My fam­ily and other sailors

Wind in the sails and Dur­rell mem­oirs to hand on a boat­ing odyssey from Corfu to Ithaca

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - JAMES JEF­FREY

THE trilling of a so­prano wafts from the stone ram­parts of Corfu’s Old Fort, drift­ing down through the pink blaze of bougainvil­lea and min­gling with the me­tal­lic din of the ci­cadas.

Thus re­in­forced, the sonic cock­tail washes across the ta­bles of the ma­rina’s open-air restau­rant and through the tin­kling, sway­ing for­est of masts be­fore dis­si­pat­ing across the nar­row strait. As loud as the ci­cadas are, I have to con­cede they prob­a­bly can’t hear them across the water in Al­ba­nia. Not quite.

Two of those masts rise from the Mat­tie Chris­tian, the fetch­ing blue ketch that my par­ents-in-law, Garth and Sue, very thought­fully keep here and which will be car­ry­ing us in its 14m steel em­brace through Greece’s Io­nian ar­chi­pel­ago to Ithaca.

But first, a swim. Pick­ing our way over a peb­bly beach nearby, my wife, Bel, and our chil­dren — Daisy, 8, and Leo, 5 — have our first taste of what will be­come so won­der­fully fa­mil­iar over the fol­low­ing fort­night: de­li­ciously warm, im­prob­a­bly clear water vi­brat­ing with fish, not least the blennies bound­ing along the bot­tom, peer­ing up at us with Marty Feld­man eyes.

This af­ter a week in my mother’s home town of Pecs, which blush­lessly flogs it­self as the ‘‘Hun­gar­ian city with the Mediter­ranean at­mos­phere’’, un­trou­bled by the ab­sence of said Mediter­ranean.

Just above us is the splen­didly colour­ful jum­ble of Corfu town, all painted wooden shut­ters, peel­ing plas­ter, nar­row streets, wind­ing al­leys and lime­stone, the prod­uct of four cen­turies of Vene­tian rule. There was also a Bri­tish pe­riod (voila, a cricket green) and, alas, an Axis interlude that cli­maxed on the night of Septem­ber 13, 1943, when the Luft­waffe vis­ited.

The war put an end to the idyl­lic Corfu de­scribed so evoca­tively and so dif­fer­ently by Ger­ald and Lawrence Dur­rell. Daisy and Leo are yet to en­counter the words of the el­der Dur­rell, but they’ve just had a solid dose of Ger­ald. When we find busts of the broth­ers in a small park near the fort, we haven’t long to wait be­fore Leo — a pic­ture of in­no­cence in his blue and white Greek shirt, the Mediter­ranean light turn­ing his cheru­bic curls gold — cheer­ily an­nounces, ‘‘By gollys, I fixes the bas­tards.’’

This is the one draw­back of read­ing My Fam­ily and Other An­i­mals to young chil­dren. As much as there is to love in the book, it’s the por­trait of the Dur­rells’ big­hearted but en­er­get­i­cally pro­fane driver and fixer Spiro that’s struck a chord. ‘‘Sons of a bitches,’’ Daisy says by way of em­pha­sis.

Think­ing vaguely of Spiro and his bat­tered old Dodge, we suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion of a day of ex­plo­ration by car, an ex­pe­di­tion that takes in many a hair­pin bend and white knuckle, but the odd mo­ment of ter­ror is com­pen­sated for by some un­al­loyed bliss. De­spite the steady blight­ing dur­ing the seven decades since the Dur­rells’ time here, there are still swaths of Corfu, from pale cliffs and glassy bays to the vis­tas of cy­press pine and olive ( for the Io­nian is­lands are as green as the Aegean ones are bare), that give a sense of the world they landed in.

Shortly be­fore he died, Ger­ald echoed his brother: ‘‘ It was like be­ing al­lowed back into Par­adise. Our ar­rival in Corfu was like be­ing born for the first time.’’

I’m not sens­ing any re­birth in Daisy and Leo, but they do seem to be in heaven. Bel and I are get­ting a sense of the ethe­real in the monastery at Pa­le­okas­tritsa, light­ing a can­dle and sit­ting be­neath the icons, lost for a mo­ment be­neath the con­stel­la­tion of dark faces in their frames of sil­ver and gold, pon­der­ing the tran­quil­lity of a place that used to get razed on a reg­u­lar ba­sis by Turks and pi­rates, and some­times, pos­si­bly for ef­fi­ciency’s sake, by Turk­ish pi­rates. Then a black-clad old wo­man belches thought­fully be­hind us and re­turns us to earth.

