That Summer: Corfu, 1973

'I fell in love with the hostel, the village, the taverna...'
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The Independent Travel

In 1974, at the age of 16, I bought a ticket for a two-week charter flight to Corfu and wrote to both of the island's youth hostels asking about availability for my chosen dates. Though I've yet to receive a reply from the Kondokali hostel, I did receive a friendly, positive letter from Vasili Combolitis, the manager at Aghios Ioannis. The hostel was housed in a three-storey villa built by the British in the 1860s and surrounded by fields, gardens and olive groves. At the top of a hill in the centre of the island, both the building and the adjacent palm tree were visible for miles. The beaches were well over an hour's walk away.

I immediately fell in love with the place: the hostel, the village, Costa's taverna where we ate every evening, the beaches (especially Pelekas and the unspoilt Myrtiotissa), the sunny days and balmy evenings, the life. So much so that I found myself going back year after year. Sometimes I camped in the garden. You could also pitch a tent below the village in Costa's fields (known as Strawberry Fields and Cactus Hilton). There was no charge, the understanding being that you would eat your meals at his taverna.

Costa's taverna was the centre of village life, especially in the evenings: the food was excellent and cheap, and he, wife Nitsa and daughters Lula and Anna were loved by everyone who passed through. There was a jukebox which, in addition to a few Greek dancing favourites, had the cream of late Sixties and early Seventies rock, including classics by Neil Young, Hendrix and the Doors. Outside wobbled a heavily used table-football game - in later years we'd buy souvlakis from Nikos the Kebab Man just so that we could use the greasy paper they were wrapped in to oil the table's metal rods and keep the wooden players spinning freely.

Brits, Germans and Swedes flocked to Aghios Ioannis. Long-haul air travel was fearsomely expensive in those days, and Greece was a much-used hub on overland and sea routes. Corfu was offered as a free stopover on all the ferries between Italy and Greece. Many travellers came to the island intending just to break their journey for a night or two and ended up staying at Aghios Ioannis for the summer - and returning the following year.

In the evening, in the village, people would sit at the taverna's long tables and swap stories of their recent experiences in Goa, Malindi, Phuket, Bali, Kathmandu or Cuzco over dinner. They'd pause occasionally to feed a few drachs into the jukebox, or to wander off for a discreet smoke. Local Greek guys would strut their funky stuff, dancing with a glass on their head or perhaps a table or chair clenched between their teeth. When they'd stopped eating the furniture, they would promise undying love to any passing female traveller.

Eventually, in the small hours, Costa would turn off the jukebox and close the taverna. We'd adjourn to the hostel garden. Someone would produce a guitar and massacre the latest hit by Cat Stevens, James Taylor or Dylan.

Finally, a road down to Pelakis beach was started. The game was up.

On my last visit (in 1981) I turned up to find that the hostel had closed. I didn't have a tent with me, much to the delight of the mosquitoes and sandflies. The Corfu bubble had finally burst.

For a few years afterwards I'd hear bits of Corfu news through the grapevine - the table-football game had fallen to bits, the jukebox had gone, the hostel had reopened as a hotel - but it eventually faded.

More than 20 years on, I decided to go back. I disembarked from the ferry to Corfu Town's harbourside. After two decades would there be any remnants of how things had been?

I found the bus stop with ease but was surprised to see that its sign said "Aghios Ioannis - For Aqualand Water Fun Park". Though Corfu is a lush and verdant isle, the village had long been known for its chronic water shortages: coming back from the beach and going for a shower only to find the water off was a daily irritation.

On the bus ride I saw that the builders had not been idle. We passed Aqualand, an incongruous, multicoloured monstrosity that looked strangely like the Pompidou Centre. It had been built on the site of a marshy pond in a field about a mile from the village.

At the Aghios Ioannis bus terminus things were familiar: Dino's Taverna (our alternative to Costa's in the evening) had become "Dino's Supermarket" and looked to have closed down relatively recently. More new buildings on the 10-minute walk to the village proper: I paused before rounding the last corner.

Amazingly it didn't look that different. The "hostel" was now the Hotel Marinda, freshly painted and with flags fluttering outside. The taverna had new white plastic tables and chairs, and there were a few more cars around. And there was Costa wiping down a table.

He saw me as I drew nearer, shouted to the kitchen and his wife and two daughters appeared. Costa was now well into his seventies. I asked about accommodation. Anna, his daughter, offered me a nice, simple room in her pension just behind the taverna, for £10 a night.

Over the next few days she helped fill in the missing Corfu years. The discovery of underground water had put an end to the shortages, and helped to create Aqualand.

The final nail was hammered into the coffin of the "old" Aghios Ioannis nine years ago when Costa stopped allowing camping in his fields.

Anna's sister Lula had brought her English husband back to live in the village. The two women, and Anna's husband, help in the taverna. Costa still works from early morning until midnight every day.

The taverna's inside walls are covered with hundreds of photos of past revellers. A Dutch holiday company had "discovered" Aghios Ioannis and block books the rooms in the hotel (now managed once again by Vasili, and named after his daughter).

Pelekas beach has a big hotel and lots of apartment buildings: there still isn't a sealed road down to Myrtiotissa but a lot of cars and motorbikes bump down the dusty steep dirt road to the beach, where you can now hire sunbeds and umbrellas.

Virtually unknown when I'd last been there, Myrtiotissa was already busy in the middle of June. Anna said that quite a few "old-timers" still come back to visit, often bringing their partners and children to show them the mythical place associated with so many happy, faded memories.

Before the jukebox had been taken away, a bunch of Irish regulars had taped all the records on it and left the tapes at the taverna for posterity.

On the last evening of my pilgrimage, I sat with my back to the taverna building, persuaded Costa to play one of those tapes and looked around. The taverna's tables were occupied by quiet Dutch families with young children. The cicadas still buzzed and the evening air was full of remembered scents of jasmine and wild herbs.

It was great to come back, wonderful to see Costa, Nitsa, Lula and Anna again, to know that Myrtiotissa hadn't yet been completely ruined and that village life still meant tranquil mornings and lazy afternoons. Though I should have known better I couldn't help hankering after the crazy days I remember so well. Aghios Ioannis had grown up and mellowed, but I suppose I haven't.

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