When I was at school, one of my favourite books that I read over and over was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. I remember being fascinated by his stories of childhood, a childhood so completely different to mine as to be unimagineable. Bizarrely, the thing that stuck with me most is that he talked about wild cyclamens – plants that in South Africa only seemed to grow in indoors pots on coffee tables. The idea that these flowers could grow wild on some island in Greece seemed impossibly exotic to me and I longed one day to visit this magical place. It took a few decades, but last week I finally got my wish: a week on the island of Corfu.
If you arrive in Corfu expecting it to look like Mykonos, all whitewashed flat-roofed houses clustered on a hill, prepare to be surprised. Take a look at the map and you’ll see that Corfu is geographically quite far from the rest of the Greek islands (it is a lot closer to Albania than to Athens!). It has also been colonised by a multitude of civilisations and nations over the years, each leaving their unique mark: the Corinthians in the 8th century BC who founded Corfu Town (Kerkyra); the Romans in 229BC (who preferred to build further north in Kassiopi); the Byzantine empire in the 4th century AD; the Venetians for 400 years starting in 1386; and the French (Napoleon in particular) in 1797. In 1824 the island became a British protectorate, and it was not until 1864 that Corfu and the Ionian islands became part of Greece.
Kerkyra in particular looks to me more like a Spanish or southern Italian town than what I imagined Greece to look like, and it’s a lovely place to spend a weekend, like we did. Wander through the town, down to the old port and mingle with the tourists that regularly come ashore form cruise ships. Take some time to explore both the old and the new forts; wander through the maze of tiny streets crammed with shops selling clothes, shoes, bags, local specialities like kumquat liqueur; and end up the Liston, a colonnade of arches reminiscent of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, where you can choose from a number of chic restaurants or bars and sit and watch the world go by while sipping on a frappé.
While the girls were doing this, the boys were off on rented scooters, exploring the southwestern bit of the island. Tolis Motor were great: they picked the boys up from the hotel to take them to the showroom and also fetched the bikes from the hotel at the end of the day, all for €35 per bike. A word of warning though: the roads in Corfu are narrow and winding, and people seem to drift to the middle of the road constantly. If you are going to rent a scooter, wear a helmet and be constantly on the alert for other traffic (including other tourists who hop on scooters with no previous experience and weave all over the road!). On our flight out there were two young girls, one with a broken leg and the other with a heavily bandaged arm that had been in a scooter accident – not a fun way to spend your holiday. Also keep a lookout for the classic Corfu driving style: arm so far out of the driver’s window, your knuckles scrape the tarmac 😉
To explore Kerkyra, we stayed two nights at the Sunset Hotel which seemed at first to be a little way out of town on the way to Dassia, but there is a bus stop right outside the hotel and to get into the centre of town only takes ten minutes at €1,10. It’s a small family-run hotel (we discovered on day 2 that the charming chap serving us drinks at the pool bar was in fact the owner) and nothing was too much trouble for the staff, who were never without a smile on their faces. The rooms, although not luxurious, are a good size, very clean, come with a bar fridge and balcony, and have excellent air-conditioning (very important when the temperatures remain stubbornly in the upper 20s all night long!). There is also free wifi throughout the hotel. Sadly there were no pool view rooms left when we arrived and there is quite a bit of road noise if you stay at the front or sides of the hotel, so do request a pool view room if you can. The pool was another big drawcard – large enough to swim proper laps and sparkling clean. The pool bar is only a few metres from the pool, making it easy to grab a cocktail to beat the heat. Also make sure you walk down to the sea at sunset (there is an access road a couple of properties down from the hotel) – the view across the bay is gorgeous.
Tolis Motor (branches in Kerkyra & Nissaki)
Tel: +30 26610 4505 E-mail: [email protected]
After two happy days at the Sunset, we moved into our rented villa in Nissaki. We collected our cars from the airport and the drive took us through some of the coastal towns around the bay north of Kerkyra: Kontokali with its 5-star Kontokali Bay Resort and spa; nearby Gouvia with its pretty bay, marina and Venetian ruins; and Ipsos with its beachfront bars, nightclubs and restaurants. After Ipsos, the beaches become more rustic for a while: Barbati is a long curve of shingle beach set some distance away (and down a steep hill!) from Barbati Village, and Nissaki has a tiny but very pretty, sheltered beach with three tavernas, a dive shop, a gift shop and a boat hire company. We rented our villa (Sofia) through Agni Travel and I have to say that they are absolutely outstanding. They responded rapidly to any queries, offered loads of good advice before we arrived and sent text messages during our stay to check that all was OK. And oh boy, was everything OK… Have a look at our villa and you’ll see what I mean. The house is set up the hillside in a little valley, surrounded by groves of ancient olive trees, with a sparkling pool overlooking the ocean, and I can’t think of any way it could be improved.
