“ Corfu's west coast. „
"You won't see the Olympic torch relay in Corfu or Crete," or so the chirpy voice-over in the ad for the British Tourist Board (or whatever they call themselves these days) assured me, instantly reigniting my interest in visiting the Greek islands. Having already been to Crete, I was naturally - choosing just between the two to which my attention had been drawn - more inclined towards Corfu and started planning on that basis, although of course there are many others that might have been considered. It all goes to show the power of advertising.
The only question was: whereabouts in Corfu to go? Corfu town, the capital, clearly had some features of interest and deserved a few days in its own right, but hardly a whole holiday. The seaside resorts, especially those dotted around the north-east coast, sounded rather too resorty for my liking, and possibly their own. My wife and I were toying with the idea of hiring a car - though with some trepidation about the driving conditions to be found on the island - when this year's Inntravel brochure came to the rescue. Inntravel is a company that specialises in arranging holidays for walkers, providing itineraries and maps, booking their customers into a sequence of hotels and arranging the transportation of luggage between them. This year, for the first time, they had added a walk along Corfu's West Coast to their repertoire. So we decided to give it a try.
* The coast in outline *
Although not huge in area, Corfu is a long thin island and the full length of the west coast from Cape Asprokavos at the southern tip to Cape Drastis in the north as the seagull flies is about 60 kilometres. No walker can match a seagull for directness, however, and our itinerary was not in any case designed to do. We ended up walking quite a bit more than this even though we began our northward journey from about a third of the way up the coast at Paramonas. The southern tip is said to be relatively flat and scenically uninteresting, and certainly appeared so viewed from the summit of Agios Mattheos, the southernmost of Corfu's mountains. Even such oddities as the natural lagoon of Lake Korission tend to look more exciting seen from above than from ground level. Mostly, Corfu is a hilly island, as our knees and thigh muscles came to understand almost as much as our view-appreciating eyes, though to the linguistically aware the clue would have already been clear from the name Corfu, which derives from a Greek word meaning "peaks".
After two nights at Paramonas we walked on to Pelekas, a village set back from the coast up another steep hill, with sensational aspects in all directions. From there our route took a tack inland to a rural retreat near Liapades, before rejoining the coast and following it north round to the resort of Agios Georgios and then on to Peroulades in the north-western corner. Each stage and stopping-place had its own points of interest, but there were also features in common. Most notable was the green landscape, a contrast to the desiccated terrain to be found in many parts of Greece. Only the highest peaks on Corfu are bare. To a remarkable extent the rest is uniformly planted with olives, a legacy from the days when the island was a Venetian colony and its overlords' preferred source of olive oil. Since this was several centuries ago, the trees are now tall, twisted and deeply gnarled, but they are still the predominant vegetation. To add variety, through the silvery-green canopy of olive foliage jut pointy dark-green spears of cypress, a most attractive contrast. At lower level, seen close to, a wide range of shrubs and wild flowers - broom, lavender, rock-rose, poppies, sweet-smelling honeysuckle growing wild - are to be seen, many of them in full bloom and scent when we were there in the middle of May.
* In and around Paramonas *
Arriving in Paramonas in the afternoon, we didn't find much to do in the village itself, which consists of little more than the hotel, a couple of basic bars and a scattering of houses behind a pebbly, seaweed-strewn - albeit delightfully uncrowded - beach. So we decided to limber up by walking a few miles south to the castle at Gardiki, which is said to be an attraction. Maybe we came too early in the season, or maybe it was simply closed for a siesta, or maybe we were simply being dense, but we couldn't find a way in and went away again without seeing inside. Apart from that disappointment the most memorable feature of the stroll was finding two snake corpses on the roadway. We were uncertain as to whether they were the venomous horn-nosed viper that can be found here, but they certainly looked alarming and made us wonder what we would encounter later. In the event, we had no definite sightings, though on a couple of occasions we only half-saw, but distinctly heard, snakes slithering off into the undergrowth as we went by.
