Corfu: Island of White Light

Corfu: Island of White Light

Throughout history just about every country-- Italy, Turkey and Russia, France, England, and finally Greece-- has ruled Corfu. Who can blame them?

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.

A long-bearded priest in black robes, who had been sitting on a stone bench by the walled garden, preceded me into the church and pointed to where I should sit. I remarked on his hat: black—naturally, as Orthodox priests wear the—but with a border quilted in a pattern of leaves; he had sewn it, as well as the other clothes he wore. He said he would give it to me if I gave him mine, a crushed black cotton thing that was my meager barrier against the sun. Suddenly, he took my elbow and pulled me out of my seat, waving his bearded jaw at a framed object at the back of the church. It was an embroidery he had made in the course of 30 months, three hours a day, using silk, gold, and silver thread, representing the death of Mary. He had sewn it while he was still at the Monastery of Mount Athos, where he had spent 30 years steeped in silence. "Too many tourists here at Paleokastrítsa," he complained, "too many veemen in chortzes."

He showed me the ex-votos, strings hung low with gold rings, crosses, charms, and medals across the bottom of images of saints and Madonnas. "Peoples everythings problems come heres: no married, no baby…problem heres, and heres…" He pointed to a knee, an elbow. "After baby okay, after finish problem, give wedding rings." A golden leg and foot made into pendants were some of the other "thanks" for favors received.

In the following days, we went to a beach called Pagos (which means "ice") because it is bathed by icy cold waters, and to another, in Sidhari, called Canal d'Amour, where swimming through the sinuous channel of cerulean water between tall eroded rock formations guarantees everlasting love, according to local lore. We visited every part of the island except the southernmost, which can be reached only by four-wheel drive or boat. I would say that the charm of Corfu is concentrated in its city and its villages—in the Venetian elegance of the one, and the bucolic white, pink, and turquoise Greekness of the other. The island was occupied by the Venetians for more than four centuries, until 1797, by the French Republic for two years, briefly by the Turks and the Russians, by the imperial French till 1814, then by the English (hence cricket as a national sport and ginger beer on every café menu). It was finally ceded to the Greek state in 1864, along with the other Ionian islands.

Near the end of our stay on Corfu, during a cocktail party in Ileana's drawing room, I felt the parquet floor wobble beneath my feet, and my body rock. I thought it must be Kula the cook bearing a tray of glasses from the kitchen. But the rocking increased, and two women and one man, as though in a relay, said, "Seismos," "Seismos," "Seismos." Even I knew what that meant—earthquake. Everyone continued to talk and sip white wine; the powder blue taffeta crinkled, the gold medusas on Versace sunglasses flashed, the cravat tucked into a shirtfront glistened, and floors rattled. The woman in the taffeta pushed a gray lock slightly off her forehead and said placidly, "A little shake does everyone a world of good."

In our hotel room that night, there were seven long-stemmed red roses, wrapped in cellophane, lying on one bed. A note said, "Welcome to Corfu! Love, Babis." Did my mother have a secret suitor?She denied the charge, so I called the concierge to inform him that the roses must be for someone else. No, he insisted, he was quite sure they were in the right room. A minute later, the phone rang: "This is Babis," a male voice boomed. Then, more menacingly, "Remember Babis?"

"No," I mumbled, beginning to feel it was a conspiracy, "you must have the wrong…"

"Babis!" he yelled into the phone, "Marika's Babis!"

Finally, I saw the light: he was the son of a woman on Paxos whom my parents had known for 20 years; he owned a restaurant on the road past the new port of Corfu. "Oh, Babis!" I cried, relieved.

Now that he had at last been recognized, that he knew himself to be among friends, he became violent. "You are here. You don't come to see Babis. Don't eat in Babis's restaurant. Not even coffee. I do something wrong?i am very angry!" he concluded with unexpected vigor, considering I had met him only once years before. We made amends by allowing him to feed us for two hours at his restaurant, under an arbor, with the cars speeding by on the road, but beyond it the sea and fishing boats painted white, turquoise, and red. Little fish and big fish came to the table, with fried potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta. On the speaker, to bouzouki accompaniment, a man sang in English with a pronounced Greek accent, "How do you like, mum-zelle, dee Griss?"

