If, like me, you were captivated by Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals when you were a kid you may also, like me, have been harbouring a a burning desire to go to Corfu – the setting for this wonderful book – well this May my long-held wish came true and found me (and him) about to embark on a memorable adventure – a walk around Corfu.
Here’s what Durrell had to say about Corfu almost 60 years ago. The island lies off the Albanian and Greek coastlines like a long, rust eroded scimitar. The hilt of the scimitar is the mountain region of the island (in the north), for the most part barren and stony, with towering rock cliffs haunted by blue rock-thrushes and peregrine falcons. In the valleys in this mountain region, however, where water gushes plentifully from the red-and-gold rocks, you get forests of almond and walnut trees, casting shade as cool as a well, thick battalions of spear-like cypress and silver trunked fig trees with leaves as large as a salver. The blade of the scimitar is made up of rolling greeny-silver eiderdowns of giant olive trees, some reputedly over five hundred years old and each one unique in its hunched, arthritic shape, its trunk pitted with a hundred holes like pumice stone. Towards the tip of the blade you have Lefkimi, with its twinkling, eye-aching sand dunes and great salt marshes, decorated with acres of bamboo that creek and rustle and whisper to each other surreptitiously. The island is called Corfu. Birds, Beasts and Animals Gerald Durrell 1969
While certain tracts of the coastline of Corfu have been swallowed up in tourist development, much of the interior is still instantly recognisable from Durrell’s description written during the five years that his family lived there in the 1930’s. Historic pathways of the interior, connecting one village to another, are still ‘off the beaten track’ that lead you into a landscape that is both wild and ancient The patchwork groves of gnarled and towering olives, citrus and almonds are still there. So too the picturesque coastline, topped by a white domed monasteries that lead to shingle coves of stained glass coloured sea – then, on the scimitars blade in the south, to wild sand dunes, lagoons, wind blown arching grasses and wading birds. There might be more hotels, cruise liners and golf courses, but you can get away from it all on the Corfu Trail – you just have to start walking!
The smell of the hilltops still lingers with me, wherever we walked was wonderful – heat, dust, wild sage, thyme with the occasional waft of something sweet and fragrant – jasmine or orange flowers.
And, if this isn’t enough to make you want to hop onto a plane and fly to Greece, Corfu Town (the capital) is one of the most beautiful I have ever visited. A UNESCO World Heritage site dominated by elegant Venetian villas in faded pastel colours, a palace, two ancient fortresses, a sweeping bay, churches, a large park and esplanade (where they play cricket!) and bordering the esplanade the Liston – an elegant arcaded terrace of fashionable cafes and restaurants that rivals anything in Paris. The whole place has a kind of crumbling grandeur about it.
Corfu owes much of its elegant architectural beauty to its history of occupation; being variously overrun in the past by the Venetians, French, British and Germans but, they will proudly tell you – never the Turks. This, they believe, is largely due to the divine intervention of the patron Saint of Corfu, St. Spiridon whose relic i.e. mummified body – is held in the Venetian church that bears his name and dominates the old town. In 1716 a Turkish force of 33,000 men sailed to Corfu and laid siege to the city. The naval attack was repelled by the Venetians with Count Schulenburg in command, but the attacking Turkish land army laid siege to the city for 22 days; being eventually defeated when word spread among the Turks that St. Spiridon had been seen wandering through the streets with a lighted torch and, taking fright, they retreated and surrendered.
NOTE: For classical music buffs: After the victorious outcome of the battle Venice honoured Schulenburg and the Corfiots for successfully defending the island by commissioning the great composer Antonio Vivaldi to write an oratorio – Juditha triumphant – one of only four that he composed in his lifetime.
