Debt takes a holiday on Corfu
By Sarah Treleaven
In the middle of the Ionian Sea, off the coast of Greece, sits a quaint little island that thinks it’s Italian. Corfu is proudly considered closer to an international crossroads than a strictly Grecian affair. Thanks to a lengthy Venetian occupation (the whole area was known as the “Gulf of Venice” from 1401 to 1797), Corfu is notably different in character from much of the rest of Greece.
Think ornate buildings painted in the preferred Italian colours of soft pinks and yellows and dotted with wrought iron balconies. Think wide streets perfect for strolling with an iced treat (of which there are a deliciously wide variety), and covered arcades filled with restaurants dishing up fresh pastas. Think a classically Italian aversion to serving frothed milk in coffee after breakfast.
Locals are happy to highlight differences with the mainland. Our tour guide, Valia, boasted that Corfu is more progressive than other parts of the country. “We’re more modern and open-minded here,” she says, “and women here can go out of the house alone or with friends.” Even the language is different, Valia says: “When they want to tease us, they say we are singing when we speak — like the Italians.”
There are even proud insistences that Corfu has weathered the economic strife better than the rest of Greece — though it was harder there to get people talking about those ubiquitous money problems. Some reported that the unemployment rate is lower in Corfu than elsewhere — thanks, in part, to a flourishing tourism industry — but any query about debt crisis was generally met by a lightly irritated, full-body exhale. “People are talking about the economy all of the time,” Valia says. “You get tired of it.”
Near-constant concerns about the economy aside, Corfu is best known as a laid-back sun and sand destination — without the hardcore spring break-type party crowds that tend to congregate in Mykonos and Santorini — and there are plenty of pockets of crystal clear blue water lapping up to pristine beaches. (The best beaches are, according to those in the know, on the northern part of the island.) The rocky island is full of winding roads, treacherous mountain passes, expansive olive groves and towering Cyprus trees.
For such a small island, the city centre is surprisingly cosmopolitan. Spend time in Corfu Town and wander around the old quarter with its narrow cobbled streets, exploring the Church of Saint Spyridon and Spiannada Square, where cafés line a pedestrian promenade and people of all ages can be found sipping espresso or seriously strong Greek coffee while watching families picnic and kids play soccer in the adjacent park.
A major stop on most itineraries is the Achillion Palace, named after Greek god Achilles, the summer residence of the Austrian Empress Sissy — “Not a handsome woman,” remarked our guide, shaking her head sadly — and the German Emperor Wilhelm II. Their political union wrought domestic was not the happiest, but Sissy did succeed in erecting a magnificent retreat from her philandering husband — that was, until her assassination in 1898. The palace has carefully sculpted gardens, impressive statues and magnificent views; a museum chronicling Sissy’s life is on site.
The views across Corfu are spectacular, especially from the famous Monastery of the Virgin, located high on the hill overlooking the gorgeous Paleokastritsa Bay, known as the Capri of Greece. This monastery is still inhabited by a self-reliant community of monks, and it has a collection of relics dating back to the Byzantine era as well as a number of quaint little monk abodes, almost like hobbit holes. The monastery is unusual for two reasons: The grounds are largely populated by mangy-looking cats (bring Purell); and it’s the only place where I have ever witnessed a monk hitting on a tourist. (She was, admittedly, a raven-haired beauty.)
But with all of the beauty and fresh sea air (and equally fresh monks), the one thing that can’t be missed is a visit to the Golden Fox Café in Lakones, a traditional village known as “God’s balcony” for its spectacular views. Perched on the edge of a cliff, this café serves up a smorgasbord of Corfu delicacies: greek salad, fresh, crusty bread and tzatziki (in attendance at almost every meal); delicious crispy, fried cheese pastries; dolmades (stuffed grape leaves); and local, Italian-inspired favourites like pastitsada (pasta with veal) and sofrito (veal in white wine sauce).
And the best part? Dessert comes in the form of an assortment of goodies, including fresh-baked baklava and rich homemade vanilla ice cream. The kumquat cake, soft, spongy and saturated in honey with a light orange undertone, was one of the best desserts I have ever tried — as evidenced by how much I was able to shovel into my mouth even after making a serious commitment to every preceding dish.