You can still find peace and rural beauty on Greece’s most popular island, Corfu - just look inland
The Union Jack flew over Corfu for half a century, and this bustling holiday island sometimes seems as if it’s still part of the Empire. In summer, when an astonishing one million of us visit the island each year, Brits outnumber Corfiots in most of the island’s resorts. They’re reinforced by contingents of Germans, Italians and Scandiwegians, but it’s the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic influences that you really notice. Every café seems to serve ‘English breakfast’. Irish pubs, fish and chip shops and balti restaurants abound. In the bars, Newcastle Brown, Guinness, Boddingtons and Skol lager are on tap and British league games are on the wide screen.
On the beaches and lagered-up, dance-till-dawn clubs of Kavos and Benitses, in the south, the red, white and blue embellishes backside, bosoms and biceps. Around the posher precincts of Kassiopi, in the north, the red ensign dangles from the flagstaffs of boats blazoned with the initials of England’s snootiest yacht clubs, the cut-glass accents of the home counties ring out across the harbour, and gin and tonic is a more popular tipple than ouzo.
But between these corners of Corfu that are for ever England (and Scotland, Wales and Ireland) you can find your own place in the sun. Rule one: head for the hills. Few stretches of Corfu’s coast have escaped mass tourism (though honourable exceptions include the six-mile stretch of sand and dunes between Agios Georgios and Halikounas and the huge sweep of Agios Gordis, both on the west coast). But inland, among vineyards, olive groves and sleepy farming villages, there are places to stay where the hubbub of the resorts seems far away.
Happily, nowhere in Corfu is far from the seaside. Rent a car and pick your accommodation carefully, and you can have the best of all possible worlds, with a pool and garden for lazy days, nearby beaches for picnics, watersports and long lunches by the sea, and village tavernas for al fresco dinners.
Casa Lucia has 10 self-catering cottages set in a garden filled with flowers (from €70), only a couple of miles from the east coast beaches and about eight miles from Corfu Town. If you don’t fancy the beach, there’s a shared pool, and if you don’t fancy cooking you can order in from the local caterer. Similarly priced Fundana Villas, three miles from Paleokastritsa on the west coast (one of Corfu’s prettiest beach resorts), is roughly in the same price bracket, with a dozen self-catering bungalows around a pool and an old 19th-century farmhouse and olive press. There’s fine walking in the wooded hills nearby, and plenty of places to eat and drink at Paleokastritsa.
Just outside Peroulades, a village of old Venetian-era houses that has pretty much escaped tourism, Villa de Loulia has nine rooms and suites (€170-280) in a dignified mansion house, built for a local dignitary, prettily painted and embellished with antiques, and set in immaculately kept gardens with a courtyard pool.
As the song says, “this could be heaven, or this could be hell….” If you’re young, fit, footloose and fancy free, the Pink Palace is the former. If you’re over college age, it’s probably the latter. This backpackers’ legend above Agios Gordis beach has been going strong for almost 30 years and shows no signs of slowing up. It has a pool, and add-on activities include quad biking and kayaking. The newest rooms have AC, en suite shower and WC, and baconies with fab views, and sleep two to four; other, larger dorm rooms sleep up to five people. Prices from €18-30. They also run their own overnight bus service to Athens in summer, costing €55 including ferry.
If the Pink Palace is for the young and carefree, Pelecas Country Club is where the wealthy and powerful come to escape their worldly cares for a while. This dynastic manor, in its 60-acre estate of woodlands, fields and gardens (and a tennis court), has hosted heads of state, millionaires and oligarchs, and its 10 suites are furnished with antiques and reek of old money. For a mere €160 (minimum stay two nights) you can play plutocrat for a few nights; a mere €6,000 a night gets you the whole place. Considering it sleeps 24 people, that’s not bad value.
If you like your luxury a little more urban, the Corfu Palace Hotel is the poshest spot in town, with 110 rooms starting at €150, a large outdoor pool shaded by palm trees, an indoor pool and spa, and five-star trimmings including room service. Old Corfu Town (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) is a short walk away.
Corfu Town is a pretty mish-mash of buildings left by its various occupiers. Corfu escaped Turkish conquest and was ruled by Venice until the late 18th century, when Venice was ousted by France. They were soon turfed out by the British, who stayed until the mid 19th century, when they handed the island (and its neighbours) back to Greece. The Venetians left a delightful old quarter of rose-pink and primrose-yellow houses and small squares connected by flights of steps. The French left the elegant arcade of smart cafes called the Liston which is still a popular rendezvous and the best place in town for a post-sightseeing drink. And the British left a vast green space and a military bandstand, (where cricket and martial music are still played) and the imposing Ionian Academy, dedicated to the study of philosophy and the classics.
Corfu Town is more a place for wandering than formal sightseeing. It has a scattering of museums (devoted, among other things, to archaeology, numismatics and Greece’s national poet) but unless you have a real interest in ancient artefacts, coins and banknotes, or the life and works of Dionysios Solomos, they aren’t wildly exciting. But you should let your feet lead you to the New Fortress - built in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Venetians, it’s ‘new’ only by comparison with the 15th-century Old Fortress. Recently restored, it’s used a concert venue and houses a small exhibition centre. End a day in town with an evening at the sound and light show - worth it just for the spectacle, but also for an overview of the island’s busy history.