National Geographic Traveller (UK)

23 An island reborn

Corfu’s magic, immortalis­ed in the works of both Homer and Gerald Durrell, lies in its wild, deserted beaches, terracotta-tiled Old Town and sapphire-blue seas. Words: Zoë McIntyre


Crouching on a limestone rock, I peer over the precipitou­s ridge. Descriptio­ns online had warned of the steep descent to Giali, a wild beach only accessible on foot or by boat, but I hadn’t anticipate­d a journey quite this arduous. Tellingly, it was here on Corfu’s western shores that Homer’s mythical hero Odysseus was cast ashore on his long voyage to Ithaka; the views of water-chiselled rocks and sapphirebl­ue sea, hemmed in by a perfect crescent of deserted, pale sand, are certainly worthy of epic poetry.

Cautiously releasing my fingers from the crag — tufted with fragrant sage — I navigate the primitive ropes and ladders that slalom down the rock face. All I can hear are thrumming cicadas and the occasional jangles of goat bells carrying on the warm breeze.

This is Corfu in holiday season, but not as most people know it. Summers here typically draw thousands, yet writer and naturalist Gerald Durrell’s portrayal of Corfu and his exuberant childhood there in his novel My Family and Other Animals still holds true. ‘The magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen’, he wrote. Since my own childhood summers here, I’ve been in love with Corfu’s rose-gold light and verdant mountains, the sweet jasmine that scents the air and the cool Ionian Sea. It’s an affinity that deepens with discoverie­s like Giali beach — proof that storybook Corfu persists, but only for those willing to look hard enough.

Floating between the heel of Italy and the western shores of mainland Greece, close to the border with Albania, the strategic position of Kerkyra (as locals know it) has lured in outsiders since antiquity. It’s this legacy of foreign rule that you can see reflected in every street of the island’s atmospheri­c Old Town. Its two forbidding forts and patchwork of sinuous alleys, crammed with terracotta-tiled townhouses, are testament to four centuries of Venetian occupation; the elegant arcades and pavement cafes of the Liston extend to a lawned cricket ground left by the British in the 19th century.

It’s because of this Corfu wields a spirit that’s uniquely its own. The mummified remains of the island’s patron saint still lie enshrined in a gilt casket in the domed Saint Spyridon Church, while, concealed among tourist shops, are treasured, family-run enterprise­s, from the Alexis dairy shop (renowned for its cinnamon-topped rice pudding) to

Patounis soap, where olive oil soap is handmade on site. At the morning market, where fishermen display their catch and shawl-wrapped grandmothe­rs sell mountain herbs and fig cakes, locals greet one another so intently I fear a quarrel until back-pats and laughter break out.

The next day, I head for the Ropa Valley, Corfu’s agricultur­al heartland. Among neat rows of twisted vines, I find the sparkling, whitewashe­d facade of Theotoky Estate. It’s one of the oldest wineries in Corfu and the founder’s son, John Theotoky, served as Prime Minister of Greece.

Today, John’s granddaugh­ter uses only organic or biodynamic­ally grown grapes to produce the winery’s award-winning vintages. During our cellar tour, guide Stefania Lukanari shows a clip of the 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only, where Roger Moore forgoes a Cephalonia­n wine, saying: “I prefer the Theotoky áspro.” A visitor asks: “How much did that marketing cost?”. Stefania smiles wryly: “Actually, we knew nothing about it,” she replies. “But the Theotoky family would never need to pay.”

With my car boot clinking with bottles, I drive to meet my next local guide, Marcella Van Hemert, to make further inroads into the island on foot. We’re to tackle a northeast chunk of the Corfu Trail: a 136-mile walking route that stretches from the southern village of Kavos to the resort of Agios Spyridon on the northern coast.

Hiking the whole trail takes around 11 days, but we aim to tackle a seven-mile section on the northeast coast, looping from the high-up hamlet of Spartilas to Mount Pantokrato­r and back. Yellow waymarks point us up a steep, stony footpath from Spartilas through thickets and a tunnel of native holm oaks.

“Every day the landscape changes,” says Marcella.

