Exploring the Emerald Isle, Corfu

Corfu Town’s Italian architecture, the island’s British heritage, its Greek soul and very independent spirit take the island far beyond its traditional “economy holiday” stereotype. Like Mallorca, it has been labelled with the “bargain holiday” tag, but if you hire a car and head north it will surprise you with secret bays and exhilarating hilltop views… Corfu in a whole new light if you haven’t really explored the island before.

Approximately 220 Greek islands are inhabited but there are thousands of them scattered in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. And although the classic white “sugar cube” landscape of Mykonos or Santorini tend to be the picture postcard Greek island “look”, if you pan to the left on the map until you reach Corfu, the whole look changes. No more parched golden landscape, no sugar lump square houses…instead, roof tiles are red and the landscape looks almost Irish.

The Corfiot landscape also has a definite touch of Tuscany to it: rows of pointed cypress trees and four and a half million olive trees give the island a distinctly Chianti-style feel and Corfu Town’s Italian-influenced cuisine and flaking Venetian-style buildings really bring home the island’s Italian heritage.

The Venetians ruled Corfu and her five sister islands from 1386 when they became a prized part of Venice’s maritime empire because of their strategic position until its collapse in 1797. Corfu remains an important cruise and ferry gateway to Italy.

Probably the quickest way to separate “tourist” Corfu from the real Corfu is by drawing a line across the island. You end up with party headquarters Kavos to the south, Kerkyra (Corfu Town) towards the middle on the east coast and the least explored parts tend to be along Corfu’s north-east and north-west coastlines.

You don’t realise until you leave island’s coastline quite how vast the interior of Corfu is. The Greek gods blessed it with extremely diverse scenery, rather like an enchanted island with a dozen different “stage sets”. You have the bare limestone mountains of the island’s massive Mount Pantokrator (which you can paraglide off), numerous forests and olive groves, inland wetlands, river valleys, gorges and oddly-formed cliffs that suddenly plunge down to a crystal clear sea. Each beach is different from the next from the large stretches of open sand dotted with bright blue sun-loungers to rocky coves leading to a secret beach.

Inland Corfu is takes more of an effort to explore but it’s worth it. A handful of houses (too small to merit a church), with their dark green shutters latched against the midday sun… an old radio crackling with intermittent bouzouki music…lost-in-time mini villages which are so far (by foot or even donkey) from Corfu Town that you can’t help but wonder how they got there in the first place.

Getting to know “the real Corfu” just requires transport, a bit of advance planning and a map (and a crusty loaf of bread, cheese and refreshments is a good idea, too). Three great ways to explore the island are: by car, driving around the north coast; taking in Corfu Town by foot; and the legendary Corfu Trail. Not for the faint-hearted, this scenic trail is more of a journey than a trail, more hiking than walking. You’ll get to cover 120 miles of pure island scenery, from the white cliffs near Arkoudillas (at Corfu’s southernmost tip) to the wild, northern point of Cape Agia Ekatirini. For an alternative Greek island holiday, and to burn off those moussaka calories, there’s nothing quite like it.

The Trail takes in beauty spots, beaches and monasteries and if you have a choice of when to go, it’s best enjoyed during the low to mid-season when there’s less chance of the heat haze obscuring the views and no likelihood of a heatwave – winter can be very rainy, so the deepest winter months are best avoided as well.

If you’re brave enough to tackle it in one, the entire trail will take a good walker about ten days to complete although parts of it can be covered by bus. Most walkers tend to start down south and head north, for two reasons: firstly the landscape becomes progressively more fascinating the further north you go; and secondly it’s easier on the eyes, as you don’t have the sun in your eyes as much as if you were walking north to south.

If combining time by the pool with a little urban exploration is more your thing, Corfu Town is a charming place to get lost in. Large enough to be cosmopolitan, small enough to make it easy to explore, it’s a labyrinth of secret squares and fountains, a plethora of churches, chemists, mobile phone shops, tavernas, souvenir shops and boutiques that line the streets. Find a shaded table for a pre-lunch drink at the French-style Liston, a stylish, bustling ancient arcade where smart Greek ladies sip coffee while their dachsunds snooze under the table, then have a wander through town in search of lunch. Try a ginger beer, a Corfiot speciality – called “tsin tsin birra” by the locals – it’s sharp, sweet and refreshing and it’s a “hangover” from the British protectorate era. It’s still made today with the traditional ingredients of grated ginger, lemon juice, lemon oil, water and sugar.

Equally British is the famous cricket ground in the Esplanade, although part of the pitch has been given up for parking spaces so now there’s a new ground at Gouvia Marina where the island’s cricket teams play.

If Corfu has a strong artistic feel to it, it’s because the 18th century was a vibrant time in the island’s cultural history. Corfu Town once had fifteen philharmonic orchestras and artistic pursuits bloomed, as painters, writers and musicians shaped the city’s social tapestry.

In 1807 Corfu was reclaimed by France, then came a period of British rule during which the island was placed under Great Britain’s exclusive protection from 1815 onwards after Napoleon’s treaty with the Russians. It wasn’t until 1864 that Britain relinquished Corfu and the other Ionian Islands when they became part of the modern Greek state.

If you’re in Corfu Town and have rented a car, head north-east, away from Corfu Town until you reach Kassiopi, a small beach village one and a half miles off the Albanian coast. Here, your mobile suddenly loses the Greek signal and switches to an Albanian network – it makes you realise how close Corfu is to Albania (there are boat crossings over to Albania).

Corfu rewards her explorers well and as in life, step off the beaten track and things usually become more interesting. Even the shortest detour away from the busy resorts on the south coast will be worth it – you’ll soon be in Homer’s “rich and beautiful land” but still be able to get back to your resort in time for dinner.
To search Corfu resorts which are part of Interval International and RCI exchanges, visit www.intervalworld.com and www.RCI.com

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