Wednesday 6th April 2011, Corfu
Last night we landed in Corfu. The journey down the Adriatic lasted 26 hours. Those passengers continuing to Patras in mainland Greece still had a further few hours to contend with. As we neared our destination we found ourselves travelling parallel to the coast of Albania. Corfu actually lies just offshore from Albania. Nestling in folds of the barren, mountainous landscape we made out small isolated villages and occasionally a reasonably sized town. Unfortunately our car insurance does not permit us to drive into the country with Modestine. It looks a beautiful if wild and deserted countryside with snow still covering the higher mountain peaks and sandy tracks coming down to the edge of the sea.
Soon we'd passed through the narrow straight separating Corfu from Albania and we entered the harbour. The old town of Corfu lies between two massive defensive forts rising up on either side.
No sooner had we landed than we were flagged down by somebody eager to thrust a leaflet into our hands directing us to the nearest campsite, some twelve kilometres up the coast. As we'd no idea where to stay it was as good as anywhere. Actually, the brochure implied it was the most fantastic place not only in Corfu but in the whole of Greece. The reality is something less but the owner is pleasant and everything promised is there after a fashion. The swimming pool is green and full of very noisy frogs, the hot water seems to have gone on holiday, there are no doors or glass to the windows in the shower block and the free wifi only works within a few feet of the transmitter where there is no electricity to run the computers. We are surrounded by little stone huts with grass roofs which can be rented by those without their own tents. The brochure advises booking well in advance. We are the only customers and no more can be expected until the next ferry arrives from Italy in a few days time! Today a lady in town told us it was the best site around so we are not too hopeful for our planned tour of the island!
But we have olive trees on our pitch as well as grapefruits, oranges and lemons. Last night was balmy as we sat with our wine looking across towards the distant hills and as darkness fell we were surrounded by bright pulses of burning light as dozens of fireflies synchronised their flashes! It's astonishing that so much light can come from otherwise invisible insects in the darkness! Less enjoyable of course is the cacophony of frogs and the irritating single note of the little scop owls that live throughout southern Europe.
This morning we left Modestine and took the bus back into the town of Corfu. It's on the Unesco World Heritage list though I'm rather puzzled as to why. The historic centre is very pleasant with its narrow streets full of cafes, bars and souvenir shops. The forts too are imposing ruins from where there are usually good views across the bay towards Albania and, presumably mainland Greece. Today though we've had mist and rain and visibility has been hazy. It's also been chilly enough to need our coats! It's very different from the unbearable heat of Igoumenitsa on our previous Greek Odyssey.
Walking along the seafront in pouring rain, splashed by passing cars, dripped on by palm trees, we were soon soaked through. Chancing on a little cafe selling hot spinach pies and large mugs of filter coffee we stopped for lunch and to dry out. Our waitress came from Windsor! She'd come over some years ago and never gone back! Her Greek colleague also spoke excellent English and they were happy to chat as we waited for the rain to stop and Ian's knees to dry off.
Once the rain eased I found myself dragged by an enthusiastic Ian up to not one, but two forts, at opposite ends of the town.
Somewhere in between we discovered several churches including the one to Corfu's patron saint, Agios Spyridon. He lies entombed in a silver casket decorated with several icons. Women were kneeling on all sides of the tomb praying and kissing the images. We'd forgotten the religious fervour of the Greek people. The church itself, with its heavily embellished painted ceiling and Italianate paintings did not seem typical of the Greek Orthodox faith but seemed to reflect the centuries of Venetian domination.
Corfu town has an open, grassy area overlooking the bay. Here there is a cricket ground, a lasting reminder of the days when the British ruled in Corfu. Beyond it is the Palace of Saints Michael and George, a large building in classical style erected by the British between 1818 and 1824 to be the house of the Lord High Commissioner. William Ewart Gladstone was appointed to this role in 1859. It now houses, strangely, a museum of Asian art. We didn't visit as it didn't seem typical and anyway it had now stopped raining. The nearby town museum and art gallery laments the lack of interest shown by visitors so we turned up, eager to discover works by Corfusions – or whatever they are called - only to find the place closed and deserted!
