Travelers: DH and I traveling in late May.
Weather: Sunny and mid- to upper- 20's every day. Not one single raindrop.
Airline: AirBerlin's budget carrier, Niki. They offered direct flights from Vienna with reasonable travel logistics. Once upon a time they were a pleasant carrier; now they're nondescript, requiring an extra fee for practically breathing the filtered air in the cabin and with flight crews clearly exasperated by having to explain why it isn't possible to move to an empty aisle seat because the "Preferred Seat" fee hadn't been paid. We are no longer impressed with Niki.
Hotel: Bella Venezia. Our suite met expectations; and the staff and breakfast well exceeded them. Were we to visit Corfu again, we would stay at the hotel.
Day One: First Impressions
The airport in Corfu is small, let's just say. We walked off the plane, across the tarmac, and into the terminal in about three minutes. Sunshine and blue skies on this afternoon not only greeted us, but became our best friends for the entirety of the holiday. It was all charming. A short while later our little rental Peugeot was heading toward Corfu Town proper and our lovely, lovely, lovely hotel and the almost overwhelming friendliness and hospitality of the staff. (Remember, our baseline is Vienna.)
We arrived in time for a little exploration before dinner, nothing of import, just getting our bearings. At this time of year the bougainvillea is everywhere, and walking along the lanes felt like being in a post card.
For dinner we chose one of the oldest, if not the oldest taverna in Corfu Town, and were treated to a spectacular supper of grilled octopus (for me); calamari (for DH); olives and crusty bread; and the ever-so-quaffable Greek house wine. The restaurant became a favorite, and not just for the extraordinary hospitality; we returned twice to savor the menu!
Soon enough it was time to retire for the day. From our suite we had a pleasant view of the fortress, and could watch the hundreds of swifts darting about before darkness fell. So far, Greece was everything, and at the same time, nothing at all that we had expected.
Day Two: Learning the Ropes
Our first morning on Corfu, like all of the others, dawned welcomingly sunny and warm. We dressed and presented for breakfast in the wisteria-shaded garden of the hotel. A superb (so DH reports) omelet; and local ham, cheese, and olives for me, plus thick Greek yogurt drizzled with honey and topped with walnuts. And let's not forget the civilized French press coffee.
After breakfast our sightseeing began with a bang. Literally. An insipid undergrad from Seattle (who had undoubtedly convinced Daddy that a semester on Corfu to study "Ancient Greece" was important to her academic career (though, judging by the specimen in the passenger seat, she's probably just studying "Greek Guys")) ran the intersection as we were pulling away from the hotel and hit our rental car at speed. The first of several YaiYais on this holiday (Greek Grandmothers) had been hanging laundry nearby while this event unfolded, and so took time from her daily routine to watch the entire event, to our amusement.
So, we lost an hour traveling back to the airport for accident photos, paperwork, and so forth. Of course we had full damage coverage on the car, so this is just an amusing anecdote to our holiday.
As we quickly discovered, though, 'twas a tough hour to have lost. (Even the hotel concierge suggested we plan an early start because of the tour buses, and we were soon to understand his ominous advice.) The plan for our first day had been to visit the island's most beautiful monastery, Palaiokastritsas, and to visit the smaller villages in the mountainous Northeast near the monastery. Heh.
On the driving map for the island, Corfiots refer to the red and yellow paths as "roads." These are not roads; they are occasionally paved donkey trails traversed by rental cars and cruise-ship-day-tripper-tour-buses. That we managed to avoid death-to-all around hairpin turns and cliffside paths-without-guardrails was only by some inexplicable force. Nevertheless, we braved the winding mountain road and the buses to Palaiokastritsa to see the monastery. The views from the terrace of the monastery provided the serenity we would need to make it through the day. Or at least down from the mountain.
The harrowing drive down from the mountain, with tour buses careening toward us around each turn, did us in. We parked our little battered Peugeot at the closest village near a beach, and ordered lunch. And this is where we stayed for the remainder of the day, wondering if we had made a mistake in visiting Corfu.
Lunch and a beach nap improved our spirits immensely, which went a long way in helping us navigate out of a dead-end donkey trail "road" that our GPS had directed us onto when returning to Corfu Town. Of course, a YaiYai had been waiting on the road for visiting family, and was entertained while watching DH manually shift the Peugeot in reverse out of a lane designed for a Boy Scout Pinewood Derby racer.
