I am here to visit my sister’s new home, and I find my expectations turned upside down. Unlike the expanses of white rocks and blue water that typify travel photos from Greece, Corfu – the northernmost island in the Ionian Sea – is a verdant jungle. In uncultivated fields, cypress trees compete with fragrant maquis. Honeysuckle drizzles over abandoned cisterns. Glistening in the ever-present sun, whitewashed villages spill down terraced slopes; on a narrow ridge, individual homes gleam like pearls in a necklace.Off in the distance, the island’s only city – Corfu Town – cradles in a bowl between two massive Venetian fortresses. A cosmopolitan counterpoint to village life, this crossroads of the Mediterranean combines the best of many cultures. Its surreal jumble of architectural styles reflects the waves of invaders that washed over the island’s shores. The Venetians defined the city with fortresses and ramparts, and left a legacy of ornate buildings in narrow alleyways reminiscent of their home; many Corfiots today trace their lineage back to the nobility of Venice. In the Venetian Quarter, closest to the sea, narrow passageways link tiny shops, hidden shrines, and small churches. Open doorways lead to marble entryways. Residents string their colorful wash far above the street. It’s a rabbit warren, a maze, a labyrinth with double-backs and dead ends. Secret gardens flourish behind wrought iron gates; buildings show their age in peeled layers of patched asbesti.
French influence persists in the Liston, a regal district of coffeehouses and restaurants along the Esplanade, a manicured expanse of grass between the city and the Old Fort. Here, young Corfiots gather to be seen. On Sundays, families stroll the Liston and the adjoining park, where the rotunda evokes déjà vu – Roger Moore once slipped behind it in For Your Eyes Only. Half-remembered movie scenes come to life as I visit distant villages and dune-swept beaches. The kitchsy Achillion Palace in Gastouri figured prominently in the movie; it was once the island’s casino. That honor now falls to the Hilton, perched on a hilltop in Kanoni.
The British brought their cricket games and ginger beer, and erected government buildings in the style of ancient Athens. A large British population persists to this day, making English-language signs commonplace and communication a breeze. I find two Internet cafes nestled deep within the city streets, strange neighbors for the open-air meat market and the workshops of olive wood artisans. Stepping back further in time, the nearby Archeological Museum contains wonders dating back to the 6th century B.C. In Kanoni, at the far end of the city’s sweep along Garitsa Bay, archaeologists continue to dig into an agora (marketplace) near Mon Repos.
No matter which direction we wander, the landscape inspires. Only thirty miles long and ten miles across at its widest point, Corfu has many breathtaking geologic features. On its northern tip, wave-washed clay sculptures frame the seaside resort of Sidari. On the northeastern coast, the town of Kassiopi lies in the shadow of the Albanian mountains. Its natural beaches are huge, flat blocks of limestone. The western outpost of Paleokastritsa is a delightful puzzle of secluded coves carved by pounding waves, punctuated by sea caves sparkling with gypsum crystals. A birds-eye view of its jagged seaside peaks and its 13th century monastery comes from the towering ruins of Anglokastro, a fortress built by the Crusaders on a promontory beyond Lakones.
Rocky coves with lovely sand beaches extend southward along the western shore, through Ermones, Glyfada, and Agios Gordos: all lay claim to the fabled shipwreck of Odysseus. Marshes and salt pans dominate the southern tip of the island. Yet one southerly beach at Issos is surreal, a place of canyonlands in miniature – low, long sandstone formations up to ten feet high, parting the sand dunes between the bird refuge at Lake Korission and the sea.
Modern tourists demand a giddy pace, so nightclubs abound just north of Corfu Town on the strip at Mandouki. On the mainland side of Corfu, two outposts of Club Med corral visitors into a narrow stretch of white sand beach. High-rise hotels and pubs crowd the beachfronts at Ipsos, Dassia, and Benetsis, catering to the masses that come each summer from England on inexpensive package tours. In the spring, these are the ghost towns, their empty beaches enjoyable on a warm day.
Real life goes on in each village, and it proceeds in Greek time – measured not in hours, but in afternoons and evenings. Fellowship is something to be savored. We sit under a fragrant drapery of hyacinth and discuss the merits of village wine. It seems retsina, with its aftertaste of pine needles, is reserved for tourists and the summer heat. In the springtime, the hand-crafted village wines of Corfu can be found at any taverna. The reds are sweet and light; each village wine, stored in casks, retains its own unique character. We admire the freshly painted homes, spruced up in preparation for the coming Easter celebration. Whitewash outlines steps, flows around cisterns, and creeps up trees. Doors and windowsills glisten in bright shades of green and blue. For Easter – the most important celebration in the Greek Orthodox Calendar – means a fresh start, the beginning of a new year, a blessing from the village pappa in the form of a charcoal cross upon the lintel.
Blue skies and warm days usher in the Holy Week. Music fills the air; children practice dances in ceremonial costumes. It’s hot enough for a dip in the sea. Bakeries feature wreath-shaped loaves studded with eggs dyed red. Street vendors appear, selling candles for the Easter ceremonies, cut flowers for the home, and toys for the children. I find it hard to say goodbye. I remember Lawrence Durrell’s warning from Prospero’s Cell – “This sedative quality, its bewitching engagement from reality, is something you will not be long in feeling here” – and for me, it is true. Corfu in springtime casts a spell that I will not soon forget.
Originally published in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, 1998