For centuries, these thoroughfa­res were the only routes connecting villagers to their olive groves, she explains. Further on, we enter the roofless ruins of a tiny chapel to admire faded frescos of long-abandoned angels. We emerge from mossy woodland onto a rust-hued plateau dwarfed by the dry slopes of Mount Pantokrato­r, Corfu’s highest peak. There’s an elemental pulse to this wilderness; birds of prey swoop in the cloudless blue sky and yellow crocuses burst into life from between jagged limestone karsts. Marcella tells me she met her husband, Spiros, while hiking the trail; they spend their holidays clearing the footpaths.

I finish for the night in Old Perithia, the oldest village on the island, high on the northeast coast. In the 1300s, this lofty hinterland kept locals safe from pirate raids, but when tourism hit, the villagers abandoned it for the coast. Today, it’s bouncing back from near-extinction and many of the 130 or so stone house ruins are gradually being brought back to life.

I meet Marieke Schellen, who runs The Merchant’s House, the village’s only guesthouse, with her husband, David. “We visited the village and fell in love with it,” she says. The couple have preserved a rich sense of history in the 350-year-old mansion — my suite has wooden beams and shuttered windows, which open out over views of the village’s stone houses, in various states of ruin and repair.

At Foros taverna, in the village square, later that evening, I feast Corfu-style on flaky feta pastries, veal cooked in wine, and tsigarelli — wild mountain greens stewed with hot paprika. The air is cool, the stars magnificen­t.

In the morning, before another soul wakes, I explore the village’s eight crumbling chapels and umpteen derelict houses, some partially intact, others almost entirely reclaimed by nature. They’re tranquil and eerie — beautiful relics frozen in time. As I’m leaving, I spot a ‘for sale’ sign.

On my final day, I drive south west via a road that snakes past gnarled olive trees, cypresses and somnolent villages. Down a bone-rattling dirt track, past creaking gates and a gaggle of ducks and dogs, I find Bioporos’s crimson farmhouse. Criton Vlassis steps out, barefoot with a fraying straw hat that he tips in greeting. With his siblings, he’s now the custodian of his family’s 70 acres of organic farmland, demarcated by the turbid waters of Lake Korission.

Criton loves rural life and being outside, he tells me. In the summer months, he sleeps in a tent among the olive groves. When he’s not tending his bees or digging in his vegetable plot, he’s welcoming guests for farm walks and overnight stays in his two rustic guest rooms. His farm represents a new vision for tourism in Corfu — one that embraces both past and present.

Like so many Corfiots, Criton’s attachment to the land is strong. “We have four distinct ecosystems: cedar forest, lake, dunes and wetlands,” he explains as we explore the grounds, which are bathed in bright, afternoon sunlight. The sea-grass-strewn lagoon and its surroundin­g wetlands are separated from the sea by wind-blown dunes. Criton points out cormorants, egrets and flocks of leggy flamingos. Below, Halikounas Beach, set on a narrow strip of land between lake and sea, is a nesting ground for loggerhead turtles.

As the hazy sun begins to set, I sit on the terrace of my favourite taverna, Alonaki, a short drive north west up the coast, overlookin­g the bay, and make a final toast to Corfu with a glass of crisp Theotoky white. It’s a familyrun affair here, where the home-cooked dishes have changed little since my childhood. Gazing at the horizon, which is threaded with tangerine swirls, I’m reminded of Gerald Durrell’s words about the island: ‘Each day had a tranquilli­ty, a timelessne­ss, about it, so you wished it would never end.’

How to do it: Airlines including easyJet, Jet2 and British Airways offer direct flights to Corfu from across the UK. Aperghi Travel can organise guided day walks up to multiday trips along the Corfu Trail. britishair­ aperghitra­

Doubles at The Merchant’s House from £93, B&B. themerchan­tshousecor­

More info: visitgreec­

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 ?? ?? Criton Vlassis touring Bioporos, his family’s
organic farm
Left: Chillies drying in
the sun at Bioporos
Criton Vlassis touring Bioporos, his family’s organic farm Left: Chillies drying in the sun at Bioporos
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