My family and other sailors
Wind in the sails and Durrell memoirs to hand on a boating odyssey from Corfu to Ithaca
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. visitgreece.gr ionian-islands.com greeka.com/ionian
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