Wednesday 20 July 2016

Corfu Replay

Sunset in Corfu
Back in 1991, I visited Corfu as part of a month Inter-Railing with J, my friend from school. In those days the Inter-Rail ticket included the ferry crossing from Brindisi to Kerkyra, so it was quite a destination for backpackers.

We all piled onto the ferry and sat out on deck on the overnight crossing. There were hundreds of us, not just Brits but many Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans, Irish - you name it. I remember trying in vain to lie down and sleep, as J (who was into heavy metal at the time) found some fellow Guns and Roses fans with a bottle of Jack Daniels and proceeded to have a wild party. In the morning when we docked in Corfu, I was frantically searching for her, and eventually discovered her feeling very sorry for herself in the ferry toilets.

Having teamed up (I can't remember how) with some fellow Brits, we found ourselves a dormitory-style room on the roof of a very low budget hotel in Corfu town. It was pretty squalid - I seem to recall you had to troop down several floors to a bathroom - but it was a base from which to explore the island, and on the second day, we started hearing about a place called Pelekas.

Pelekas was a bit like the mysterious island in Alex Garland's "The Beach," in that backpackers in Corfu Town talked about it in mythical terms - Pelekas was where the party was. We heard tales of campfires on the beach every night, beautiful surf and what's more, plenty of cheap places to stay. With two of our new friends, we rented some scooters and headed up there and it was indeed magical. There was a beautiful unspoilt beach, accessed by walking down a long winding road from the pretty hill village above, which seemed entirely populated by backpackers, and was buzzing with bars and restaurants in the evening. The next morning, we piled our bags into a taxi and headed for the hills.

We immediately found a local woman offering us a cheap, clean and very pleasant room off the main square with a gorgeous view, and spent the next few days on the beach, often returning late at night after a session round the campfire with various backpackers playing guitars. It was blissful.

Corfu's West Coast
I'd always wanted to go back to Corfu, and last week I finally achieved it. This time was just a little different - a villa with a pool, rather than a ramshackle dormitory, a hire car rather than scooters, renting our own motor boat for the day rather than riding behind a speedboat in rubber rings. But there is still something very magical about the island; the turquoise water, the ring of cicadas, the lush olive groves and the winding hills.

If you've been to other Greek islands, Corfu is a little different: it's  greener than other Greek islands such as the Cyclades, and there's a definite Italian influence on the architecture and also the food. It's rich with olive, lemon and fig trees and there is teeming wildlife - as chronicled by Gerald Durrell in "My Family and Other Animals." The huge green cicadas at our villa were so loud the Doctor even complained that he couldn't concentrate on reading; here's a photo of one landing on my silk culottes, to which it seemed extremely attracted.

This cicada liked my culottes

The northeast coast of the island, near where we stayed, is apparently sometimes called "Kensington on sea" because it's full of posh English. I reckon this comparison is outdated - unlike today's Kensington, it's not ritzy or full of European playboys. It's probably more like Dulwich-on-sea -- there were quite a few middle class Brits around, but they were enjoying themselves in quite a low key way, splashing in the sea and having nice lunches in tavernas rather than cavorting on yachts.

Views from the water
We ourselves were based in Loutses, a hillside village with the most incredible views out to the Albanian coast and beyond, with a fantastic sunset vista. We spent our days lazing by the pool, exploring beaches and coves, boating and eating far too much delicious taverna food, or alternatively BBQ-ing at the villa.

Oh, and one day we paid a visit to the West of Corfu - to my old haunt of Pelekas. First, we swam at the beach - still beautiful, but much more developed, with a huge hotel complex down one end, plentiful beach bars and now two winding roads down there, with several car parks charging 4 euros a pop to park. The boys loved the surf there, and it's still a great beach -- but it was not quite the idyllic spot I remembered.

View from Pelekas village today
Then,  we drove up to the village for an ice-cream. Pelekas today is not too different physically, but much, much quieter. Where were the backpackers and bars? There were several rather shut-up looking travel agencies and very old "Rooms to let" signs on what looked like abandoned buildings. We wandered into the old part of the village, to try and locate the house where I stayed. The winding alleys and white-painted houses looked familiar, but I wasn't sure. Then, a woman came down from a balcony and spoke to us. She was a Finnish expat, living there for the summer. I told her I was last there 25 years ago, and she said her house used to be owned by a Greek woman who rented out her upstairs room to backpackers. I'm not sure, but it could well have been there.

Was Pelekas still a haven for backpackers? I asked. No, no longer. "They don't come to Corfu now. With flights being cheaper they go to Goa and Thailand," she explained. "When we moved here, we heard about Pelekas's party heyday in the 80s, and we couldn't quite believe it. There were people renting space on balconies and sleeping on the beach."

So that made me feel quite old, and nostalgic, but also grateful. I had experienced a bit of history, and now that was over, and a new crowd (retired expats) were moving in. Who knows - maybe one day I'll be retiring up to the hills of Corfu too?