the sides of the valley were densely forested, covered in a quilt of pine trees. the trees cast a warm green glow over the little dirt path and in their shade ferns colonised. where the hills and trees fell away grew sudden shocks of wildflowers in gentle lilac and blushing pink, around them hovered hundreds of butterflies; white and delicate. on the right of the path, a crude wooden fence marked out pasture; on the left, a little stone hut that the ferns were slowly reclaiming. everywhere, a heavy hush. the call of a bird of prey somewhere in the forest, a view into the valley reaching the tree-clad slopes of the Turkish mountains. a feeling that here, nature presided – that you were in a rare place where the wild things could really run wild. you’d never see any, but you felt they were there.
we’d spent four days perusing Corfu’s quiet northern coast, nosing in secret coves, climbing hills for sea views and eating feta. The European summer holidays had started and things were getting a little buzzy in our sleepy neck of the woods (one person. walking along the secret cliff path to our hidden beach. one person! shock. horror.)and we were so badly spoilt, we decided we needed to head inland. into the hilly hinterland of the island, which we’d read so much about in the books by Gerald Durrell. where there were endless fields of wildflowers in the spring, where streams gurgled through mossy dells. sure, the coasts were rugged and gorgeous, but we knew that for the real end-of-the-earth wild feeling, Corfu’s vertiginous heart was where to go. But we hit a conundrum: we had no transport (long story), taxis were expensive and we didn’t know where to ask to go (“a taxi please… to some place off the beaten track”). this, compounded by the fact that being just Layla and I, we didn’t want to wander into Greek wilderness, yet we’re not the type to join a tour. Solution: Corfu Donkey Sanctuary. yes, we are the kind of people who visit a beachy island and end up at a donkey sanctuary. donkeys aside (they broke my heart, but the work the people are doing is admirable) the place is a sanctuary, precisely because it lies somewhere in that valley under the watchful eye of the Turkish mountains. it’s a maze of overgrown hunting tracks that criss-cross the luscious green, there is an incessant choir of birds. all the while, you’re again imagining a goat herd wandering through the high grass, playing a flute; a conductor to the orchestra of cicadas who play the anthem of the middle of the earth.
It’s easy to forget a taxi brought you here.
we were kids again, playing in the ruins of the fort, firing the canons and looking over the shimmering bay at the enemy boats coming in. it was ubiquitous gray stone, no architectural marvel. but Corfu’s old fort sat perched at a height in the old part of Corfu Town with a view over the slate rooftops, turning the labyrinth of little streets in the Jewish Quarter into a checkerboard interrupted by the loopy spires of the old synagogue. not quite the Acropolis, wild grass grew rife in the courtyards and between the cobbles, the place had an air of dilapidated mystery. but where else could we have wandered in the blistering mid day heat, hearing the footsteps of invading armies in the tunnels, the cries of the warriors echoing off the cool stone walls. we’d barely been on the island a few days and we could have written a novel, it is no surprise that Durrell could write a trilogy after growing up among these crumbling pieces of history. not that Corfu town was totally frozen in time – people were trendy, all golden skinned and wearing dark sunglasses, sitting on pavement cafes in the charming pedestrian precinct where the roads were a glossy cream marble. somehow we strayed away from the main course, into a warren of cobbled narrow streets, like the desert plates on the banquet table. washing fluttered on lines hung from wrought-iron balconies, black paint peeling while window boxes exploded in color. a cat slumbered in the shade of a doorway, Vespas rested against graying stone walls, the sound of someone practicing the violin floated out of an open window. we hadn’t gone far looking for the real people: not on a tour that revealed ‘local secrets’, not into some seedy area of town, but just a step away from the buzzy main streets and we were immersed in Corfiot life.
our flight home was scheduled for the evening. on our last day, we took the bus to a small beach town nearby, sands were quiet, we were pensive. the trip had been one of those last minute things: lots of hurry, little expectation. we’d lost the low cost high-rises of the package holiday brochures and found the coast where you could still hear the sea and not just other people. it’s even thrum against those pebbly shores, white stones kissed by the sun. the pines still seemed to embrace the ocean; they tumbled down those rugged slopes into the water’s open arms. the hot air was full of mystery, each landmark held a story, there was an inherently raw romance to the way the gnarled olive trees leaned and whispered in the breeze, how the cicadas chattered late into the night. like the hills, the crumbling stone walls, the old fort, the groves, the cicadas told stories, and after a week, we were ready to write our own. we arrived in howling wind and rain, black midnight at London Stanstead, shivering in our summer shorts and imagining the moon rising clear and silver over the sea, as the little island slept under the watchful eye of the Albanian hills and Turkish mountains.
Corfu Donkey Rescue: ok I know this seems weird but we can’t go somewhere and not meet furry animals. Therefore, this place. It’s worth the taxi trip out not only to help the cause (donkeys, till recently, have been treated very badly in Greece) but also because the location is gorgeous and the drive very scenic. I contacted the owner who gave me the number of a local taxi firm who knows the rescue center and it’s not such a bad thing to have another taxi number on hand. The sanctuary is free to visit, we gave a small donation, cuddled the donkeys, brushed them and met some cute pups.totally worth it.
Corfu town: the main city is also definitely worth a day, at least. There are lots of small shops in the Jewish quarter, pretty decent shopping everywhere, lots of cafes, the old fort and some really nice looking museums too.
There is apparently lots of hiking on the island, we saw lots of trails but had no map and no desire to get lost. If you’re more organized than us, there’s hiking on the volcano which is probably amazing, judging by what we saw without climbing much at all.
I’d also recommend visiting the little towns Kassiopi (cue Indiana Jones moment in an abandoned Byzantine fort) and Kalami which is home to one of Gerald Durrell’s houses (the White House). AND rent a boat! In Nissaki we rented one through Nissaki rent-a-boat, you can rent one for the day and stop in deserted coves and pretty places like that. Also, the boats are very easy to handle even for incompetent people like me, and the sea is very calm.
Haha. Big warning here: rent a car from the airport through an international firm like Hertz or Avis or something. We planned on renting a motorbike, which is common, but were given a dud whose engine was broken and had no fuel. We tried to arrange a car instead but they decided you have to be 23 (yeah, what about 21 at least?) to drive a car and we lost the money we’d paid for the motorbike, real clever. So we really struggled: everything in Corfu is quite strung out. Taxis are available but unreliable at best – the central taxi company Alfa seems to organize most taxis. Also if you are renting a motorbike be aware that the roads are very, very hilly, so maybe best avoided if you’ve never done it before.
We ended up taking the bus around and though it’s routes are not endless, where they did go, they really worked. We were very sceptical but they ran on time, had English speaking conductors and all had AC. Their website is not very clear but bus stops have schedules which are accurate and they operate between islands too! Island hopping by bus just might become a thing.
Before you go, I’d recommend you read at least one of the Corfu trilogy by Gerald Durrell who put the island on the map. His descriptions of the wildlife, the scenery and the people are insanely vivid and whether you visit or don’t, you’ll be taken there.
“as the ship drew across the sea and Corfu shrank simmering into a pearly heat haze on the horizon black depression settled on us, which lasted all the way back to England” – Gerald Durrell, My Family and other Animals. Corfu has that effect on you.
Hope you enjoyed the final part of the guide! If you have any questions or anything feel free to ask any time. Hugs xo
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