Thirty years is too long to be away from Corfu

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When I was 17, I spent a month hitching down through Italy with a schoolfriend, and took the night ferry over to the island from Brindisi. We arrived at dawn and stayed in Corfu Town for a night or two, watching games of cricket on the Spianada, before setting off to find a beach to sleep on. Hitching out of town, we had the good fortune to be picked up by a watermelon seller and, installed on a pyramid of melons on the back of his van, were treated to a day’s tour of the inland villages. As we arrived at each one, he would switch on a snatch of loud bouzouki music and we would join him in yelling out “Karpoussi!” and hand down the huge watermelons to the shoppers.

At the end of the day, he drove us close to a beach called Agios Georgios, near Paleokastritsa, and pointed the way to the sea. We walked the last couple of miles, carrying a watermelon and sleeping bags, and ended up staying half of the summer on the beach. And what a beach it was: a vast crescent of sand that could have absorbed Torremolinos, but was graced by just three small tavernas, each run by a man called Spyros (as is the way on Corfu). We camped alongside the cheapest Spyros, a lovely man whose menu consisted of a daily recitation “meat, fish, pasta”, and lived well on about £1 a day, which generally meant the pasta. On the beach, I read The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller’s best book, written on Corfu 40 years before, during a stay with Lawrence Durrell, and imagined the island wasn’t so different, even at the tail end of the 1970s.

I returned to Corfu and Agios Georgios a couple of years later, as a student, and when I left university the image of that beach stayed with me, while I did a series of deadbeat jobs, and hatched a plan to write The Rough Guide to Greece, to avoid having to forge a career. Yet writing the first edition of that book, I missed out Corfu – I was short on time and roped in friends to research it. And, somehow or other, although I notched up pretty much every other Greek island, I never made it back.

And then last year my son, Miles, was heaving with laughter at Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – Corfu’s classic travel book. I’d read it as a kid, too, and re-read it now, with equal delight at his medley of natural history and slapstick. So we decided that next summer we’d go there. I called up my mate Nick Edwards, who writes the Ionian Rough Guide, and he directed us to a place called Agni, one bay down from the village of Kalami, where Lawrence Durrell had lived. Gerald Durrell’s old houses are part of Corfu Town’s suburbs, but you’ll love it at Agni, he assured us: there’s just a village, a trio of seafront tavernas, and some basic studio rooms let out by a man called Pericles. We booked the same day.

It feels a bit like being in a seaside version of Venice, travelling about in a motorboat. All the tavernas have their own wooden jetties and their owners will wave you in, catch your rope and tie up your boat before handing you their menu.

We struck lucky on day two, when a taverna called To Fagopotion, in Agios Stefanos, caught our eye, and a chef called Christos Vlachos caught our boat rope. It turned out that we had stumbled upon the best restaurant on the island – and, having opened just this summer, it wasn’t even in the Rough Guide. And what a treat it was. There’s a pencil-written menu, with reassuringly ordinary prices, but you don’t need it. You just agree a main dish with Christos – seafood macaroni, perhaps, or fresh sea bream – and he brings you his own choice of starters: fabulous plates of traditional village food, cooked better than I’ve ever experienced on any Greek island. Puffy cheese soufflé-pies, spiced horta greens, sauteed mussels, perfectly prepared anchovies and octopus salad. Would we like to come back later in the week, Christos asked, as we polished off his orange drizzle cake and slices of melon? Maybe try some slow-cooked lamb, which he would buy in the hills? You bet.

Not that we spent the whole time boating and eating. The pebble beaches are irresistible, all the way north to Kassiopi, but the very best of the lot was a five-minute stroll from Agni. An exquisite little beach, approached by a rollercoaster of rocks, with turquoise snorkelling, and daredevil platforms for Miles and his mate Jack to leap into the sea. To the north of Agni, too, the boys found a sea cave, where you could swim into a narrow passage, then dip your head into the sea, and push yourself out. There was even a spot of (Gerald) Durrelling to be done, with starfish and shoals of fish, huge grasshoppers, and scarce swallowtail butterflies, whose peculiar markings give the impression of backward flight.

We also spent a fair bit of time just looking out to sea, which is quite a diversion in these parts. For although Agni is a modest sort of place, there are some exclusive villas in the hills to the north, and a whole peninsula occupied by a Rothschild castle. That means a lot of breathtakingly posh boats. We watched, open-mouthed, one weekend, as a procession of racing yachts and motor launches that looked like something owned by Tintin’s arch-villain Rastapopoulos, and turned out in fact to be transporting the Abramovich clan, made their way up the straits for a Rothschild party.

I did, however, persuade everyone over to Agios Giorgios for the day, by way of a beautiful road across the mountainous ridge of the island. We stopped at Bella Vista, for a jaw-dropping panorama of the Paleokastritsa coast, all wooded islands and outcrops, and climbed up to the base of Angelokastro, an awesomely-sited Byzantine castle. It’s being restored, currently, but should be open properly by next year.

Thirty years is too long to be away from Corfu. And I’ve got hooked on the Agni lifestyle: the easygoing charm of the Nikolas Taverna, snorkelling around the rocks before breakfast, the pleasures of slow-boat transport (which is more like hiring a moped than sailing), the call of Christos’s cooking. In fact, I think Corfu is actually just as good as I remember it in the 1970s.

By Mark Ellingham, The Guardian; excerpts, edited by Greece Travel Blog

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