Pausing for Ian to drool at a cake shop window we were lured inside by a cheery lady who explained what was in each sort of cake and how they were made. She advised us which one to buy, assuring us that she was a greedy lady who'd tried them all and this was her definite favourite. So Ian left with a large pistachio baklava swimming in honey and smothered in chopped almonds. She gave him an extra fork assuring him I'd want some too. She was right of course which was just as well, as it was far too sweet even for Ian to eat all on his own! Later we passed the shop again so I popped in to tell her it was every bit as yummy as she's said and we'd found it delicious. She was so delighted we'd gone back to tell her that she rushed out of her shop to kiss me in the street!!
Throughout the day we've been trying to read every incomprehensible sign in the Greek alphabet that we've seen! It's a real challenge and we've become quite good already at working things out so long as it's in capital letters. So many signs are written in both the Greek and Roman alphabet that before long we start to recognise combinations of letters. Of course we are only transliterating but quite often we can then work out what it's all about. We've been chuffed to decipher an optician, a pharmacy, a library, a baker, a doctor, a paediatrician and dozens more. We could of course just look in the shop windows and see what's on offer but we love the challenge and we've been positively squeaking with glee whenever we discover something new! Will we have the courage to start on lower-case Greek letters soon?
Corfu was the only part of Greece never to have been ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Venice held onto it until Napoleon dissolved the Venetian republic in 1797. After a brief period of rule by France and even more briefly Russia, it became a British protectorate in 1815 and was finally handed over to Greece in 1864.
Thursday 7th April 2011, Corfu
After the chill wet weather yesterday, today by contrast, has been hot and sunny – at 31 degrees it's been almost too hot at times.
After yet another futile attempt to use the campsite's wifi we gave up, booked out and set off to explore the north of the island. This evening we find ourselves back again, sharing the site this time with a Bulgarian campervan, because we have been unable to find anywhere else open! Fortunately the shape of the island meant the journey back here wasn't too much out of our way as we simply looped back across the middle.
Well Corfu is certainly very pretty and over the past couple of days the flowers have suddenly appeared everywhere. Climbing steeply up into the mountains we found the roadsides edged by the deep pink blossoms of the Judas trees, the grass beneath covered with wild marigolds and geraniums. All around the flowers seem to be opening as we watch.
Generally we have followed the coast road northwards around the island - the interior is like riding a helter-skelter with one hairpin bend after another. Besides, the scenery along the coastal route is sublime. The sea is clear and a brilliant blue with contorted grey rocky outcrops and tiny coves. The hillsides are covered, right to the water's edge in the grey green foliage of thousands of gnarled old olive trees with nets spread out beneath them to catch the olives once they ripen. Amongst them, dark slender cypresses stand tall, like thick green needles. There is hardly anyone around which is great for driving on the narrow roads. This is the best time to enjoy the island. We've not seen a single campervan all day, though down in the seaside villages, English voices can sometimes be heard from the terraces of the tavernas and bars.
We stopped for a cliff top picnic lunch with awesome sea views near the village of Kalami. This was where, from 1935 the writer and zoologist Gerald Durrell lived as a young child along with his sister and older brother Lawrence Durrell, the novelist and poet. Gerald Durrell wrote about his childhood here in his amusing account "My family and other animals".
At its nearest point, Corfu is less than a couple of miles from the Albanian coast. From the quayside in the little village of Kassiopi we could clearly make out individual buildings in the large coastal town of Sarandë across the water in Albania. Walking through the village we continued along a coastal footpath out onto a small headland where we were joined by a large ungainly but friendly dog who accompanied us for the rest of our walk. Seeing a long snake lying nearby we were unsure whether it was sleeping or dead until our canine companion settled the matter by bouncing cheerfully onto it. If it hadn't been dead, it certainly was now! Amongst the greenery of the cliff tops luxury holiday villas were tucked away, each with stunning sea views and their own swimming pools.
Later in the afternoon we wound our way down from the hills to sea level at Palaeokastritsi.
Leaving Modestine beside the water we walked up the steeply winding road to discover a tranquil monastery perched on a headland above the sea. Its whitewashed walls shone in the sunshine but inside the small church it was dark and cool with its painted iconostasis. On the walls were several icons. Except for the faces and hands the Greek saints were hidden by a chased silver cover. This is very common. I don't understand why and I wonder whether the entire icon has actually been painted or just the parts that show. There were trays of candles burning and numerous votive offerings placed before the icons. Outside the church lay a peaceful monastery garden with herbs and flowers, orange trees, large pot plants and several cats asleep on the benches. In a corner the monks' robes were hung to dry in the breeze blowing in across the sea.
