Corfu: ”this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian” Lawrence Durrell – ‘Prospero’s Cell’
In the middle of the holiday we hired a flame red open top jeep for three days and set about visiting other parts of the island. Perama is just about right in the centre of the island so this was a good place to begin the day trips out. On the first day we went north bypassing Corfu town on the way and driving along the main island road along the eastern side of the island through the seaside towns of Gouvia, Dassia, Ipsos and Pyrgi, stopping frequently and finally arriving at the town of Kassiopi.
This maybe where, according to legend, the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus stopped for a while, or where the Roman Emperor Tiberius stopped for a while or where Richard the Lionheart stopped for a while but the heritage didn’t matter to us today as we had lunch under the shade of massive plane trees and far more water melon than we really needed and after walking around the pleasant little harbour spent the long hot afternoon on a beach just outside the village.
On the way back we bought some wine for just a few drachmas from an old lady, dressed all in black, who was selling home grown produce by the side of the road but when we got back and tried it wasn’t that good so we left it and went to the hotel bar for a beer instead.
On the second day we drove north-west over the mountain spine and through some of the most attractive scenery of the island first to Roda and then to the village of Sidari, which has red rocks softly eroded into unusual sand sculptures and nice beaches. In 1984 Sidari was a quiet, almost remote place, with a dusty main street with only a handful of tavernas and shops off the main road but today it is one of the liveliest places on the island and a favourite with youngsters.
After a walk around Sidari we used the narrow minor roads of this part of the island and drove to what some claim to be the most picturesque part of the island, the town and bays of Paleokastritsia and best described by Lawrence Durrell: ”the little bay lies in a trance, drugged with its own extraordinary perfection – a conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses”. As we drove high along the side of the mountain Paleokastritsia suddenly came into view and looking down over the green fringed beaches and looping ribbons of sand we were inclined to agree with him. Actually this was the best of Paleokastritsia because down in the village the scenery didn’t really compare with the elevated panorama and we found it rather fragmented and disappointing.
On the final day of car hire we drove south driving first through the infamous resort of Benitses, which at ten o’clock in the morning was still recovering from the night before and didn’t live up to its dangerous reputation at all, no dead bodies or burnt out cars and we drove through entirely without incident. For the first part of the journey the road followed the coast but then went inland and cut through the pine trees of the interior as it bisected the narrow southern part of the island on the way to the fishing village and tiny port of Kavos at the very bottom of the island where we stayed for lunch and enjoyed the lazy streets of the town and the ambiance of the harbour.
In the afternoon we visited the Achilleion at Gastouri, in between Perama and Benitses, which is a casino and a museum now but was once a summer Palace built in 1890 by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was a curious woman obsessed with the classical Homeric hero Achilles and with all things beautiful (including herself apparently). The Palace, with the neoclassical Greek statues that surround it, is a monument to platonic romanticism and escapism and is filled with paintings and statues of Achilles, both in the main hall and in the gardens, depicting the scenes of the Trojan War.
The dazzling white Palace has a wedding cake like appearance and the beautiful Imperial gardens on the hill look over the surrounding green hill crests and valleys and the azure blue Ionian Sea.
The centre piece of the gardens is a marble statue on a high pedestal, of the mortally wounded Achilles wearing only a simple cloth and an ancient Greek hoplite helmet. This statue was created by German sculptor Ernst Gustav Herter and the hero is presented devoid of rank or status, and seems notably human though heroic, as he is forever trying to pull the arrow shot by Paris from his heel. His classically depicted face is full of pain and he gazes skyward, as if to seek help from Olympus.
In contrast, at the great staircase in the main hall is a giant painting of the triumphant Achilles full of pride. Dressed in full royal military regalia and erect on his racing chariot, he pulls the lifeless body of Hector of Troy in front of the stunned crowd watching helplessly from inside the walls of the Trojan citadel.
In 1898 at the age of sixty the Empress was assassinated when she was stabbed by an anarchist whilst walking in a park in Geneva, Switzerland. After her death the palace was sold to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II who also liked to take summer holidays on Corfu and later it was acquired by the Greek State who converted it into a museum.
It is a beautiful place with grand sweeping gardens befitting royal ownership and we enjoyed the visit and even went back later to see the sunset from the Kaiser’s chair, which is an area at the highest point in the gardens where Wilhelm would go in the evening to enjoy the end of the day.