Corfu was our base for the best part of two summers, the home of the Princess for several years before we bought her and the marina team at Gouvia were responsible for the extensive repairs, upgrades and maintenance that we carried out on our new home. We didn’t realise it when we first bought the boat, but the Oyster was about to become our world well before the world would become our Oyster. Classic to underestimate the time and money involved in any project, we especially misunderstood the different concepts of time in Mediterranean culture as opposed to the Northern European way of working to a tight schedule. GMT became “Greek maybe time”, an infuriating concept. But then, every cloud has a silver lining, and the advantage of not rushing through jobs was that we got to know the island and the team of people who worked on our boat for us. It felt truly personal in the end.
1. Laid back/can do attitude
Taz at the chandlery has an anecdote about when he worked for London transport as a bus driver in London. His bus broke down and he called for a repair truck. The man who arrived came out of the bus and spoke to him immediately in Greek. When Taz protested “how do you know I’m Greek? I haven’t even opened my mouth to speak to you yet” the repair guy answered, “your bus has broken down in the middle of London rush hour and you are drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. You have to be Greek.” I have seen people without helmets on mopeds carrying trays of coffees in one hand while they steer with the other. This laid back attitude can infuriate, of course, when “I will come by on Thursday” becomes Thursday of the following week. It is a blessing when you try to rent a car with a driving licence which has expired. “If they ask you for the date, you show them the back of the license” said the rental agent kindly with a smile, pointing to the 2037 date on the back of the licence which applies to heavy vehicle licences.
2. The Corfiot people
Charming, warm and charismatic, the people that we came across grew on us to the extent that we were finally sad to leave although that had been the object of all our efforts. People here put relationships first and do things for people rather than doing things because they are ordered to. Their autonomy and pride in their work was generally touching although doubtless the root of much marina politics. It was difficult not to get drawn into the marina gossip of who had fallen out with who, who was setting up on their own, who was friends with whom. Simon tried to give our electrician, Alex, some tit bits of gossip. He was cut short. “You think I don’t know this story?” said Alex with a smile. “Here everybody knows everything about everyone.” Although we were always coaxing and cajoling people to come onto our boat to do work for us (and the customer is not king in this scenario, our friend Chris went so far as to bribe the electrical expert with a drone to get him onto his boat) the marina technicians always seemed to profess to be heavily stressed and overworked with multiple emergencies on their hands. They were so charming that we would often find ourselves sympathising and giving condolences to them as they stayed and told us at length about how busy they were. It was only once they had left that we realised they had spent a good half an hour telling us they had too much to do and too little time to do it. Time does fly when you’re chatting away. However, when in a tight spot, we always found people to help us. Just when you despair of anything being done quickly and efficiently, somebody surprised us. The day before we were due to leave, our water xxxx gave up the ghost. I was despondent and fired off some texts to friends along the lines that we would never get further than Paxos and to forget receiving postcards from us from Italy, let alone the Caribbean. To my amazement, by lunchtime our water xxx had been removed and replaced and was in working order.
3. Gouvia marina
Having tried other marinas in other places, Gouvia marina stands out. State of the art facilities are open 24 hours a day and the marina is like a small floating city in itself .There are a range of cafés and bars one of which, the Blue café, has its own swimming pool (and thanks to the laid back attitude which we love, staff don’t hassle you if you use the pool and sit at the tables but don’t order anything). Stavos serves the best value meal (6 Euros for a burger and fries) and Zorba’s at the top of the road serves meals which are good enough for two to share and fantastic value for money. The view from the marina is to die for; especially in the first year when we were moored up on L pontoon at the end of the marina with a view straight onto Pantokrator mountain. It was almost as heavenly as being at anchor. The marina staff were helpful and treated us to multiple extensions to our stay, even gifting us the last couple of days to allow us to continue to benefit from the annual tariffs for over a fortnight after we had run over our year. Staff come and take your lines when called at any time of night or day.
4. Corfu town
Just around the corner from Gouvia marina this UNESCO world heritage town became our second home over two summers. It is a charming mix of touristic and local with Venetian architecture, ancient labyrinthine streets and a great buzz in the evening when the islanders all come out to town to enjoy the cooler temperatures. The old Venetian fortress at the peninsula is also the site of the music conservatory and the city hosts live music and classical concerts both in the old fortress and around the town all week.
One day I was lucky enough to see a procession of folk dancers from around the world who made a procession throughout the streets. The mix of modern and old blends well in this historic town, and when you emerge from the Mediterranean alley ways the elegant city gardens at the sea front offer stunning views out across the bay. There is nothing like the sight and sounds of the swifts darting across the roof tops in spring and summer, and from the roof top restaurant at Cavalieri you can watch them from above.
5. Pizza at Malfetta beach
This has a special place in our hearts as Malfetta beach was our first experience of Corfu. We booked into Malfetta hotel when we first came to view the boat with a view to haggling the price down! This bay is a gorgeous place to swim and look out onto the coast of Albania opposite; the local ladies know how to do it. They swim early in the morning and keep their hats on. The Chef’s special pizza from Roberto’s in Gouvia town is the most delicious treat to eat on the beach and to watch the local ducks and ducklings escape the attentions of the tourists. There is a mysterious and much neglected ruin of an old Venetian boat yard where you can walk around for free and imagine the warships of old being refitted and repaired. We wondered whether the deadlines were met in those days!
6. The mountains
Take the coast road to Cassiopi north or drive up into the hills above Paleokastritsa and you are instantly off the beaten track, winding around often terrifying hair pin bends and in the depths of rural Corfu with its many olive tree orchards. It is hard to beat the views above Paleokastritsa, each turn and corner revealing a new panorama more stunning than the last. The first time that we made our way up into the mountainside from the gorgeous bays below, we were amazed to find a restaurant with the most incredible panoramic views which didn’t charge more than a regular road side restaurant for its food. After a while we understood; there are many such restaurants in Corfu. Panoramic views abound here.
The sunset at “Kaiser’s throne”, the coast road to Cassiopi and the lovable mountain top village at Little ….are all awesome. It is definitely worth renting a car and driving up into the hills. It might be hard work and rather nerve wracking for those who, like myself are not fans of the hill start but you are rewarded by glittering views of the sea below and the valleys around. Corfu is very green as it rains a prodigious amount in the winter and autumn and the lush greenery of the island is testament to the sponge like qualities of the island in retaining this throughout the fierce summer sun. Butterflies are everywhere and remind me that when I was a girl they thrived in the English summertime also, whereas now they are a rare occurrence. I never saw any of the wild tortoises that I read about in Gerald Durrel’s “My family and other animals” and I have heard that the biodiversity of the island is not what it was in Durrel’s day, unsurprisingly. However, a plethora of wild flowers and in September shy, wild cyclamen are to be found everywhere along with the more exotic enormous cacti and the technicolour splashes of bougainvillea in the villages.
7. The bays.
The bays around the north of the island particularly are gems and so lovely to visit especially if you have the chance to do so before high season really kicks in. Kalami bay was my personal favourite; surrounded by mountains, with good holding in sand and weed, and teeming with saddled sea bream which would swim around me if tempted by a bit of bread! The restaurant “The White House” which was the home of the Durrells (or one of their homes) serves fabulous fish and was a special memory for me. It was the only time I have ever been able to swim up to a restaurant and make a reservation from the water. Lakka on Paxos island is my second favourite; very popular with many charter boats thanks to its turquoise blue water. It was the last place we left Corfu from, rafted up next to Chris on Free Cloud, enjoying the convivial Greek atmosphere of the town right up until the last evening.