The Corfiots, like a lot of Greeks, are deeply religious and superstitious people and their patron saint is held in great reverence – hence over 60% of males in Corfu are called Spiro and you will hear St Spiridon being called upon to intercede in all kinds of emergencies – traffic altercations, inclement weather, battery running out on phone etc. I love icon spotting and seeing if I can guess which saint it is by the gear he is wearing – it’s all symbolic e.g. George always has a dragon hanging about and John an eagle (he of clear eye). St Spiro is now instantly recognisable by his flowing white hair and, black crosses on his shoulders and, what looks like, a basket on his head – this goes back to his early days as a shepherd in Cyprus – apparently typical headgear from those parts. Whe he died in 348AD he was initially buried on Cyprus, but moved to the safety of Constantinople when it was overrun by invading Turks. When, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks, Spiridon’s relics were removed again to safety to Corfu – his final resting place but, as me travelling mate said “he looks like he’s been about a bit.”
NOTE: He cropped up later on in our trip on Sifnos island in the Cyclades – which has a tradition and history of ceramic making – old Spiro is also the patron saint of potters because he once used a shard of pottery as an analogy for the holy trinity being one thing but made from three – clay, fire and water. (This was at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325AD). As he was explaining this the shard apparently turned to dust in his hand, which no doubt increased his ‘wow’ factor, and his fame spread.
A favourite pastime of Corfiots and pilgrims, is to line up and kiss the blackened extremities of his mummified body which is kept in a kind of ice-cream cabinet in the depths of the church watched over by crow-like women who solemnly slide back the lid for you to bend in, pucker up and kiss the old saints blackened and shrivelled toes – I’m afraid I declined, but had the most overwhelming urge to ask for a Golden Gaytime. Margo, Durrell’s older sister, apparently caught the most frightful influenza from having a ‘pash’ with Spyro’s toes and was banned thence forward by her mother from indulging in “all that superstitious mumbo-jumbo.”
What finally got us there this year was not dear old Spiro but the discovery that a walking trail, from top to bottom – all 200km of it, had latterly been marked, mapped and documented – The Corfu Trail. This is a designated walkers trail with no vehicular traffic, but you might just find yourself sharing it with a farmer, his tractor and the odd flock of tinkling-bell’d goats, but that’s about as busy as it gets.
WHAT YOU WILL NEED
1. The trail notes accessed by downloading them from the website The Companion Guide to the Corfu Trail. They are PDF format and a few euros each – which you can get before you go.
2. The wonderfully detailed Corfu map by Freytag and Berndt 1:50,000 available in bookshops in Corfu Town (I love a good map!). When all trail markers had disappeared this saved our bacon many times when we were wonderfully lost, yet again.
HOW WE DID IT
We decided to stay in a small hotel on the north east coast (close to where the Durrells lived) Nissaki, hire a small car and access the Trail for day walks. This turned out to be ideal for us as we could swim every morning, before breakfast, in an azure blue cove just below the hotel; easily get to wherever we wanted to by car and come back to the same place every night without having to keep packing up and finding new accommodation. I had pre-booked this hotel before we left Australia and were fortunately able to extend our stay as we were outside the high season of mid-July to August and it was inexpensive – 35 euros per day.
DOING THE WHOLE TRAIL IN ONE GO
1. We gave a lift to a German woman (Karen from Berlin) who had stayed at our hotel for the night, and was about to set off on the last day of a ten day trip, starting in the south and finishing in the north, and covering the whole 220km in one go. She just had a small pack, carrying everything with her and found somewhere to stay every night. The previous night, high up in the hills, she had slept on the floor of a shepherds hut!. She, like us, did find, that much of the accommodation in Corfu is pre-booked through agents and, unlike in other parts of Greece, it’s sometimes difficult to find casual accommodation.