When we weren’t lounging by our sparkling pool, taking in the view, we explored the north-eastern corner of this island, both by car and by boat. If you have a car, it is definitely worth driving inland to see how little rural Corfu has changed over the past few decades. Most of the development has taken place on the coast, but inland, it is still an island of farmers. The two main crops of Corfu seem to be olives and kumquats – although the tree you are most likely to see while driving around is the olive tree. There are over 3 million olive trees on Corfu, some over 400 years old and planted during the Venetian occupation of Corfu when the Venetians offered a subsidy to people who replaced vineyards with olive trees. The big difference between the Corfiot olive trees and other Greek olive trees is that olive trees on Corfu are not kept short by pruning, but are rather left to grow to their full, majestic height and width. This creates olive trees with gnarled and holey trunks (rather like the Ents in Lord of the Rings) and olive groves where even at noon it is cool and shady under the high olive canopy. Another worthwhile drive is up to the top of Mount Pantokrator, the highest point on the island at 906m. At the top is a monastery and a huge radio mast (and a taverna, of course!), and from there you can enjoy breathtaking views across to nearby Albania as well as over Corfu itself. It is also possible to walk up Mt Pantokrator, usually starting from the village of Old Perithia, but in 33C+ heat, this was not an appetising prospect! If you can, choose the route back down that takes you through Spartilas, a village perched 400m up the slopes of Mt Pantokrator with tiny streets and breathtaking views over the bay. The road down to the coast from there is one of the most spectacular collection of hairpin bends I have ever seen, reminiscent of a Greek version of San Francisco’s famous Lombard Strteet.
In the Nissaki area, I would recomend the two beaches we visited: Nissaki Beach and Kalami Beach. Nissaki Beach is tiny but very beautiful, set in a little horseshoe-shaped bay with a white pebble and shingle beach and aquamarine water. There are are three tavernas, (including one jutting out into the water); Nissaki Dive Centre offering PADI scuba instruction courses and dives; a watersports jetty offering water-skiing wakeboarding, ringo and banana rides; and a lovely gift/beachwear shop called The Loom. Also in Nissaki we found Nissaki Boat Rental where we rented a boat for the day on two occasions and explored the coves on the north-east corner pof the island that are inacessible by car (more on that later). Kalami Beach is another small but very pretty white pebble beach, made famous by the literary Durrell family (Lawrence and Gerald) who lived there in the 1930s. It has a few more amenities than Nissaki, including a couple of small supermarkets, shops selling beachwear (including the essential beach shoes to protect you from the sharp stones), and a number of tavernas including The White House – the former Durrell residence. There are beach loungers and umbrellas available but apparently these run out in high season so get there early. It’s a great place to people-watch, swim, snorkel and while away a lazy day.
To get away from it all though, do what we did and drive up to the north coast, passing though Kassiopi with its ruined Roman/Byzantine castle and pretty marina, on to Archiravi. Archiravi, although not particularly quaint or pretty, is one of the larger towns we passed through outside Kerkyra and is great for a morning’s shopping – lots of stores selling shoes and clothes, as well as the usual olive wood products and beachwear. You can also see some Roman ruins there – a bathhouse and a temple. We investigated Archiravi Beach, a 3km stretch of sandy beach accessed from the many side streets off the main road. Although sandy, we found it not to be as pretty as the beaches closer to Nissaki, but it is well-supplied with loungers and a pretty constant stream of tavernas along its length for refreshment. We much preferred Astrakeri Beach a little further west – a wide stretch of sandy beach that is mostly frequented by locals and nearly deserted on both occasions that we visited. The beach is backed by cliff and ends in a rather spectacular headland, and there is ample nearby parking. Loungers and umbrellas are available to rent and there are a couple of tavernas along the shore, offering lovely sea views. The only downside is that it is no good for snorkelling as the sand makes the water cloudy – but it is a treat to be able to go swimming without beach shoes!