Corfu Town and its real roads never looked so glorious as they did on that evening. We left the car with the hotel valet and wandered about until hunger overcame us. For dinner, an exquisitely grilled Dorade (the best of the Sea Bream family) for me. I do not recall what DH enjoyed, as I was so savoring my supper. Something from the sea, I am sure. Not the best of starts to our Grecian getaway, we had to admit. But, with three days remaining, there was still hope.
Day Three: Yes, Corfu was a Great Idea!
Determined not to let tour buses ruin our holiday, we wound up the little Peugeot early and headed back to the Northwest coast in order to enjoy the itinerary we had scrapped the day before. Our plan was genius.
Beyond Palaiokastritsas lies Lakones, one of the many small villages with lanes so narrow that there exists a traffic light at both ends of the village to manage the traffic flow! Consequently, the menacing motor coaches can not reach the village. We found a small space to park and wandered around, taking in what some guide books refer to as among the top ten "old spirt" villages in Europe. All of this is ever debatable, of course, though we were captivated by the friendly people and their charming village.
Departing Lakones we stopped briefly in Makrades, a tiny 13th century village on a hilltop surrounded by olive groves. Some of the trees are more than 400 years old! The general store offered olives and the Corfiot speciality of preserved kumquats for tasting, (very) local olive oil for purchase (which we did) and of course, Corfiot Kitties lounging here and there. From Makrades we followed a small road through fragrant olive groves to Kirin and the 13th century Byzantine fortress, Aggelokastro and its stunning views.
Leaving the fortification, I suggested to DH that I would walk back through the groves to take photos, and that he could retrieve the car and collect me along the way. There was a light breeze, swirling the heady aroma of the wild groves all around me. So photogenic.
Enter YaiYai #4 and her terrifying dogs. While walking along the road I spied her tending to her trees, and we exchanged waves. Then her two dogs bounded out from behind one of the steppes and charged at me! Wearing a skirt and wedges and my only defense being my camera, the first word out of my mouth was, "AUS!" Having been spoken to in German all morning in the villages because the area is favored by German-speaking tourists (?), and using that command around the (so very few) unruly dogs in Vienna on occasion, it seemed a natural reaction. Except the dogs are Greek. Thankfully YaiYai then shouted something in Greek, and the dogs backed away but continued to growl. DH arrived moments later, and the dogs circled the car as we drove carefully away.
The itinerary for this day had been to explore villages of interest along the North Coast, as well, and in making our way we stopped for a coffee in the cute square of Doukades. With our coffee the proprietor brought freshly made, warm, feta and spinach handpies, and refused to accept payment for them. Such hospitality.
Clearing the mountain range we arrived in Sidari, a jarring and fun contradiction to the villages we had spent the morning in. A classic beach town with every form of inflatables, tee-shirts, and all the souvenir tchotchke needed by which to remember your holiday. From Sidari across the northern coast the primary language shifted to English, as the region is wildly popular with the Brits.
We sat for lunch at a beachside restaurant, where we discovered that included with our meal was the use of beach loungers for the remainder of the day, a trend that continued as we toured the island throughout our stay! Again, such hospitality!
But let's talk about the food, first. Lunch on this day was our first exposure to the Greek-British fusion cuisine wherein nearly every dish (in this case, Souvlaki) came dressed with the soggiest, mushiest, "chips" ever. After two meals we learned to ask for our dish without "chips." The Souvlaki, on the other hand, was succulent and perfectly lemony. Afterwards, a small nap on the beach loungers. The remainder of the day was given to popping in and out of the various towns and villages along the north coast for the scenic views.
Day Four: More of the (Spectacular) Same
Completely won over the day before by the beach scene in Sidari, the plan for this day was to do a little local sightseeing before heading to a beach. Our morning began with a walk through the Fiaker parking lot en route to the fortress, the horses munching hay and otherwise prepping for the work day.
The Old Fortress is Venetian, with a Byzantine foundation, and has served as barracks for the British (during occupation) as well as a prison for Corfu's Jews prior to deportation during WWII. Oh, and was even featured in the Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only. Incredible views and the sea air swirling all around, no matter where we wandered, and of course, Corfiot Kitties sunning themselves everywhere.