2. If you want to do the whole thing go through Aperghi Travel, based in Corfu, and they can organise it all for you from booking your accommodation and transporting your bags day to day – they can also provide a guide to take groups. We met one of these guides with his group, Spiro (of course!), high up in a mountain village and spent a happy half an hour or so over a Greek salad and tsitsibira (Corfiot ginger beer – a hangover from British rule – like cricket on the green) discussing the wild flowers we had seen that day and if I knew what a particular stem-clasping sage was? (Spiro, if you are ever looking at this, Smyrnium rotundifolium – I think)
|Our Greek not up to scratch for some of the signposting|
Walk 1: From PORTO to OLD PERITHEA via the highest peak on Corfu – PANTOKRATOR (980m). What magnificent views of the Albanian coastline, heady fragrance of all the wildflowers – too many varieties to count – and the air abuzz with so many insects and butterflies. The way not clearly marked and we took a wrong turn finding ourselves heading down to the coast instead of inland. Had a fortunate encounter with some other walkers – the only people we saw that day – who put us right and told us we should have turned up behind the goat shed!
Backtracked about 4km and eventually found our way to the base of Pantokrator and the ruined village of Old Perithea – once the capital of Corfu in the 14th century and now a village of 130 ruined stone buildings – which are gradually being restored – with, thankfully, four working tavernas, being a regular stopping off point for those climbing to the summit.
We wandered around happily among the ruins, donkeys, chickens and burgeoning vegetable gardens with people starting to re-inhabit this tranquil place – there is even a 4star B&B, The Merchant’s House. With lunch under our belt we headed back to Porto and our hire car parked in the grounds of the old church.
About 12km round trip and an absolutely wonderful day’s walking.
The absolutely best thing about walking is that you leave the madding crowd behind – you rarely meet a soul. Corfu has long-been a mecca for British package tourists, Italian holidaymakers and cruise trip day-trippers, which can be really overwhelming in the town and resorts but, up here, you have it all to yourself and it’s heaven.
Having taken the advice of Spiro, the walking guide we had met the previous day, we set out to do a circular walk to some of the northern inland villages that started in SOKRAKI – a two donkey wide village where the locals gave all sorts of advice about where the Corfu Trail might start – none of it helpful – eventually being put right by olive wood turner, whom we spotted in a little workshop (Spiro!!) who spoke good English.We were headed for some of the loveliest and remotest villages on Corfu that are full of myth and legend, walking past groves of flowering orange and almond trees.
Such a contrast to the previous walks – now in quite dense shade from towering olive trees – some over 7m – marvellously gnarled, mossy and full of fist-like holes. Everywhere else we have ever been in Greece – from the Peleponnese to Santorini – the olive trees are radically and regularly pruned, but not on Corfu and I don’t know why? Spotted many new species of wildflowers, butterflies and birds (and lots of shotgun cartridges!). After, what we thought was going to be a 6km walk which turned into 10km, and getting lost again, we just about made it to the village of Horepiskopi before a sudden and torrential downpour shrouded the valley in a veil of mist. We just made it in time to the local cafe before the rain came down in drenching sheets. Thankfully dry, and with a spanakopita and coffee inside us, we called it a day and got a taxi back to our car. It cost us 25 euros but, I think I would have paid 100!
We had dinner to look forward to at our taverna at Nissaki – ‘Mitsos’ run by Agatha and her family.Best homemade taramasalata (she made it with finely sieved potato instead of bread), meatballs and daily specials – here we were having gavros (fresh anchovies) – my favourite.
I’m not a fan of chips, but she made the best, crispy with creamy yellow flesh. The half litre of local white wine was cold and good too AND the very best meatballs in tomato sauce. Unlike most Greek food these are spicy with chilli and cinnamon.
Walk 5: AGIOS GEORGIOS to PALEOKASTRITSA MONASTERY
The monastery is well worth a visit, if you can find a quiet time – it has a beautiful garden, olive press in a cave and stunning iconography and adornments in the church. We were there on a day when coach loads of Orthodox Russian tourists had arrived from a visiting cruise ship in Corfu harbour. Crammed into queuing behind them I was transfixed as the women shrouded themselves in headscarves, kissed the icon of the Virgin Mary and genuflected so low that their hair swept the floor, back and forth several times.
There is also something else that attracts visitors – the bay of Paleokastritsa is steeped in Homeric myth and supposed to be the place where Odysseus’ ship was wrecked (the rocky headlands said to resemble the ship) and, in his nakedness, where he first clapped eyes on Nausikaa.