretch of coastline not much more than 50 miles long caters for the wild teens looking for cheap booze and nights to forget in the South (Kavos), families and couples on a budget and with no desire to eat foreign food a bit further North (Ipsos), and then the charm and tranquillity of the so-called “Kensington-on-sea”, catering for the more affluent and discerning clientele in the up market bays of the north eastern tip of the island (Kalami, Agni, San Stefanos) with their wonderful waterside tavernas that proudly boast their own resident fishermen.
Kassiopi, the slightly larger town at the north-easterly tip of the island somehow manages to package itself up to appeal to all-comers. Its attractive harbour set back behind a protective stone wall houses a couple of good-quality, inexpensive tavernas which preside contentedly over a tranquil view; the pedestrianised main street that runs through the town is a cornucopia of tourist shops and stalls with olive wood and stunning glassware in one vying for attention with tacky (but hilarious!) sloganned t-shirts and fake, dirt- cheap designer belts, wallets and handbags in the next. The further up the street you stroll, the more the “all day breakfast” and “happy hour” cafes and bars dominate.
The sun, the olive groves and Mount Pantokrator (Corfu’s highest point at 2972 feet above sea level) all smile benevolently down, all day long, on the entire island and the crystalline blue waters that surround it, no matter which particular part of it takes your fancy.
The vine-clad, pergola-style open air Whitehouse taverna in Kalami (famous as the building where Lawrence Durrell once wrote “Prospero's Cell”) perches solidly on the rocks in the corner of the bay with a view of the Albanian hills across the Corfu channel that is an ever changing light show. The wispy blue and smoky grey outlines of the layered hills in the shimmering midday sunshine, the pre-dusk buttery lemon glow that floods them with light as the day winds down, the dusty pink of the gathering dusk, mauve tints, bruised purple, inky black. The nightly bush fires high up in the hills flare pinpricks of light across the channel, and around the other side of the bay the phosphorous streetlights of Corfu town flicker on one by one, like a string of pearls along the headland.
A couple of bays further up to Cochili (“Seashell”) Taverna in San Stefanos, and its elevated al fresco terrace provides a subtly different perspective, the view metamorphosing like the gentle turning of a kaleidoscope. Albania’s hills remain a focal point, but the yachts, speedboats and fishing smacks that jostle for space in the glittering horseshoe of the pretty little marina below provide an alternative attraction, as do the huge car ferries that glide briefly in and out of view in the mouth of the bay, lights blazing like a carousel ride as dusk settles, water churning in their wake.
There is a castle or fort on practically every headland on each prominent corner of the entire island; 400 years of Venetian rule fortified Corfu to such an extent that it is the only part of Greece than can happily boast never to have been occupied by the Turks (despite several failed attempts on their part). Fifty years of British rule has left behind an ongoing local passion for cricket, and two very brief periods of 19th century French sovereignty that stunning, Rue de Rivoli- inspired arcade with its continental cafes and bars and its ballustraded terraces overlooking the town’s old cricket pitch.
St Spyridon, patron saint of the island is revered for being a miracle worker, purportedly ridding the island of the plague in the 16th century and protecting it from the Turks (backed up by the forts of course!) in the 17th. He is honoured today with his own, Venetian inspired church in the centre of Corfu town, instantly distinguishable above the rooftops by its red tiled belfry and separate bell tower. The saint’s remains are preserved in a casket within it, which every Palm Sunday is paraded through the “kantounia”. Pill- boxed Greek orthodox priests in their white flowing robes accompany it, swinging pungent brass urns of incense on long gold chains and chanting unintelligibly in surprisingly gentle, soothing tones. Every so often one of the priests will fumble awkwardly within his robes, and produce a mobile phone into which he will fire off a rapid stream of excitable Greek, whilst continuing to absent- mindedly swing the incense.
Old collides with new at every turn.
A skim up the North East coastline in a little speedboat (available for hire in every bay along the way, and THE best way to enjoy this lovely coastline) is an adrenaline rush of pleasure with the wind blasting through hair, a tang of salt on the lips, liquid in the veins. The subsequent languorous swims, anchored up in the crystal clear turquoise waters of one secluded little cove after another, are soporific. White butterflies dance alongside the boat as it bobs gently in the breeze, shoals of sea bream glide lazily beneath it; the sun casting the fishes’ shimmering shadows onto the sandy sea bed below. Peace and tranquillity descends.
Olive trees, over two million of them, crowd the hillside, their silver leaves a smudge of colour against the bottle green of the cypress trees that stand like sentries along the ridges above. The cloudless sky is a perfect, cerulean blue.
Lunch is a lazy chug into one of the many mouth-watering waterside tavernas, and the happy prospect of an hour or two on a sun drenched deck. Crispy curls of salt and pepper squid, fresh from the Ionian Sea that morning, dissolve on the tongue. The piquant sauce of prawn sofrito with its crumbly feta cheese base zings the taste buds onto high alert; creamy, homemade humus thick with local, peppery olive oil cools them down. Honeyed, sticky sweet baklava with its flaky filo pastry layers and crunchy slivers of almonds provide a deliciously, albeit calorie laden finale.
The exclusive villas with their enticing infinity pools that discreetly dot the hillsides of Kensington-on –Sea provide the perfect backdrop for a Corfiot holiday supper of thick crusty bread, pregnant slices of juicy, ripe tomatoes swimming in garlicky, local olive oil, crumbly feta cheese, ham, salami, fat green olives. A final glass or two of the local fizz and one last skinny dip in silky waters that still retain the heat of the day is an indulgent way to end another perfect day in Corfu. Little water taxis ply their trade in the bays below as they zip back and forth, ferrying tourists to the various waterside tavernas for supper. The blast of “Greek night” further down the coast is a distant, amusing echo as the moon casts its silvery glow across the darkening waters; the crickets stop chirping as the mosquitoes start to nip, and Mars and Venus rise majestically in the pollution-free night sky.
Tomorrow beckons, when today can be deliciously repeated all over again.
All is well in this heavenly little corner of the world.