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Corfu: Island of White Light

In homage to Gerald Durrell, who wrote Marrying Off Mother and My Family and Other Animals, both set in Corfu, I visited that Greek island with my mother—who, like Durrell's, was in no mood to be married off—and her dog, a brindle-and-tan dachshund I nicknamed Stepfather because his place on the hearth far surpasses that of a pet. "Where are you?" my mother can be heard yodeling to him throughout the day. Even with his head buried in the dirt, he never fails to respond to the call. At the Corfu Palace Hotel, in Corfu Town, it welled out of my mother's throat every time we were about to go out. The teeming jungle of scents that the hotel rug must have been to the creature's nostrils made him lie low—under the beds, to be precise, from where he had to be coaxed out or pried loose, which we accomplished by lying prone on the bed. We had breakfast on our veranda, beneath a flowering acacia, looking out through a gentle arch at a riotous garden of pink and purple petunias, plumbagos, marigolds, and zinnias, but even the scent of toast and Greek coffee failed to lure Stepfather out of hiding. So it was that we had a spirit dog with us—one that, at the end of a week, could have written volumes about the floors of cafés, the blue-gray carpeting of a rented Mitsubishi, the temperature beneath deck chairs, the smell of Corfu air (the fragrance of roasted corn, for instance, at night on the square).

We held in our hands a little piece of paper with the name and number of a person to call in Corfu. My mother had obtained it from a friend on the neighboring island of Paxos, where she has spent the past 20 summers. "Ileana," it said, and next to it were five digits we dialed eagerly as soon as we had settled into our room, treading somewhat gingerly around each other's sensibilities at the thought of the coexistence ahead. Ileana spoke good Italian and very good English, and in a mixture of both instantly invited us to her house for drinks that evening…but she would pick us up.

Docilely, we piled into her little white car. Once out of the driveway she turned left along the sea and up the incline to her house, in the center of town. She wore white trousers and a patterned short-sleeved shirt, and had short chestnut-colored hair and beautiful brown eyes with a slight downward cast, which inspected us carefully to see whether we might turn out to be bores. We entered the little lift she had just installed, took it to her floor (some of the others are rented to a consulate), and emerged into a corridor that led to a set of rooms overlooking the square. We sat on a settee while she fixed an ouzo for my mother and a Campari and soda for herself. It was the drawing room of one of the oldest and most stately five-story houses above the platia, the main square of old Corfu Town. At one end of the square is a cricket field; at the other, the porticoed cafés overlooking the promenade, called Liston, which is a replica of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris and where only aristocratic families inscribed in a golden book were once allowed to stroll. It was dusk, and the windows framed a view of treetops quivering with chattering birds, and the dark round mass of the old fortress, with a neoclassical temple nestled against it. Swallows circled in formations against orange clouds.

We must have passed the test, because we were adopted. Ileana took us swimming at the southwestern beach ofÁyios Yióryios, on the shore facing Italy. On the way she explained that long before it became fashionable to bathe in the sea, men would inherit agricultural estates, thought to be more valuable, and seashore properties went to women. So it was that, contrary to social intention and thanks to tourism, women prospered on Corfu.

Accompanied by Ileana's grandson Felipe and her Filipino housekeeper, we went to the beach of Pélekas with its black eroded rocks (called Stones of the Bride because a bride was once abandoned there as soon as she was married) jutting out of the chilly turquoise sea. We had lunch at the Pink Panther on a terrace amid olive trees and pines high above the beach, near a 17th-century village on a mountain ridge from which Kaiser Wilhelm II liked to admire the sunset. We went to the beach below the Mon Repos villa, where elegant Corfiotes gather at about 11 or 12 before disappearing home for lunch, and to the Corfu Reading Society, where men used to play cards and drink, and where parties were held. It is now a refuge for scholars and travelers. A learned young librarian with a romantic black patch over one eye showed us around. We dined at the Mermaid restaurant in Gouvía, eating little grilled fish called gavros, and Ileana introduced me to a friend's daughter who worked in a travel agency that was open till midnight, as are most businesses on Corfu throughout the summer. Katerina said in her deep voice, "I am taking a boatful of Italians to a beautiful beach called Kerasia, on the northern coast. Do you want to come?"

She picked me up at the Corfu Palace the next morning at a quarter to eight, a layer of chalky sunblock on her French-movie-star face, which was further shaded by a straw hat—one who lives on Corfu all year can hardly afford to expose her skin to the sun. At the harbor a neat white yacht awaited us. Beneath the hull of an Italian cruise ship, the waves rolled and the reflection of the early sun on the water scattered like mercury. Past the moored boats, Corfu Town's curved faÁade of genteel buildings jutted out to sea like the hull of an architectural ship, its Venetian stuccos bathed in pink morning light. Mist covered the wavy lines of mountain ranges in smoky shades of blue. The tall back of a Greek cruise ship pulling out of the harbor looked like a teetering cardboard set design blown out to sea on a puff of black smoke, as though it were on fire.

