Having holidayed in Greece for almost all of 38 summers, exploring more islands ending in ‘-os’ than I can remember as well as Athens, Halkidiki, Crete and Kefalonia, I find it hard to believe – and, to some extent, frustrating – that it’s taken me until now to visit Corfu.
As our multi-generational family group landed on the island – the three children fascinated by the sea-spit runway – I realised I had absolutely no knowledge of the place. I had always imagined it as somewhere rather tacky – after all, Corfu was a pioneer of cheap package tourism in the eighties; plus, I’d seen a couple of alarming TV programmes based on the 18-30 brigade binge-drinking in Kavos.
Exiting the air-conditioned airport, immediately overwhelmed and excited by the intense heat, we headed towards our hotel and I was quickly surprised by the rich green landscape: olive groves in every direction, scattered with soaring cypresses; the glistening Ionian sea and hazy-edged mountains beyond.
A few days into the holiday, with tan lines sufficiently intensified and bodies and minds rested, we turned our thoughts to some mild adventure and hired a caïque (traditional fishing boat) for the day. Under the reassuring but relaxed care of Captain Spiros, we left the hotel’s buoys far behind but never sailed far from the jagged edge of the island. If anyone had fallen overboard they could have swum as easily to Albania – it’s that close.
Spiros knows all the best coves to ‘pull in’, sink the anchor and let his passengers dive in off the front of his boat. For lunch he took us to a hillside taverna where we stuffed ourselves with spanakopita (pastry pie filled with spinach and feta cheese), souvlaki (grilled and skewered meat) and saganaki (fried cheese), as well as chips and salads and various delicious dips to dunk bread into.
Back on board, suddenly seeing the appeal of the staunchly un-British siesta, the kids curled up under towels in the shade and the rest of us, each having taken up a comfortable position on deck, read or chatted or simply gazed silently out to sea as we headed off again.
Another unexpected highlight of the holiday was Kérkyra (Corfu Town). Arriving by boat, I did a double take and wondered whether we’d arrived in Italy. The island’s capital, four centuries under Venetian rule, is amazingly elegant: its Old Fortress, pastel-coloured houses with Venetian-style shutters, and impressive squares, especially so.
We ate dinner by the water’s edge – the meze (shared starters) too aspirational to taste as good as what we had eaten at the hillside taverna (which was half the price), but the fish and seafood were exceptional.
What stood out most for me about Corfu was the warmth of its people. Whilst I’ve always received an open-armed welcome in Greece, nowhere have I felt this metaphorical embrace more than from the Corfiots – particularly surprising at a time the press would have had us believe we’d arrive in complete chaos, people pulling their hair out and hanging their heads over unpaid debts, ATM machines non-operational and supermarkets shut. Not a hint of it. Greece may be in a time of turmoil behind the politicians’ battle lines but holidaymakers wouldn’t have a clue; Greece’s tourism head is rightly held high.