It's the same old, same old in Corfu. Thank goodness!
The Greek island's east coast has avoided the ravages of tourism. Tristan Davies is beguiled by its good, old-fashioned charm
Sunday 18 May 2008
Some things in life never change, and thank heavens for that. Lea and Perrins stands the test of time. Church's brogues. The Archers. Fashions may come and go, but you can always rely on a few old staples. But not all that is olden is golden.
Only the other day I found myself in Peter Jones in Sloane Square – that cathedral of good sense and never knowingly undersold – witnessing the crumbling of another great national institution. The elderly woman in front of me only wanted some bleedin' blinds for her bedroom. I'm sorry madam, the aggressively courteous shop assistant was explaining to her, we don't stock that Venetian here, you'll have to go to our Oxford Street branch. But surely you could have it sent round, explained the nice old lady, one hand on her walking stick, I only live round the corner and I cannot drive. I'm terribly sorry, madam, came the inevitable reply, it's not company policy.
Gordon Bennett, as nobody seems to say any more, this was Peter Jones. For God's sake, is what I actually said, just get the poor woman's blinds sent round in a taxi and I'll pay the fare myself. I'm in a hurry.
Aren't we all. By the time I had been invited to leave the premises, I was ready for a holiday but held out no great hope that a week in Corfu would do anything other than tip me over the edge. The brochures looked good enough to swim in, all infinity pools and cool marble bedrooms the size of Tooting Lido. But I wasn't falling for that. How often does the room you book bear any resemblance to the picture that sold it to you? And Corfu? It was great in the Seventies, when we drank sweet martinis and considered deep-fried calamari a delicacy, but surely it must have gone the way of sandwich spread, or worse, Cyprus.
I've been to Cyprus a couple of times since the Seventies and, Lord, what a mess they've made of that once beautiful island. I say they, but really I mean we, since the systematic destruction of the Greek side of the island has been carried out in the name of the great British holidaymaker. And driving from the airport through Corfu Town, along the coast road to Agni Bay, on an island I had not visited since its Seventies' heyday, the signs were there – English Pub, Pole Dancing, Tricky Vicky's Vomit Bar and Grill – that we were doing the same to Corfu.
How wrong I was. Sure, you pass through the odd town of tourist tat and a gauntlet of scary-looking young men with old men's bellies. But up in the north-east, things are on a human scale. It's the buildings, of course: there are no high rises on the coast between the airport and Kassiopi at the top end of the island. The east coast of Corfu is an archipelago of white, two-storey villas, and most of the good ones are run by CV Travel.
Ours was in Agni, one of the prettiest villages between Corfu Town and Kassiopi. I say in Agni, but it was perched high above it, at the end of a steep and winding road (a track, really) that, had it had any road signs, would have been marked as "hairy". The village has only recently been made accessible by road, and what you lack on tarmac you more than make up for in privacy and seclusion.
And, oh, the view. Walk through the cool marbled rooms of the enormous villa, and you reach a balcony, handsomely furnished with Raj-style wicker and cushioned chairs, every bit as luxurious and capacious as the brochure and overlooking a bay prettier than any postcard. It is an aspect you never tire of, and is best taken in while floating at the end of the large private infinity pool that laps over the promontory. Below is an endless passing parade of canopied pleasure boats that phut from cove to cove in search of new tavernas. This is the most popular and most practical mode of transport around Corfu, and taverna hopping is one of the island's greatest pleasures.
Pick up a boat from one of the tavernas on Agni Bay, book your seafront table for dinner that night and set off for a day of boating, swimming and coving. The coastline is pretty enough to explore in this way, and 10 minutes' phut from Agni is Kalami and the famous White House where the writer Lawrence Durrell (brother of Gerald, who wrote My Family and Other Animals on the island) once lived – a corner of Corfu that remains for ever Cornwall, populated by blond, healthy-looking teenagers and their yah-yahing parents, all refugees from a Boden catalogue. Tavernas have been provided at the end of each wooden jetty from bay to bay, where you will find a beaming waiter who will wave you in and politely ignore the mess you made of docking.
Yes, there is plenty to do and see in Corfu if you are minded to, and the archaeologically inclined may find it hard to resist the short journey across the sea to Albania.
But as the sun beat down day after day, we became less and less inclined to leave the clean, cool villa, content to watch life passing by below us from the pool and retreating to the shady balconies for sleepy lunches before working up the energy to roll down the hill to one of three tavernas for dinner. The best of which is the Agni Bay Taverna. And if you can't get in there, then the other two alongside are nearly as good. They know what works, and they don't muck around with it.
You can find more of the same pretty much wherever you look. What more could you want? A cocktail? Head for the fleshpots of Kassiopi, 15 minutes up the road. A prom and a bar hop? Try Agios Stefanos, a few minutes closer. Some good old-fashioned fun, served with good old-fashioned charm? Head for Agni Bay. You'll discover an island unchanging, unspoiled and never knowingly undersold. No, it's better than that. It's the Worcester sauce of the Mediterranean. And long may it remain so.
HOW TO GET THERE
Greek island villa specialist CV Travel (020-7401 1026; cvtravel.co.uk) offers a week's stay at Villa Nicoletta from £435 to £795 per person during 2008, based on six people sharing and including return Gatwick flights, transfers, maid service and a welcome food hamper.
The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations
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