Corfu: Go wild on the snake road
How can an island 20km wide and infamous for mass tourism host one of the world's top wilderness trails? Mark MacKenzie boots up and discovers a Corfu with real bite
Sunday 23 July 2006
The Greek island of Corfu has a mixed reputation. On the one hand are the countless artists and writers who have been drawn to its verdant Ionian shores. Homer, for example, or Gerald Durrell, whose zoo logical adventures are recounted in his book My Family and Other Animals. On the other are the hordes of package tourists who descend every summer with the sole aim of drinking themselves to a standstill.
One thing you probably don't associate with an island first colonised in 750BC is world-class hiking. But there is a side, or rather a middle, of Corfu that few tourists see, one that if you're prepared to wander a little off-piste might come as a surprise.
When the packed charter flights begin landing on the island each year, the smart money heads for Corfu's north-east coast. Specifically, the villages clustered around the idyllic cove of Agios Stefanos, the resort made briefly infamous when it hosted the former home secretary David Blunkett and Kimberly Quinn for a holiday two years ago.
Tucked away in the hills above the harbour is Villa Serpa, my temporary home for a week of inland adven-ture. The view from the garden looks out on the North Corfu Channel and the mountains of neighbouring Albania. Just a mile across at its narrowest point, this stretch of water was once heavily mined as the crews of passing Greek and Albanian warships glared suspiciously at one another - there were even rumours of frogmen- snipers holed up along their respective coastlines.
These days, outdoor adventure tends not to involve heavy ordnance. Running for 220 kilometres, the Corfu Trail is a one of the world's newest long-distance hiking routes. From sedate beginnings in the south of the island near Arkoudillas, it zigzags north, repeatedly winding back on itself through steep mountain ranges until it arrives at Agia Ekatirini in the north of the island.
Compared to, say, the Appalachian Trail, which runs for 3,500km down the eastern side of the United States, the Corfu Trail might seem little more than a footpath. But since it opened officially in 2001, word has spread, and it is beginning to draw "distance" hikers from around the world.
Most aim to complete the route in around 10 days, staying in small tavernas and hotels along the way. Not having a week-and-a-half to spare, I decide to sample that part of the route which makes up the final two days. Designed to provide the most spectacular scenery, it also offers the most testing walking, according to Hilary Paipeti. A local guide, wildlife enthusiast and the trail's founder, Paipeti spent the best part of a decade researching the route, poring over old maps to create a journey that takes in a diverse range of locations, from the environmentally significant, such as the wildlife sanctuary of Lake Korission, to architectural treasures such as the Byzantine castle of Angelokastro.
"The point was to find ways to link up established routes," Paipeti explains, "be they cobbled paths, farm tracks or little alleyways through villages." The project was partly funded by the European Union's Interreg II programme, and converting a seemingly random collection of byways into a world-class hiking trail included first finding and then clearing long-forgotten mountain paths before the route could be waymarked with yellow CT signs, a job that was finally completed in 2002.
"We deliberately ran the trail from south to north, as the terrain gets harder and it gives people three or so days to walk themselves into fitness," says Paipeti. Which is rather academic as I set out from the small village of Spartillas on the route's penultimate day. The climb into the mountain pass above is hard work, and even in early summer the sun makes it thirsty work as well. The seven hours of walking before you are delivered to the coastal town of Kaminaki include a 600m ascent, and with nowhere to get water along the way, the onus is on you to carry as much as you will need.
Crossing the Karst Plateau, the trail works its way beneath the summit of Mount Pantokrator, at 906m the highest point on the island. In its northern reaches in particular, the trail is a triumph of planning over geography. While Corfu is only 60km long, such is the trail's overlapping nature that walkers cover almost four times that distance.
"On the north-east coast," says Paipeti, "the route will eventually take you north, but you'll spend a lot of time snaking back south." Snaking being the operative word.
Gerald Durrell may well have written of "tortoises... heaving aside their winter bedclothes of leaves and earth... and the first butterflies, winter-faded and frayed... flitting wanly among the flowers". But I imagine he wasn't facing down a nose-horned viper at the time. Corfu's only poisonous snake can reach lengths of up 32 inches, and is named after the fleshy horn on its snout. Light brown in colour, its body sports diamond lozenges down the length of its back.
I know all this because my guidebook includes detailed field notes on the island's fauna. "Although this species is poisonous, it won't attack unless provoked and shuns human contact," the book states. "If found, ALWAYS view from a distance - this snake has a long strike."
Which probably explains why six feet seems a little too close for comfort as I come round a bend in the trail to meet a viper bathing in the late- afternoon sun. Fortunately, it sidles off into the undergrowth almost immediately.
On my second - and the trail's final - day, I follow the route out of Kaminaki on the way to the village of Agios Spiridon. The coastal footpath includes three hours of almost continuous ascent, a climb of almost 800m, the winding nature of which, at one point, takes me within 300m of where I had been the previous day. The descent back to the coast brings me to the abandoned settlement of Old Perithia. During peak season, this Byzantine village, built in a lofty eyrie to escape marauding pirates, crawls with the tourists who disembark from coaches at the top of the nearby mountain road; in early summer, it is all but deserted.
From Perithia, the descent follows a pitted mule track into a thick olive forest. In the 17th century, the Venetian inhabitants replaced the island's wild olive trees with cultivated ones. These subsequently multiplied unchecked, and because they rarely have to fend off the shears of overzealous olive farmers, their limbs remain surprisingly sharp; I leave the forest with a number of thorny reminders of their history.
For a glimpse of the island's stunning interior, however, it is a minor inconvenience. Small beer, as too many visitors here say all too rarely.
Mark MacKenzie travelled to Corfu with CV Travel (0870 606 0013, cvtravel.co.uk). A week's stay at Villa Serpa starts from £425pp based on six people sharing, including return flights from Gatwick or Manchester and transfers. For more information on the Corfu Trail: corfutrail.org
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