There’s a special quality to visiting a popular spot “out of season.” It’s down-time for the locals. In between repairs and sprucing-up of their establishments they have the opportunity to enjoy the place they call home, without it being jammed with vacationers, whom they spend much of the year catering to. It also gives the stray visitor the chance to interact with them. Which is why I headed off to Corfu in January.
Obviously, I was not in search of a suntan or a daily dip in the sea. Corfu is the most northerly of the Greek islands and can be chilly in winter. But the compensation is that you’re not fighting for space on the beach or in the quaint, marble-cobbled alleyways of Corfu Town. Instead you have space to gawk in wonder at the charm, fascinations and color of a city that dates back to Venetian-Byzantine days.
Capitol Hill friends asked if I’d gone to Corfu because of the Durrells, the British literary giants Lawrence and Gerald, whose family story is told in the PBS program “The Durrells in Corfu.” While tourism is soaring because of the drama series, I went because I’ve had it on my radar for a long time, intrigued by an island where they play cricket, Prince Philip was born and you can see Albania.
Although Corfu is “closed” from the end of October until the beginning of April, which is why I felt I was the only foreigner around, you’re still spoiled for choice – particularly in Corfu Town, where I rented a rooftop apartment with panoramic views over the ancient city and the snow-capped mountains of Greece and Albania.
I spent my time exploring on foot, crisscrossing between the two fortresses that bookend the UNESCO World Heritage Site city, constantly finding new ways to get from here to there. With each different, uncrowded narrow lane there was another tucked-away coffee shop, bakery, tiny “got everything” convenience store. Not to mention yet another church! In total 39.
And in the museums I was on my own, savoring the exhibits, without a cheek-by jowl crowd blocking my view. Mon Repos, the splendid villa where Prince Philip was born in 1921 and much of the Durrell filming is done, was the perfect example. I was the first visitor the guide had seen all week.
Most days I visited Mario’s kiosk, in the middle of town, where I picked up the international New York Times. I know, most people would rely on their mobile. But there’s something beautifully relaxing about finding a table easily at one of the cafes on the majestic promenade that is The Liston – the heart of Corfu Town which during the season is crammed with visitors – newspaper and espresso (plus a honey-almond-strewn pastry) in hand. I bought the paper from Marilena, who looks after the family kiosk in the winter but is a tour guide the rest of the year. Her English is fluent, thanks to a high school year in Minnesota. And she was better than any guide book in telling me where to go, what to do. For instance, I’d read that Corfu is fond of brass bands, but couldn’t find out how I could go to a concert. Thanks to Marilena I spent a wonderful Sunday morning at one.
My go-to-bar for an early evening ouzo was Streeto. Owner Costas enjoys looking after the few foreigners, mainly serious walkers, who pitch up during the winter, to mingle with his regulars. I would get there to see the last half hour of “Deal or No Deal” (easy to follow in any language) along with George, a veteran of the Greek navy, who lives around the corner. Then we’d watch the national news with the two of them translating for me.
My only disappointment was I was too early for the cricket, a legacy from the 50 years Corfu was a British protectorate. But when the wicket is set, it’s played on a pitch between one of the towering fortresses and The Liston. Lawrence Durrell, author of “The Alexandria Quartet,” said that “cricket is a mysterious and satisfying ritual the islanders have refused to relinquish.” And a famed English cricketer, asked which was his favorite pitch, didn’t name one in Australia, the Caribbean or India. His pick was Corfu.
It’s easy to get around the island by bus. One 50-minute trip I made – across the spectacular mountains to the other side of the island – took me to the ultimate in how Corfu can be shrouded in closure. Paleokastritsa, the most popular spot for summer European holiday-makers, was like an amusement park that had been shuttered. Don’t think of staying, nowhere to lay your head. Even the ATMs were boarded-up. Nobody lives there. The owners of the seasonal hotels, shops and tavernas live in a nearby village.
But what the closed months can’t make disappear is the stunning setting. Rocky cliffs, sheltered sandy-beach coves, soaring beauty. When I bought my bus ticket the driver warned me: “Everything is closed.” When questioned he said: “I’m not a politician, I’m not lying.”
Okay, message received. But I still went. And notched up a memorable visit. Not just because I wandered around totally on my own, but I can now boast that while over the years I’ve been chucked out of a few places – like “men only” bars (remember them?) – I’ve never had the dubious pleasure of being asked to leave a monastery.
The one in Paleokastritsa is perched at the end of a steep, winding path, atop a craggy outcrop. Although a sign said open “April-October,” the gate was not closed. A couple of young monks waved me in saying “okay, okay,” so in I went and walked right into an old monk, who, while stuffing his face with what looked like a Twinkie, told me to “get out.” The other monks rolled their eyes apologetically. I tried to hotchat my way in, to no avail. But at least the grumpy monk gave me a story to tell.
My other daytrip was to the not so-long-ago-closed-off country of Albania. I was the only visitor among the dozen passengers on the ferry to the fishing town of Saranda. Like Corfu it’s busy in the summer but delightfully quiet on a sunny winter’s day. And like the residents of Corfu, the folks in Saranda had time and were more than happy to chat to the rare visitor.
During the off-season the only flights to Corfu are from Athens. The Aegean Airlines magazine led its winter issue with a section entitled “Greece, enchanting all year round.” While it didn’t feature Corfu, it should have. Because that headline nailed my time there.
FYI: To rent the one-bedroom rooftop apartment contact the delightful owner, Ria, [email protected]. To book a private tour with Marilena: [email protected]. The fourth and final series of “The Durrells in Corfu” premiered in the UK last month so should be seen here shortly.