On our way down we encountered a troop of very smelly goats returning home of their own accord as they were more than ready for milking. They'd surrounded a taxi on the narrow road bringing visitors up to the monastery, completely blocking its way.
So, a good day today. Tomorrow we'll explore the rest of Corfu to the south of here.
Friday 8th April 2011, Igoumenitsa
This evening sees us on the Greek mainland, slightly sooner than anticipated.
We left our Corfu campsite this morning to explore the south of the island. First we planned to visit Mon Repos, a villa in its own parkland on the edge of the town of Corfu. It was where the Duke of Edinburgh was born and is supposed to be an oasis of calm on a headland overlooking the sea. Having negotiated our way around the town's one way traffic system we ended up in a minor back street having somehow lost our way.
We gave up and continued southwards to the Achillion. Built on a beautiful hilltop high above an ugly little town (most Greek towns are ugly) stands the former home of Elizabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, popularly known as Sissi. Built in Pompeian style between 1889 and 1891, the house commands lovely views of the sea, the coast and the surrounding countryside and is set in pretty formal gardens with statues, terraces with stone balustrades, walkways shaded by overhanging wisteria in full mauve bloom and tall palm trees that at the time of our visit were being pruned! This entails sawing off the dead fronds before they fall and injure visitors. It leaves the trunk looking rather like a kebab.
We have encountered places linked with Sissi several times during our travels. As wife of the Emperor Franz Joseph she was a very popular monarch, particularly with the Hungarian people as she actually bothered to learn their language. She was assassinated in Geneva in 1898 at the age of 61 by the Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni.
After her death the house was owned by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia until the outbreak of WW1. It is now owned by the Greek government and used for European conventions. Only the ground floor and the grounds are open to visitors.
Unfortunately for us we chose a day to visit when thousands of Greek teenagers converged on the house in a convoy of coaches along with their teachers. They were perfectly nice young people but there were so many of them, moving from place to place as one massive group of several hundred students, that they made it completely impossible for anybody to get into or out of the building. We headed off to explore the grounds while they were inside but were soon swept up with the first wave arriving for their personal photo-shot with the giant statue of Achilles.
We continued on down towards the southern tip of Corfu. Here the island is long and thin. It's also much flatter than in the north and far less beautiful. Presumably it is less frequented by visitors and it looks scruffy and neglected with crumbling villages and roadsides strewn with rubbish. At Lefkimmi, the island's second largest town, no more than a straggling street of decaying properties, we searched for a bank. Widows dressed entirely in black wearing headscarves sat on benches chatting with elderly gentlemen with walking sticks and flat hats. We felt rather conspicuous as we walked the length of the town. On every corner stood a church that had once been splendid but like everything in the town, was showing signs of neglect and decay. We'd almost given up hope of finding a bank when on the very edge of the town we found the only one. It was smart and completely out of keeping with the rest of the buildings. We doubt many members of the local community never pass through its doors.
Financially solvent once more we drove down to the small ferry port on the off-chance of finding a ferry to mainland Greece. There were no campsites open anywhere on Corfu other than the one we'd left this morning. It would be half the distance to cross to Igoumenitsa and camp there! Our luck was in. The small ferry left an hour later with us on board along with a few cars and three freight lorries. Most vehicles cross from Corfu town on much larger ferries.
So in just three days we've explored most of Corfu. It has been perfect weather for visiting and we've had the island to ourselves. It has been enjoyable but it is not one of Greece's most exciting islands. There is little in the way of Greek temples or ruins that we could discover so apart from scenery it does not have a very great deal to offer – unlike Crete for example.
Last time we were in Igoumenitsa we couldn't wait to leave. The temperature was 43 degrees and we were melting as we waited two days for the ferry up to Venice. This time it was a mere 19 degrees, cool and comfortable with a slight haze. The town was as ugly and functional as we remembered so we drove straight out along the coast road to the same campsite we'd used before. (Kalami beach, 19 euros.) Even here there are only a couple of other campervans. Where is everyone? We had the choice of pitches so selected one right down beside the sea which gently laps the sand. It should lull us to sleep tonight. We are shaded by a eucalyptus tree and as we sat with our wine, taramasalata and sesame seed breadsticks this evening we watched a snake swimming in from the sea, exactly where I'd been swimming last time we were here! Tonight a couple of fishermen are on the beach with their fishing lines. One, I noticed, carries a trident! Unfortunately they don't seem to have caught anything so I'll never know how he intended to use it.
Tomorrow we head off inland across Greece.