The next day we practised our hill-climbing by ascending Agios Mattheos, a steep unrelieved 465 metres from the shore. As well as panoramic views all round, there is an intriguing little monastery to be seen at the top, though you would be lucky - we were not - to find it open to visitors. Nevertheless I like to think that reaching the peak was worth the slog; it seemed so, if not exactly at the time at least once it was over. The village of the same name, where we stopped on the way down, was also well worth a visit, for timeless atmosphere of typically Greek contrast, charming, even pretty in places, slovenly in others. A contrast too between the age-old rustic ambience and an entirely contemporary lament on the Greece's current economic travails from the owner of the taverna where we ate. She sold us a very tasty inexpensive lunch, though, and I'm sorry I failed to note the name of her establishment, located on a corner on the west side of the main street.
* Paramonas to Pelekas *
Another demanding climb in the morning, up through terraced olive groves. The olives in Corfu are not harvested from the trees, but are allowed to ripen until they drop, with nets being laid out on the grass or hung beneath the branches to catch them. You need to be careful not to tread on the nets and crush the crop, though it is impossible to avoid all those that spill over to litter the path. On a hot day the groves provide some welcome shade, though at the expense of obscuring the views. At last we emerge onto an open hillside a vast vista opening up ahead to the north, a great sweep of bay beyond the craggy headlands in the foreground showing us that there are more green hills to come. From here we enjoy an easy descent to the village of Pentati, to restore ourselves with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a fine outlook from the terrace of Chri's café.
Having edged our way round the precipitous rocks of the next headland, we descended again, to the beach of Agios Gordios, which is crammed with sun-loungers and their occupants, spilling over from a hotel overshadowing the shore. Quickly, we found our way back into town, but our first impressions were confirmed: this is the nearest thing to a purpose-built package hols resort on the west coast, and consequently the place we least liked. It even boasts - or perhaps I should say, confesses to - the pinkest of pink hotels, doubtless complete with boutique and swinging hot spot, as in the Joni Mitchell song. Allegedly, this is one of the few man-made structures that can be seen from outer space, no doubt on account of its lurid paintwork. The aliens deserve better.
We hurry past, climbing again to vantage points over dramatic scenery up and down the coast, which I shall not describe in detail for fear of repetition, until a final ascent brings us to the village of Pelekas and much-needed cold drink on the terrace of the Levant Hotel. A century ago, this was a favourite holiday spot for Kaiser Wilhelm II, and a nearby viewing platform is still known as 'The Kaiser's Throne'; whatever his short-comings as a human being in other ways, he evidently had good taste in views.
* Pelekas to Liapades *
The next day we consider the option of descending to the coast to bask on the beaches, but it is a Sunday and we are told they will be crowded with locals. Apparently, Greeks are more than ever inclined to do this, perhaps as a form of escapism from their economic plight. So we content ourselves with a little local circuit and a bask beside the pool instead, watching falcons soar above and Corfiot swallows dive to dip into the water, their pale undersides reflecting turquoise as they rise, making them momentarily look like kingfishers.
Batteries recharged, the following morning on we go. First to the beach at Miriotissas, prettily situated in a cliff-girt cove and pleasingly deserted; clearly Greek escapism does not extend to cloudy Monday mornings. At least the cooler weather makes the ascent up the further side less strenuous, though we are ready for refreshment when we pause at Spiro's Café in the village of Kelia. Here we fall into conversation with a British ex-pat who expatiates at length about the benefits of retirement on Corfu, the cheap beer he is consuming being only one of them, but also warns us that a thunder-storm is expected that evening. Unfortunately, although the main performance is indeed in the evening, the rain-clouds rehearse all afternoon, and we are rather too wet and wind-swept to appreciate fully the more pastoral landscape we pass through in the Ropa Valley. I do remember - or at least jottings on my soggy walking notes remember - clouds of butterflies rising from bushes to be picked off by swooping swallows, and a solitary goatherd, almost invisible among his flock beneath umbrella and boughs, conversing incongruously on a mobile phone and (most unusual in Corfu) not responding to our "kalispera" as we pass. At last, the sky growing ever inkier, we reach the Fundana Villa for the night.
