I fell in love with Greece a long time ago, without actually ever going. Gerard Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals bewitched me. I read it as a child, and then to my own children. He painted an idyllic countryside of olive groves and woods running down to the sea; of pink houses covered in vines and filled with intellectuals and free spirits who came to lunch and stayed for the summer.
I’ve treated old soldiers who fought in Greece during WWII and the chaos which followed. They spoke of the warmth of the people who kept them alive during the freezing winters, of their first taste of yoghurt as they hid in the hills from the Nazis.
Then I discovered Byron:
The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung
Were grew the art of war, and peace
Where Delos rose, where Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer guilds them yet
But all, except their sun, is set.
Sailing Into Corfu
My knowledge of Greek history was below rudimentary, and I had no knowledge of these mythical people. Yet a magic lay in these lines, which spoke of a place bathed in beauty but drowned in tragedy.
We docked early in the morning, but the heat of summer soon filled the day. The waters of the Mediterranean were still, and the shadow of our boat sailed alongside us. The Greek financial crises might be in full swing, but expensive yachts filled the harbour. Everywhere lay people sunning themselves – on rocks, on the stony beaches, on slabs of concrete. The water looked so inviting, glistening in every shade of turquoise.
The port bus dropped me off at the Old Fortress, which has stood guard over the town since it was built by the Venetians in the 16th C (although fortifications have been here since about 8th C AD). It was literally crumbling away – Montenegro and Dubrovnik may have preserved their past as a fairytale, but here I stood amidst the living ruin of life. Corfu felt alive. From somewhere came the sound of a piano, arpeggios tumbling through the air.
I sought the shade offered by some wisteria covering a small arbor – by the size of its trunk the vine looked at least 100 years old. A cooling breeze blew in from the water.
By now I had discovered how Corfu in summer is hot. The sun blazed down on the city and bounced off the blocks of marble until the very air was burning. As an Australian I thought I knew heat. I’ve lived through many a bushfire summer and done my travels through the tropics. The heat of Corfu was completely different, radiating from the streets and buildings until my skin felt as if it was crackling.
Some 30 years after finishing the Old Fortress the Venetians built the New, and old Corfu lies sandwiched between the two. Her buildings and streets have been painted by centuries of invaders, from the Romans, the Venetians, the French and through to the English, who thoughtfully left behind a cricket pitch.
From the Old Fortress I braved the heat and walked down to the Liston. A line of carriages stood waiting for a tourist fare, the horses glistening in the sunshine as the drivers sat chatting in the shade. Bordering one side of the Esplanade, the Liston is the centre of cafe life in Corfu. Locals sat watching the world go by, explorers nourished themselves for their next conquest, others lingered over coffee and a shared plate. Built during the French occupation, the Liston takes it from the list in the Venetian-styled Libre D’Oro – only those noble families listed in this ‘Golden Book’ were allowed to walk here.
Corfu’s Old Town
From the Liston, I wandered through the maze of the old town, getting myself completely lost in the process. They shops cater almost solely for tourists, yet I had so much fun window-shopping. I could easily have spent all day exploring, especially as I kept passing the same glove shop. (Who wears gloves in this heat?) Kumquat liqueur is a specialty, and I happily tried any sample sent my way.
The holiest part of Corfu is the Agios Spyridon (St Spyridon Church). All morning the red-topped belfry peered at me from down side streets and alleyways. I knew I neared the church when the shops began selling icons.
The Spyridon is quite dark inside. After being in Venice, I was glad to be in a church where the worshippers outnumbered the tourists. Near the altar stands the konostasis, a screen covered with icons donated by pilgrims. Amongst the smoke and incense the icons seemed far more at home than they ever do smothering each other on the the walls of a shop. shop. Behind the konostasis a steady stream of the faithful were queueing to see the silver sarcophagus containing the mummified remains of St Spyridon, (the patron saint of Corfu). The women slid scarves over their heads as they passed behind the altar.
The Spyridon is the perfect place to absorb the spirit of Corfu. I sat for a while in the darkness. Through the open doors I could see blazing sunshine. The burning candles scattered around the church somehow added to the gloom, although some of them stood 4 or 5 feet tall.
After the Spyridon I managed to stray from the tourist track into more residential areas. Small corner stores sprouted between the houses, which in turn were covered with balconies and flowers. Some of the streets were cobblestones, others were basically steps – with the occasional Vespa trying to navigate them. I kept passing local cafes, or the occasional taverna spilling across a square, filling the air with the aromas of garlic and rosemary.
Lunch was at a taverna overlooking Homer’s wine-dark sea. We sat under a vine-covered trellis, as the waiter dodged traffic to bring us our meals (the kitchen and main restaurant being on the other side of the road). Meze consisted of octopus, plus pastry triangles filled with spinach. My main was a traditional Corfu dish, pastitsada rooster, while my husband had a totally unknown fish cooked in a spiced tomato sauce. Both were delicious.
There was still much to see – such as the Byzantine Museum, the Palace of St Michel and St George, the Mitrópoli or Town Hall – but the heat of the day proved enervating. What else to do, but follow the tradition of a siesta?
The Literary Traveller
Gerard Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is an absolute delight. A memoir with more than a touch of fiction, My Family and Other Animals takes you into the world of expat in Greece after WWII. Durrell’s family is colourful enough without the cast of characters who roam through the pages. Then there are the animals, from butterflies to scorpions….
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