The yacht we were to board seemed immense, till the large Italian ship began to disgorge passengers onto it, filling it with row upon row of sweatpanted, T-shirted Italian tourists. The last ones on thronged the railing and blocked the view and the air. I stared ahead at the shirt of the person in front of me, pressed into the white plastic seat, and heard the dry jangle of her Walkman. A man dragged his young bride to stand before every new stretch of scenery and photographed her smiling a squirrel smile of delight. Video cameras were pointed at us from all angles.

At first, we headed south down the coast, past Mon Repos, where Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was born—the reason so many Corfiotes are named Philip and Philippa. Constantine, the ex-king of Greece, and a cousin, tried to recover the estate, maintaining that it was private property, but in the course of his lawsuit it was discovered to have been built over classical remains. Constantine lost his case and Mon Repos became the property of the Corfiotes. Some say that if he had only relinquished the part of archaeological interest, he might have been granted the villa.

The current mayor is a populist who believes that all the former royal residences and estates should be open to the public. So it is that one can take tea in the garden of the royal palace and bathe at Phaliraki, a rocky beach beneath the grounds that used to provide the royal family with access to the sea. It is now the city beach—a horseshoe-shaped concrete pier beneath the back of the old fort, with a café where people come on lunch breaks or after work. A habitué brought her dog to the café and said hello to a man who also had a dog. They sat and ordered Nescafé, shaken with sugar and ice so that it foams—a Greek version of cappuccino that most Corfiotes seem addicted to. Katerina explained that many cafés serve hot Nescafé if one orders Greek coffee, but that authentic Greek coffee, with thick grounds at the bottom, must be brought to a boil slowly, ideally over hot sand.

We went by the Achillíon, Empress Elizabeth of Austria's creepy palace (which, when she was assassinated, became the kaiser's summer residence), with its neoclassical heft blighting the beauty of the shore. There was once a bridge from her property to the beach, but it was demolished in World War II to allow the passage of German tanks.

Kerasia, to the north past a dreamy whitewashed turquoise-shuttered villa at Kouloúra that belongs to an Agnelli, and 1 1/2 nautical miles from Albania, is a deserted beach with only one shack of a taverna on it. Deserted, that is, until our arrival, when it filled magically with deck chairs and primary colors. A woman who had bathed and lain in the sun approached Katerina and asked, "Excuse me, miss, could you tell me the name of this island to which you have brought us?" It was still Corfu, the same Corfu she and her companions would not see more of since they were to set sail that evening.

Returning to their ship, Italians ever faithful to their square meals, they climbed the gangplank and headed for the dining room, where lunch awaited. No self-respecting Mediterranean braves the midday sun.

For Mediterranean people love the shade, and the Greeks are master builders of it—trellises, grape arbors, branching geraniums, roofs of brightly colored corrugated fiberglass tickled at the edges by tendrils of clematis and plumbago. Rows of tin pots, plastic pots, oil cans, olive cans, tomato tins, plastic mineral-water bottles with the tops sliced off, and the more noble terra-cotta pots painted white, with concentric ridges—anything is used to hold earth and a seedling. Every gardener has his or her whims: some paint all their pots turquoise, or all pale pink, or pink and white, or turquoise and green. And in Corfu plants flourish. Shortly after having been placed in the soil, they begin to look willfully there, uninvited, invasive as a jungle. One looks at a terrace, or a garden, and it is impossible to understand how it came about—which plant was planted first, whether there was a plan or the maze of stems, branches, foliage, and clouds of blossoms happened accidentally. It is what one has seen on every postcard from the Greek islands, but the unselfconscious spontaneity of it is still astonishing.

After three days of assiduous touring, we thought of giving Ileana and the vast web of acquaintances she had enlisted on our behalf a break. The peace and seclusion of a monastery seemed appealing. We drove to the western part of the island, to Paleokastrítsa, and up the mountain to the Theotokos Monastery, built on the site of a Byzantine fortress in 1228 and rebuilt with a Rococo flavor in the 1700's. I looked yearningly at the row of cells, each with its own shaded terrace overlooking a central courtyard with a vanilla-colored church at one end, the long-branched geraniums, scarlet bougainvillea, and red hibiscus tumbling over dazzling white walls. I thought that I had never seen a better model of architecture—a place where many could live but with the possibility of leading a separate existence, on a cliff above the sea.


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