Mum-zelle liked. The Corfiotes had welcomed us with open arms, included us in every plan, dinner, beach excursion…earthquake. As our departure approached we were ships receding on the horizon of their affection. Have a nice winter, they said, no one will be left but the cats. Still, Corfu is a place in which to dream of being an expatriate: worldly enough to tempt one with the notion of living there year-round; remote enough to be an escape. A place where a dog, even a spirit dog hovering close to the ground, can admire the underside of cats, the cushioning of their paws.

The farthest north of the seven Ionian islands, and the one closest to Italy, Corfu can be reached by direct charter flights from several European cities besides Athens (which should be avoided in the summer because of its air traffic congestion), including London, Rome, Paris, and Frankfurt. It is the greenest of Greek islands, with the most cosmopolitan of cities. A car to tour the island, from Mount Pandokr·tor in the north, to the hilly center, and through the south at least as far as Petriti, is highly recommended.

The best view of the historic center of Corfu Town is from the terrace of the Cavalieri hotel. Go at sunset to see the swirling swallows, the old fort and the new, the entire city at night. No description could capture the sweeping beauty of it.

Corfu Palace Hotel 2 Democratias Ave., Corfu Town; 30-661/39485; doubles $196.
For the sense of being on holiday in the middle of a city, thanks to the large garden, the seawater pool, and its position overlooking the bay. Rooms on the lower floors that have terraces opening onto the garden feel like bungalows.

The Cavalieri 4 Kapodistriou, Corfu Town; 30-661/ 39336; doubles $74‚$130.
A recently restored five-story mansion, with very pretty, simply furnished, old-fashioned rooms. The breakfast-only dining room is a bit gloomy, so escape when you can.

Best Value Bella Venezia 4 Zambeli, Corfu Town; 30-661/46500; doubles $66‚$76. Very near the Esplanade in a charming villa with 32 rooms; there's a breakfast buffet in the garden.

Faliraki Arseniou St., Corfu Town; 30-661/30392; dinner for two $22. A terrace around a pink-washed house right on the water, just below the old fortress, with Greek specialties, such as moussaka, prepared a little more delicately than usual.

Venetian Well 1 Kremasti Square, Corfu Town; 30-661/44761; dinner for two $30.
When you have tired of rural Greek cuisine and simple tavernas and want something more theatrical, try this place, with its tables around a well, dramatic lighting, and opera music.

Gorgona, or the Mermaid Gouvía; 30-661/90261; dinner for two $26.
Taste the fresh marinated anchovies in oil and the grilled shrimp. Ask to see the catch of the day.

Pink Panther Pelekas; 30-661/94449; dinner for two $14.
Some of the best and simplest food I had on Corfu was at this family-run taverna: fried calamari, large succulent chunks of chicken souvlaki, a variation on the Greek salad with tuna. 2M Eboriko, Kendro; 30-661/46030; dinner for two $30. Ask for Babis.

Nautilus Snak Bar Anemomylos, Corfu Town; 30-661/31726; drinks for two $10.
For coffee or drinks on the bay where sailboats and wooden caÔque fishing boats are moored. It's magical at night.

Church of St. Spiridhon Spirídonos St., Corfu Town.
The church of Corfu's patron saint, right in the center of town, where people come to kiss the silver casket that holds the saint's relics.

Church of St. Jason and St. Sosipater Sossipatriou St., Anemomylos.
The island's only complete and authentic Byzantine church. Equally lovely are the plumbago- and jasmine-covered cottages around it.

Corfu Reading Society 120 Kapodistrou; 30-661/39528; by appointment.
Read surrounded by the sea and the smell of ancient books.

Vlachérna and Pondikoníssi
Two tiny islands that are home to a convent and a 13th-century chapel.

Theotokos Monastery Paleokastrítsa.
A lesson in architecture, silence, simplicity, and beauty—especially at sunset—with a tiny Eden of a walled garden.

Best Books
Globetrotter Travel Guide Corfu (Globe Pequot Press)—Handy for the first-time visitor.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (Penguin)—The hilarious account of an eccentric English family's life on Corfu between the world wars.

Prospero's Cell by Lawrence Durrell (Marlowe)—A memoir set on the island.
—Martin Rapp

Coffee Break: Choose a café on the Liston, the promenade in Corfu Town, and watch the endless strolling crowds.

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