How I rediscovered the best island in the Med.
I first fell for Greece as an Interrailing teen. Taking the cattle-ship ferry over from Brindisi on the heel of Italy was a rite of passage back then. But afterwards I kind of forgot about it, flirting instead with Turkey, France and Italy before starting a proper grown-up relationship with Spain and the Balearics. I thought of Greece as a bit past its prime; studenty, even. But I was wrong; my recent break has plunged me headlong in love again.
We arrive first in Corfu Town. It seems charming but is hot, dusty and a little down at heel – the recent economic disaster seems to show, with none of the glitzy airport renovations common elsewhere in Europe. We pick up the hire-car keys from the back of a van in the car park. So far, so Greek. We’re headed towards the north-east of Corfu, and wind our way up into the mountains along the coastal road through a string of sweet but turistico resorts. Finally we find our turning towards the village of Agios Stefanos. Almost immediately the atmosphere changes and we know we’re heading somewhere special.
This stretch of coast, from Nissaki to Kassiopi, was made famous by the Durrell family – the TV drama about them starring Keeley Hawes was shot here. More recently the area has become a millionaire’s playground, though it’s understated – no Chanel boutiques here. Back in 2008, it hit headlines when then shadow chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne and Labour grandee Peter Mandelson turned out to both be guests of financier Nat Rothschild’s villa and were papped having a tiff in a taverna in Agni (it later turned into Corfu-gate after another hoo-ha with Mandelson, this time aboard a Russian oligarch’s yacht). Anyway, you get the picture. There’s cash up in these hills.
Agios Stefanos is a dazzlingly beautiful horseshoe bay lined with former fishermen’s houses, tavernas and a couple of bars. We climb up the road through olive groves, past pastel-painted bee hives, a chicken coop and allotment of tomatoes, courgette flowers, figs and grape vines to reach our villa. What a joy to arrive at Villa Sotiris, with its sunbed-lined pool, olive and yucca trees, bougainvillea and views across the Ionian Sea. I take great pleasure in the villa’s welcome basket, which includes sweet honey, tomatoes and feta as well as the usual tea and biscuits, and the fact it will be cleaned twice during our stay. These are significant luxuries when you are the chief skivvy of the group. Life just got about 1000 per cent better.
The village is five minutes away, so we wander down for dinner at Eucalypto, sitting on an impossibly perfect table overlooking the boats in the bay. There are blue gingham tablecloths and the requisite feral cats. Burning dishes of smouldering Greek coffee are placed around our feet to deter the wasps while we eat freshly caught bream, octopus and chips. Most of the tourists here are well-heeled Brits – Notting Hill types; men in pink shirts with floppy public-school hair; women in white cheesecloth sundresses. It’s pretty different from my usual routine and I’m loving every minute.
Next day we buy ourselves a picnic and rent a motorboat complete with a cool box and sun canopy. It’s the best way to check out the coast, as the roads are steep and bendy and the little coastal footpaths (of which there are many) seem too much effort in this heat. Pretty soon we’re anchored just off a secluded pebbly beach. We swim through the turquoise water to land and sit on the conveniently placed sun-bleached log. It’s the best swim I’ve had in decades. The water is so clear you can see 20ft down. Back on the boat the picnic – with delicious filo-pastry feta and spinach slices from the supermarket – goes down a dream. Off we motor, puttering by the little villages of Agni (gorgeous, posh) and Kalami (Durrell country) and finishing up in another cove, this time lined with olive and myrtle and flashy yachts that show us how the other half live.On the way home we buy a pre- prepared barbecue and cook out on the terrace. It feels like paradise.
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Another day, another superb beach. Avlaki beach is a five-minute drive away, down a surprisingly lush road to a beach of huge, smooth, pure white pebbles. We lunch under a plane tree in a taverna called Cavo Barbaro, though ‘taverna’ is a slight misnomer as this is not the feta-salad-and-chips type cafe of my youth (now non-existent here), but a €15-per-dish scenario and lots more Notting Hill couples. We play with some cute kittens then return to our towels for a post-lunch swim. Lying back like a starfish in the super- salty sea, the water crackling in my ears, feels like a natural flotation tank. By the end of the week I’m up to my neck in a holiday romance – with Corfu. As we drive back to the airport I actually have tears in my eyes. I just don’t want to leave. But I’ll be back, my beautiful Greece. And in the meantime, I promise to think of you every single day.