My family and Durrell's Corfu: Jane Horrocks explores the naturalist's Mediterranean island
From wildlife to beaches, if you head off-track you'll find that Durrell's unspoilt island lives on.
Friday 13 July 2012
Like so many others, I was first introduced to the delights of the island of Corfu when I read Gerald Durrell's book My Family and Other Animals at school. I loved the stories of schoolboy Gerald assembling his own private zoo in the succession of villas rented by his bickering family, and running wild and innocent around an unspoiled pre-war island where the sun shone every day.
My Family and Other Animals put Corfu firmly on the map with the British public in the 1960s, and the advent of cheap air travel and mass tourism then brought floods of visitors to the island – a fact that Gerald Durrell the adult naturalist apparently deeply regretted. But when I first visited the island with my own family back in 2004, I was relieved to discover that despite the building developments and the influx of tourists there are still parts of Corfu that are as wild and as wonderful as the one that Durrell wrote about.
So My Family and I decided to return to the village of Saint Stephanos on the north-east coast of the island – a perfect base from which to explore a beautiful stretch of unspoiled coastline. Saint Stephanos is a little off the beaten track, a few kilometres down the hill from the main road. As you weave down the series of doglegs and hairpin bends to get there, so the village and its picture-perfect bay slowly reveal themselves through olive groves and jutting cypresses. The village itself is a warren of villas and traditional houses spreading back from the water's edge, the seafront dominated by a handful of excellent tavernas and a couple of laid-back bars. It's lively enough to give a little buzz to your evenings but sedate enough to let you unwind in peace.
Our own villa was at the back of the village – 100m or so away from the sea and a handy mini-market – and, just sitting around the pool in the villa's little garden, the world of Durrell's book is instantly evoked. Our little garden was a riot of flowers, huge palms, orange and pomegranate trees. Soon, many little characters familiar from My Family and Other Animals appeared: to the sound of rasping cicadas, swallow-tail butterflies flitted between marigolds a-buzz with honey bees, flocks of swallows dipped in and out of the swimming pool, and, at one point, I discovered a (harmless) snake sunbathing next to me. There were lizards in the daytime and geckos at night, and our very own pair of "magenpies" (Durrell's name for his tame magpies) that cackled and chattered away in an enormous eucalyptus tree.
On our previous visit to the island, staying at a villa in a wooded area further up the hill, we had found ourselves inundated with enormous green grasshoppers. My partner, Nick, even awoke one morning to find one eating the hairs on his big toe. Yes, Corfu is still chock-a-block with entertaining wildlife.
But as Gerald himself discovered all those years ago aboard the charmingly named Bootle Bumtrinket, there's nothing quite like exploring this eastern coast of Corfu by boat. You can rent anything from a basic 12-footer to a speedboat from Gianni's Boats in Saint Stephanos. Much to my son Dylan's displeasure we went for the smallest option, pootling past the yachts moored in the bay and out towards the parched-looking coast of Albania, only a couple of kilometres away.
These straits are usually easily navigable, so long as you stay close to the Corfu side – the middle of the channel is a major route for the cruise ships and ferries going to and from Corfu Town, so best avoided. Turning right out of the bay you're soon heading south past the Rothschilds' estate. (The locals used to call Gerald Durrell "little lord", as they thought every British person had a title.)
The larger bays are now the retreats of huge, sleek, predatory yachts and Sunseekers, but if you buzz past them you'll find little empty coves and tiny isolated beaches – perfect for a refreshing swim or a lounge in the sun. The first substantial public beach you come to is Kerasia: it's busy, but not overcrowded, and you can hire a lounger if you so wish, or lunch at the family-run taverna.
We chose instead to hop out of the boat for a bit of snorkelling, and to watch a fellow snorkeller spear baby octopuses. When his wife started to bash the catch against a nearby rock to tenderise them, we decided it was time to move on. If you go past Kerasia, you soon approach the picturesque Kouloura, with its pine-fringed pebbly beaches and little white harbour bobbing with boats – the taverna here serves wonderful fish dishes and offers lovely views.
