Isle of Myths, Romance and Ouzo
It was such a small glass, really. The fennel-laced liquid, poured over a few slivers of ice, looked like chilled lemonade…
It’s well after noon in the ancient walled Greek town of Corfu. I had skipped breakfast in favor of catching the early morning light. Now, pretty cafés along the Liston are bustling with the sounds and aromas of lunch, and I can’t resist a platter of fried calamari at a small sidewalk table. I was thinking of a tall glass of iced tea, but when the gorgeous Greek god who is my waiter looks scandalized, I accept his wisdom: One does not have pikilia (a tapas-like platter) without ouzo. Because what would be the point? The food, apparently, is incidental.
Still, the crisp calamari, homemade pita bread, the refreshing cucumber and yogurt tzatziki—and the ouzo—go down easy.
An Ouzo Moment
So I’m not blaming the Greek god waiter. Or even the Byzantine-era stone workers who had to drag millions of stones up a high cliff to build a castle up there, or the warriors who showed up several centuries later to build the fortress against invaders.
The simple fact is, the narrow cobblestone lanes of Corfu, settled and sunken over a millennium, are crazy, drunken crooked. And that was one crazy-drunken glass of ouzo. I should have lingered longer over lunch, the Corfiat way. But there’s this picture-perfect old woman stringing laundry on her curlicued iron balcony just ahead. I grab my camera, toss too many euros on the table and sprint toward my subject. Bad idea, ouzo-infused tourist in flimsy sandals racing over thousand-year-old cobblestones. Very bad idea.
To be honest, this is not the first bloody knee I’ve incurred while sprinting and shooting.
The tragedy is that by the time I recover my pride and my belongings, the woman is gone. A nice young backpacker donates a Band-Aid from his pack, and later there will be no trace of a scar.
Homage to Saint Spyridonis
I choose to credit my perfect healing to St. Spyridon, patron saint of this enchanted island. Tradition says that he saved his people from plague and siege. He also converted the pagans to Christianity by smashing a clay pot into three shards, representing the Holy Trinity. So at Easter, householders drop clay pots from their balconies, smashing them to bits on the cobblestones below. Afterward, St. Spyridon’s relics, encased in a silver casket, are paraded through the old town. The stunning red spire that dominates the skyline of the walled city belongs to the spectacular Greek Orthodox Church, which bears his name.
Poseidon, Odysseus and James Bond Slept Here
Corfu is a scythe-shaped Greek island where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionic Sea. It has had more than its share of mythological gods, goddesses and love stories. Legend says Poseidon, god of the sea, fell in love with and kidnapped the nymph Kerkyra, daughter of the river god Aesopos. He brought her to this uninhabited island and named it in her honor (and it’s still the Greek name for the island).
It was also here that Odysseus (Book 6, Homer’s Odyssey) was shipwrecked and had that sensuous encounter with Nausicaa and her handmaidens singing as they washed clothes on the rocks. Shakespeare’s hero Prospero, in The Tempest, banished to the sea by the king of Naples—Italy, not Florida—spent time imprisoned here. Four hundred or so years later, James Bond had his own legendary love affair here in the movie For Your Eyes Only.
Can it get any more sensuous than that?
The rest of the island is emerald green, but the walled city of Corfu rises starkly from the sea, washed in the pale creamy patina of ancient stone. All that rock and marble—the fortress walls, Italianate palaces, Byzantine churches and Norman castles—could be expected to be harsh and uninviting. But it stands out in breathtaking relief between the turquoise sea and clear blue sky.
I love the rough textured walls against which local artisans display pristine white laces and colorful textiles.
As it turns out, today must be washday in Corfu Town, because sun-dried laundry flutters from several balconies throughout the Campielo, the oldest part of the city. Geraniums pour out of old pots. Flowering vines cling to cracks in the walls.
For the rest of the day, I slow my pace, enjoying the fragrances emanating from bread ovens, rose gardens and olive oil soaps being cooked up at a fifth-generation soap factory. A pastry shop owner watches intently as I bite into her homemade baklava. My smile, and the dribble of honey on my chin, please her. I’m enchanted as an artisan hammers out the traditional symbol of Greece in a silver pendant.
Stay a While
It’s near sunset now and time to head back to my cruise ship. One day is all I get in the walled city of Corfu. I keep thinking about the backpackers with the Band-Aid and the weeks they have probably allocated to immersion in all the wonders of this island. They’ll have time to hike the entire 40-by-20-mile landscape, beside the beaches, through olive and kumquat orchards, and into the less-traveled villages along the Corfu Trail. They can sleep in, shop the produce markets, chat with the fishmonger down at the docks—and properly linger over platters of pikilia and mezedes.
How sad for those who miss the Achilleon Palace, high above Corfu Town, with its iconic statue of Trojan War hero Achilles massaging his fatally damaged heel. How disappointing not to stand atop the Old Fortress wall overlooking Contra Fosse, the ancient moat where star-crossed lovers have plunged to their deaths to be together for eternity. What a pity not to be there when the sunrise saturates those pale stone walls in flaming reds and golds before the noonday heat washes them out again.
Still, even one day in Corfu Town—where the spirits of St. Spyridon, Odysseus and Kerkyra are just a glass of ouzo away—is a day one will not soon forget.
Cruise passengers who return to the ship for lunch because it’s already paid for miss the whole point of Corfu society. The Liston, lined with old world cafes, faces the Spianata, surprisingly one of the largest squares in all of Europe. Hidden culinary treasures also appear randomly in narrow alleyways, particularly in the Campielo, the most ancient part of the ancient city. Sometimes just one or two tables outside make one wonder if it’s a café or someone’s private patio.
Savor new tastes, such as locally caught fried sardines or a thick slab of feta cheese, dressed only in a dab of local olive oil and a sprinkling of paprika. If you’re not up for the famous pastitsatha (rooster in a spicy tomato sauce over pasta), at least try as many dips as possible. Some of the dips are called salads, so read the details. Savvy travelers know it’s not just OK, it’s typical, to peek into kitchens and see what’s cooking before deciding. For dessert: Greek yogurt. It tastes nothing like the stuff you get stateside. Yours may come with a drizzle of full-bodied Corfu honey or maybe bits of fig or kumquat.
Finally, don’t be in a hurry. The chef isn’t, and the waiters definitely aren’t. In case I haven’t made it perfectly clear, whether you’re having ouzo or not, stretch the experience out—all afternoon, if it pleases.
How has the economic crisis in Greece affected prices? Will our dollar buy more or less than a year ago? Roy Ramsey, director of operations of Naples-based Betty MacLean Travel, reports: “The reduced demand for travel to Greece in the past year is reflected in the prices of just about all goods and services. This is very favorable for travelers. Not just hotel and restaurant prices are reduced, but local arts and crafts, and Greek gourmet specialties are definitely more affordable.”
Cool Place to Stay
Bella Venezia Hotel (pictured below) is a 31-room boutique hotel in a gorgeously restored neoclassical mansion on a quiet street in the heart of Old Corfu Town. See for yourself: bellaveneziahotel.com.
Flights arrive daily from Athens and major European cities; and ferries offer transport from mainland Greece, Albania and Italy. Travelers who love to combine luxury cruising with off-the-beaten path ports of call should check out the brand new 450-passenger Seabourn Quest (www.seabourn.com) or Silversea’s 540-passenger Silver Spirit (www.silversea.com). Another superb option is the 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity (www.crystalcruises.com).