“The Greek Earth opens before me like the Book of Revelations….The light of Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being.” Henry Miller – ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’
I visited the Greek island of Corfu in the summer of 1984 and this was my second visit to Greece in a short time following a holiday on the island of Kos the previous year. but this was my defining visit because this was when I realised that I was in love with the Greek Islands.
Corfu is the second largest of the Ionian Islands after Cephalonia which are situated to the east of the mainland and are more similar in appearance to the Croatian islands to the north than to the Cyclades or the Dodecanese. The northern part lies off the coast of Albania, from which it is separated by straits varying from three to twenty-three kilometres wide, while its southern coast lies off the coast of Thesprotia, Greece.
In the 1980s Corfu was expanding rapidly as a tourist destination and was acquiring a reputation as a party island and magnet for badly behaving British tourists on boozy Club 18-30 holidays who were drawn in the main to the hedonistic town of Benitses which was well known for heavy drinking, wild behaviour and street fighting. There was a story at the time that even the island police were frightened to go in there after dark but I am not sure if this was really true.
We were staying at a modern hotel complex called the Aeolos Beach Hotel about ten kilometres north of Benitses at the resort of Perama, which was only a short distance from the capital Kerkyra and the airport. So close to the airport in fact that we could sit and watch the aircraft in the final seconds of descent and imminent landing which kept dad amused for the entire fortnight.
The hotel was an unattractive concrete structure with a main building with restaurant, bar and shops and the accommodation was in a string of bedroom blocks that were located amongst pretty bougainvillea shrubs in the large hotel gardens. It was in quite a good spot, elevated and with good views over the sea and across to Albania and overlooking Pontikonisi Island, the home of the monastery of Pantokrator whose white staircase resembles (from afar) a mouse’s tail and is the reason the island acquired its popular name of Mouse Island from this perceived architectural quirk.
We didn’t stray far from the hotel for the first few days and enjoyed lazy times in the hot sun sitting on the hotel terrace and taking frequent cool-off dips in the big swimming pool. At lunch time we would wander off in search of a taverna for Greek salad, do nothing in the afternoon and in the evenings spend a few moments on the first floor terrace bar with a beer watching the sun go down before finding somewhere nearby for evening meal.
After a few days of lethargic inactivity we inevitably began to get restless so it was time to get out and about and our first excursion was a bus ride into the capital. Due to its geographical position Corfu has had a turbulent history and has entertained many foreign rulers, the Romans, the Venetians, Ottoman Turks, French and British before eventual unification with modern Greece in 1864. A legacy of these struggles is demonstrated in the number of castles and fortresses punctuating strategic locations across the island. Two of these castles enclose the capital, which is the only city in Greece to be surrounded in such a way and as a result has been officially declared a Kastropolis (Castle city) by the Greek Government.
The old town of Corfu with its pastel-hued, multi-storey Venetian styled shuttered buildings, peaceful squares and elegant arcades was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007 and stands on the broad part of a peninsula at the end of which the old Venetian citadel is cut off by a natural gully with a seawater moat. Having been developed within the confines of the fortifications the old town is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestoned streets, which, as we walked through them were sometimes hard work as they follow the gentle irregularities of the ground. Except for the uneven surface it was quite safe however because most of the streets are just too narrow for modern vehicular traffic.
Corfu town is an eclectic mix of pretty streets and unappealing modern buildings and this is because sadly a lot of the town was destroyed in the Second-World-War when the Luftwaffe bombed Corfu as they grasped control from the Italian invaders following Italy’s surrender to the Allies but we enjoyed it anyway and walked around the old town with its elegant Venetian style mansions, the busy marina with its collection of boats and visited the cricket pitch, which is a quirky legacy of fifty years of British rule from 1814 to 1864 and where matches are still played today.
I don’t suppose many people would expect to find cricket being played in Greece but it was introduced in Corfu in April 1823 when a match was played between the British Navy and the local Army garrison. The Hellenic Cricket Federation was founded a hundred and seventy years later in 1996 when Greece became a member of the European Cricket Council and an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council. There are now twenty-one cricket clubs in Greece, thirteen of which are based in Corfu and Greece competes annually in the European Cricket Championship despite being banned for a year in 2008 for cheating.