The low-lying land east of the Fundana is normally pitted with natural ponds, but even the night's downpour proves insufficient to restore their depleted levels after an unusually dry winter. Nevertheless the rain had swamped the surrounding water-meadows, which prove to be as much water as meadow when we attempt a circuit around them the next day, with the result that we never do find a way through to visit to the distillery where they brew Corfu's distinctive kumquat-based liqueur. Even if we had reached it, I don't know whether, after free tastings, we would have found our way back.
* Liapades to Peroulades and Cape Drastis *
Once more down to the sea, this time by dint of losing our way to arrive at Rovinia beach, where we only have to share the soft sand and azure shallows with two other people, rather than the intended Liapades beach, which we later find to be much busier and less appealing. The village of Liapades itself, though, perched up on a nearby hill-top is a fine example of its traditional type, a pleasant place to sit at a café and sip a drink while watching life pass by. Certainly many men seemed to be doing so, not always bothering with the drink, though no women except my wife, of course. Well, I did say it was traditional.
Beyond Liapades, another steep climb brings us to Lakones, a less attractive village strung out along a busy main road, beset by coaches and cars. This road follows the contours above the coast - it would be called a corniche on the Cote d'Azur - and is oversubscribed with traffic because it commands one of the best views on the island, out over the resort of Paleokastritsa to the sea. It is indeed a good view, arguably a shade better than most hereabouts, but the rush to see it diminishes its appeal. In the Bella Vista café whole coachloads of tourists are all taking their identical pictures and patronising the adjacent souvenir stalls. So we hurry past, diverging at last from the unavoidable road to find our way along a track that leads us finally through a gap in the rocky escarpment, to descend in a series of exhilarating hairpins to meet the sea again at Agios Georgios. This resort seemed much more likeable than its near-namesake Gordios, with a refreshing absence of pink hotels, but we have no time to explore it, since we are only just in time to catch our transfer to our next stopping-place at Peroulades.
Presumably Inntravel couldn't find a suitable hotel around Agios Georgios, since the idea is that customers can be transferred back there to complete the route-march the next day. In the event, faced with a forecast threat of rain, we decide that wimping out is the better part of discretion, and opt instead for a shorter local walk that takes us to dramatic Cape Drastis, a headland with islet offshoots of most unusual geology. From a distance it looks like chalk, but closer inspection makes clear that it is built up from strata, apparently of compacted kaolin clay. Whatever, it is certainly startling, and worth the visit, even if it can be seen on countless postcards. And the views from the nearby clifftops across to outer islands and the towering mountains of the Albanian mainland are characteristically magnificent - a fitting conclusion to our trek.
* Walking in Corfu *
'There is,' accordingly to the Inntravel notes, 'no tradition of walking in Greece', a truly astounding statement. One can only assume that they solely mean walking for pleasure, in which case it may well be true, and the company has done well to devise a coherent and mostly scenic route. For some of the distance it follows stretches of the Corfu Trail, Corfu's only officially recognised and waymarked footpath, which wends its circuitous 220 kilometre way around all the main sights and attractions; I'm glad we didn't do the full distance. The advantage of the Corfu Trail is that it is relatively (only relatively) easy to find your way, whilst the disadvantage is that you are more likely to meet other walkers. Even on the Corfu Trail, you will probably not meet many, although on one of the days we found our footsteps dogged by a platoon of Germans, whom we tried to dodge to no avail. Other stretches rely on tracks, a few of them partially-cobbled mule-tracks (known as kaldererimia), lanes and, where there is no other option, roads. The locals one meets are characteristically friendly - the odd goatherd excepted - provided one takes care where paths cross their property, though their dogs are not always so amiable.
* Where we stayed *
The four hotels chosen by Inntravel - a company that generally excels at finding interesting places to stay - all have characteristics worth mentioning. They are:
1. The Paramonas Beach Hotel, which has the virtue of being the only hotel of substance beside its beach, with a superb westerly outlook from its aptly named Sunset bar-restaurant. Facilities are slightly basic, and the buffet breakfast more so, but our room was perfectly functional with a large sea-facing balcony.