The other activity that I cannot recommend highly enough is renting a boat to explore the secluded coves of the island. As I mentioned, we rented a boat for two days through Nissaki Boat Rental – no license or prior boating experience is required and the owner will give you a quick tutorial on how to steer, anchor and moor the boat when you collect it. (He also wagged a finger at us and said “no daytrips to Albania in my boat, OK?”!) There are varying sizes of boats available and our 8-seater cost us €65 per day excluding fuel. On both occasions we went north from Nissaki, travelling as far as Kassiopi and then turning back to find a quiet cove to moor in. As the main coastal road turns away from the shore at the north-eastern corner of the island, it is possible to find uninhabited coves where you can moor and spend the day splashing about in relative privacy. We did learn an important lesson on day 1 though. We had spotted a long pebble beach just south of Kassiopi with only one yacht already moored there, so we moored at the other end of the deserted beach. There were two plastic tables on the beach but we thought nothing of it as we enjoyed our private stretch of beach. Within ten minutes, two huge boats had moored alongside us and disgorged a boatload of daytrippers who stared at us as if we were some sort of exotic wildlife. The tables were where they served lunch. Lesson learned: avoid beaches containing plastic tables! We eventually left and made our way to Agios Stefanos for lunch, before anchoring in another cove on the way home to spend the afternoon snorkelling and swimming. On our second day out, we found a far smaller but very pretty pebble beach cove just round the corner from Kassiopi where we anchored in complete privacy all day, swimming, snorkelling and using our lilo as a bar counter in the shallows! Lunch that day was at Agni (all the tavernas have jetties and often a helpful waiter to assist you with mooring your boat – mooring is free all around the island) – but more about our taverna lunches in another post.
I have to say that it took me a while to get around to visiting Greece but I am now officially hooked. Seldom have I encountered friendlier people, a better late-summer climate, prettier beaches, or better food all in one place. If it is a seriously relaxing beach holiday you are after, I cannot recommend Corfu highly enough.
UK Office Tel: +44 207 1836468; Greek Office Tel: +30 26630 91609
The other thing we did rather a lot of in Greece was eating. I plan to do a couple of posts on the restaurants and tavernas where we ate, but that’s just half the story. Every night at home we cooked up a feast, using the abundant local ingredients. A stop at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand was a sensory treat; a visit to the local supermarket (Aphrodite’s) always yielded fresh local fish. I was in heaven. Every night, Nick and Jos would light the fire and the girls would do the necesssary kitchen prep, while music, drinks and banter flowed freely through the open kitchen window. One night, Aphrodite provided fresh sea bass which we cooked simply over the coals.
For many people, whole fish represents some sort of culinary final frontier. Some people refuse to buy or order it “because of the eyes” (!). Others find it hard to take home a meal that resembles almost exactly the beast it used to be in life. And yet others are just plain nervous about how they are going to cook it. Happily, I don’t fall into any of these categories. Cooking a whole fish is so childishly simple and yet bringing it to the table always elicits compliments – a high impact to effort ratio, you might say. There’s no rocket science to barbecuing a whole fish – just season the fish inside and out, and make sure there is enough butter or oil applied to the skin so that it does not stick to the barbecue grill too much. The result is sweet, succulent fish that still tastes of the sea – what better way to end your day? Kalí óreksi!
SEA BASS GRILLED WHOLE ON THE BARBECUE (serves 4)
4 whole sea bass, scaled and gutted (the freshest you can lay your hands on)
2 small lemons, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
salt and pepper
butter or oilve oil for the BBQ grill
You will also need a double BBQ grill that is secured at the handle so that the fish can be “sandwiched” in the grill and turned over en masse.
Wash the fish and pat dry. Make two slashes in the skin on each side of the fish. Season the body cavity of each fish with salt, pepper and oregano, then add a couple of lemon slices, a few onion rings and a little crushed garlic to each. Repeat until all the fish are prepared.
Rub each fish all over with olive oil and a little coarse salt. Also brush a bit of olive oil or rub a little butter onto the barbecue grill so that the fish won’t stick. Place the fish on the lower grill, the close the top grill over them and secure the two grills so that the fish are firmly clamped.
When your fire is ready (glowing coals rather than flames!), place the fish over the coals – 15-20cm above is fine – and allow to cook. Turn over once the first side starts to brown. Total cooking time should be between 20 and 30 minutes, depending on how hot your fire is and how high the fish are off the coals.
Serve immediately with a Greek salad and some crusty bread.
I am submitting this as my entry into Braai the Beloved Country, my annual event celebrating summery outdoor cooking and the best of the barbecue, co-inciding with South Africa’s National Braai Day. Please note: I have extended the deadline to Sunday 25 September to allow you to do your braaing this weekend – click here to read the submission guidelines!