From the fortress we walked along the promenade to the Palace of St. Michael and St. George, which now houses the Museum of Asian Art. The collection is said to be worth a visit, but we were like eager children, anxious to head to the beach instead. The guide books we read all reported that the beaches just north of Corfu Town were dense resort areas and likely to be crowded. Perhaps that is the case in the summer months, but certainly not in late May! We and about 10 or so other groups occupied a beachfront that could easily manage 200 lounges, if not more. The beach at Ipsos drew our attention because of its location on a promenade with stores and other diversions should I have become bored. We hired two lounges and an umbrella, and asked the beach manager for a lunch recommendation. She suggested a tiny dive of a place just a short walk away, serving shish-kebap pita sandwiches unlike any we will ever appreciate again. (Except for those awful British "chips.")
For the next six hours we sunned, we swam, we napped, all obligations on a 27° day. When I became bored I walked into the town for ice cream or beach-combed for pretty rocks and sea glass, or gazed at the Albania mountains across the sea.
Funny how a day at the beach can render one starved by dinner time! As with our Cape Cod holidays, seafood featured prominently at mealtime on Corfu. I love, love, love fried squid, but only when it's prepared properly, and the Corfiots know their squid. The tubes were lightly battered and tender; and the tentacles (my favorite part), perfectly crispy. Despite my request for "No chips, please," the soggy sticks appeared regardless, but I just could not bring myself to eat them. Sorry, Britons. DH was recommended the Saffron Risotto with Squid. Indeed, it tasted as luscious as it looked.
Six hours on a beach and a delicious dinner (not to mention sharing an entire liter of wine!) later, it was an effort to walk the five minutes to our hotel. I'm pretty certain we were both fast asleep before our heads hit the pillows. Oh, Corfu.
Day Five: The Grand Finale
Living in Vienna, I am certain our residency cards would have been revoked upon return had we not visited Achilleion, the Hapsburg Empress Elizabeth's favorite destination. And so our last day on the island began with a visit to her Pompeian style palace. Truth be, once I reached the upper terraces and gazed out over the waters, it was only when DH reminded me that we were both heading to a beach in the afternoon and that I could sit in the gardens at Schloss Schönbrunn all summer if I wanted, did I move along.
Our timing to the palace was impeccable. One small tour bus (15 passengers) when we arrived; three jumbo cruise ship day tripper motor coaches when we departed. The palace really is simple and elegant in style, and when compared to Hofburg and Schönbrunn it is easy to understand why this was the favorite destination of the Empress. Eventually DH convinced me of the need to move along, and so I obliged. Our next stop was the viewing point to Pontikonisi, where one of the many legends holds that the island is actually the petrified ship of Odysseus, where it crashed during the storm caused by the enraged Poseidon. Neither of us can exactly recall the Homer we read a hundred years ago when we were in secondary school, but we liked the view nonetheless. Around the bay from the island is Kanoni and the Vlacheraina Monastery, which sits at the end of a small causeway in a pretty little harbor. The entire setting was charming, and we wandered about for a little while.
The final pursuit for our holiday was one more afternoon at the beach. We pointed our little roadster toward Barbati, another beach just a bit north of Corfu Town and sat for lunch at a beachside taverna. Fresh fried calamari? But of course. And no British "chips." Hurrah! Afterward, a nap. We congratulated one another for having mastered the afternoon beach nap in such short time.
Much later, after our wander through Corfu Town one last time to collect gifts for the children, we returned again to the restaurant we discovered on our first evening for a last seafood feast. The proprietor shook hands with DH to welcome us, and without our request, brought a piping hot plate of Saganaki to our table. (More) fried squid, expertly prepared for me; and the grilled octopus for DH wrapped up the culinary part of the holiday. And no British, "chips!" Every morsel was savored, and we strolled ever so slowly back to the hotel and our rental car, to catch our midnight flight back to Vienna.
While we truly loved our Grecian getaway, that we had traveled outside of peak tourist season, I think, made all the difference on this first Greek Island experience. We lived in DC for twenty years and generally avoided the Smithsonian museums between June and September, leaving it for all those travelers on a museum death march. Similarly, our annual Cape Cod holiday was always at the end of August, when the island was largely deserted because of families returning home for the start of the school year. This sampler holiday certainly piqued our interest in exploring other Greek islands; though, careful planning for any future trips will be needed to avoid the peak season.
Thank you for reading.
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Travelers: DH and I traveling in late May.