2. The Levant Hotel, Pelekas, which has a certain period style, the period being late 19th century. We were a little disappointed at first that it didn't quite live up to the luxury billing, but the food is excellent, the setting spectacular, the welcome warm, and we were quickly converted. A separate review may well follow.
3. The Fundana Villa, near Liapades. This too may be the subject of a separate review, though for different reasons. Our first assessment - "Dracula's Castle meets the Bates Motel" - was unduly harsh, perhaps unfairly influenced by our arriving as the lone guests in a thunderstorm, but the initial impression was never quite dispelled.
4. Villa de Loulia, Peroulades. An Italianate villa over 200 years old, tastefully converted to incorporate modern facilities and an outdoor pool. Our room was large and well-furnished in antique style, but we were glad we were not paying the rack-rate shown on the card behind the door. The food was also good, but accompanying drinks were very fully priced.
Also worth mentioning is the Siorra Vittoria in Corfu Town, where we stayed before embarking on the walk. If it is possible to imagine a hotel both traditional and boutiquey, this is it; we found it friendly, comfortable and quiet (hard to find in Corfu Town), with a tranquil garden for al fresco breakfast, drink or game of cards. Don't book it through Inntravel, though; we secured a much better rate via the hotel's own website.
* Food and drink *
In many ways Corfiot cuisine could be described as typically Greek, but there are some subtle differences. With the other Ionian islands, it was the only part of Greece never to come under Turkish rule, and there is less emphasis here on the dishes that most of Greece shares - much as Greeks might wish to forget the connection - with other parts of the former Ottoman Empire, such as hummus, kebabs, baklava. Having said that we ate both a delicious souvlaki (pork kebab) and baklava at the Hotel Levant. We also enjoyed stifado (beef stew), soutzoukakia (meatballs), moussaka and grilled fish in various places. Plus Greek Salads with feta cheese ad nauseam, and a Corfiot speciality: pie, usually as a starter, consisting of various fillings sandwiched between flaky filo pastry crisply baked. Oh, and if you ever find yourself dining at Elizabeth's taverna in Doukades, be sure to order the kleftiko (slow-baked lamb); we did and, having been told that there was only one portion left, settled for that and found it more than ample for both of us, as well as very tasty. Finally, the bread - thick-crusted stone-baked bread, with soft olive-oil-bound crumb within - was often wonderful.
The local wine is, frankly, rather ordinary at best, though we managed in most places just drinking the house white, which tended to be nondescript but without the resinous flavour of some Greek wines. The reds are rawer. Beer from Corfu's own micro-brewery proved something of a disappointment - the bitter like a thin porter, the lager leaving a mouldy aftertaste - but the national brands Fix and Mythos are both palatable enough, and thirst-quenching.
* When to go *
Our walk started on May 10th, after which date the Inntravel notes assured us the weather could be relied on to be sunny. Just as well we didn't take this too literally, since it was pouring three days later. Still, I suspect May is generally a good time to go, both for weather and for spring flora. Or any time in spring. Or early autumn, though once winter approaches the weather can be quite cold. On the other hand, I would definitely avoid mid-summer unless you want to do no more than lie on a beach; in fact, personally, I'd avoid it even then.
As it happened, for all our efforts to evade it, the Olympic torch turned out to be being lit in some absurd ceremony while we were in Greece, and was heavily featured on television there. Some fates, it seems, are unavoidable, as Greek tragedians have been pointing out ever since Aeschylus. Ah well.
* Recommendation *
I liked Corfu, and I also like to think the west coast was a good choice, for variety and authenticity, as well as for the relative absence of over-developed resorts. Agios Gordios was the only really black - or maybe I should say pink - spot from that viewpoint. If you visit, it is definitely worth being ready and equipped to move around rather than just staying in one place, though you might not want to do it quite so arduously as we did. The walking, though enjoyable taken in the round and especially in retrospect, was certainly tough going in places. Maybe a hire car wouldn't have been quite such a bad idea after all.
© Also published with photos under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012