In the bay be­low, we swim to a grotto where Ja­son and Medea may or may not have mar­ried, and gaze out at strik­ingly shaped rock that looks as though it’s sail­ing some­where and is, pos­si­bly, Odysseus’s ship turned to stone by a tetchy Po­sei­don.

No such strife for the Mat­tie Chris­tian and we even­tu­ally set off for Paxos, sail­ing down the east coast of Corfu. Off to port, the bald moun­tains of Al­ba­nia re­cede into the mist. Garth headed over there on Mat­tie re­cently and his abid­ing mem­ory is of a shoe shop con­sist­ing of a ditch scraped out of the earth and un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously filled with footwear; I have some doubts un­til he shows me the photo.

Al­ba­nia soon gives way to main­land Greece and de­spite all the coun­try’s eco­nomic woes, I re­luc­tantly tell my­self there’s no point star­ing across the water and imag­in­ing shoe ditches there.

I stare in­stead at the sea, mes­merised by its in­ten­sity. Even Lawrence Dur­rell, who didn’t revel in vis­ual im­agery with quite his brother’s or­gias­tic gusto, was moved to re­mark on it in the open­ing line of his Cor­fiot mem­oir, Pros­pero’s Cell: ‘ ‘ Some­where be­tween Cal­abria and Corfu, the blue re­ally be­gins.’’

For us, it is beau­ti­fully off­set by the flu­o­res­cent orange of the life­jack­ets on Daisy and Leo, com­men­tat­ing mer­rily from their perch on the bow and tak­ing their nau­ti­cal du­ties very se­ri­ously. Pa and Granny are their com­mand­ing of­fi­cers and Daisy and Leo show them a de­gree of obe­di­ence that makes their par­ents look on in won­der.

With the south of Corfu still in sight, we reach Paxos and an­chor in a bay so un­fea­si­bly pale blue, the only cor­rect re­sponse is to whip out the masks and snorkels and leap over­board; it’s like jump­ing into a warm crys­tal.

All around us there are fish with stripes, fish with spots, fish in glit­ter­ing cur­tains, fish trail­ing long pec­toral fins like ex­hausted an­gels. We see the ghostly out­lines of tiny floun­ders on the white sand, wrasses in stripes of pas­tel green and orange, ser­pen­tine mo­rays, and starfish with limbs like orange sausages.

Then there are crea­tures I can only de­scribe some­what less specif­i­cally as frilly what­sits and mys­te­ri­ous tassly things. The kids’ ex­cite­ment man­i­fests it­self as muf­fled roars and blasts of bub­bles from their snorkels.

We ex­per­i­ment with talk­ing un­der water, but it’s like a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween a trio of den­tal pa­tients. Not that this stops us from try­ing.

As a nod to land­lub­ber ac­tiv­i­ties, we go walk­ing among the gnarled and ter­raced olive groves, ac­com­pa­nied by the ubiq­ui­tous ci­cada cho­rus. An­other im­por­tant land­lub­ber ac­tiv­ity in­volves re­pair­ing to the ter­race of a water­side restau­rant; as we are to dis­cover, its credit card ma­chine is suf­fer­ing some mys­te­ri­ous mal­ady and the restau­rant is, most re­gret­fully, only able to ac­cept cash; it’s a hic­cup we dis­cover is re­mark­ably, but surely coin­ci­den­tally, af­fect­ing ev­ery­where we go in Greece. The oc­to­pus, how­ever, is de­lec­ta­ble.

We set off for Le­fkada in the pre-dawn cool, Mat­tie’s deck grid­ded with moon­shad­ows, the sky adorned with the Big Dip­per be­hind us, Jupiter and the Pleiades ahead. When day­light comes, so does the swell. As we get closer to where Antony and Cleopa­tra had their fate­ful sea bat­tle against the forces of Oc­ta­vian, the fu­ture Au­gus­tus Cae­sar, I’m belted by sea­sick­ness, stom­ach trem­bling in faint trib­ute to the earthquake that hit here in 1953. (In a ran­dom mo­ment, I re­mem­ber Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor’s gag about an in­sect ver­sion of the Shake­speare play — An­ten­nae and Coleoptera — but this doesn’t help with the queasi­ness.)