Next stop is the village of Kalami. This is where poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell (Gerald's witty, dismissive, high-brow elder brother Larry in My Family) lived for 18 months with his wife, just before the Second World War.
The famous "White House" that they rented (and where Gerald's great friend Henry Miller came to stay) still stands at the water's edge. It's no longer a private residence; the ground floor and terrace are home to an excellent taverna where it's possible to moor up for lunch on the smooth rocks where Lawrence once sunbathed and swam. (The taverna's business card somewhat misleadingly describes it as "Durrel's [sic] family house" and carries a wonderful picture of serious young Gerald Durrell complete with Fair Isle sweater and enormous owl.)
The upper floors of the White House (where Lawrence wrote the notes that became his poetic evocation of pre-war Corfu and its history, Prospero's Cell, are available to rent. I'm not sure what Lawrence would make of the more garish apartments on the hills above the village, or of the watersports in the bay, but Kalami is still a very pleasant spot to unwind.
Further on is Agni, a food-lover's treat. The beach is dominated by three tavernas that serve up some of the best food in the area. Having had a memorable meal there on a previous visit, we headed for the Taverna Agni, where a young boy helpfully moored us up and stopped us doing some expensive damage to the smarter craft that pack the jetty in front of the restaurant.
The taverna and its huge al fresco dining area were heaving, but they found us a table within 15 minutes and we were soon eating the most delicate, crisp courgette fritters. Greek taverna menus can become repetitive, but the food here lifts this one into another realm – the keftedes (meatballs), the stifado (stew with pearl onions), even the tzatziki, were spectacularly good. And, in the evenings, the restaurant also runs a boat taxi service.
Beyond Agni lies Nissaki, whose larger hotels, parascending and donut rides marked the limits for our little boat and the beginnings of a busier, more developed stretch of coast. From here you can see the distant outline of Corfu Town.
Later in our stay, we finally used the hire car and headed for Kassiopi, a couple of miles north of Saint Stephanos. Kassiopi is where you go if you're pining for Sky Sports, a pub quiz or a full English breakfast. It's also where you'll find the Trilogia Restaurant, high on the headland, with its exceptional food and service and beautiful sea views.
The pretty little harbour at Kassiopi is also the departure point for regular day and evening sailings to Corfu Town during the high season, and we opted to take an evening cruise. After about an hour on board we were approaching the imposing old forts that dominate the port area, making the town's skyline feel much more Venetian (the builders of the forts) than Greek.
After disembarking at the New Port, it's just a 10-minute walk through the narrow streets of the old Jewish quarter before you find yourself among the busy, cobbled shopping streets of the old town. Here, you'll see a sign for Guildford Street – named in honour of the eccentric earl who founded the first university in modern Greece, in Corfu Town, during the British occupation of the island in the early 19th century. His Ionian Academy is long gone, but wander on towards the green esplanade of the Spianada and you'll find a cricket pitch, and cafés that offer something called tsitsibira (good old English ginger beer).
Just a few yards away is the little church dedicated to St Spiridon, the island saint. It was here that young Margo Durrell, Gerald's sister, caught a nasty dose of the flu from kissing the slippered feet of the mummified saint. St Spiridon's embalmed body is still paraded through the streets on holy days, but he was safely tucked away when we visited, and the tranquil little church was hosting the christening of the most hysterical baby on Earth. So we wandered off into the arcaded Liston and dined at the Rex, which first opened around the time the Durrells arrived on the island.
We returned to our boat confident that traces of that untouched island can still be found today if you look hard enough – not least in the fact that Corfiot plumbing means that you are still requested not to flush toilet paper down the loo.
Access from the UK to Corfu is excellent: easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Bristol, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) East Midlands, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford and Stansted; Monarch (08719 40 50 40; flymonarch.com) from Luton; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from East Midlands, Leeds/Bradford, Newcastle. Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomsonfly.com) flies from 16 regional airports; Thomas Cook (thomas cook.com) flies from eight.
Greek island luxury villa specialist CV Travel (020 7401 1026, cvtravel.co.uk) offers a week's rental of Villa Maria in Saint Stephanos harbour from £850 (based on four sharing), including car hire, maid service and a welcome hamper.
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