There are tremors of a dif­fer­ent kind later in the day as we tra­verse the Le­fkada canal, when a broad cata­ma­ran sweeps past us in the op­po­si­tion di­rec­tion, throb­bing with mu­sic, its deck pounded by the feet of a pla­toon of cheer­fully dumpling-shaped women hav­ing a disco; it’s nearly as ar­rest­ing a vi­sion as Garth’s shoe ditch.

As we sail far­ther south through the labyrinth of chalky cliffs, ruin­dot­ted ridges and gaily coloured vil­lages, the kids’ Harry Pot­ter is put to one side and the Greek mythol­ogy comes out, Dum­ble­dore and Hermione re­placed by

Arg­onauts and Golden Fleece, sirens and gor­gons, Achilles and Agamem­non. (When we even­tu­ally make it to the Acrop­o­lis Mu­seum in Athens a cou­ple of weeks later, Daisy marches off in search of her favourite gods and Leo al­most bursts with ex­cite­ment when he recog­nises the shapes on the side of a jug: ‘‘Look! Si­wens! Si­wens!’’)

Yacht life is like liv­ing in the mid­dle of a vast swim­ming pool and the temp­ta­tion to sim­ply drop over­board, even if it’s just for a cou­ple of recharg­ing min­utes, is suc­cumbed to reg­u­larly, not least by the kids. Each new day sees them snorkelling with grow­ing con­fi­dence and even tak­ing Mat­tie’s ten­der, the Limpet, out for lit­tle ad­ven­tures.

One morn­ing, af­ter a night spent in a small, main­land bay near Le­fkada, I watch them row ashore. My throw­away men­tion that they could walk all the way to China has pos­sessed them and I watch them care­fully as­sess­ing the trails from the beach for suit­abil­ity.

By the time we reach Me­gan­isi, on­board life has well and truly set­tled into a rhythm. Be­tween hurl­ing our­selves into the wel­com­ing sea or ex­plor­ing the shore, the kids are writ­ing in their jour­nals or ab­sorb­ing myths, and the adults sink­ing into their books. ( Sue is read­ing, with a slight frown, a Hun­gar­ian novel I brought from Pecs. Soaked as it is in Mag­yar neu­roses, it pos­si­bly wasn’t the per­fect choice for some­where as shad­ow­less as this. Her tin-whis­tle lessons from Daisy are a help­ful restora­tive.)

Some nights we dine on deck be­neath the north­ern stars, our meal ac­com­pa­nied by the lo­cal chateau de plas­tique. Other nights we head ashore to the lo­cal restau­rants and tav­er­nas to feast on every­thing from mar­i­nated oc­to­pus to pork sou­vlaki. And as we wan­der through white­washed vil­lages, it’s un­canny how we keep run­ning into peo­ple Garth and Sue know.

Even­tu­ally it’s time for the run across to Ithaca and this is where Bel and Garth — the ac­tual sailors of the party — rev into ac­tion. All sorts of things I still don’t un­der­stand click and whir, and as the sails un­furl we surge to­wards Ithaca, bounc­ing across the water while Garth ex­cit­edly calls the speed read­ings from the cock­pit. This time, I’m un­trou­bled by sea­sick­ness, blasted by the salty spray while the is­land lurches ma­ni­a­cally be­fore us.

It is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ride and I’m a lit­tle sad when we fi­nally slow down to slide past a hill­side stud­ded with the fort-like forms of a trio of stone wind­mills guard­ing the bay of China.

In a few days we’ll qui­etly slide off next to door to Ke­falo­nia, where a ferry will take us to the main­land, but for now we’ll just pre­tend we don’t have to ever leave Homer’s shin­ing Ithaca.

As he wrote in the Odyssey, ‘‘It is rough, but it raises good men.’’ Not quite as zesty as Spiro, but I have ev­ery con­fi­dence his words will soon be trip­ping off Daisy and Leo’s tongues. Give or take a few stray bas­tards, by gollys. vis­it­ io­nian-is­­nian


The crowded har­bour of Kioni, on Ithaca, marks the end of the sail­ing jour­ney from Corfu

The fetch­ing ketch Mat­tie Chris­tian,

right Leo and Daisy on board as the ketch ar­rives in Paxos

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